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Q1) Issues of women were at the center of the discourse of socio-religious reforms. In this light, assess the contribution of the 19th century socio-religious reform movements to the emancipation of women.


Women’s issues were a central theme of the 19th century socio-religious reform movements in India. These movements were born out of the need to address the age-old customs and traditions that discriminated against women and perpetuated their oppression.

The socio-religious reform movements played a positive role in emancipation of women in following ways:

  1. Raja Ram Mohan Roy advocated for the abolition of Sati. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar pushed for the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856 which empowered Hindu widows to remarry. DayanandSaraswati also argued for rights for widows to remarry.
  2. Justice Ranade’s Prarthana Samaj criticized polygamy. Dayanand Saraswati’s Arya Samaj called for prohibition of child marriage.
  3. The reform movements laid the foundation for women’s education. E.g., Savitribai Phule, along with her husband Jyotirao Phule, opened the first school for girls in Pune. Arya Samaj advocated for compulsory education of men and women.
  4. Visionaries such as Dadabhai Naoroji and K.R. Cama worked towards the upliftment of Parsi women by removing the purdah system, raising the age of marriage, and promoting education.
  5. Syed Ahmad Khan, Sheikh Abdullah, and Karamat Hussain spearheaded a movement to improve Muslim women’s education.
  6. The reform movements inspired women to challenge their own subordination and take a stand for their rights. E.g., Pandita Ramabai fought for the rights of widows and the right to education for girls despite social resistance.

However, the 19th century socio-religious reform movements were limited in their impact in emancipation of women due to the following reasons:

  1. The reform movements were largely male-dominated and failed to prioritize gender equality.

E.g., Keshub Chandra Sen, a prominent figure in the Brahmo Samaj, practiced child marriage despite advocating against it publicly.

  1. The reform movements had narrow aims. E.g., educating women to be better wives and mothers rather than promoting gender equality in society.
  2. Reforms did not address the wider systemic issues of gender discrimination and patriarchy.

E.g., dowry was criticised but women’s economic dependence on men was left unaddressed.

  1. The efforts towards women’s education were often limited to higher caste women, ignoring the intersectional discrimination faced by women of lower castes and classes.
  2. The reform movements were often regional and community-specific. Large number of rural women continued to face discrimination and oppression.
  3. Reform movements did not produce opportunities for women beyond their home. Women’s participation in public life or work was lacking.

The 19th century socio-religious reform movements challenged the regressive practices and customs that oppressed women. However, the limitations of these movements underline the need for a more intersectional and comprehensive approach towards women’s empowerment that addresses the root causes of gender inequality.

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