A Brief History
On December 4, 1829, the British Governor-General Lord William Bentinck, representative of the King of the United Kingdom in India, made a ruling that was vehemently opposed by local Indian people (presumably men) that made the traditional practice of suttee (also known as sati) illegal. This practice being outlawed was a time honored Indian tradition of a widow sits or lays on top of the funeral pyre of her husband, sacrificing herself by being incinerated along with the body of her deceased spouse. Suttee was a traditional practice in the Bengal region of India and had no equivalent sacrifice for the surviving husbands of wives that had died! Today we discuss a few of these practices that seem to be somewhat unevenly applied to the fairer sex to the point of being discriminatory. Parental rights, women’s suffrage, dowries, divorce laws, credit laws and a host of other areas have all been uneven in the treatment of the genders, though we will discuss only a few of these topics today. (Note: We have previously published numerous articles about women’s rights, women’s accomplishments and women’s issues. Search our site for “women” or “women’s rights” for more reading.)
When the British gained control of India, particularly the Eastern part of the country and the Bengal region, they were appalled by the practice of suttee, especially the Christian missionaries that accompanied the traders and government administrators. The 1829 declaration by Lord Bentinck came in response to a marked increase of the practice in Bengal. In Western India, the practice of suttee had largely diminished with the corresponding decision to allow widows the right to remarry. As if being burned alive is not bad enough, an alternative form of suttee concerned burying the grieving widow alive! The order by Lord Bentinck also made anyone who partook of the practice of suttee criminally liable as a murderer.
Another practice in India that was outlawed by the British occupiers was female infanticide. Families often viewed having a girl baby as a liability, and preferred to have boys, especially as the first born. Before there were any scientific ways to make the gender of a fetus more likely or to detect the gender of a developing fetus, people had to wait until the baby was born to see what they had. Those people unhappy with being presented by a female baby would sometimes kill the innocent little girl in favor of trying again to have a boy. The Female Infanticide Prevention Act, 1870 was instituted by the British Raj (the rulers of India) to prevent this practice, although originally the law only covered some of the states. The “1 child” rule in China (1979-2015) was an attempt by the government of China to slow down population growth. Families distraught at having a girl as their only child often killed the baby without ever reporting the birth in order to have a boy. The Chinese soon instituted an exception to the rule, to allow a family that had a female first child to have a do over and bear a second child in an effort to have their precious male baby. Obviously, if the second child was female, the female infanticide specter was once again raised. Even since 2015 when the policy was discarded, Chinese families may want only a single child and want that single child to be a boy. In spite of laws and attempts at education, it is estimated that in China and India combined at least 2 million female babies go “missing” each year! Other cultures, ethnicities and religions are not immune to this phenomenon. In modern, industrialized cultures the rise of medical technology has allowed prospective parents to try to steer the gender of a prospective baby toward the desired gender, which is usually male. Also, where it is allowed, abortion of female fetuses takes place in favor of producing male babies. The exact influence of gender selecting babies is hard to come by and seems to probably be fairly small. The natural rate of male to female births is about 103-105 males to every 100 female babies, and in some Asian countries the ratio is closer to 107 or 108 males to female.
People are people, and a human being is as good as any other human being, or so we are told. Not so much when it comes to inheritance. Some countries and cultures still treat male and female heirs differently, especially in the patriarchal types of societies found in the Islamic World and in more traditional types of culture, especially Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Women’s rights activists have even called such discriminatory practices “violence against women.” In the United States inheritance laws have not always been gender neutral, though the last couple centuries have seen a definite trend toward equal inheritance rights in the US. The rest of the world has not necessarily caught up. Not only is property and money in an estate at issue, the succession to a Royal Throne is also a topic for discrimination against women. In the United Kingdom, probably the most publicized monarchy in the world, The Succession to the Crown Act 2013 overturned the 1722 version of the law of succession that had stated that the first born “son” would be the heir to the throne. The new law makes the first-born child of either sex the legitimate heir. This change in British Royal law came about as a consequence of the Perth Agreement of 2011 in which 16 Commonwealth countries demanded a change to the laws of succession so as to be gender neutral. Several current monarchies still favor the first born legitimate male child over any daughter born first, including Japan and Saudi Arabia.
Miscellaneous laws limiting women.
In recent years the Saudi Arabian law against allowing women to drive cars has been a frequent topic on the news, and the Kingdom finally relented in 2017, with a Royal Declaration that finally gave women the right to get a driver’s license and operate a motor vehicle as of June 2018. Previously, women’s rights activists that defied the law and drove in Saudi Arabia were arrested and charged with a crime. In some countries, a woman who is the victim of a rape may be forced to marry the rapist! Or at least pressured to marry the rapist so the rapist will not have to go to jail. Most countries with such laws have modified or repealed the laws in the past several decades, but some cultures cling to the practice whether the law demands it or not. In some other cases, a female rape victim may be prosecuted for a crime for being the victim of a rape. Often if the victim is a minor, the parents of the victim are allowed to force the girl to marry the rapist. You may have heard in some cultures a wife or daughter needs the permission of the husband/father to even leave the house, and of course these cases are mainly in traditional strict Islamic societies, but in the US there are still plenty of places where women need a man’s permission to do certain things, especially regarding abortion, giving the presumptive father (even a rapist!) the right to veto an abortion. Credit laws and contracts used to be highly discriminatory against women, even in the United States. Until 1974, American single women could be refused the issuance of a credit card or loan, and married women often required permission from their husband to be granted credit. (Hey, that is not so long ago!) (Note: Harvard did not admit women until 1977 and Princeton and Yale did not allow female students until 1969, possibly because they could not get student loans!)
We choose to arbitrarily stop here, perhaps leaving the millions of other topics of gender inequality for other articles.
Question for students (and subscribers): Why have there been so many laws that have oppressed women in history? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Lorber, Judith. Gender Inequality: Feminist Theories and Politics. Oxford University Press, 2011.
Newton, David. Gender Inequality: A Reference Handbook. ABC-CLIO, 2019.
Sen, Mala. Death by Fire: Sati, Dowry Death, and Female Infanticide in Modern India. Rutgers University Press, 2002.
The featured image in this article, an 18th-century painting depicting sati (suttee), is a faithful photographic reproduction of a two-dimensional, public domain work of art. The work of art itself is in the public domain for the following reason: This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or fewer.