Feminism and Indian Nationalists

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FEMINISM AND INDIAN NATIONALISTS The platform of women's rights was central to the nineteenth-century social reform movement, which crystallized both nationalist aspirations and feminist responses to patriarchy. In the twentieth-century nationalist upsurge, Indian women mobilized against colonial rule. When independence was granted in 1947, they achieved important rights.

Colonial Constructions of Gender

Women's rights were first advocated in India by men of the elite, whose missionary teachers compared the modern post-Enlightenment developments of the West with India's apparently moribund society burdened by archaic caste and gender hierarchies. Filtering their understanding of these new Western ideologies through the humanistic lens of ancient Hindu scriptures like the Upanishads, men of the literate castes concluded that India had declined from a "golden age" free of caste and misogyny, which were medieval accretions. Like their British colonial rulers, the reformers denounced female illiteracy and high caste customs like prepuberty marriages, sati (widows' immolation on their husbands' funeral pyres), polygamy, widow abuse, and enforced widow celibacy. They also cast a critical eye on female domestic seclusion in the zenānā (women's quarters) and the purdah (veil), a custom prevalent among Muslims and Hindus.

Elite class men reinforced the rhetoric of Britain's civilizing mission by accepting the colonial critique of Indian society. Early official surveys on the absence of high caste women in schools appeared to prove that Indian women were completely subjugated and submerged in ignorance. Feminist scholars argue that customs like sati became more common during the wars for colonial hegemony over India. Women of the literate classes, however, were often taught informally at home, and village women often chose religious mendicant vagrancy over a brutal domestic life. Influenced by Victorian views, literate Indian men undertook to improve the condition of elite caste women, while underestimating the potential of working-class women.

Male Reformers' and Women's Rights

The earliest Bengali reformer was Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833), who denounced polygamy and sati through his Amitya Sabha (Friendship Association) in 1815, and the Brahmo Samaj (Society of Brahma) in 1828. A similar bhadralok (elite class) humanist was Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, who petitioned to legalize widow remarriage in Bengal in the 1850s; Vishnusastri Pandit, D. K. Karve, and Viresalingam Pantulu started widows' remarriage associations in Bombay and Madras in the 1870s and 1880s. The Prārthana Samaj (Prayer Society) in 1867 and the Vedic Hindu revivalist Ārya Samāj (1875) also promoted women's education and criticized misogynistic marriage customs as detrimental to female health. In 1896, Justice M. G. Ranade and his wife Ramabai started the Ladies Social Conference, a secular forum within the Indian National Congress. In 1884 B. M. Malabari's tract on child brides and abused widows horrified Victorian England. In 1891 colonial legislators enacted the Scoble Bill, raising the age (of married girls) for consensual sex from ten to twelve in India. Liberal Hindus like Raghunatha Rao, M. G. Ranade, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale supported such legal reforms, unlike Bal Gangadhar Tilak who opposed colonial intervention in Hindu customs.

Feminist Writers and Activists

Several nineteenth-century women writers refuted the charge of female intellectual inferiority and denounced child marriage, widow abuse, dowry, and purdah in vernacular and English literature, while founding schools. The pioneer was Pandita Ramabai Saraswati (1858–1922), a Sanskrit scholar who married out of her caste and who became a vociferous feminist after her husband and family died in a famine. She began the first Indian feminist organization, Ārya Mahilā Sabhā (Association of Aryan Women) in 1881. Male reformers appreciated her call to the colonial government to create schools for women doctors and teachers. To pay for her studies in England, she wrote Stree Dharma Niti (Women's religious ethics) in Marathi in 1881. After much soul-searching, she converted to Christianity in 1884, and she wrote The High Caste Hindu Women (1888) in English to finance her nonsectarian widows' home, Sharada Sadan. Conservative Hindus like Bal Gangadhar Tilak accused her of proselytizing their daughters, whom they withdrew from the school. Clearly, feminists had to toe the line or be punished by male nationalists.

In 1882 Tarabai Shinde wrote Stri Purush Tulana (A comparison of men and women) in Marathi, accusing men of lust and duplicity and of falsely portraying women as seductresses. In 1891 Sarat Kumari Chaudhurani exposed the neglect of girls in her Bengali work, Adorer na Anadorer? (Loved or unloved?). The Muslim Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain advocated gender equality in Bengali, while her English novel, Sultana's Dream (1905), describes a topsy-turvy world of male seclusion in mardanas resembling women's zenānās. Savitribai Phule (1831–1897), a dutiful Hindu wife, described her radical work of educating the lowest castes. Some others were loyal Indian wives but ardent Christians, like Kripabai Sattianadhan (1862–1894), who laid the blame for women's plight squarely on Hinduism in her English novel, Kamala: The Story of a Hindu Life (1894). Less famous women criticized patriarchy in journals like Mathar Manoranjani in Tamil in the 1890s, Sadhana in Bengali in the 1890, Stree Darpan in Hindi in 1909, Khatoon in Urdu, and Stree Bodh in Gujarati.

Motherland and Mothers of the Nation

Nationalism intensified after Bankim Chatterji's 1883 poem "Bande Mataram" (Hail to the motherland) was set to music by Rabindranath Tagore (Thakur) and became the anthem of Indian nationalism. The paradigm of divine motherhood for the nation helped raise the status of its domestic mothers. After the 1905 Partition of Bengal, women joined men in boycotting and burning English goods. Young men in Maharashtra and Punjab, as well as Bengal, appeared ready to become martyrs for the motherland; "New Party" Congress activists, led by Bipin Chandra Pal and Tilak, advocated radical revolution. While some men felt threatened by women emancipated from domestic servitude, humanist authors Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), C. Subramania Bharati (1882–1924), and A. Madhaviah (1872–1925) praised women's education in their prose and poetry.

Women awakened to their dual identities as feminists and nationalists in this era. Sarladevi Ghoshal Chaudharani (1872–1946), a feminist Hindu revivalist, started her journal Bharati in 1895 and the Bharat Stree Mahamandal (Great Society of Indian Women) in 1910 at Allahabad. At an international women's suffrage meeting in 1910 in Budapest, Kumudini Mitra advocated violent revolution to win gender rights. Women like Bina Das (b. 1911) and Santi Ghose (b. 1916) attempted to kill British officials. Communist women often subordinated feminism to the class struggle, while nationalists argued that freedom would guarantee women's rights.

Elite women believed that women's rights were central to national revival through legal means, and they began feminist associations across India to improve their conditions. Mahatma Gandhi's exhortations to men to emulate female moral superiority helped to empower women. Perceiving themselves as selfless mothers of the nation, they heeded his call to aid its poor women. When he launched his satyagraha ("hold fast to the truth") campaigns of nonviolent resistance in India after 1917, many women joined, energized by his fervor.

Feminist Associations

The primary goals of most women's associations were to improve women's literacy and health by abolishing child marriage, enforced widowhood, and purdah. Imitating Ramabai's Ārya Mahila Samāj, elite women formed similar sectarian and local organizations. In 1886, Swarnakumari Debi (1856–1932), Rabindranath Tagore's sister, started Sakhi Samiti (Women's Friendship League) to spread knowledge among women and widows. In 1900 in Bombay, Parsi women founded the Stri Zarothoshti Mandal (Parsi Women's Organization). Other welfare groups included the Young Women's Christian Association and, in 1915, the Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam (Association for Muslim Women). Viresalingam Pantulu and his wife Rajya Lakshmi founded the Andhra Mahila Sabha (Andhra Women's Club) in 1910 for girls' education and widow remarriage.

Between 1902 and 1912, Indians established many girls' schools based on the Indo-centric curriculum advocated by Annie Besant in 1904, and girls' school enrollment rose substantially. In Madras in 1906, elite Indian and European women started the nonsectarian Tamil Māthar Sangam (Tamil Women's Organization), which met in Kanchipuram in 1907 and 1914. In 1908 its women activists delivered papers at an all-India Ladies' Congress (parishad), from which the secular Women's Indian Association (WIA) drew its initial members, on 8 May 1917 in Adyār, Madras. Impressed by the Tamil Māthar Sangam, the Irish suffragist Margaret Cousins proposed an all-Indian organization in 1915. The WIA was India's first major multiethnic feminist organization. Its initial success was partly due to its effective use of the framework of the Theosophical Society whose head, Annie Besant, was chosen as the first WIA President. Cousins became the WIA's first honorary secretary, a role shared with Dorothy Jinarajadasa, the Irish wife of a Sri Lankan Theosophist. As the "daughters of India," they pledged to guide the nation, serve the poor, promote women's education, abolish child marriage, raise the age of sexual consent to sixteen for women, and win female suffrage and the right to elected office. The WIA was the first organization to connect women's social and sexual subjugation with patriarchy, poverty, and political disenfranchisement.

On 18 December 1917, Sarojini Naidu (1879–1949) headed a WIA delegation to Secretary of State Edwin Montagu. They requested female suffrage on a par with men in expanded provincial legislatures after the 1919 Government of India Act. Although the franchise commission in London did not immediately sanction their request, WIA feminists won an appeal supported by C. Sankaran Nair, the Indian member of the commission, and Indians in the legislative councils. Provincial legislatures were instructed individually to decide upon female suffrage, so that a few women voted in Madras in 1921, in Bombay in 1922, and in other provinces after 1930. In 1927 Muthulakshmi Reddi was elected to the Madras Legislative Assembly as India's first woman legislator.

Two other important organizations were the National Council of Women in India (NCWI), founded in 1925, and the All India Women's Conference for Educational Reform (AIWC), founded in 1927. The NCWI was headed by Mehribai Tata, the wife of a prominent Parsi industrialist. Despite its commitment to women's issues, the NCWI's dependence on the British colonial government, patronization of the poor, and conservative attitudes precluded its popularity. The AIWC began with a secular agenda on women's education and marriage reform in Poona in 1927, led by the Rani of Sangli, the Begam of Bhopal, and the Maharani Chinmabai Saheb of Baroda. However, there were ideological and class differences over how to effect social changes amongst women in purdah. The AIWC has become less elitist and still functions.

After 1920 the WIA and AIWC published their own journals, providing information on legislative bills, such as the one to abolish the dedication of dēvadāsi dancers to temples, where they were reduced to prostitution. The system was legally abolished in 1928 due to the eloquence of Muthulakshmi Reddi. The WIA also campaigned against purdah and for the 1930 Sarda Act, raising the minimum age of marriage for girls to fourteen. The AIWC campaigned to raise school enrollment of girls, and literacy rates rose over the next decades; it was also instrumental in revamping family laws on divorce and property rights.

Women and Independence

If early reformers had argued that women were the weaker sex, Mahatma Gandhi emphasized their nobility and self-sacrifice, and his cotton-spinning program was influenced by women. His appeal to elite class women to purify the nation and to aid their disadvantaged sisters was answered by donations of jewelry, the wearing of homespun cloth (khadi ), and the picketing of shops that sold foreign goods and liquor. However, he initially resisted allowing women to join his 1930 Salt March to Dandi, but Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya (1903–1990), and Khurshed Naoroji (1894–1966) persuaded him to change his mind. Thousands of women from across India were jailed for "stealing" salt from India's beaches. Aruna Asaf Ali (1906–1996), Durgabai Deshmukh (1909–1981), and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (1889–1964) were in the front ranks of "salt thieves." The formation of the women's wing of the Indian National Congress in 1942, led by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, facilitated women's mobilization in the Quit India movement.

Jawaharlal Nehru staunchly supported universal suffrage and women's rights. In recognition of their contributions, fourteen women were included in the Constituent Assembly to draft independent India's constitution in December 1946. These pioneers were Ammu Swaminathan, Kamala Chowdhuri, Begam Aizaz Rasul, Sarojini Naidu, Hansa Mehta, Sucheta Kripalani, Dakhsayani Velayudhan, Durgabai Deshmukh, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Begam Jahanara Shah Nawaz, Begam Ikramullah, and Lila Roy. Besides the 1940 Hindu Marriage Validating Act, which removed the caste bar in marriage, post-independence acts favorable to women include the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act, which allowed divorce, and the 1956 Hindu Succession Act, which removed gender disparities in inheritance.

Progressive and conservative grassroots women's organizations have consolidated in postmodern India. Women now organize strikes and morchas (protests) against inflation, discriminatory labor practices, and economic marginalization. They have denounced ministerial interference over female inheritance, as in the Shah Bano case; the resurgence of sati in Rajasthan, in the Roop Kanwar case; dowry deaths related to consumerism; and commercial destruction of trees and the environment, as in the Chipko movement. Others strive to improve women's literacy and health; yet these rights must be carefully and consistently guarded against resurgent erosion.

Sita Anantha Raman

See alsoDevī ; Women and Political Power ; Women's Education


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