The most widely-known and early code of legal issues, the Laws of Manu, was developed over the centuries around 200 to 400 BC. Even though women’s position in the ancient Vedic Indian society was generally good, the laws still show the implications of the Brahmin elite restrictions on the population’s legal independence. The set of rules was compiled with the intention of identifying women’s particular position in Hindu society as related to their dependence on women, the requirement for their devotion and obedience, the duty to take care of households, as well as uphold the high standards of purity and virtue. Thus, the Laws of Manu are essential to consider when it comes to shedding light on the treatment of women in ancient India as they perpetuate gender stereotypes related to gender roles.
According to the laws, women living in the Hindu society were utterly reliant on men, such as their husbands, fathers, or brothers: “she is to be kept under the custody of her father as a child, under her husband as a woman and under her son as a widow” (O’Flaherty and Smith 1992, 3). In the code, it is explicitly stated that women could never be independent and had no “divine right to perform any religious ritual, nor make vows or observe a fast” (O’Flaherty and Smith 1992, 158). The excerpt shows that women’s moral role is diminished significantly, and their dependence on men is the only thing that could grant them a relatively good life.
The ‘natural’ order of things within the set of legal rules is that a woman is intended to serve men. Her independence, thus, cannot be obtained as she is liable for all aspects of care for the man who is considered responsible for her. Moreover, regardless of the way in which a man acts or treats others, a woman is obligated to submit herself to him: “men may be lacking virtue, be sexual perverts, immoral and devoid of any good qualities, and yet women must constantly worship and serve their husbands” (as cited in Sehgal 2020). The quote signifies the low position of women in society, and beyond being fully dependent, they must be submissive to their dominant husbands or fathers.
Issues related to sexual relations are also widely discussed in the Laws of Manu. For instance, if a girl loses virginity before being sexually intimate with her husband, “she shall instantly have her head shaved, or two fingers cut off and made to ride a Donkey” (O’Flaherty and Smith 1992, 369). This kind of punishment is downgrading women’s dignity and place in society, suggesting that their bodies belong not to them but to men. In addition, when considering the sexual code of conduct, Kama Sutra, there are mentions of coercing women into consenting to be intimate with a man, which is another indication of the lack of respect for women’s bodies and choices. The book states, “place her in his lap, and try more and more to gain her consent, and if she will not yield to him, he should frighten her” (as cited in Almeida 2017). Thus, Kama Sutra explicitly suggests that a man could manipulate a woman into having sex, which makes them objects of desire rather than individuals with personal opinions and voices. The same is true for the Laws of Manu, which depicts women as subjects of men and lower-ranked members of society whose contribution is diminished to child-rearing, housework, and obeying their husbands.
Almeida, Rhea. 2017. “The Kama Sutra is not as Progressive as People Think.” Homegrown.co.in. Web.
O’Flaherty, Wendy Doniger, and Brian K. Smith. 1992. The Laws of Manu. London: Penguin Classics.
Sehgal, Paridhi. 2020. “How Manusmriti Was Single Handedly Responsible for Degradation of Women in Indian Society.” Edtimes.in. Web.