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  Home > Women of Orissa

Women of Orissa
" Status of women in the Historical context and prevailing gender biases"

By Amrita Mishra Patel
School of Women's Studies
Utkal University, Bhubaneswar

Orissa forms part of a continuum of states in the south- eastern region of the country, where women enjoyed a better status in the society compared to their counterparts in the north -western region. Historical accounts reveal that women could hold and transact property, rule as successors and succeed as rulers and the socio -religious milieau was not regressive towards them. Progressively however, from historical times to the present, this status has steadily eroded de facto, even if the state may have taken may pro- female and progressive steps de jure. The erosion has been rather sharp in the last decade, especially in the field of survival of the girl child. The overarching concern for the state and its civil society should therefore be on reversing the trend, consolidation the non-regressive attitude towards its female population and allow them to hold 'half the sky' as full citizen.

As we look back much deep into the annals of history, we find the women during the Sailadhava dynasty who ruled over southern part of Orissa from the middle of 6th century AD to 8th century AD excelling in culture and arts. Royal women of these times were benevolent and could donate villages but did not play an active role in the affairs of administration. Sculptures of this era indicate that the women excelled in dancing, singing and their adornments imply high aesthetic senses.

The zenith of the power and position of women in Kalinga came during the rule of the Bhaumakaras (736 AD to 945 AD). According to some historians, the Bhaumas belonged to Orissa and were of a non Aryan tribe. Women of these tribes enjoyed great freedom. The Bhaumakaras followed the custom of allowing their females members to succeed their deceased husbands. Six widowed queens and one unmarried princess of the Bhauma dynasty ruled as sovereign rulers, which is unprecedented In Indian history. Tribhuvanamahadevi was the first known queen to be the queen in 845 AD. The others succeeded one after the other. One of the striking features was that none of . the queens adopted a son to succeed her. The female rulers took up the reins of administration perhaps on account of their superior ability as compared to the male members. Women during the Bhauma rule enjoyed a high status in society. The queens were trained both in warfare as well as administration. They presided over assemblies of the feudatories.

Practice of Sati and concubinage did not seem to exist. Purdah system too was not prevalent. Buddhist nuns were involved in preaching. In all the women enjoyed prestige, power and dignity. The Ganga Kings who started their rule in the 5th century AD attained their peak in the 11th century AD. Orissa art and culture received immense patronage. Women of this era (1038 to 1435 AD) commanded respect and had financial and social status. Women of royal lineage influenced the kings in religious and social issues. Queens built temples and made generous religious donations. Female education was how- ever restricted to few women of the noble class. Marriage was allowed only within ones' own caste unless done for political reasons. Concubinage and dowry systems perhaps originated during this period. Women of the 11th century onwards had a dual social condition –one of considerable freedom and influence for the women of the royal families and the other one of restriction of the common woman.

The birth of Tantric Buddhism in the 8th century AD is believed to be in Uddiyana (Orissa). An important personality of this Tantric Buddhism was the princess Lakshmi Kara who revolted against the practice of worshipping Tathagata. Her ideology was against all traditional and moral injunctions of the then society.

The next major chronicle of the socio- political life of the Orissa culture is Sarala Dasa's Mahabharata in the 15th century AD. It has been mentioned that marriage as an institution was binding on women. Dowry was paid ;and male child or son was preferred. The kings were polygamous. However widow remarriage was prevalent amongst the lower classes. Female education continued to be restricted. Women of the noble class were trained in weaponry, chariot driving and the Vedas. Prostitution was widely practiced. The whole journey of Orissa starting from the 3rd century BC onwards finds a source of manifestation in the sculptures which is a concrete expression of its art, culture and the social life style. The Alasa Kanyas or the women in idle mood or playful maidens carved on the temple walls are a striking feature in the temples of Orissa. Mukteswar, Rajarani, Brahmeswar, Lingaraj and Jagannath are the architectural glories of succeeding Hindu royal dynasties starting from the Sailodbhava, Bhauma, Somavamsis, Ganga and Suryavamsis who ruled till the 16th century AD. The sixteen poses of the Alasa Kanyas are an epitome of Orissan beauty. Sexual poses which dot the walls of the temples had its grandeur exposition in the Konark temple built in the 13th century AD. The reason for exhibiting these figures have not been understood in it totality. According to some historiar:s, when Hinduism and Buddhism came down to Tantrism, it was believed that passion can be controlled not by suppressing it but by expressing it. During this phase, the institution of Devadasis attached to the temple rituals and practices had firmly established itself. Devadasis had an important role to play during festivals such as Ratha Yatra (Car Festival) of Lord Jagannatha. They assumed respectable position in the society as the profession was considered honorable and auspicious. However, contradictorily, they were also considered as courtesans and never allowed in the inner sanctum of the temple. Known as Maharis (Mahat naris or noble women), deeply in love with the Lord they were married to them too. The King was considered to be their first husband and thus were controlled by the kings. Gudisani (Temple maids) and Deis were other groups of women who were attached to the temples and palaces. In fact, the present form of odissi dance owes its origin to the dance of the Maharis and Devadasis attached to the temple of Lord Jagannath.

Till the middle of the 16th century, Orissa could somehow maintain its independence in spite of continued Muslim incursions, but then in 1568 its last Hindus ruler was over-thrown by a Muslim general and finally Orissa was annexed by Akbar in 1592. The rule of the Marathas followed till 1803 when Orissa came into the British possession. Amidst political chaos and disturbances, social restrictions and taboos were firmly entrenched. Child marriage, Sati, infanticide crept in and the position of women deteriorated.

Some women however showed courage and talent in administration. Sumitra Devi of Mayurbhanja who ruled from 1803 AD to 1810 Ad displayed immense bravery and intelligence. Rani Suka Devi of Banki, a feudal state, too displayed tremendous courage in safe guarding her territory.

The entry of the East India Company into Orissa and the establishment of the British rule further stagnated the social life of the women. Orissa received negligible attention from the British's. Incidents of Sati committed by the Queens of Keonjhar and Mayurbhanja around the 1840s, female infanticide Practiced in the Khanda tracts were glaring examples of the fast degrading Orissa society.

The mid 1800s saw the efforts of the British's and the Christian missionaries bearing fruit prevent child marriage, permit widow remarriage etc. Fakir Mohan Senapati, considered to the doyen of modern Orissa literary revival, dealt extensively on the pitiable condition of widows. Social forums on child marriage prohibition etc were established in Cuttack and else where. The Raja of Bamanda in 1890 worked vigorously in this regard too. Finally in 1891, by virtue of an Act, the age of marriage of girls was raised from 10 years to 12 years and protective legislations were enacted too. Before in 1866, a famine had devastated Orissa and it was a turning point in the development of modern Orissa. Establishment of the first Girls High School by the then Commissioner of Cuttack, Mr Ravenshaw in 1906 was the first step in spreading consciousness and awareness amongst the middle class Oriya women. Zanana education, elementary education for the girls done in the private domain of the house, was also popular in the middle class and upper class families. The efforts of Reba Roy and Rani of Khallikote in spreading female education in the beginning of the 20th century was indeed heartening, Several women's organizations started to be formed which worked towards female education, eradication of social evils etc. The most laudable effort was the Utkal Mahila conference held in Berhampur in 1924. Gandhiji's visit to Orissa for the first time in 1921 obviously had its effect. Smt Rasamani Devi, Salaral Devi, Kuntala Kumari Sabat, Sarojini Chowdhury took pioneering interest in establishing this Participation of many Oriya women in the historic Karachi Congress session in 1931 paved the way for greater role in national movement. The spread of the Civil disobedience movement in Orissa was mostly due to the All Orissa women's Council which had members from different parts of the state with Kuntala Kumari as its President. They declared the 5 rights of women -over their body, over the possessions of their husbands, over their own husband and children and over their religion. Women like Rama Devi, Malati Devi, Annapurna Devi, Godavari Devi worked for the socio economic upliftment of the Oriya women .especially of the rural women. The modern women's movement in Orissa was an integral part of the freedom struggle.

Following India's independence, the 26 princely states were merged into modern state of Orissa and a stage was set for its speedy economic and industrial development. Many women such as Shubhadra Mahtab, Malati Devi, Rama Devi, Sarala Devi, Satyavati Devi continued to work for social transformation even after independence without any motive or desire to make any profit out of their position of eminence. It was a typical Gandhian selfless service for the cause of women welfare which motivated them to play such a laudable role in a poor and neglected state. Orissa, proverbially a land of conservatism and orthodox beliefs, thus, did produce women with great character who did their bit for social emancipation.

Post independent Orissa didn’t see many women in public life. Those who were prominent in the freedom struggle either faded away or passed away. The political arena in the 1970s witnessed the entry of a young Brahmin (high caste) Oriya lady Nandini Satpathy who rose to be the Chief Minister of the State. Though she hailed from a political background and had been a student activist, her rise was phenomenal but the irony is that the general status and position of women did not dramatically change during her tenure. Today the representation of women in the political field as MPs or MLAs is very poor. As per the current (2002) details there are a total of 3 women MPs (14%) out of 21 MPs ;in the Lok Sabha and 2 (20%) out of 10 MPs in the Rajya Sabha.ln the Orissa Legislative Assembly, out of a total of 146 MLAs only 13 are women (9%). Only one woman MLA is a Minister of State in the Council of Ministers. However since the 73rd and 74th Constitutional amendment in 1993, a large number of women (as high as 30,000 in the 2001 elections) have found a place in the three tier local self governance bodies such as the Panchayat Samitis, Gram Panchayats and the Zilla Parishads. Politically, their impact on governance is too early to be assessed, but the potential is great and one has to make sure that the environment is conducive. Subordination of women in society acts as a structural constraint to the participation in political activities. The sub ordinate position and status of women within the family, society and community at large plays very vital role in facilitating the functioning of the elected women representatives. This constraint operates more or less for all classes and communities of women.llliteracy, traditional mind set, superstitions, other cultural and social barriers compound the problems of the women.

Economically and socially, though, there has not been much transformation since the last 50 years. Women are employed the highest as non-workers in the agricultural sector and their contribution to the household continues to be ignored. Industrially an undeveloped state, Orissa does not offer much opportunities for the educated or professionally qualified women for employment. The tradition bound Oriya society still maintains a restricted social conduct code for Social transformation, gender equity and an enabling environment for the women of Orissa to realize their full potential and contribute their might to the development of the State is not within the reach. Activism whether social or literary is not cohesive and focused.

Social cultural, psychological and economic condition of women of Orissa today is certainly in shambles. Female literacy, political reservation for women have not been translated into real empowerment for the. women who are almost 50% of the population of the State. Negligible women in the decision making level with an insensitive Government who has still to put a State Poicy for Women in place, the social upliftment of the women of Orissa seems a distant dream.

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