Women's Indian Association

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WOMEN'S INDIAN ASSOCIATION On 8 May 1917 in Adyār, Madras, a multiethnic group of women established the Women's Indian Association (WIA), India's first major feminist organization, which remains in operation today. The WIA's success can be attributed to its secular agenda for women of all sects, classes, and castes, and to its initial effective use of the organizational framework of the Theosophical Society, whose president, Annie Besant, was chosen as the first WIA president. The honorary secretaries were Margaret Cousins, a teacher and Irish suffragist; Dorothy Jinarajadasa, the Irish wife of a Sri Lankan Theosophist; Ammu Swaminathan and Malathi Patwardhan. Borrowing the idea of a cross-cultural association from the Tamil Māthar Sangam (Tamil Women's Organization) formed in 1906 by Indian and European women, Margaret Cousins sounded out her proposal to a gathering of Theosophists at Adyār after her arrival in 1915. The founders included S. Ambujammal, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddi, Mangalammal Sadasivier, Saralabai Naik, Herabai Tata, Dr. Poonen Lukhose, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Begam Hasrat Mohani, and Dhanavanti Rama Rao. Describing themselves as the "daughters of India," its mothers and wives, their objectives were to guide the nation; serve the poor; promote women's education and compulsory universal primary education; abolish child marriage; raise the age of sexual consent to sixteen for women; win female suffrage; and attain the female right to elected office. The WIA was one of the first organizations to boldly connect Indian women's social and sexual subjugation with patriarchy, poverty, and political disenfranchisement.

Reform and Early Women's Groups

A primary goal of most women's samājs (associations) in India has been to improve women's educational conditions and to remove customs like early marriage, enforced widowhood among Hindus, and the Muslim purdah (veil), all of which were mental and physical impediments to women's health. One of the earliest groups was the Ārya Mahila Samāj (Ārya Women's Association), founded by Pandita Ramabai (1858–1922) in 1881. Early Hindu reform organizations, like the Brahmo Samaj, Prārthana Samāj, and the Ārya Samāj promoted women's education, while condemning early marriage and enforced widowhood. In 1896 Justice M. G. Ranade (1842–1901) and his wife Ramabai (1862–1924) started the Ladies Social Conference, a secular forum for women's issues, within the Indian National Congress.

Effective changes in the status of women would occur only when educated women began their own associations. Sectarian groups included Stri Zarothoshti Mandal (Parsi Women's Organization) in 1900 in Bombay; the Young Women's Christian Association; and the Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam (Association for Muslim Women) in 1915, associated with the All-India Muslim Women's Conference. A regional women's group was the Andhra Mahila Sabha (Andhra Women's Club; 1910), founded by Virēsalingam Pantulu (1848–1919), a male reformer who worked to educate girls and to promote widow remarriage.

However, a truly national feminist organization was possible only with the emergence of a sizable number of educated women. Between 1902 and 1912, the girls' school enrollment doubled in Madras presidency, especially after reformers started schools that taught Indian culture. The Tamil Māthar Sangam (Tamil Women's Organization) met intermittently in Madras (Chennai) city (1906) and in Kanchipuram (1907, 1914). In 1908 its Tamil, Malayali, Telegu, Marathi, and English-speaking members attended an all-India Ladies' Congress (parishad) in Madras with a strong feminist agenda, according to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, later president of the All-India Women's Conference (1927), India's third feminist organization. The WIA drew its initial membership from the Ladies' Congress, and its founders were doubtless aware of the Bharata Stree Mahāmandal (Great Society of Indian Women), which Sarladevi Chaudrani, a niece of Rabindranath Tagore, founded in Allahabad in 1910. However, the Mahāmandal's goals remained unfulfilled.

Women's Suffrage

On 18 December 1917, the WIA sent a delegation led by Sarojini Naidu (1879–1949) to Edwin Montagu, secretary of state for India. Representing themselves as Indian women who had awakened to their civic responsibilities, they requested female suffrage on a par with men in the expanded provincial legislatures as a part of the forthcoming Government of India Act of 1919. Naidu had earlier appealed for support from the Indian National Congress. She sought to calm male fears that women would try to usurp authority, emphasizing that their maternal instincts would inspire the nation's children. The imperial South-borough Franchise Commission in London did not sanction their request, although they won the support of Sir C. Sankaran Nair. Sarojini Naidu, Annie Besant, and Herabai Tata then appealed their case in London, and the provincial legislatures were later authorized to decide individually. Thus, with the help of some male nationalists on the councils, a few women were enfranchised, first in Madras in 1920, and in Bombay in 1921.

In 1926 the WIA sent five delegates to the Congress of International Women Suffrage Alliance in Paris. It encouraged its members to stand for election as magistrates and supported Muthulakshmi Reddi in 1928. She was elected to the Madras Legislative Council and was chosen as its deputy president. As India's first woman legislator, Reddi introduced legislation to improve women's education, raise the age of marriage to fourteen for girls through the Sarda Act of 1930, aid programs for women's health, and end the controversial system of dēvadāsi (slaves to the god) dedication to temples in 1929.

The second struggle to expand female suffrage began in 1930 in preparation for the Government of India Act of 1935. Unlike the new feminist organization, National Organization of Women of India (1925), the WIA followed the National Congress stand against separate electorates for minorities and women. In the next decades, WIA members spoke passionately about their agendas, and although they disagreed with individual Congress members, they joined in the struggle for India's independence led by Mahatma Gandhi.

Social Service

By the end of 1918, the WIA had thirty-three self-governing local branches, dedicated to the service of a sisterhood of women of all creeds, castes, and classes. Although its leaders aspired to attract women of all castes, it remained an elite organization for years; however, it finally became a significant national organization for women. In 1920 Margaret Cousins began to edit a quarterly newsletter, Stri Dharma (Women's duty), first in English, but later with Tamil and Hindi sections. The journal developed into a monthly after a few years. Stri Dharma publicized the WIA and its agenda against child marriages and the Muslim purdah. Its membership increased noticeably; by 1924 there were 51 branches and 2,500 members across India, and by 1926, it was the largest Indian women's organization, with over 4,000 members and 80 branches.

The WIA held free elementary classes, as well as classes on hygiene, child welfare, and vocational skills. Its ideals of service facilitated the establishment of the Avvai Home for girls, which Dr. Reddi started in 1930, and its members also worked with the vocational programs in Madras Seva Sadan. The WIA provided the framework for medical help to the poor by Drs. Reddi, Lukhose, and Rahamatunissa Begam. Since independence, the WIA has continued to serve India's women through numerous regional branches.

Sita Anantha Raman

See alsoFeminism and Indian Nationalists ; Theosophical Society


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