Women's rights is multicultural and diasporic. The struggles of women from different geographies are dissimilar and are conditioned by several factors: familial, societal, racial, marital, economic, religious, cultural and individual consciousness. Patriarchy and misogyny is deeply rooted in ancients as well as modern-day India - Indian women negotiate survival through an array of oppressive societal structures: age, ordinal status, relationship to men through family of origin, marriage and procreation, and patriarchal attributes. Examples of patriarchal attributes include dowry, siring sons, kinship, caste, colour, community, village, market, and the state. Despite the challenges, India has a long tradition of women who rebelled against conformism under severe societal pressures.
The history of women in India can be divided into three phases: the first phase, beginning in the mid-19th century, initiated when reformists began to speak in favour of women rights by making reforms in education, customs involving women; the second phase, from 1915 to Indian independence, when Mahatma Gandhi incorporated women's movements into the Quit India movement and independent women's organisations began to emerge; and finally, the third phase, post-independence, which has focused on fair treatment of women at home after marriage, in the work force, and right to political parity.
Despite the advancements, many problems still remain which inhibit women from fully taking advantage of rights and opportunities in India. Religious laws and expectations, or personal laws enumerated by each specific religion, often conflict with the Indian Constitution, eliminating rights and powers women should legally have. Even though there still remains a lot of work to be done, the movement to secure rights for women in India has come a long way.
First Phase: 1825–1915
The colonial venture into modernity and the rise of nationalism and introspection of discriminatory practices brought about social reform movements related to caste and gender. This first phase of women’s freedom and rights in India was initiated by men to uproot the social evils of sati, to allow widow remarriage, to forbid child marriage, and to reduce illiteracy, as well as to regulate the age of consent and to ensure property rights through legal intervention. In addition to this, some upper caste Hindu women rejected constraints they faced under Brahminical traditions. Several Indian states were ruled by women during British colonial advance including Jhansi (Rani Laxmibai), Kittur (Rani Chennama), Bhopal (Quidisa Begum) and Punjab (Jind Kaur). During the British Raj, many reformers such as Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Jyotirao Phule fought for the betterment of women.
• Raja Rammohan Roy's efforts led to the abolition of Sati under Governor-General William Cavendish-Bentinck in 1829.
• Peary Charan Sarkar, a former student of Hindu College, Calcutta and a member of "Young Bengal", set up the first free school for girls in India in 1847 in Barasat, a suburb of Calcutta (later the school was named Kalikrishna Girls' High School).
• 1848, Savitribai Phule, along with her husband Jyotirao Phule, opened a school for girls in Pune, India. Savitribai Phule became the first woman teacher in India.
• Missionaries' wives such as Martha Mault née Mead and her daughter Eliza Caldwell née Mault are rightly remembered for pioneering the education and training of girls in south India. This practice was initially met with local resistance, as it flew in the face of tradition.
• The Female Infanticide Prevention Act, 1870, also Act VIII of 1870 was a legislative act passed in British India, to prevent murder of female infants.
• Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar's crusade for improvement in the situation of widows led to the Widow Remarriage Act of 1856. Many women reformers such as Pandita Ramabai also helped the cause of women
• In 1879, John Elliot Drinkwater Bethune established the Bethune School in 1849, which developed into the Bethune College in 1879, thus becoming the first women's college in India.
• In 1883, Chandramukhi Basu and Kadambini Ganguly became the first female graduates of India and the British Empire.
• Kadambini Ganguly and Anandi Gopal Joshi became the first women from India to be trained in Western medicine in 1886
Second Phase: 1915–1947
During this period the struggle against colonial rule intensified. Nationalism became the pre-eminent cause. Mahatma Gandhi legitimised and expanded Indian women's public activities by initiating them into the non-violent civil disobedience movement against the British Raj. He dignified their feminine roles of caring, self-abnegation, sacrifice and tolerance; and carved a niche for those in the public arena. Peasant women played an important role in the rural satyagrahas of Borsad and Bardoli. Women-only organisations like All India Women's Conference (AIWC) and the National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW) emerged. Women were grappling with issues relating to the scope of women's political participation, women's franchise, communal awards, and leadership roles in political parties.
• The first women's university, SNDT Women's University, was founded on 2 June 1916 by the social reformer Dhondo Keshav Karve with just five students.
• In 1917, the first women's delegation met the Secretary of State to demand women's political rights, supported by the Indian National Congress. Annie Besant became the first female president of the Indian National Congress.
• In 1925, Sarojini Naidu became the first Indian born female president of the Indian National Congress.
• The All India Women's Conference was founded in 1927
• Child marriage was outlawed in 1929, under Indian law and women’s legal age to marry was set at 14 years
• In 1944, Asima Chatterjee became the first Indian woman to be conferred the Doctorate of Science by an Indian university.
• On 15 August 1947, following independence, Sarojini Naidu became the governor of the United Provinces, and in the process became India's first woman governor. On the same day, Amrit Kaur assumed office as the first female Cabinet minister of India in the country's first cabinet.
Feminist agendas and movements became less active right after India's 1947 independence, as the nationalist agendas and movements on nation building took precedence over feminist issues. These movements resisted 'colonial interventions' particularly, in the mid to late nineteenth century, there was a national form of resistance to any colonial efforts made to 'modernise' the Hindu family. This included the Age of Consent controversy that erupted after the British tried to raise the age of marriage for women to avoid minors from forced marriages and sexual acts.
Women's participation in the struggle for freedom developed their critical consciousness about their role and rights in independent India. Women in the 1970s challenged the inequalities that had been established and fought to reverse them. These inequalities included unequal wages for women, relegation of women to 'unskilled' spheres of work, and restricting women as a reserve army for labour. The aim was to abolish the free service of women who were essentially being used as cheap capital. Women also began recognising the inequalities not just between genders but also within power structures such as caste, tribe, language, religion, region and class thus began efforts to ensure that fulfilling the demands of one group would not create further inequalities for another. Now, in the early twenty-first century, the focus of the Indian woman has gone beyond treating women as useful members of society and a right to parity, but also having the power to decide the course of their personal lives and the right of self-determination.
• The Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act was passed in 1956, to prohibit trafficking of young girls and women
• In 1961, the Government of India passed the Dowry Prohibition Act, making dowry demands in wedding arrangements illegal.
• In 1966 Indira Gandhi became the first female Prime Minister of India. She served as prime minister of India for three consecutive terms (1966–77) and a fourth term from 1980 until she was assassinated in 1984.
• India passed the Equal Remuneration Act in 1976, which prohibits discrimination in remuneration on grounds of sex
• Women's age of marriage was increased from 14 years to 18 years in 1978 by amending the Sharda Act of 1929
• The Indian Armed Forces began recruiting women to non-medical positions in 1992
• The Protection of Women from Domestic Violence Act 2005 was brought into force by the Indian government from 26 October 2006. The Act for the first time recognises a definition of "domestic violence", with this definition being broad and including not only physical violence, but also other forms of violence such as emotional/verbal, sexual, and economic abuse.
• In 2013, the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act, 2013 introduced changes to the Indian Penal Code, making sexual harassment an expressed offence under Section 354 A, which is punishable up to three years of imprisonment and or with fine. The Amendment also introduced new sections making acts like disrobing a woman without consent, stalking and sexual acts by person in authority an offense
• The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act came into force in December 2013, to prevent Harassment of women at workplace
• In 2013, the Supreme Court of India held that the two-finger test on a rape victim violates her right to privacy, and asked the Delhi government to provide better medical procedures to confirm sexual assault.
• In 2015, the Indian government announced that women could serve as fighter pilots in the Indian Air Force (IAF)
• In 2016 a judgment of the Delhi high court was made public in which it was ruled that the eldest female member of a Hindu Undivided Family can be its "Karta".
• In 2020, the Supreme Court of India said that women officers in the Indian Army can get command positions at par with male officers.