India, being a heterogeneous society, has always faced scores of social diversities. Women were treated as slaves at one point of time in Indian history. The low status of women in India was the result of patriarchal form of family. Patriarchy is very strong and rigid in India.
The early Vedic period was one of the glorious chapters in Indian history. Literary and historical researches show that women held a position of equality with men during this period. The girl as well as the boy was required to undergo Upanayana ceremony in order to be initiated to the Vedic studies. Education of women was looked upon as so important. Some of the renowned Vedic women are Gargi, Maitreyi, Apala, Lopamidra, Viswavara, Sikata, Chosa etc.
During this period, matrimony was not considered compulsory for the woman. A woman could remain unmarried if she so desired. No limitation had been placed on the age of marriage. Remarriage of widows was allowed. Rig Veda does not mention anywhere the practice of Sati i.e. the burning or burial of widows with their dead husbands.
Girls were married at a fairly advanced age in the Vedic period. The dowry system did not stand as an impediment in daughter's marriage. As regards property rights, according to the Vedic hymns, both the husband and the wife were joint owners of property. The women entered fields of teaching, medicine, business and administration.
During this period the society was patriarchal. But however, women were treated with utmost respect and courtesy. Wife was considered the ornament of the house and the embodiment of tolerance, patience and submission. In religious ceremonies and sacrifices also, men and women took part as equal partners.
Ceremonies were invalid without wife joining her husband. A man's religious life is considered to be essentially deficient without his wife's participation in it. The position of women was such that of an 'honorable subordination'. She received affection, consideration and regard.
From about 1500 BC known as the later Vedic period, change in woman's status started due to various reasons. The most important among them was the denial of education. Traces of deterioration were found in all the periods following 1500 BC. Manu smriti, the code of Manu is an important source of information regarding rights and duties of men and women in this period.
According to the dictum laid by Manu, the great law giver of second century, "A woman does not deserve freedom". Her life, it is said that should be dependent of man, and a woman should be subservient in all stages of her life- "in childhood, to the father, in youth to the husband and sons when widowed".
In Manu's code, a woman ceased to be man's equal in her own right. Manu disapproved niyoga, inter caste marriage and widow remarriage. He prohibited the practice of upanayana for a girl. Since girls were not educated, child marriages became common. The origin of Buddhism during this period had its impact on women's status. Buddhism believed in individual independence and equality.
After this period, came the medieval period characterized by the Mughal rule in India.