It is an established fact that women played many different social roles in the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages, a period of European history lasting from the fifth century to the fifteenth century, women served as wives, mothers, farmers, artisans, and nuns, as well as some important leadership roles, such as queen consorts. The concept of ‘women’ went through many ways during the Middle Ages.
Various forces were responsible for bringing radical changes in the status of women during the medieval period. Women emerged as a strong force in all walks of life during this period, as is evident from the important roles they played during this era.
During the medieval period, Indian society was divided into two broad divisions on the basis of religion. English documents and records of the period refer to Hindus as ‘Gentos’ (Gentiles) and Muslims as ‘Moors’. The two communities differed with regard to social etiquette and behavior; Even the festive forms of their greeting. For example, the two communities had different social rites and ceremonies on the occasions of birth and marriage. While these differences sometimes provoked tension and even hostility, a system of peaceful coexistence developed, and even fraternization at social occasions and fairs was not uncommon.
The Muslim population maintained a mixed character as a result of continuous immigration from the Muslim countries of Central and West Asia. Which it had achieved in the past centuries. In the northwestern region, Central Asians and Persians, who had entered India during the reign of Babur and his successors, lived side by side with Muslim migrants from the pre-Mughal period.
In the coastal areas, the immigrants were mainly traders, originally from Arabia and the Persian Gulf. Their regular or irregular associations with local Hindus resulted in the existence of many Muslim communities of mixed origin, e.g., Navayats, Mappilas or Moplabars of western India, and Labbais of the Coromandel cost. There were also significant numbers of Muslims of Abyssinian origin, most of whose ancestors were originally imported as slaves. Since large parts of Afghanistan were an integral part of the Mughal Empire, Afghans living in India could hardly be classified as immigrants.
Foreign-born Muslims formally united by Islam had racial and religious differences that influenced politics and society. The Turanis (Central Asians) and the Afghans were Sunni; The Persians (Iranians) were Shias. There was much rivalry for political prominence and social promotion among these Muslims of diverse origins.
However, Muslims of foreign origin were considered a distinct group, being a prominent element in the ruling class of the Mughal period. They claimed superiority on the basis of birth, race, and culture to Hindustani Muslims, i.e. Hindu converts and their descendants. The overwhelming majority of Muslims were descended from Hindu converts, but there was a tendency on their part to claim foreign ancestry with a view to gaining the political and social advantage. They were generally looked down upon by Turanians and Iranians but were also received on equal terms during Friday prayers in mosques and on the occasions of major religious festivals.
There was no restriction on intermarriage on the basis of caste. A Muslim of low birth may rise to a high position in the nobility either by force of ability or by the grace of luck. The Muslim society had much more internal mobility than the Hindu society. Apart from racial and religious differences, i.e. the Shia-Sunni conflict, there were clear social differences within Muslim society.
The Persian work of the sixteenth century mentions three classes: (a) the ruling class consisting of the royal family, the nobility, and the army; (b) the intellectuals, which includes theologians (ulamao), judges (qazis), learned men and learned men; a class catering to pleasure, the classification involved is clearly incomplete and unsatisfactory. For example, this productive Does not makeup of classes.—The peasants and artisans who were the backbone of the state and society, and the lower rungs of the official bureaucracy of petty officials.
Hindu society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was characterized by the conflicting tendencies of liberalism and conservatism on the one hand and exclusivism and conservatism on the other. Some Vaishnava and Tantric teachers recognized, to some extent, the religious and social rights of women as well as of Shudras. Some non-Brahmin followers of Chaitanya become spiritual teachers (gurus) not only of the three lower castes but also of Brahmins.
In Maharashtra, there were Brahmin disciples of Tukaram, a Shudra, and among Brahmins, Vili Shankardeva and Madhavdev, who were Kayasthas. But, the Brahmin authors of the Essays tried to maintain the integrity of the ancient socio-religious order (Varnashrama Dharma) by regulating the life and conduct of all classes of Hindus in minute detail in conformity with traditional caste rules.
Some authors of Smriti’s essays had royal patrons and their injunctions concerned political approval. One of them, Keshav Pandit, was pegged under the Maratha king Sambhaji. But Bengal had eminent writers like Raghunandan and Ramnath. Pitambar of Kamrup and Kamalakar Bhatt of Maharashtra whose authority was accepted by Hindu society even though they were not supported by royal patronage. His influence effectively counteracted liberal tendencies. He raised his voice against the usurpation of the privileges of the Brahmins by the lower castes.
Status of women
Parda System: With the advent of Islam, new forces appeared on the Indian horizon. The strict veiling of women was common among Muslims in his native land. Naturally, in a foreign country like India, more emphasis was placed on this. Hindus adopted purdah as a protective measure. The tendency to imitate the ruling class was another factor that favored the introduction of purdah among Hindu families. Seclusion thus became a mark of honor and was strictly observed among the upper-class families of both communities.
Barbosa mentions the strict observance of purdah by the women of Bengal. Except for a few notable Muslim families, southern Indians did not adopt purdah. In the Vijayanagara Empire, the purdah was restricted to members of the royal household only. No such vigorous purdah system was observed among the Hindu middle class and certainly among the Hindu masses.
Child Marriage: In the practice of those days, girls were not allowed to stay in their parent’s house for more than six to eight years after birth. The rigidity of custom with marriage celebrations at a very early age left no time for the bride or groom to think about their choice of partner. Dowry was demanded while bride price was also prevalent in some castes and regions.
Monogamy: Monogamy seems to have been the rule among the lower strata of society in both communities during the medieval period. In Akbar’s time, despite the decision of the Ulema in the Ibadatkhana that a man could take any number of wives by Mutah, but only four by Nikah, Akbar issued definite orders that an ordinary man should not have more than one wife. unless the first one proves to be infertile. Polygamy was the privilege of the rich.
Status of widows: Divorce and remarriage, common among Muslims, were prohibited for Hindu women. Widow remarriage had completely disappeared in Hindu society during the medieval era, except among lower caste people. Sati system was prevalent. Even the betrothed girls had to commit Sati. Even the betrothed girls had to commit Sati on the funeral pyre of their future husbands. Those widows who did not immolate themselves with their husbands were treated harshly by society.
Sati Practice: Some sultans of Delhi tried to discourage the practice of Sati, which was prevalent among a large section of the Hindu population, especially the upper classes, and Rajputs. Although Sati was only voluntary in the south and was not imposed on widows, it is difficult to account for its widespread popularity in the Vijayanagara Empire, whose laws placed no restrictions on its practice. Muhammad Tughlaq was, in all likelihood, the first medieval ruler who banned its observance.
Akbar did not completely ban the practice of Sati and gave a definite order to the Kotwal not to allow any woman to be burnt against her will. Aurangzeb was the only Mughal who issued a definitive order (1664) outlawing Sati completely.
Economic status: Economically, a Muslim woman was entitled to a share in the inheritance and had full rights to dispose of it. Unlike her Hindu sister, she retained authority even after marriage.
Mehr, or Entente nuptial settlement, was another protection for Muslim women, while a Hindu woman had no right to the property of her husband’s parents. A Hindu woman was entitled only to maintenance and living expenses, apart from a movable property such as jewelry, ornaments, etc. However, the Cholas (8th to 13th centuries) had the right to inherit property.