I would like to write a detailed post with extensive references from Vedas, Vedangas and extra vedic literature. Also, along with this one can also refer to my another post on menstruation (which most of people believe is the reason for banishment of shastras for women).
Position of women in Vedic era
AcaryANAM shatam pita
sahasram tu pitRN
2:145 Manu Samhita
The above verse establishes the superiority of mother over the father,
the guru and the teacher. One AcAryaa is 10 folds superior to the
upAdhyAya the father is 100 folds superior to the AcArya However the
mother is 1000 times superior to the father. The shrutis and smritis
are replete with such verses glorifying the women during the distant
past of our great bhArata varSha. But a look at history and
scriptures would confirm that something went wrong somewhere with
reference to the status of women in this country. And its not too
difficult to establish the reason for the degradation of the status of
women in society and the advent of the era of male domination in this
country. Starting from the status of being the ‘gRha nAyikA’ and
equal partner in the vedic yajnas of the vedic era to the status of
being confined to the cattle shed during those “three days’ and to the
status of being brutally abused and battered, what went wrong to the
society and the country so as to change the mindset of the male to the
extent of not only dominating the women physically but also to extent
of indulging in brutality?
The time has indeed come now for the citizens of this great bhArata
varSha who are followers of sanAtana dharma – re-named as Hinduism by
the westerners to look back at the glorious Vedic era and allow the
girls to enjoy the same rights which our scriptures have declared.
Daughter in Vedic era:
Some pseudo vedic scholars have attempted to prove the daughter as an
unwelcome member of the family but its absolutely against the tenets
of the Vedas which suggest quite the opposite to these claims. In
subsequent ages women have been denied the privilege of Upanayana too
which is not in accordance with the vedic injunctions. See the
following quotes from the gRhya sUtras :
Parents desirous of obtaining a daughter perform the KAmya ShrAddha on
the second day of the moon (Gobhila ParishiSTa ShrAddha Kalpa
[Calcutta ed.p.186] ## PAraskara GRhya Sutra 1.21 )
When a husband is desirous of having a daughter, he should touch all
the fingers of his wife except her thumb during the marriage ceremony.
(AshvalAyana GRhya SUtra 2:125, Apastamba GRhya SUtra
यदि कामयेत स्त्रीरेव जनयेयमित्यङ्गुलिरेव गृह्णीयात् 6:12)
Wishing for a daughter, the husband shows the bride the Dhruva and
( kAthaka Grhya Sutra commentary जीवन्तीं
कन्यामिच्छन् ध्रुवादिकं दर्शयेत् 2 :1-2 )
So it is very obvious to a discerning person that the girl child was
never disliked or unwelcome in the household. In fact special prayers
and propitiations were conducted to have a girl in the family !
What a tragedy then that today, the government has had to introduce
many measures like the cradle baby scheme in Tamil Nadu to protect the
life of the girl child from being snuffed out.
Father is found to worship the daughter (KumArI) as an emblem of purity, tenderness, devotion and what not. Just like the Matrika Pooja is performed at beginning of many vedic rituals, Kumari poojan is performed at the end of vedic rituals. Father wraps her in new garments, entertains her with delicious dishes and performs a parikrama around her. During different ages different deities are invoked in her like Sandhyaa , Saraswati etc. ( त्रिवेदिय क्रियाकान्ड पद्धति )
Vedic initiation and Vedic Studies:
Vedas don't differentiate among boys and girls in the samskaras or shodasa samskara. Upanayanam ( Yajnopavita ) is one of the major samskara in which the child gets officially initiated into Brahma Gayatri and it is mainly focused on Brahmopadesham which enables him to become eligible to learn vedas and other shastras. After this ceremony he attains the "Dwija" hood or Twice born.
Sutras prescribe various age groups for different Varna's for initiation. For example about Brahmin varna,
अष्टम्वर्षे ब्राह्मणमुपनयेत् ( Ashvalayana Grhya Sutra 1:19:1 ) , गर्भाष्टमे ब्राह्मणमुपनयेत् ( Varaha. Grhya. Sut.)
Similar rules are prescribed for Kshatriyas and Vaisyas too only the age limit is extended for them.
Here Sutra kaara's by brahmana , kshatriya etc mean that both boys and girls of this varna's are to be initiated. The gender is not designated to be masculine alone. Since most of the rituals are meant for boys and girls both hence they have commonly addressed as masculine words which are generally used in any stories or instructions etc.
For example a rule like " ब्राह्मणो न हन्तव्यः" ( the brahmana should not be murdered) it is meant that the ब्राह्मणी also should not be murdered. Similarly "मरणधर्मा मानवः" means man is mortal we mean that women is also mortal. Hence gender is specifically mentioned only where it is required.
As per Haarita dharma sutra, those women who are Brahma Vaadini have right for initiation, Vedic studies , Fire establishment and bhiksha etc.
द्विऽविधाः स्त्रियो ब्रह्मवादिन्यः सदीवध्वश्च । तत्र ब्रह्मवादिनीनामुपनयनम्योन्धनं वेदाध्ययनं स्वगृहे भिक्शाचर्या चेति ( 21:23)
As per Yama Smriti,
पुरा कल्पे कुमारिणां मोञ्जोबन्धन मिष्यते । अध्यापनन्श्च वेदानां सावित्रीवाचनन्तथा ॥ पिता पितृव्यो भ्राता वा नैनामध्यापयेत् परः |
In olden times tying of girdle was prescribed for girls. So also study of vedas and uttering of Gayatri ( Savitur) preferably from father , brother or uncle. She is allowed for begging alms within her house limits. Yama refers to existence not only in olden days but during his times as well by his sentence पुराकल्पे ( यथैष्यत) तथा (अधुनाऽपि) इष्यते. The word तथा is specially put by Yama by way of comparison between old time and his own time so he says that during his time girls should learn from father, brother etc and she dont need to wear deer skin, bark etc. If Yama had intended to say that girls should not be initiated in his time unlike olden times he would say something like इह कल्पे तासामेवं न कुर्यान्मतिमान् क्कचित् ॥ As he uses verbs in present tense so we can make out that he prescribed rules for his own days and was the case in olden days too.
Gobhila says that Bride should wear the sacred thread when the bridegroom leads her to the altar. "प्रावृतां यज्ञोपवीतिनीमम्युदानयन् जपेत् सीमोऽदाद् गन्धर्वायेति " ( Gobhila Grhya sutra 2:1:19)
यज्ञोपवीतिनाऽचान्तोदकेन कृत्यम् ( Gobhila Grhya sutra 1:1:2)
Like the women are eligible for vedas, they are eligible for brahmavidya too.
(यथाधिकरः श्रोतेषु योषितां कर्म सुश्रुतःएवमेवानुमन्यम्ब ब्रह्माणि ब्रह्मवादिताम् Yama Smriti )
Brahamchari is one who is engaged in the study of vedas. ब्रह्मचर्येण ब्रह्म वेदः तदध्ययनार्थमाचर्यम् Atharva veda sAyana bhashyam
By the tapas of brahmacharya a maiden finds a youthful husband; by brahmacharya the bull
and the horse seek their fodder. ----------- (Atharva Veda 11.5.18)
A brahmacharin should be married to a brahmacharini. ब्रह्मचरिणां च ब्रहचारिणीभिः सह विवाह् प्रशस्यो भवति - Pranavavada of maharshi Garga
Without initiated by proper samskara, no one is eligible to utter holy vedic mantras. But women are found to utter them in many of Shrauta and Grhya sacrifices (yajnas).
In the sAkamedha the third of chaturmasa (four monthly) sacrifice the girl uses the Tryambaka's mantra (त्र्यम्बकं यजामहे सुगन्धिं पतिवेदनम्। उर्वारुकमिव बन्धनादितो मुक्षीय माऽमुतः, Shukla Yajurveda Samhita III :60 )
As per Shatapatha Brahmana, The priest and Sacrificer go round the altar thrice from right to left, but maidens go from left to right. While doing so the maidens utter the Tryambaka mantra. ( II : 6 : 2 : 13 )
Yajnikadeva in the "paddhati" says वचनात् कुमार्या अपि मन्त्रपाठः meaning that maidens should too utter the sacred formulas as prescribed.
In Madana pArijAta the author quotes KAtyayana (KAtyayana samhita p.330) to show that if any samskara before the initiation ceremony is left unobserved, it should be performed with offering of oblation.
There was no gender based differentiation in the education in the gurukul as well. AtreyI was a class mate of Lava and Kusha, kAmandakI and SaudAminI were class mates of BhUrivAsu and devarAta in the university. (Uttara Rama Charita)
Girls too resided for equal duration like boys in the gurukul for education. Amba stayed at the gurukul of Shaikhavatyas.
Women and Vedic Rituals:
In the Varuna PraghAsas ( second four monthly) sacrifice, after havis is placed and when wife leading to the fire for the karambha pAtra oblations. She utters the mantra "प्रघासिनो हवामहे मरुतः ..." [Shukla Yajurveda Samhita III : 45 ] for invoking the Marut's.
In AgnisToma sacrifice ( one of mahayaga) the wife while entering from south door, rubs the rods of the Soma Cart with remaining ghee left after the sAvitrI Homa with the mantra " देवश्रुतौ देवेष्वा घोषतम्प्राची ....." [ Shukla Yajurveda Samhita V: 17 ]
As per Shraddha Kalpataru "स्त्रीणामप्येवम्" etc means " याध्यशेन सम्बन्धेन पित्रुव्यत्वादिना पुरुषाणामेकादशाहादि श्रद्धं, तट्टशेन च सम्बन्धेन स्त्रीणामेतत् कर्तव्यमिति " which shows that women also utter the mantras in the shraddha.
Yajnavalkya says : After offering Ekoddistha and Sapindikarana with mantras. Both should be offered to women also ( Unavimsati Samhita 1 : 2 )
As per Shankha, the daughter too like the son after the samskara, should observe the Ashaucha and perform funeral rites and do pinda dana and celebrate the Ekoddishta for her father. Here too no distinction has been mentioned between son and daughter.
"दुहिता पुत्रवत् कुर्यात् माता-पित्रोस्तु संस्कृता । अशौचमुदकं पिण्डमेकोद्दिष्टम् सदा तयोः"
In the shraddha's the middle cake is to be eaten by the wife ( Patni ) ( Shraddha Manjari )
Devana Bhatta in the Shraddha Kaanda says : If she is desirous of a child , the wife should eat the cake. ( Smritichandrikaa Vol 4 )
From the time of marriage, the householder and wife , children ( son & daughter) or disciple should offer oblations to the Grhya Agni ( Ashvalayana Grhya Sutra 1: 7 : 1 )
Wife should verily offer the oblations to the Grhya fire at morning and evening
"kAmaM gRhyegnau patnI juhuyAt sAyaMprAtarhomau, gRhAH patnI gRhya eShognirbhavatIti" ( Gobhila Grhya sutra 1:3:15 )
Wife is so closely related to Agni that in the case of extinction of the fire, the wife has to do the fasting as a prayashchitta.
( "यदि तूपशाम्येत्....." Ashvalaayana Gruhya sutra 1:7:3 )
One of the commentary of Gobhila sutra states that wife should be given enough education so that she becomes eligible to perform the sacrifice since the sutras do not say that she should offer oblations silently.
न खल्वनधोत्य शन्कोति पतिहोतुम् । न च तुष्णीमित्याह वचनम् ( Gobhila 1:5:15)
Wife desirous of a child should offer the first aahuti in the morning and evening with the prescribed mantra ending with SvAhA.
"......पुनः स्वाहेति पूर्वां गर्भकामा" (Paraskara Grhya sutra 1:9:3)
Position of women in society:
vAchaknavi is venerated as best among all the learned brahmana present in the court of King Janaka to ask Yajnavalkya, the most learned sage of that time to ask series of questions to ascertain if they should debate with Yajnavalkya or not. Yajnavalkya answered first two questions correctly however on subsequent occasion he did not encourage her to ask any further question. ( Brhd. Up. III : 3 )
References of Vishpalaa being provided with a leg of iron in Khela's battle shows that women were trained in military arts as well. ( RV 1.116.15 , 1.112.10)
As per GovindAnanda, The daughter will have the rights and not her father to perform the funeral and shraddha rites for her mother, provided she is brotherless. ( ShrAddha Kriya Kaumudi p. 464,469)
The mahabhashya shows that women attained fame as Mimamsakas as well. Ladies specialist in Kaashakrtsna were called as Kaashakrtsnaas. It also specially mentioned group of women Grammarians called Aapishalaas. ( 72 )
Sulabhaa was a vidushi (learned) to the extent that she could teach even Janaka. She could not be married as no male of time was equal to her in terms of knowledge therefore she was initiated into brahmavidya. (Mbh. XII : 320 )