Manu’s Rules for Women: Associations of Womanhood and Freedom

Manu’s Rules for Women: Associations of Womanhood and Freedom

Spurred by International Women’s Day 2020 this Sunday, here are some thoughts on the freedom of women in the Hindu and Graeco-Roman world, plus some modern-day feminist ruminations.

Small Les Demoiselles d Avignon Small Les Demoiselles d Avignon
Picasso, Des mademoiselles d’Avignon (1907). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

For a century now, March 8 is International Women’s Day, a day on which each self-respecting feminist will celebrate and fight for her rights and equality. Today, we find ourselves firmly in the fourth wave of feminism, which just like third-wave feminism focuses on individuality: the third wave centers on self-development and the fourth on empowerment of women. However, the Dutch International Women’s Day theme for 2020 is “freedom”, a theme more linked to the (legal) rights first and second-wave feminism fought for. The organizers explain: “For years, women fought for self-determination, individual rights and freedom. Women’s freedom should not be negotiable, but self-evident.”[1]

Spurred by the retrospective theme, my personal (feminist) feelings towards March 8—it was no coincidence that the all-female board of my “dispuut” (student organization), of which I was president, was both named “the Amazons” ánd installed on March 8, 2010—and of course my incessant curiosity towards the text I chose to study, I decided to look into the rules the Mānava Dharmaśāstra sets out concerning women. To put Manu’s rules in context,[2] I will also look at some sayings about women from Ancient Greece and Rome.[3]

As became immediately evident, freedom is a right which has been denied to women for centuries—the phrase “for years” that was used in the organizers’ explanation of this year’s theme indeed has a long long run. Both Manu and Old Greek and Roman texts consider confinement of women as best, the place of confinement naturally being the house (of her husband).

MDh 9.10-13

Menander, Fr. 815, PCG (4th c. BC), p. 38

No man is able to guard women entirely by force, but they can be entirely guarded by using these means: he should keep her busy amassing and spending money, engaging in purification, attending to her duty, cooking food, and looking after the furniture. […] Drinking, associating with bad people, being separated from their husbands, wandering about, sleeping, and living in other people’s houses are the six things that corrupt women.

You have stepped beyond the boundaries of a married woman, wife – the courtyard. It’s not the custom for a free woman to go beyond the courtyard door of the house. Chasing after someone and running down the street still shouting – it’s what a dog would do, Rhodē.

Italics added by writer [MO]

Apart from the bitter irony of the words “a free woman” in the Greek example—in contrast to a slave woman—what both examples make apparent is that the keeping indoors is aimed at minimizing the risk of a woman to wander about or go running down the street. Obviously, women running loose is a dangerous thing indeed. (Insert bitter irony here once more.) As Manu’s example already suggests, the ‘sleeping’ probably hints at sleeping with someone who is not her husband. The possibility for women to run free is scary because of their sexual capacities, or rather sexual proclivity.

Édouard Manet Olympia Musée d Orsay Paris Édouard Manet Olympia Musée d Orsay Paris
Édouard Manet, Olympia (1863). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

MDh 9. 14-18

Semonides, On Women, Transl. H. Lloyd-Jones, p. 40

Good looks do not matter to them, nor do they care about youth; ‘A man!’ they say, and enjoy sex with him, whether he is good-looking or ugly. By running after men like whores, by their fickle minds, and by their natural lack of affection these women are unfaithful to their husbands even when they are zealously guarded here. Knowing that their very own nature is like this, as it was born at the creation by the Lord of Creatures, a man should make the utmost effort to guard them. […] For women, who have no virile strength and no Vedic verses, are falsehood; this is well established.

Zeus has contrived that all these tribes of women are with men and remain with them. Yes, this is the worst plague Zeus has made—women; if they seem to be some use to him who has them, it is to him especially that they prove a plague. […] Yes, where there is a woman, men cannot even give hearty entertainment to a guest who has come to the house; and the very woman who seems most respectable is the one who turns out guilty of the worst atrocity; because while her husband is not looking … and the neighbours get pleasure in seeing how he too is mistaken. […] Yes, this is the greatest plague that Zeus has made, and he has bound us to them with a fetter that cannot be broken.

You see, women are in their very nature prone to be wanton. Husbands should be wary, since their wives will seduce pretty much anyone from the opposite sex—even their neighbours! Elsewhere in the śāstra, Manu also hints at the horrifying possibility that the son you are raising might not be your own since you’ll never know what your wife has done when you left her out of sight for just one minute. (Whether your daughter is truly your own is of less importance.)

What is also interesting to note is that this fickle nature of women is traced back to the supreme God of their respective pantheons. The Hindu Lord of Creatures is, indeed, the God who created all living beings, including female humans and their unfaithful nature. Simultaneously, the supreme god Zeus created the plague that is the female half of humanity. And what’s more, he made sure that men have to put up with them—oh, pitiful humans!

Matissedance Matissedance
Matisse, Dance (1910), State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. Source: State Hermitage Museum.

In any case, since women are prone to wander about having sex with anyone you can and cannot think of, it’s better to guard them “zealously”. Both Manu and the Graeco-Roman world know something called “guardianship”.

MDh 9.1-3

Ulpian, Rules 11.1, p. 126

I will tell the eternal duties of a man and wife who stay on the path of duty both in union and in separation. Men must make their women dependent day and night, and keep under their own control those who are attached to sensory objects. Her father guards her in childhood, her husband guards in her youth, and her sons guard her in old age. A woman is not fit for independence.

Guardians are appointed for males as well as for females, but only for males under puberty, on account of their infirmity of age; for females, however, both under and over puberty, on account of the weakness of their sex as well as their ignorance of legal matters.

Elsewhere, the Graeco-Roman sources explain their guardianship by the fact that women are “scatterbrained”, or, in a more literal translation, “on account of lightness of the mind”. However, the construction of this guardianship is slightly different. In ancient Greece and Rome a guardian is someone appointed by the father, but neither the woman’s father nor her husband (at least, not necessarily). In the Hinduism of Manu’s text, woman’s guardianship is a tripartite construction. She is guarded by her father when she is a child, by her husband when she is a young woman, and by her son(s) when she is an old woman. Apart from that it leaves you wondering whether Hindu women do not know middle age, this triple system of guardianship very closely resembles the idea of the Triple Goddess. This idea—now perhaps best-known through the ‘new gods’ the Maid, the Mother and the Crone in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire—is common in Neopaganism in which the tri-unity represents the different life stages of a woman.

Mondrian Evolution Triptychon 1911 Mondrian Evolution Triptychon 1911
Mondriaan, Evolution (1911), Art Museum Den Haag.

Neopaganism is very unscientific because of its generalizations and mash-ups of lots of different cultures and mythologies,[4] and it has had an influence on feminism. Understandable in a way, of course, since this tripartition offers an empowering femininity—how fourth-wave —since the woman owns her own womanhood during all stages of her life (not just the fertile one). Yet, as writer Margaret Atwood remarked, the Triple Goddess and the corresponding figure of the empowered woman have distinct misandric aspects. We are perhaps more familiar with the term ‘misogynic’ (hatred towards women), but the so-called ‘feminism’ of the Triple Goddess does dabble in misandry by sketching an all-powerful woman crushing man underfoot (I paraphrase Atwood here). We should also be aware of the misandric tendencies which might arise in the (female) reader while reading the above-cited verses. Although in explicitly curtailing women’s freedom the verses are misogynic, it is clear that society and not the man is responsible.

So I would like to end this feminine pondering with the following remark: though it is as important today as it was in that distant past of Manu to stand up for the female right to be free and independent regardless of her actions while ‘wandering about’, it is good to remind yourself that feminism and International Women’s Day are not against men but for women and equality between the genders. With this in mind, this Sunday I will celebrate my womanhood and the freedom she has obtained this past hundred years.


[1] “Al jarenlang strijden vrouwen voor zelfbeschikking, individuele rechten en vrijheid. Vrijheid van vrouwen dient niet onderhandelbaar te zijn, maar een vanzelfsprekendheid.” Translation my own. Source: Webpage Internationale Vrouwendag.

[2] As I also explained in my first blog post, the Mānava Dharmaśāstra is a text concerning rules called dharma. Manu, the mythical first human being (a male, of course), is said to have declared the text of this treatise.

[3] All Greek and Roman examples are from Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, A Source Book in Translation, eds. Mary Lefkowitz and Maureen Fant (2016). This is also why I somewhat incongruously compile the thoughts on women in both Ancient Greece ánd Rome.

[4] Please note that mixing different cultural ideas together is distinct from such a comparison of cultures as I do in this very blog post. Although both Sanskrit/Hindu culture and Greek and Roman cultures have a common Indo-European origin, they have developed into individual cultures during the ages that followed.

Further Reading

Wendy Doniger & Brian K. Smith, The Laws of Manu. London: Penguin Books, 1991.

Mary Lefkowitz & Maureen Fant, Women’s Life in Greece and Rome, A Source Book in Translation. 4th ed. London: Bloomsbury, 2016.

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