Gandhian thoughts on women empowerment

Prof. Dilip P. Deshmukh1.

With the entry of women being allowed in the inner sanctum of Shani Madir at Singnapur and in Mahalaxmi temple Kolhapur. Once again gender bias and women empowerment has because burning issue in the country, at such opportune moment it would be right and necessary to know the views of father of nation Mahatma Gandhi about status of women. Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of Swaraj in all its facets and from different perspectives has permeated the discourse on India’s contemporary history. As the leader and an architect in India’s freedom struggle Gandhiji’s role will remain on the top. All over the world his moral philosophy is looked as a workable model. Gandhiji’s positions on social, political and economic matters are essentially evolutionary, a continuing examination of reality and truth. Gandhi’s attitudes towards women were influence by his belief in gender equality and this could be seen in his response under different circumstances. He always wanted women to take part in freedom struggle and therefore always motivated Kasturba his beloved wife to take lead in organizing meetings of women. In his attempt to bring women as equal partners in freedom struggle was not without opposition and many a time he has to take firm views against such opposition. Comparing his vision of women with the current status of women and the ongoing struggle for women’s empowerment will provide a measure of what has been achieved.

In a letter written to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur from Wardha on 21st October, 1936 Gandhi ji writes, “If you women would only realize your dignity and privilege, and make full use of it for mankind, you will make it much better than it is. But man has delighted in enslaving you and you have proved willing slaves till the slaves and the slave-holders have become one in the crime of degrading humanity. My special function from childhood, you might say, has been to make women realize her dignity. I was once a slave-holder myself but Ba (Kasturba) proved an unwilling slave and thus opened my eyes to my mission. Her task was finished. Now I am in search of a woman who would realize her mission. Are you that woman, will you be one?”

Gandhi was able to devote himself to such a mission and formulated views on all aspects of a woman’s life, political, social, domestic and even the very personal or intimate. He was able to do this by liberating himself from the sexual desires that identify the difference between man and woman and thereby positioned himself well above the feminist, becoming instead a reformer of humanity. “True affection does not demand identity of outlook…my passion for brahmacharya has that meaning. I must be wholly pure, if I have true love for womankind2.” While this gave him the right to demand far-reaching changes in the attitudes of society towards women and the attitudes of women about themselves, he rooted his views on distinctly Indian soil. It was also for the “non” ‘Intellectual among Indian woman3.”I began work among women when I was not even thirty years old. There is not a woman in South Africa who does not know me. But my work was among the poorest. The intellectuals I could not draw…you can’t blame me for not having organised the intellectuals among women. I have not the gift…but just as I never fear coldness on the part of the poor when I approach them, I never fear it when I approach poor women. There is an invisible bond between them’ and me.” (8 July, 1938). This was group of those women who were empowered by this man in dhoti. Women could easily understand him because of his simplicity and connect with Hindu culture and religion. He wanted them to renounce the approach of servitude towards male counterpart. He succeeded in establishing a good connect with female members in the society4.

He was once asked a question “What would determine a woman’s varna? Perhaps you will answer that before marriage a woman would take her Varna from her father; after marriage from her husband. Should one understand that you support Manu’s notorious dictum that there can be no independence for woman at any stage of her life …?” In his reply Gandhi analysed the prevailing social situation and went on to state an ideal objective and finally reiterated the reality embedded within the question. He says: …..owing to the confusion of varnas today, the varna principle has ceased to operate. The present state of Hindu society may described as that of anarchy; the four varnas exist today in name only. If we must talk in terms of varna there is only varna today for all, whether men or women; we are all shudras. In the resuscitated varna Dharma, as I conceive it, a girl after her marriage, would naturally adopt her husband’s varna and relinquish that of her parents. Nor need . . . any such change… imply a slur since…the age of resuscitation would imply absolute social equality of all four varnas.” (Harijan, October 1934). Not only does Gandhi automatically accept the secondary status of the woman vis a vis the social identity of her husband or father but he goes on to say, “I do not envisage the wife, as a rule, following an avocation independently of her husband5.”

Again, in a letter to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur in answer to a question about the religion of children in mixed marriages, Gandhi reveals his patriarchal bias. “I am quite of opinion the children of mixed marriages should be taught in the male parent’s religion. This seems to me to be self-obvious for common happiness and interest. That the instruction should be liberal goes without saying. I am considering merely the question of choice of religion. The children cannot profess two religions. They must respect the female parent’s religion. If the female parent has not that much discretion and regard for her husband’s religion, the marriage becomes superficial.” On sees Gandhi grappling with what is just and moral at one end with the necessity to assert the paternity rights of the father at the other.  These two incidences reveal that he was not in hurry to liberate the women from male dominance and in a way supported the male dominance in the family matters. While adopting a high moral and often conservative position he could the next moment seemingly abandon it for a more fruitful and dynamic postulation that brings him to the forefront of extreme liberalism. Typically, Gandhiji was able to step out of his traditional attitudes through the medium of education. When asked to write a primer for school children by Kakasaheb Kalelkar, Gandhiji did it in the form of a mother teaching her child in which she explains to her son that housework was good for both mind and body and helped in character building. “Men and women need to be educated equally in housework because the home belongs to both”, he wrote6. This was part of his efforts to build a wholly new society, without which he believed it was not possible to make an appreciable difference to improve the lot of mankind with the cultural discourse of society as it was, and he never shied from providing direct and practical methodologies to achieve his goals. From feminist ideas in a text book to spinning the charkha for swaraj he always came up with a constructive proposal to bring women out of their traditional mental blockades and into a better more dignified life.

He offered spinning and the salt agitation as nonviolent ways for women to join the political movement for swaraj. He saw it as right as well as possible for women at that time in history. By 1940, he had provided modifications to his earlier more generalized approach to women’s contribution to public life. In an issue of the Harijan of that year there are questions about the rising participation of women in activities outside the home7.

Liberation of woman as Gandhi saw it, was linked to a deep-seated malaise. Dr. S. Muthulakshmi Reddy wrote a long letter to Mahatma Gandhi as far back as 1929, in which she raised some fundamental issues concerning social reform. She also questioned him as to why the Congress, which was fighting for the freedom of every nation and the individual should not first liberate their women from the evil customs and conventions that restricted their healthy all-round growth. She considered it a specific instance of social tyranny. Indian women, with a few exceptions, have lost the spirit of strength and courage, the power of independent thinking and initiative which actuated the women of ancient India, such as Maitreyi, Gargi, Savitri and even today activate a large number of our own women belonging to the liberal creeds like the Brahmo Samaj, Arya Samaj, Theosophy, which is only Hinduism freed of all its meaningless customs, rites and rituals? Although Gandhi agreed with her in a rather perfunctory way, he was not prepared to tackle the issues of social and religious customs so directly at that point of time and centred his response thus, “Men are undoubtedly to blame for their neglect, nay their ill use of women, and they have to do adequate penance, but those women who have shed superstition and have become conscious of the wrong have to do the constructive work of reform. The question of liberation of women, liberation of India, removal of untouchability, amelioration of the economic condition of the masses and the like, resolve themselves by penetration into the villages, reconstruction or rather reformation of the village life.” To achieve one’s goal of liberation from the various shackles of society he believed that had to work for total change starting in the villages8. The reponse stated above reveals that Gandhiji was not yet ready to challenge male dominance may be this would have been distracting to the cause of freedom struggle.

Modern technology, consumerism and lack of effective instruments have allowed, women no real progress even while allowing greater mobility and visibility to women from the middle and elite classes. Visibility alone is not empowerment in the real sense.

Mahatma Gandhi believed that satyagraha was the most powerful weapon in a nonviolent struggle. Satyagraha involves defiance. It involves the willful, peaceful, breaking of laws that are unjust. It means picketing, protesting, squatting, obstructing, challenging and publicly resisting wrongs. Since women were the most nonviolent and ardent lovers of peace, it could be sharpened and extended as a weapon in women’s struggles for justice and equality. To him the ultimate ahimsa and satyagraha was when women, in vast numbers, rose up to put an end to the destructive aspects of male dominance in society. Had the momentum of freedom struggle not been slowed down, such mobilization could have attracted many more women into public life Among those women who today have made satyagraha a mode of struggle for a better world are the meira peibi of Manipur who stand in clusters on the roadside outside their village with flaming torches to protest against men who indulge in drugs and alcohol which are jointly ruining the youth of north-eastern India. These women also raise their voices against the excesses the security forces and form a protective shield around their villages against them. They do not quote Gandhi nor term their struggle as satyagraha but their steadfast, powerful and peaceful picketing has all the elements of struggle in the manner, Gandhi himself would have wished.

“No one can exploited without his or her willing participation9,” said Gandhi. Gandhi said that women “strengthen my belief in swadeshi and satyagraha….if I could inspire in men devotion as pure as I find in the women, within a year, India would be raised to a height impossible to imagine. As for swaraj it was the easiest thing in the world.” Gandhi expected them to do battle from their homes, while still fulfilling their traditional roles. “If we send them to the factories, who will look after our domestic and social affairs? If women go out to work, our social life will be ruined and moral standards will decline.” The superior qualities of women and the intrinsic difference between man and woman was something Gandhi kept highlighting. Since he believed that women could bring about swaraj better: women were the very embodiment nonviolence, for him they were greater soldiers and beneficiaries of his swaraj campaigns.

Many institutions and organisations representing women’s rights have a high visibility in the cosmopolitan arena and have effectively expressed their concerns. Not only that, their members have decisively moved far ahead of Gandhi’s vision of fearless women. Alert, active and bold, they engage in constant discussion and introspection for genuine equality.

While all women’s agendas prescribe peace and nonviolence, the feminisation of the military and police and, the expanding membership of women in militant groups that do not abjure the use of arms are all a sad cry away from what Gandhi viewed to be a woman’s special role.

While middle class women were visibly active side by side with Mahatma Gandhi, wearing khadi, going to jail, organising resistance on the British in some creative and selfless way, the socially conscious middle class woman of today has largely shunned direct political activity, preferring to seek more secure ground in funded social work through voluntary organisations. A growing number of emancipated, educated, young women are being diverted by market oriented consumerism in the name of modernity and liberation. They become packaged products for the marriage, beauty or fashion markets, a professionalised catering to “the vanities” that Gandhi spoke of.

While in some spheres women have accepted Gandhi’s words about shedding their role as slaves and facing patriarchal challenges, women have largely slipped away from the paths of political action that Gandhi had opened out for them during the freedom movement. For instance, outside the home and far from the hearth individual women from the middle classes have achieved remarkable prominence in fields such as aviation, science and space technology, administration, education, literature and the arts. Unfortunately, the women of the rural classes are subjected to the same oppression as before, not only by the men within their caste but by upper caste communities who carry, out reprisals on communities from the under castes. The recent political empowerment of the backward castes has found a corresponding rise in the suppression of their own women, reflecting the existing ethos of rural society. Neither has an effective political leadership risen from amongst them to give courage to other nor are emancipated urban women able to provide the kind of sustained leadership rural women need largely because of class and caste differences.

On paper, India is far ahead in policies and legislation favouring women. It adopted universal franchise before many other nations. Yet men in the political structure refuse to acknowledge the relationships between social justice and gender justice while women outside the political system are unable to effectively implement and integrate these two most powerful national and international agendas. The increasing criminalization of politics and the use of vast sums of black money and ugly muscle power by caste and criminal gangs present an entire hostile environment for women who wish to pursue a political career. With both caste and gender groups perpetuating traditional and modern divisions and indigenous human resources being replaced by western technologies the mission of Gandhi and the dreams of women are yet to be fulfilled.

  1. Associate Professor Dept. of Sociology, Yeshwant Mahavidyalaya, Wardha []
  2. Harijan, July 13, 1938 []
  3. Jaya Jaitely, Gandhiand women’s empowerment, http://www.mkgandhi.org/articles/Jaya%20Jaitly.htm, accessed on 9.3.16 at 4 pm []
  4. Letter to Gandhi, R.Laxmipati, Hind Press, Banglore []
  5. The Harijan, 16th October 1934 []
  6. Truth of Gandhi, Harsha Tiwari, British press ltd. Calcutta. 1940 []
  7. The Harijan, 10th October 1935 []
  8. Jaya Jaitely, Gandhiand women’s empowerment, http://www.mkgandhi.org/articles/Jaya%20Jaitly.htm, accessed on 9.3.16 at 4 pm []
  9. Letter to Gandhi, R.Laxmipati, Hind Press, Banglore []

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