How does the centuries-old Devadasi System show the dominance of patriarchy in Indian society? | HART Prize for Human Rights

9 September 2015

This essay, by Maria Christodoulou was a shortlisted entry to the HART Prize for Human Rights. The full entry with references and footnotes can be downloaded below. Read more entries here

“The formally subordinate role of Indian women vis-à-vis men is described in sacred literature and women who accept this role accept male dominance” (Dhawan, 2005:82). The Devadasi System in India is a shocking, yet wholly accepted form of ritual prostitution, showcasing women’s role in all manners of society as one that is forever in the shadow of male dominance. The Devadasi System is a centuries-old phenomenon that can be traced back to the third century A.D. In its earliest form, girls were entertainers in temples and had no affiliation to sexual exploitation. Their associations with princes and other high-status males placed them as the top of India’s hierarchical class system (Sugden, 2013). It is from the 17th century that Devadasi girls began engaging in sex work, wholly due to colonial rule that reigned over India at this time. Imperial economic and political control led to the deterioration of local royalty and temple treasures, and Devadasis were one of the first groups to be victimised. As a result of having their high status taken away from them, they were transformed into sex slaves (Network University).

Despite the complete abolition of the Devadasi system in 1988, Devadasis still comprise 25% of total prostitutes in India (Network University). The Devadasi System uses religion and spirituality as justification for this terrible act, which the IDSN terms as “religiously sanctioned sexual abuse” (IDSN). Devadasis follow the goddess Yellamma, and it is thought that sacrificing a girl’s virginity will ensure that that the goddess remains fertile. Along with this, men are brainwashed to believe that if they engage in sexual activity with a Devadasi girl, that they are sharing intimate relations with a goddess (Rowland, 2013). It is factors like these which set women apart from men, and highlight gendered double-standards in society. While Devadsis (and prostitutes in general) are condemned when selling sex, men are not condemned when buying sex (Overall, 1992).

The Devadasi System is representative of India’s caste system, as dedication to the Devadasi way of life occurs in 93% of Dalit families, mostly as a way to obtain some means of financial security (IDSN). Dalit’s are at the bottom of the Caste hierarchical system and while the notion of “untouchability” is banned in India (since 1947), extreme segregation from the rest of society is still prevalent in some areas (Black, 2007). Being a female Dalit means you are a member of the two most oppressed groups in India, therefore the future of a young girl is bleak even before she is initiated into the Devadasi lifestyle. Devadasi girls are often described as ‘fallen women’, indicating that they have been a failure to themselves and in society. Surely it is extremely unfair to use this term as Devadasi girls have nothing to fall from? Describing a girl as ‘falling’ indicates that she has something to lose, despite already being thrown into the pitfalls of the hierarchical class ladder, which has only been heightened by Capitalist dominance (Rowland, 2013). It is also important to understand that being dedicated to the Devadasi System is not a choice, therefore it is unjust to blame a Devadasi girl for her misfortunes.

There are a numerous reasons as so why a girl may be dedicated to the goddess Yellamma, but what remains the same no matter the reason is that it is not by choice. A fundamental reason as to why girls are dedicated is simply because they are the subordinate sex. In traditional Indian culture (as with much of the rest of the world), men are seen as the only deserving ‘breadwinners’, in order to maintain patriarchal control and exclude women from holding any form of domestic power. This is even more relevant today as India’s economy sits on the cusp of developed and developing. Capitalism has created extreme wealth inequality and favours the rich, thus prostitution can be seen as “paid labour under the limiting and exploitive terms of Capitalism” (Overall, 1992:713). As aforementioned, Devadasi girls are predominately from Dalit families, therefore it is seen as way to try and obtain economic stability; this becomes significantly important in families where males are absent. Sadly, a societal acceptance of the Devadasi system is apparent, leading to dedication due to ancestry. In Karnataka, for example, 31% of girls undergo dedication purely because their ancestors were dedicated (Rowland, 2013). This, coupled with poor education leads mothers to believe that the only possible solution to extreme socio-economic instability is to initiate their daughters into the Devadasi lifestyle.

Patriarchy’s role in prostitution is undoubtedly delaying a complete removal of the Devadasi System from Indian culture. Overall’s 1992 paper What’s wrong with Prostitution? Evaluating Sex Work highlights that prostitution is an “intuition of male supremacy… in the same way as… slavery was an intuition of white supremacy” (pp. 707). There is a strong belief that prostitution was created in order to serve men’s sexual desires. This therefore maintains patriarchal rule by affirming the justification of the role of men in sex work. While this paper is centred on prostitution in America, Overall’s ideas are still relevant when speaking of the Devadasi System, and perhaps even more so in India’s case.

There has been much controversy surrounding the role of western feminists in prostitution in the developing world. There is no doubt that western middle-class feminists dominate thinking surrounding prostitution in the developing world. This intervention is often met with praise, as on the surface they show intentions of trying to find a solution to the problem. Nevertheless, one cannot help but pose the question, where does feminist thinking from non-western, developing countries fit in? (Doezma, 2001). This is often the general criticism towards solutions from the West; too much focus on the need to ‘fix’ the developing world is met with backlash as it often side-lines traditional culture due to the perceived idea that “west is best”. In terms of tackling the Devadasi System (and prostitution in general in India), the foundation of the need to right what is wrong is based on ideas of what we – ‘we’ meaning the West – think is moral and good. This leads to a politics of ressentiment based on frustration towards the persistence of prostitution. Perhaps a more successful solution would be to synthesise a moral basis centred on ‘what I want for us’ as opposed to ‘who I am’ (Doezma, 2001:21). With this, it looks beyond Western perceptions of the Devadasi System to more successfully accommodate the citizens of India when attempting to create change. It is not plausible to suggest complete withdrawal of Western influence from trying to combat the issue, but it is suggesting a more ‘bottom-up’ approach in order to directly account for girls affected by the centuries-old Devadasi System.
Despite on the surface being a spiritual and religious system, the Devadasi System is also representative of the powerlessness of women and girls in India, due to patriarchal control and the subordination of women in the employment sphere. It is important that if this centuries-old phenomenon is to be tackled successfully, the societal views of men towards women need serious readjustment.


Black, M. (2007). Women in Ritual Slavery: Devadasi, Jogini and Mathamma in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, Southern India, Anti-Slavery International pp. 1-42

Dhawan, N. (2005). Women’s role expectations and identity development in India, Psychology & Developing Societies 17(1). pp. 81-92.

Doezma, J. (2001). Western Feminists’ ‘Wounded Attachment’ to the ‘Third World Prostitute’, Feminist Review 67. pp. 16-38

IDSN. “Forced Prostitution”. [Online]. [Accessed 3 January 2015]. Available from:

Network University. “Genesis of the Devadasi System in India, Trafficking of Girls and Women by Religious and Social Sanction”. [Online]. [Accessed 3 January 2015]. Available from:

Overall, C. (1992). What’s wrong with Prostitution? Evaluating Sex Work, Signs 17(4) pp. 705-724

Rowland, M. (2013) A Light in the Darkness: Fighting Ritual Prostitution in South India, HART

Sugden, J. (2013). “Where Virginity is for Sale in India”, India Real Time. [Online]. 5 April 2013. [Accessed 5 January 2015]. Available from:

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