Women worked shoulder to shoulder with men in fields. Men tilled and ploughed, while women sowed, weeded, threshed and winnowed the harvest. With the growth of nucleated villages and expansion in individuated peasant farming the basis of production was the labour and resources of the entire household.
Biases related to women’s biological functions did continue. Menstruating women, for instance, were not allowed to touch the plough or the potter’s wheel in western India, or enter the groves where betel-leaves were grown.
Artisanal tasks such as spinning yarn, sifting and kneading clay for pottery, and embroidery were among the many aspects of production dependent on female labour. In fact, peasant and artisan women worked not only in the fields, but even went to the houses of their employers or to the markets if necessary.
Women were considered an important resource in agrarian society also because they were child bearers in a society which dependents on labour. At the same time, high mortality rates among women – owing to malnutrition, frequent pregnancies and death during childbirth – often meant a shortage of wives.
Shortage of women led to the emergence of new social customs in peasant and artisan communities that were distinct from those prevalent among elite groups. Marriages in many rural communities required the payment of bride-price rather than dowry to the bride’s family.
Remarriage was considered legitimate both among divorced and widowed women. The importance attached to women as are productive force also meant that the fear of losing control over them was great.
According to established social norms, the household was headed by a male. Thus women were kept under strict control by the male members of the family and draconian punishments were given to suspected infidelity on the part of women. Women sent petitions to the village panchayat, seeking redress and justice. Wives protested against the infidelity of their husbands or the neglect of the wife and children by the male head of the household.
Amongst the landed gentry, women had the right to inherit property. Instances from the Punjab show that women, including widows, actively participated in the rural land market as sellers of property inherited by them. Hindu and Muslim women inherited zamindaris which they were free to sell or mortgage. Women zamindars were known in eighteenth-century Bengal.