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Manusmriti: The Problematic Guide to Being a ‘Good Woman’ & ‘Good Wife’

Feminists say, Manusmriti has contributed to perpetuation of sexism.

Updated
India
6 min read
Manusmriti: The Problematic Guide to Being a ‘Good Woman’ & ‘Good Wife’
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In October 2020, Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) leader Thirumavalavan called for a ban on Manusmriti, stating it denigrates women. He was vilified for a statement taken out of context and Khushbu Sundar, a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), claimed there is “not a single word (in the text) that demeans women."

A senior leader from Tamil Nadu BJP had claimed in a 2020 interview with The Quint that texts written centuries ago reflect a perspective of society that existed back then. “We should take what is good and leave out what is bad. To make this an issue and call for a ban seems unnecessary,” he said.

Dalit poet Kutti Revathi sharply countered this, saying, Manusmriti has contributed to sexism, how a family is viewed, and how a woman is treated. It must be understood in the context of years of oppression that women and Dalits have faced, she told The Quint.

In August 2022, the Manusmriti is at the centre of a controversy yet again after a Delhi High Court Judge Pratibha M Singh said women are “blessed” because Indian scriptures like Manusmriti give “very respectable position” to women. She advised working women to live in joint families to “share our resources” and not be “selfish” to live in a nuclear family.

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Tracing the Origins of Manusmriti To Understand Its Relevance Today

According to scholar Patrick Olivelle, who translated Manusmriti in his book 'Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the 'Manava-Dharmasastra,' the text was clearly established by the 5th century CE.

The fame of Manu did not diminish through the next fifteen centuries and only blossomed further when the country was taken over by the colonial power Britain.

Manusmriti has remained colossally influential in determining the structure and the function of Indian society and is found in every collection of readings given to students of Indian culture, history, or religion in western universities, Olivelle argued.

Clarifying who the original author of the text was, he explained that scholars traditionally have regarded the text as composed by anonymous compilers, editors, and copyists over several centuries, similar to the "agentless process" that is believed to have led to composition of the great epic Mahäbhärata.

He wrote that compilers had merely gathered proverbial sayings, moral maxims, and legal axioms that originated over generations.

"The composition of the text is thus divorced from authorial intent and agency and from social, political, and economic context."
Patrick Olivelle, 'Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the 'Manava-Dharmasastra'

For those who may not be familiar with the Manusmriti, The Quint has compiled a list of quotes that dictate how a “good woman” should be. Many of these 'laws' seem quite problematic in today’s times.

And while we are revisiting history, let us remind you that Dalit feminist organisations declared that 25 December 1927, the day on which Dr. B R Ambedkar burned the Manusmriti, should be observed as Indian Women’s Liberation Day.

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1. Self-Control for a Woman

Manusmriti dictates that only a woman who can control herself can be called a “good woman” and deserves the highest fame in the world.

Excerpts from 'Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the 'Manava-Dharmasastra,' by Patrick Olivelle. [Chapter 5 (165 & 168)]

"By following this conduct, a woman who controls her mind, speech, and body obtains the highest fame in this world and the world of her husband in the next," the translation read.

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2. Women Should Meet the Standards of Perfection

In Chapter 3, Manusmriti dictates the prerequisites a woman needs to fulfil to be deemed worthy of marriage. Celebrating exclusion based on set standards of beauty, body image and societal status, the text dictates that a man must not choose a woman who is specially abled, “is a blabbermouth, or jaundiced-looking.”

Excerpts from 'Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the 'Manava-Dharmasastra,' by Patrick Olivelle [Chapter 3 (10)]

The laws in the text also state that “wise men should not marry women who do not have a brother and whose parents are not socially well known."

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3. Husband Is God, No Matter What

Manusmriti dictates that no matter what the man does, a woman has to be chaste in order to find herself a place in heaven.

Excerpts from 'Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the 'Manava-Dharmasastra,' by Patrick Olivelle [Chapter 5 (154)]

It states that whether her husband is alive or not, a woman should be faithful to the man she married, till her last breath.

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4. No Right to Independence for a Woman

The confinement of women in the private sphere has found its requisite justification in a text like Manusmriti. Vilification of women has been highlighted by portraying the woman as a dependent and vile creature requiring constant protection and guidance – initially by the father or brother and later by the husband and son. It propagates the idea that a woman doesn’t deserve independence and will always remain as the property of another man.

Excerpts from 'Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the 'Manava-Dharmasastra,' by Patrick Olivelle [Chapter 9 (3)]

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5. Women Must Be Guarded

Women have always been regarded as the guardians of dharma and transmitter of patriarchal values. Chapter 9 of the Manusmriti outlines the duty of a wife and a husband whether “they be united or separated.” It lists the various strategies men can use to guard their wives lest they “become disloyal towards their husbands.”

Excerpts from 'Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the 'Manava-Dharmasastra,' by Patrick Olivelle” [Chapter 9 (11)]

CARD: “He should employ her in the collection and the disbursement of his wealth, in cleaning, in meritorious activity, in cooking food, and in looking after household goods.

It also reads that a man should provide for his wife before he goes away on business as “even a steadfast woman will go astray when starved for a livelihood.” And even if he fails to provide for her she must “maintain herself by engaging in respectable crafts.”

A wife is expected to wait for at least eight years when her husband goes away for a purpose specified by the laws of the text, for six years when he leaves for learning or fame, and for three years when he has gone for pleasure.

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6. Woman's Remarriage Brings Disgrace to the World


While Manusmiriti allows men to remarry, it is strictly prohibited for the woman. It is stated that even when she withers due to illness or depression, she "must never mention even the name of another man."

Excerpts from 'Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the 'Manava-Dharmasastra,' by Patrick Olivelle” [Chapter 5 (158)]

The text disregards a woman's second marriage and any offspring she may give birth to with another man as it is not "taught anywhere that a good woman should take a second husband."

Excerpts from 'Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the 'Manava-Dharmasastra,' by Patrick Olivelle” [Chapter 5 (164)]

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7. Women's Ostracisation

Manusmriti states that even if the husband is addicted to an evil passion, the woman – “a good wife” is bound to respect him. It also states that if a woman fails to provide children, she is considered "barren" and can be replaced.

Excerpts from 'Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the 'Manava-Dharmasastra,' by Patrick Olivelle” [Chapter 9 (78)]

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8. Dehumanising Women

In Chapter 3, it states that “good fortune smiles incessantly on a family where the husband always finds delight in his wife, and the wife in her husband.” But it also dictates that it is the woman’s duty to please the man so that they copulate pleasurably.

Excerpts from 'Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the 'Manava-Dharmasastra,' by Patrick Olivelle” [Chapter 3 (61)]

In chapter 3, the text also discriminates a woman during menstruation. “A Cándala, a pig, a cock, a dog, a menstruating woman, or a eunuch must not look at the Brahmins while they are eating," it read.

The text also vilifies women on the basis of caste stating that if a Brahmin or a Kshatriya takes a Shudra wife, "even when they are going through a time of adversity," they reduce the societal status of their families.

Excerpts from 'Manu's Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the 'Manava-Dharmasastra,' by Patrick Olivelle” [Chapter 3 (19)]

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