On Gandhi Jayanti, a Reminder That Gandhi Believed in the Spirited Women of India

The liberation Mahatma Gandhi sought for women is still more an ideal than a reality.

Gandhi on Women is a glimpse into the lives of women, who stood, unsung, on the periphery of the country’s struggle for independence. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

A speech by Mahatma Gandhi at the Second Gujarat Educational Conference, held on October 20, 1917, contains an unusual denunciation. Gandhi quotes from a doha by Tulsidas:

“Tulsidas says at one place: ‘The drum, the fool, the Sudra, the animal and the woman – all these need beating.’”

I adore Tulsidasji, but my adoration is not blind. Either this couplet is an interpolation, or, if it is his, he must have written it without much reflection, following the tradition in his time.”

The condemnation of the doha in a speech that critiques the state of education of both men and women is indicative of Gandhi’s preoccupations at the time. The speech in itself may antagonise contemporary readers, feminist groups and educationalists, for it recommends a segregation in the method of instruction of boys and girls after a certain age:

“There must be provision, therefore, for separate arrangements for the education of women after their attaining a certain age. They should be taught the management of the home, the things they should or should not do during pregnancy and the nursing and care of children.”

But Gandhi also deliberates upon women’s education as an absolute necessity, and the need to change dominant (male) perceptions – particularly that women are inferior creatures, to be regarded as beautiful dolls. The speech is replete with the paradoxes that have marked Gandhi’s relationships with the women in his life, and have sometimes invited censure even from steadfast allies. For instance, he proclaims that no woman should have to earn a living; for her to work as a telegraph clerk or a typist or a compositor reflects the ruinous state of the society that allows a disruption of what nature has ordained:

“True, they are equals in life, but their functions differ. It is woman’s right to rule the home. Man is master outside it.”

He redeems himself, a few paragraphs later, by bestowing upon women a stature equal to the men they must keep a home for, as the milieu decrees:

“Ultimately, however, there can be salvation for us only when – and not until – our women become to us what Uma was to Shankar, Sita to Rama and Damayanti to Nala, joining us in our deliberations, arguing with us, appreciating and nourishing our aspirations, understanding, with their marvellous intuition, the unspoken anxieties of our outward life and sharing in them, bringing us the peace that soothes.”

Gandhi on Women: (Collection of Mahatma Gandhi’s Writings and Speeches on Women), compiled by Pushpa Joshi and first published in 1988, is a repertoire of speeches and letters that are a study in these contradictions. The discourses, often in Gujarati and printed originally in publications like Indian Opinion, Prajabandhu, Amrita Bazar Patrika, The Bombay Chronicle and Navajivan, are fragmentary scenes from a tumultuous epoch, ripe with insight, raw with idealism.

The Thematic Index of the collection is perhaps a measure of its scope and ambition, with words and phrases like ‘chastity’, ‘child widow’, ‘contraceptives’, ‘dancing girls’, ‘devadasi’, ‘eve-teasing’, ‘fallen women’, ‘lust’ and ‘modern girls’ listed in alphabetical order.

In the foreword to Gandhi on Women, written by Ela R. Bhatt, founder of the Self-Employed Women’s Association of India (SEWA), there is a mention of satyagraha, which, according to Bhatt, Gandhi learnt from his wife and mother by observing them “quietly resisting their exploitation at home.” She dwells on how the women of SEWA conducted their own satyagraha against the police and municipal authorities in a market within Ahmedabad, who wanted to get rid of the vegetable vendors to clear the streets for vehicular traffic. Before the police could physically remove the vendors, who had plied their trade for three generations in that market, SEWA women gathered in the market square and lay down on the open ground, forcing the police to turn back.

Also read: The Relevance of Gandhi in Contemporary Times

Bhatt also mentions another Gandhian call – swadeshi – Gandhi’s bid to rid India of its reliance on western goods, thereby curtailing the British Empire’s rampant profiteering. “I feel the most relevant and urgent struggle of women today is that of swadeshi,” she writes.

Gandhi on Women is an exposition of Gandhism – his principles and clarion calls; their sway over the women of his age; their frequently paradoxical doctrines of emancipation and restraint. In a letter titled ‘A Shameful Sin’, dated September 14, 1919, and addressed generically – ‘To my sisters’ – Gandhi writes about the women of Dhed community, traditionally perceived as untouchables, who “cannot procure work which may be done at home go out for labour, which they procure at the price of their chastity.” He then explains that although the community was referred to as Dhed, they belonged to the weaver community. The letter also mentions the women of Umreth in Gujarat, who supplemented the family income by winnowing pulses for merchants.

“They have to go to them to receive and return the pulses and there they have to put up with all sorts of indecent jokes and abuse. It has been my misfortune to hear this tale of woe at numerous places during the course of my four years’ wanderings throughout India.”

‘A Shameful Sin’ enumerates the outrages that women who choose to work outside of the home have to endure; it also provides a simple solution to curtail, not the abuse, but the need for women to wander away from the relative safety of the domestic space. Spinning, proclaims Gandhi, is suitable work for women of all rank:

“Suffice it to say that spinning has been regarded as an ancient, noble calling which even queens made their own. It is very easy to learn spinning.”

Pushpa Joshi Gandhi on Women

Pushpa Joshi
Gandhi on Women

Spinning, he argues, will prevent women from seeking other work that is hazardous to their modesty. The spinning wheel, or charkha, emblematic of swadeshi, becomes the protector of chastity, the eradicator of idleness and gossip, the ally of young widows.

In an article titled ‘Spinning-Wheel in Vijapur’, published in Navajivan on September 21, 1919, he mentions the names of women from prominent families who have participated in making spinning both economically profitable and respectable. The names of Lady Tata, Lady Petit and Jaiji Petit have been published in the Pateti issue of Sanj Vartaman. And on this occasion, he wishes to make public the work of Gangabhen, who has “dedicated her all to this work.”

Apart from spinning as a means of self-reliance, there are other preoccupations that come to fore, and other kinds of women with hitherto unremarkable histories, whose emancipation is intertwined with Gandhi’s movements and marches for independence from British rule. In an article titled ‘Enforced Widowhood’, published in Young India in August 1926, he writes about Ganga Ram, who has listed chronologically the stages of reformation a country like India might undertake.

“Not many will agree with Sir Ganga Ram about the order, in which, according to him, reform should proceed. He gives the order thus:

1st Social Reformation.

2nd Economic Reformation.

3rd Swaraj or Political Emancipation.”

While Gandhi considers how Ganga Ram’s predecessors – particularly Lokamanya Tilak and Gopal Krishna Gokhale – would have resisted the order of his list, and placed political reform above any other reformatory measure, he substantiates Ganga Ram’s zeal for social reform, by citing the number of Hindu widows in the country, as recorded in the Census of 1921:

“Widows of ages up to five: 11, 892

Widows from five to ten: 85, 037

Widows from ten to 15:  2, 32, 147

3, 29, 076”

Gandhi’s anguish at the revelatory nature of these statistics is articulated in words startlingly relevant today:

“We cry out for cow -protection in the name of religion, but we refuse protection to the human cow in the shape of the girl widow.”

He decries the practice of forcing widowhood upon little girls by describing it as a “brutal crime for which we Hindus are daily paying dearly.” There are other social rules and customs he attempts to question and debunk. In Restrictions on Women in Menses, a paragraph of pained admonishment that first appeared in Navajivan in 1926, he debunks the myth that menstruating women should not be allowed to touch various objects about the house:

“Such a question can be asked only in a wretched country like India which is disgraced by foolish notions about touching and not touching things.”

Gandhi on Women is also a glimpse into the lives of women, who stood, unsung, on the periphery of the country’s struggle for independence. There is the woman volunteer at a Congress session held in 1922; sisters from Ahmedabad who form a Volunteer Corps and court arrest; the ‘fallen sisters of Barisal’ who have contributed to the Tilak Swaraj Fund; women who appeal to the Viceroy; women who picket. A tiny notice, titled ‘Women Prisoners’ Hair’, which first appeared in Indian Opinion in July 1908, mentions a small but significant victory:

“A satisfactory reply has been received from the Natal government to the representation of the Congress regarding the shearing of women prisoners’ hair.

The government has ordered that their hair shall not be cut in future.”

Each letter, speech, or truncated paragraph, collected from different journals, forms a patchwork narrative about the women who assisted or influenced Gandhi; about representative groups like child widows and prostitutes whose redemption he sought in a society riddled with prejudice. The writings also evoke his impish charisma. October 2 then, is perhaps an apt date to remind ourselves that the liberation he sought for the women of India is still more an ideal than a reality. His work, thus far, is unfinished.

Radhika Oberoi is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.

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