The British discussion on Indian civilization was full of criticism in many ways. The women’s question was very much prominent amongst them because their condition was taken as the symbol of standard and status of a society. The degraded and poor condition of women was marked with many social rituals and superstitions like child marriage, ‘Sati’ System, female infanticide, illiteracy, system of ‘Purdah’ and very importantly the poor condition of health and mortality during child birth due to ignorance of proper medical training. Colonial intervention into Indian cultural space as well as the response it got from and the impact it had on the contemporary Bengali society was noteworthy in terms of women health and medical education.
Causes behind the Poor Condition of Women Health
Women health is a newly born debatable issue in this country. Since time immemorial health condition of women was almost same as of nineteenth century.
- The treatment was dependent on the indigenous systems of medicine and very limited advancement and modification took place in these systems. Nobody questioned its methods or the way of treatment and never took any interest to raise the issue of poor condition of women health or mortality and thus remained unsolved. The major reason behind that was undoubtedly ignorance about any other better options of treatment. It was only after the western encounter in India people became aware of a second method (Allopathy) which in many ways proved superior to the existing ones. When the global concept of women health care, consciousness of public health and sanitation etc. (including education) brought into this country by different personnel assigned in different projects, the question of poor health condition and mortality of women became prominent. The indigenous people found reason to protect and improve the sate of women health. This was a time when already a trend of spreading education among women was started taking place in Bengal Presidency. It was not at all a simple and trouble-free process, but certainly this ripe condition of the society, had made the process little easy for the medical science to penetrate into the sphere of the ‘protected’ world of women.
- Another problem was social obstacles or Zenana culture, which was related with good and respectable families. Others, who were out of such social customs, were considered as impure and non-respectful. Social customs became the symbol of elitism and civilized. Thus many upper class and caste families restricted their female members for acquiring medical knowledge.
- The worst part of purdah system was its restriction in consulting a male doctor during the period of pregnancy. Messages were forwarded by the husband and servants to the male doctor. If there was a case of cataract operation, the doctor had to remove it through a hole cut in a sheet. The other treatments were more or less done by local midwives including childbirth, where normal deliveries were definitely handled by them, but not the critical cases. Thus there was a huge rate of women and child mortality and untimely deaths
- The contemporary society restricted women from gaining the benefits of education. Instead of empowering them through education, the society was more conscious to protect the customs and superstitions. Husband’s death was related to literacy of women and co-education in school was also prohibited. There was a fear in the society that education would lead to independent thinking, competition in the workforce, and finally, “disintegration of cultural norms
Medical Education and Awareness
It is true that the Purdah system restricted women from availing the western medical facilities or treatment from a male doctor but in the nineteenth century educated Bengalis as well as Indians started thinking seriously about this condition and gradually women also became conscious for their medical awareness and education. However, it was easy to adopt the readily available advanced western medicine than to re-work on the existing one. The late nineteenth century witnessed an impressive growth in the sphere of women’s medical education. Progressive Brahmo reformers like Durga Mohan Das and Dwarakanath Ganguly were in support of women medical education. Gradually, consciousness increased among people and under the influence of such reformers, their relatives too felt the urge to enroll in the medical classes also, thereby gaining the social acceptance from the larger Bengali society. Dufferin Fund was raised in 1885 to improve women healthcare and impart medical education. Trained midwives were able to reduce women and child mortality and most importantly medicine became a strong profession for women too, which to some extent altered the position of women in the society.
Chandramukhi Basu, a pupil of Native Christian Girls’ School of Dehra, applied for the admission to the Entrance Examination of the University. On 12th May, 1877 it was decided that the Entrance Examination should be the same as for the men but women should examined in a separate place under the supervision of women. In the 1879 for the first time women were permitted to take admission in Indian Universities. Mention may be made of in this connection that the Medical College of Calcutta opened its doors for women medical students for the first time in 1880s. But first woman student Mrs. Kadambini Ganguly was admitted only in 1884. In 1889 Miss Bidhumukhi Bose became the first Indian women graduate from Medical College. But it is noticeable here that Miss Ganga Agarwal was appointed first Indian woman house physician of Medical College in 1934, that means it took 68 years for women to break the overt and covert gender bias in society.
Historically Bengal Presidency had the first hand advantage of experiencing the implementation of policies by the British Government in every sector. The modern approaches to policy making gave a new shape to the society. But in imparting medical training to the women, it was not Bengal which acted as the pioneer. Madras Presidency played the pioneering role in this field by giving permission to the female students for attending medical classes in Madras Medical College in 1875. However, late nineteenth and the twentieth century witnessed a massive growth of medical education for women. Initiatives came from both the indigenous society and Government sector and thus gradually improved the ruined condition of women health.
Balfour Margaret. I and Young Ruth, The Work of Medical Women in India (British Library)
Forbes, Geraldine, Women in Colonial India: Essays on Politics, Medicine and Historiography, Chronicle Books, New Delhi, 2005
Mukherjee, Sujata Gender, Medicine and Society in Colonial India: Women’s Health Care in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century Bengal, Oxford University Press, New Delhi
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