Dr. Shruti Shankar Gaur
What is feminism? Google identifies feminism as a noun, which means the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of gender equality. Gandhi’s hallmark had always been bringing ‘everyone’ be it an industrialist or farmer, student or teacher, artisan or weaver, men or women, literate or illiterate into the mainstream freedom struggle, evoking ‘one & all’ to adopt Satyagraha and contribute towards the society and nations upliftment, women being central part of it. Question is: Was Gandhi a feminist?
While a modern feminist will have mixed feelings about Gandhi if s/he examines based upon today’s parameters. Gandhi opposed the use of contraception due to religious reasons and wasn’t as enthusiastic about women leaving home and going to work. For, Gandhi always believed that the most significant role a woman can play (where no one else can replace her) was that of a nurturer. He believed women had the power to raise society and build nations. Thus, he was the fierce advocator of girl child education. Quoting Gandhi, “I am uncompromising in the matter of woman’s rights. In my opinion, she should labor under no legal disability not suffered by man. We should treat the daughters and sons on a footing of perfect equality…….The real property that a parent can transmit to all equally, is his or her character and educational facilities. Parents should seek to make their sons and daughters self-reliant, well able to earn an honest livelihood by the sweat of the brow……..As women begin to realize their strength, as they must in the proportion of education they receive, they will naturally resent the glaring inequalities to which they are subjected”.
Gandhi believed that the root cause of women being treated as second-grade citizens was the patriarch structure of our society. He often mentioned that all the power was imparted to the man and the fairer sex had to derive power from him be it in the form of a daughter, sister, wife or mother. This often created a power struggle among the women folk itself thus, further promoting the continuation of the age-old traditions and customs. In his words, “The privilege of the awakened women should be to spot and eradicate age-long evils. I should have the enlightened women of India to deal with the root cause. A woman is the embodiment of sacrifice & suffering, and her advent to public life should, therefore, result in purifying it, in restraining unbridled ambition and accumulation of power…….”
Gandhi believed very strongly upon the equal rights of women. He said, “I have the privilege of addressing hundreds of meetings of women which were attended by thousands of women. I am quite aware of the very high culture of these thousands of sisters whom I get the privilege of addressing. I know that they are capable of rising to the same heights that men are capable of, and I know too that they do have occasions to go out. But this is not to be put down to the credit of educated classes. The question is, why have they not gone further? Why do not our women enjoy the same freedom as men do? Why should they not be able to walk out and have fresh air?”
To answer the above questions we need to explore through the panoramic lenses to gauge the overall situation of women in the country a century ago. Women in India, a century and a half ago, except for bare few, were illiterate in general and homeschooled among affluent families, only to the extent that they could read scriptures. India still practiced Sati, child marriage (Gandhi himself was married at 13), purdah and stringent widow rules. In general, women were enclosed to the four walls of their houses. Yet, hundreds of women folk stepped out of homes and thronged streets upon the call of Gandhi. Why did they participate with such enthusiasm in his movements and often helped Gandhi succeed? Why didn’t it happen earlier? The answer is as simple as Gandhi’s methods. Gandhi’s methods were simple to be adopted by the common men and women, and connected to the core of ‘Hindustan’s ideology’. Any person irrespective of education, age, gender, caste, religion, region, language could become Satyagrahi, follow non-violence, peace and in his/her own peaceful small way participate in the freedom struggle.
It might interest millennials to read Gandhi’s response to clerics who justified atrocities to women through traditions & customs on the pretext of protecting her sanctity. Gandhi said, “Chastity is not hot-house growth. It cannot be superimposed. It cannot be protected by the surrounding wall of the house. It must grow from within, and to be worth anything it must be capable of withstanding every on sought temptation. It must be as defiant as Sita’s. It must be a very poor thing that cannot stand the gaze of men. Men, to be men, must be able to trust their womenfolk even as the latter are compelled to trust them. Let us not live with one limb completely or partially paralyzed.”
Gandhi viewed the Purdah system as a token of the Patriarchy in our society. Quoting him, “It pained and humiliated me deeply. I thought of the wrong being done by men to the women of India by clinging to the barbarous custom which, whatever use it might have had when it was first introduced, had now become totally useless and was doing incalculable harm to the country. All the education that we have been receiving for past 100 years seems to have produced but little impression upon us, for I note that purdah is being retained even in educated households not because educated men believe in it themselves but because they will not manfully resist the brutal custom and sweep it away in one stroke.”
Gandhi might seem to be progressive, yes he was. At the same time, his feet were firmly grounded in India. He believed to burn every poisoned thread of the society that had corroded it, to obtain the purest form of the rich Indian culture we belong to post the metallurgy. “Thus viewed, it is a serious problem the enlightened daughters of Bharat Mata are called upon to solve. They may not ape the manner of the West, which may be suited to its environment. They must apply methods suited to Indian genius and Indian environment. Theirs must be strong, controlling, purifying, steadying hand, conserving what is best in our culture and unhesitatingly rejecting what is base and degrading…..”
To summon Gandhi as feminist, I would say Gandhi and his policies were inclusive thus, embracing one and all to which feminism was a part. Concluding through his words, “By seeking today to interfere with the free growth of the womanhood of India we are interfering with the growth of free and independent-spirited men. What we are doing to our women recoils upon our heads with a force thousand times multiplied. It partly accounts for our weakness, indecision, narrowness, and helplessness. Let us then tear down the purdah with one mighty effort.”
• World’s Greatest Speeches, published by Finger Print Classics (2018), ISBN: 978 93 8777 941 2.
• Lapierre, Dominique & Collins (Larry). (2007). Freedom at Midnight. ISBN: 978-81-259-3186-7
• Guha Ramchandra (2010). The Makers of Modern India. Published by Penguin Books India. ISBN: 978-06-7008-385-5
• Rolland Romain (2004). Mahatma Gandhi. Published by Publication Division, Ministry of Information & Broadcasting, Government of India. ISBN: 81-230-1152-0