© Amit Agarwal
In ancient India, women enjoyed equal status with men in major fields of life and received the same
education and rights as men. Many tribes and communities, like the Nairs in Kerala and the Khasis and
Garos in Meghalaya, were even matrilineal, where women held sway. Even in patriarchal Hindu societies,
women in ancient India were powerful and widely respected.
However, during the medieval period, the status of women went down considerably after the Islamic
invasions. The latter brought regressive changes to Hindu society. Jauhar became a prevalent custom
among the Hindus, chiefly the Rajputs. It was performed when the women faced Islamic invaders to avoid
being tortured, enslaved, and losing their honour. After every conquest by Bin Qasim, Mahmud Ghaznawi
till the attack of Abdali, ordinary women were regularly incarcerated and sold in Central Asian slave
markets, while royal and other beautiful women were sent to Caliphs in Baghdad as gifts. Like other
treasures of the loot, the rest were distributed among the ministers, commanders, higher officers, and even
the hoi polloi.
To avoid such barbaric treatment, as soon as it was clear that Hindu defeat was inevitable when their
husbands had been killed, the women used to make preparations to commit jauhar. The latter was certainly
considered a more dignified way of ending life. There were instances where women jumped into the fire
after seeing the invaders approaching. They were extracted from the fire half-burnt and treated for the
burns. After recovery, they were raped and packed off to the slave markets.
Islamic invaders primarily treated sexual abuse as a deliberate military strategy and not just a by-product of
war. Women were primarily seen as the community’s repositories, reproducers, and caregivers worldwide.
Violating and polluting them was treated as the inherent right of the victorious, as the goal was to subjugate
the vanquished in the most degrading manner. It was thought of as a convenient and effective tool for social
and cultural suppression. Sexual violation of women erodes the fabric of a community in a way few
weapons can. It was also used to destabilise and sow terror in the rival communities. Another motive for
this monstrous act was to contaminate the hereditary line by impregnating the women of the enemy
Since ancient times, women have always been considered a significant part of the spoils of war, a mere
chattel in a brutal system. However, there is no such evidence of the degrading institutionalised practice
anywhere in India. The closest incident was an attempt to disrobe Draupadi in the epic Mahabharata.
It is manifested in the example of Fath-Ali Shah Qajar, the second Shah of Persia, in the 18th century.
When he attacked Qafqaz (in present-day Azerbaijan), his army cut the veins of their thighs after violating
the women, leaving them forever handicapped. The limp of the women would give away their traumatic
past, ostracizing them eternally. Even by Islamic standards, Fath-Ali Shah was considered a very colourful
personality. He had more than 1,000 spouses, with 130 sons and 150 daughters. When he died, his
descendants numbered a massive 5,000.
However, it was not an extraordinary example to cite, and unfortunately, history is full of such horrific
tragedies. These incidents continue to happen even to this date. The genesis of such harsh treatment was
that early Muslims were keenly aware that enslaved women could increase the Muslim population by leaps
and bounds when captured in large numbers, as it was their main aim in the first place. For this purpose,
men were allowed four legal wives at any point, discounting divorces with halala thrown in as a bonus to
enable multifold progeny. Besides, they were also entitled to have as many slave girls or concubines as they
pleased. For men, there was absolute freedom from all inhibitions and reservations in matters of sex. This
very fact of getting unbridled sex sent many non-Muslim males salivating at the doors of Islam.
T.P. Hughes contends in his book “Dictionary of Islam” (1885) that:
There is absolutely no limit to the number of slave girls with whom a Muhammadan may
cohabit, and it is the consecration of this illimitable indulgence which so popularizes the
Muhammadan religion amongst uncivilized nations, and so popularizes slavery in the Muslim
Instant triple talaq (talaq-e-bidat) was also conceived to have the maximum number of Muslim offspring;
hence, men were encouraged to impregnate as many women as possible. When Arabs were conquering new
territories every day, they brought thousands of women with them. So, to accommodate these women in the
Arab ecosystem, old wives were given divorce by instant triple talaq, and new women were taken as wives.
Rape is identified as the most intrusive of traumatic events by psychologists. The very phenomenon was
always put to effective use by the invaders. DS Margoliouth writes in his book “Mohammed and the Rise of
Victory over an enemy would seem to have been consummated only when the enemy’s daughter
was introduced into the conqueror’s harem.
Muslim women are the worst sufferers among the women of all major religions. Verse 4:34 of the Quran is
often cited as the main reason by which men have complete control over their wives and other females in
the family. The verse is now nicknamed the DNA of patriarchy in Islam as it makes strong distinctions
between men and women and confers on men substantially more rights than those available to women. A
Muslim man inherits twice that of the female and he is given full right to divorce his wife unilaterally.
Prevalence of polygamy, enforcement of veil, unequal divorce rights, and inadequate property rights are
designed to put down Muslim women as the inferior sex. Shahla Haeri, in her book, “Law of desire:
temporary marriage in Shi’i Iran” stated the abysmally low position of women in Islamic society (1989).
Sexual intercourse with one’s own slave girl continued to be legitimate until recently in most Islamic societies. Slave
ownership should not be confused with slave marriage. Slave marriage involves marriage of a slave with another
person, with the permission of the slave master. Marriage is not necessary between a male slave owner and his female
slaves. His ownership entitles him to a right of intercourse, hence rape is promoted in Islam.
It was a principle practised ardently by the Muslim invaders and rulers of India. They habitually used it to
cart off the Hindu women as slaves (men, too) to Central Asia and Persia. In ordinary life, in response to
violent invasions, deterioration in the condition of Hindu women resulted in the emergence of child
marriage, seclusion, denial of education, property and inheritance rights, the preponderance of Sati, and
degradation of widowhood. India slid towards a severe form of patriarchy in which several restrictions were
placed on women’s bodies, activities, and legal, social and economic rights.
While earlier in ancient India, she basked in her identity; in the medieval era, she was abjectly reduced to
someone’s mother, sister or daughter.
About the Author :