The issue of women in Hinduism for me is as conflicted as the issue of arranged marriage (Arranged Marriage). On the surface it is easy to see that women are often treated as less important than men and leave it at that. The truth is much more complicated.
So, on the one hand: Within society women are often treated as less important, lower souls, whose only purpose in life is to cook, clean, and obey their mother-in-laws. For some reason an idea came up that to be born as a woman is a lesser embodiment and that all souls strive to be men in their births. (This is completely ridiculous, seeing as how we need both genders for the world to keep functioning. A human birth is the highest, but there is no distinction between what gender or race of human birth). Women are sometimes treated quite terribly in India. Families they are marrying into might require a crippling dowry from her family (even though dowries are now illegal) and sometimes young brides are killed by their new families for being "disobedient."
There is an ancient tradition called sati in which women would throw themselves onto the funeral pyres of their husbands and burn alive. This was seen as such a beautiful devotion that sometimes girls have been forced into funeral pyres. This practice is also illegal. Historically widows have been treated very poorly in society. It is sometimes seen as their fault that their husbands died, some bad karma of theirs. Until recently they would be forced to live secluded in "widows houses" for the rest of their lives and forbidden to wear nice clothes or jewelry.
When a young bride first goes to her new home, in some places it is tradition for her to be taken straight to the kitchen to cook a perfectly round roti (like a tortilla) to prove her worth in household duties.
All this from a culture who worships goddesses. A very mixed message, to be sure. I think the pure ideals of Hinduism have been somewhat corrupted by human thought. This idea of the man being superior is not part of the religion, it's just a habit of men to think that way because they have the power. There is such a strong ideal for a woman to worship her husband as her Lord, but too often people forget that the husband is also to adore his wife as the goddess.
The perfect marriage in Hindu tradition is that of Rama and Sita. Women are taught to strive to be like Sita, who is perfect in devotion. When her husband, a prince, chose exile in a forest, she willingly followed him in all his hardship. But he also cares for her and goes to the ends of the earth to rescue her when she is kidnapped. Even in hunting the golden deer for her, he always wanted to make her happy.
Being a modern and independent woman has been a tremendous struggle for me. I still have in my mind all the stories of good women who were meek, obeyed their husbands, and were phenomenal at housework. I was taught to always cook fresh food, never serve my family leftovers, to do housework with no expectation of praise or reward. I expected to be a housewife when I grew up and adjusting to the fact that I have come into a modern life and have to work has been difficult.
Sometimes I want very much to be strong and independent and capable and self-sufficient and all these things that women in the west are praised for. I am learning how to do that because I'm dating a modern American man and my plans for an arranged marriage did not work out at all. But sometimes I feel guilt over not being better at the housework. My instincts are still strongly traditional and old-fashioned. That is something that I will struggle with for a long time, I'm sure.
But my role model is no longer the woman who lit her husband's oil lamp for so many years that he forgot who she was, I strive now to be like the great princess Draupadi.
The most famous story of Draupadi is the dice game. For those who don't know it: Draupadi was married to five brothers (yes, at the same time). One of them was in a dice match with an evil Uncle who was cheating. As the brother became more and more involved in the game he was unable to stop wagering things and he staked and lost all of his brothers and himself and finally their wife.
Draupadi was dragged into the hall by her hair, while in her period. She looked to her husbands to defend her honor, but they were gambled away and were only slaves now. The evil cousins tell Draupadi that she is also a slave now and to take off her clothes. They call her a slut for having five husbands (there's a story behind that, it was her destiny and had to happen that way). She argues that because her husband had already lost himself before staking her that she no longer belonged to him and could not be gambled away. "Can one belong to someone who has lost himself?"
The king, presiding over this, says that it does not make a difference and she has been lost. One of the evil cousins comes over to strip off her clothes and she prays to Krishna. Her sari will not end. He pulls and pulls and pulls on the pallu and it just keeps going, never disrobing her. Soon he is in a mountain of cloth and she is still clothed. She raises her hands in prayer and a jackal cries.
The king is so freaked that he tells her to choose a favor. She asks that her husbands be free. The king does so and offers another favor, but she refuses. He asks her why she wants nothing for herself.
"Greed destroys all things," she replies, "I refuse greed. Save my husbands."
One cousin comments, "Husbands were drowning and Draupadi is the raft that saves them."
(all quoted dialogue is from the translation in the Peter Brooks' Mahabharata).
Now there is a fierce, strong role model for women. Still a great wife, but also confident and sure in herself. They needed her and she saved them.
It is my hope that Hinduism will move more toward revering women as goddesses and respecting their unique power to create life. I think the scriptures support the idea that all are equally divine. It is not just the female saints like Amma and those who call to mind the divine mother, it is all females. They deserve respect and love and to be cherished by their husbands and their husbands' families.