Social Change and Status of Women

Essay, 2009

6 Pages



Dr. Tarun Chandra Bhagabati, M.A., M.Ed., Ph.D.

Change is a fact of human life. We may not be aware of it in our day today experience but it continues to affect us in one way or the other. Social change is a process, in the sense that it involves a series of events over a period of time. The idea of continuity is implied in it and shows a sequence of operators that bring about change its nature and direction.1 Since society is primarily a system of relationships, social changes in the first instance appear as changes in social relationships, social changes in the first instance appear as changes in social relationships. Structural changes may follow later on. The causes of social changes may be accounted as four categories, which act independently. Hence their contribution towards social changes is a matter of degree. They may be identified as the physical environment, the biological conditions, the technological order and the cultural order.2 The following definitions 3 may further explore the meaning and nature of the social change.

“By Social change is meant only such alterations as occur in social organization, that is structure and functions of society” Davis.

“Social changes are variations from the accepted modes of life: whether due to alterations in geographical conditions, in cultural equipment, composition

of the population or ideologies and whether brought about by diffusion invention within the group.” Gillin and Gillin.

“Social change is a term used to describe variations in, or modification of, any aspect of social processes, social patterns, social interactions or social organization” Jones.

The society is made up of people of different taste. Social change is the result of a number of factors in modern India. Social changes occur in modern India due to the process of formation reformation or decay at various levels. In most of the cases, social changes occur as an imitation of the upper classes by their respective lower classes. Social change is a process, in the sense that it involves a series of events over a period of time. The idea of continuity is implies in it and shows a sequence of operations that bring about change. Thus the notion of process indicates two major dimensions of social change- its nature and direction. While the nature of change reveals contents of change, the direction speaks about the line in which it is moving.4 Some sociologist make a distinction between social change and modernization in order to assess the nature of change in the traditional India. Historically modernization in India started from the establishment of the British rule and continued up to independence even later to that. The contact with the west brought about far reaching changes in social structure and cultural institutions. Changes were witnessed in almost all-important areas of life. The western system was introduced towards the middle of the 19th century and expanded significantly thereafter modernization process has undergone some fundamental changes after the independence. Every domain of social system is under the active influence of modernizing process.

Women occupy an important position in Indian society. These great Indian women have scaled the pinnacle of success and have devoted their life for boosting the morale of Indians worldwide. Their immense contribution to have been in the various fields like politics, dance, music, literature, science, religion, industry and cinema. In Indian society where a girl child being born is considered as ill luck, these great women have made success their survival motto and hence uplifted India’s name to the highest pedestal. Despite holding such an important and unquestionable position, role of women has been defined by men over millennium. Vedas tell us that women held an important place in ancient culture. No ritual was ever complete without the presence of women by her men’s side. The status of women in Hindu society was lowered during the medieval period. Due to social and political conditions child marriage became common. Girls were married off before attaining puberty. Before marriage the girls supposed to be remain under the care of fathers, after marriage that of husband and during widowhood that of the children 5. The women were supposed to serve their husband and that was their foremost duty. It was during this period that ‘ Sutee ’ system came to stay in the society. ‘ Sutee’ remained primarily a privilege of the higher castes.6 During this period they had no choice in the selection of their life partner.7 After the establishment of British rule in India a major changes occurred in the Indian Society. Establishment of educational institutions and introduction of English education had a far-reaching affect to give way the age-long belief. The English educated group also paid attention towards the reform in the social norms and traditions more particularly they were conscious about the social status of Indian women.

Thus, the impact of the west replaced the blind faith on age long beliefs, customs and conventions by a spirit of rationalism. Orthodoxy continued to be order of the day but its rigidity gradually replaced 8. During the British rule in India, legislation was used to bring about significant modifications in the structure of society. Various reforms were initiated with respect to status of women. Free India has carried forward the process to a point where legally at least men and women are equal. However some of the basic cultural orientations towards men and women in contemporary Indian society have been shaped by the authority of classical texts, teaching of religion, factors of historical development and persistence of regional and local traditions.

The contradictory attitudes expressed about women in classical texts persist in contemporary society. On the one hand, they are regarded as the highest embodiment of purity and power- a symbol of religiousness and spirituality, on the other; they are viewed essentially as weak and dependent creatures requiring constant guidance and protection. While girls are also considered necessary, the birth of a boy has been considered more desirable 9. It is believed; parents can depend on sons for support in old age and are looked upon as potential builder of family prestige and prosperity. Even to day in a large number of Hindu households, the birth of son is an occasion for rejoicing; the birth of a daughter is a cause for anxiety.10

These cultural attributes have left a deep mark in women’s development in India; of course it varies according to specific variables operating in Indian society such as caste, class, rural, urban, education, religion and other socio economic parameters. The western system was introduced towards the middle of the 19th century and expanded significantly thereafter modernization process has undergone some fundamental changes after the independence. As already stated that every domain of the social system is under the active influence of modernizing process, the political system has assumed a new shape after the adoption of a parliamentary form of government based on adult franchise. India is the largest democracy of the world.11 We have adopted a republican constitution and a parliamentary system of government after the independence. The constitution provides some basic rights to all citizens known as Fundamental Rights.

The post independence period has seen a number of positive and concerted efforts by the government to improve the socio economic status of women. After the independence attainment of equal status for women in every sphere of life was enshrined as one of the main objectives of the Indian Constitution. Women who number 498.7 million according to 2001 census, represent 48.2% of country’s population of 1,027.01 million 12 Article 14 of the constitution of India confers equal rights and opportunities for women and men in political economic and social spheres. Article 15 prohibits discriminations against any citizen on the ground of gender. Article 15(3) empowers the state to make affirmative discriminations in favour of women. Similarly article 39 enjoins upon the state to provide equal means of livelihood and equal pay for equal work. Article 42 directs the state to make provisions for ensuring just and humane conditions of work and maternity relief. Article 51A impose a fundamental duty on every citizen to renounce the practices derogatory to the dignity of women.13

Right from the first five-year plan the issue of providing equal status to woman has been sharply focused in the development process. While the first four plans focused on organizing various welfare activities and giving priority on women education, the fifth and sixth plan intended a shift in approach from welfare to overall development of women with a three pronged thrust on health, education and employment of women. The seven plan laid stress on efforts to identify and promote beneficiary oriented programme with the intention of extending direct benefits to women. The Eight Plan made a significant shift from development to women empowerment. It recommends 30% reservation for women at all levels of government. Ninth Plan provides for ensuring that a minimum of 30% of benefits or funds flow to women from all ministries and departments. Some positive results may be seen as female literacy rate rose from 8% (1947) to 54%(2001). Life expectancy rose from 40.6years (1961-1971) to 58.1 years (1981-1991) and 64.9 years (2001)14 The total fertility rates has come down from 5.97 in 1951-1961 to 3.3 in 1997 and 2.97 in 2001 signaling a comparatively greater acceptance of family planning and late marriage norms. Women’s presence in parliament has increased from 4% in 1952 to 8.9% in 2001. At the village and district levels, nearly one million women are heads and members of the local self-government institutions.15 Women have entered in all professions including holding the position of the first citizen of India i.e. the President of India.

Drawing our attention to the scenario in North East India particularly in Assam, we see that that the Assamese society was free from many of the social evils practiced in Bengal and other states. The Kulinsil, self-immolation of widows and infanticides were almost unknown while polygamy and child marriage did not reach alarming proportions as prevalent in Bengal and other provinces of the country.16 Assamese women were held highest esteem in society, yet the education of women was sadly neglected. Assamese girls inherited from their mothers the skill of spinning, weaving and other domestic works; no provision was made, public or private for their formal education. Generally the education of women was considered by the masses as dangerous and no one would marry a girl if she could read and write.17 Female education naturally received attention of the English educated youths. Anandaram Dhekial Phukan not only advocated but also took the lead in the education of the female members of his family18. During 1860-61 for the first time a lower primary school for girls was opened at Sibsagar. The Deputy Inspector of Schools, Mr. U N Goswami took interest for establishment of this school. During the eighties of the nineteenth century there were only 44 Government Girls schools in Assam with total enrolment of 552. 19 In spite of these endeavours the progress of women education was very slow. 20 This was because in those days much importance was not attached for the education of women. The utmost need was that learning for women should be confined only to the three R’s and a little knowledge of History and Geography. 21

About the same time the problem of Hindu widows attracted the attention of the educated Assamese. Even in the thirties of the nineteenth century, Jaduram Barua the first Lexicographer in Assam, despite orthodoxy in the age is said to have not only advocated remarriage of widows but he married a widow himself. Considering the example is better than precept Gunabhiram Barua married a widow, and his own daughter was remarried after the death of her first husband.22 But the problem remain unsolved. The remarriage of the widows made very little progress in Assam or elsewhere in India till this time.

Assamese women also played significant roles during freedom struggle. During the Non Cooperation Movement, the women came forward along with the men, mostly of them belonging to the upper caste. Mention may be made of Hemant Kumari Devi, mother of Nalini Bala Devi, Girija Devi, Snehalata Bhattacharyya, Ganeswari Devi, and others. They worked as female volunteers and went to the villages to spread the voices of Gandhiji.23 In 1925 at the Nowgong session of the Assam Sahitya Sabha, Chandra Prabha Saikiani asked the women participant to come out from the bamboo barricade. This episode considered being the first attempt of the independent women liberation movment in Assam. During 1942, Kanaklata Barua’s sacrifice to the national movement inspired the women of Assam. Though women attain the light of education economic independency was a far cry. Cotton College was established in 1901 but the admission of girl students took place only in 1929. Gradually they took the advantage of the education and the first women college of Assam was established in 1939.24 Girls were admitted in the Science Stream of Cotton College and after establishment of Gauhati University in 1948 women got a chance for entering the university class.

Women have entered various professions, made significant progress in economic and social life but still there are some unseen hurdles. There is wide gap between media and reality. In spite of strict law harassment on women at work place, molestation, dowry deaths are the common news in day-to-day life. Men have defined role of women even in twenty first century. However there have been infinite variations of the status of women, differing according to the cultural milieu, family structures, caste, class, property rights etc.

One prominent feature in this region is the comparative freedom that women enjoy albeit in different degrees. Just as North East Indian Society can be classified as either Aryan-based or Mongoloid. Within the so called Mongoloid Communities themselves, distinction must be made between those that are matrilineal as in Meghalaya and those that are patrilineal as in the rest of the tribal areas of this region. In Meghalaya, women enjoy great freedom and independence.25

Notes and references


1. M.N. Karna, Social Change in India, NCERT, Delhi, 2007, pp.1-2.

2. K.Singh, Advanced Sociology, first edition, Lucknow, 1964, pp.150-152.

3. Ibid.

4. Kamalesh Singh, Social Change in Modern India, first edition, New Delhi, 2008, p.2

5. Kiran Sarma, Manusamhita (9/3) third edition, Guwahati, 2008, p.304

6. Lewinston, History of Sexual Customs,…, p.37

7. H.R. Mukhia, Indian Society and Social Institutions, third edition, Delhi, 1986, p.207

8. Barpujari. H. K. (ed) Political History of Assam, Vol. 1, second edition, Guwahati,1999, p.128, hereafter PHA.

9. Nirupama Prakash, Status of Women in Indian Society- Issues and challenges in Process of Empowerment, …p.4

10. Ibid.

11. Kamalesh Singh, op.cit. p.33

12. Manorama Year Book, 2002 cited Nirupama Prakash

13. Kamalesh Singh, op.cit. p.37

14. India, 2002, cited Nirupama Prakash

15. Ibid.

16. Barpujari. H. K. op.cit.

17. M. Cosh, Topography of Assam, …, p.26 , cited Barpujari in PHA.

18. Gunabhiram Barua, Anandaram Dhekial Phukanar Jiban Charitra, ---, p.58, 169.

19. Sandhya Devi, Nari: Bandhan Aru Mukti, first edition, Guwahati, 2007, p.100

20. Report on Public Instruction in Bengal, Appendia-A, p.326

21. Mau, December 1886, cited Chandana Goswami in Nationalism in Assam, Delhi, 2008

22. Bhattacharjee. J.M., Ram Navami Natak, p.4 , cited Barpujari in PHA

23. Nalini Bala Devi, Eri Aha Dinbor, …, p.81 , cited Sandhya Devi

24. Sandhya devi, op. cit

25. S.C. Bhat and Gopal K. Bhargava, Land and People of Indian States and UnionTerritories, Vol. 18, Delhi, 2006, p.32.

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Social Change and Status of Women
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