Remembering Bapuji @150-Tribute from a Woman
Dr. V. Rajyalakshmi
Gandhiji is universally acclaimed as the father (Bapuji) of our nation. He earned this reputation because of his leadership in liberating India from the colonial clutches of British rulers. No wonder that our Bapuji receives rich tributes from all patriotic citizens of independent India. At the same time, he deserves special and exclusive tribute from the Indian women for his leading insights on women empowerment. An examination of his sayings and writings reveals his strong conviction and desire for the emancipation and empowerment of women.
When we analyse and compare Gandhian perspectives and the perspectives of the United Nations on women empowerment, we find an amazing similarity between the two. The difference being that the Gandhian perspectives are earlier to those of the United Nations. It is true that some of his gender perspectives were considered to be not broad enough, but going by the social period during which he developed his conviction on the need for women empowerment Gandhiji certainly deserves a special tribute.
Gandhiji’s advocacy for women empowerment is based on his belief that women are individuals in their own right and might. He believed in their essential worth. His approach introduced a significant departure from the approach of the earlier social reformers. Reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy or Swamy Dayananad Saraswati who while striving for the betterment of the social conditions of women looked upon them as objects of reforms. On the other hand, Gandhi was considering women as self conscious and not as mere objects of reform. Previous reformers have guided themselves by the image of women as helpless persons. But Gandhiji believed in the inherent worth and inner strength of women.
Gandhiji noticed and derided the unfair gendered approach towards fair sex in Indian society. He expressed his displeasure at many of the then prevailing practices which lowered the status of Indian women. He strongly opposed the practices of child marriage, dowry custom, purdah system, prostitution and such other practices. He supported the cause of widow’s remarriage. In fact he refused to consider a child widow as a widow. He condemned prostitution as a moral leprosy. He looked at men as equal partners in the sin of prostitution. Gandhiji strongly desired the abolition of Devadasi system to be one of the first tasks to be fulfilled right after India attaining its independence. He never hesitated to criticize the social practices which hampered the freedom and dignity of women even if such evils were supported in the name of religion and traditional culture. He objected the texts of those smritis which failed to give due regard to women. According to him such scriptures cannot be accepted as words of God. He wanted Shastras to be interpreted with a right reason. He desired to get Hinduism free from all those erratic practices which lowered the status of women. Thus, Bapuji despite being an orthodox Hindu himself, refused to accept those traditions which in his view hampered the individual dignity. In his words, “it is good to swim in traditions but to sink in them is a suicide.” When we go through the various international instruments on human rights, we would understand that the whole of human rights ideology is guided by the noble notion of human dignity. Therefore, we cannot help but to greatly admire Gandhiji for his gender perspectives in terms of human dignity.
Gandhiji has accepted the traditional societal model of segregated spheres of work for men and women. So, we find his views on education and economic emancipation of women to be family oriented which primarily took into account the role of women as home makers. So, while he wished earnestly that women must be educated he felt the same as necessary for enriching the entire family in terms of knowledge. Likewise he encouraged the women to take up cotton yarning and earn money so that she can support the fulfilment of the family needs. Feminists look upon this approach as a narrow perception. But we should not fail to notice that Bapuji was not belittling the importance of women as a home maker. No doubt, he considered the fields of functioning of men and women to be different but at the same time he viewed them as complimentary and not as one being superior and the other as inferior.
Gandhiji held men as largely responsible for the social inequality between men and women. In his perception woman is gifted with equal capacities and she has the right to participate in the very minutest details in the activities of man. He noted how men in India were enslaving their wives. While expressing his anguish and opposition to this enslavement he did not hesitate to honestly confess about his own patriarchal attitude he had shown towards his wife, Kasurbaji.
Gandhiji confessed -“I was once a slaveholder myself but Ba proved an unwilling slave and thus opened my eyes to my mission.” Gandhiji stood for the equality between men and women in the domestic front because he understood that many of the social disabilities experienced by women such as early marriages, dowry practice and purdah system have originated in the institution of the marriage itself. In this regard Gandhiji has proved to be more forward looking than the United Nations because the United Nations took quite some time to extend its human rights ideology into the domestic sphere.
Gandhiji, no doubt, has admonished the patriarchal practice of enslaving women by men in Indian society but at the same time he also admonished the women for letting this happen. This we can see from the letter he wrote to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur way back in the year 1936 which is much prior to the establishment of the United Nations. He wrote “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”. Our Bapuji insisted that women should realize their own potential and work collectively for social transformation.
Gandhiji has adopted a conscious strategy of feminizing the national movement. He could successfully instigate the involvement of women in the national movement. In his assessment women ought to be the partners of the struggle which adopted the philosophy of non violence. Considering the period of our freedom struggle during which women were experiencing strong social taboos on their public life, Bapuji’s call for their participation is indeed a radical move. His success in including large number of women in the freedom struggle has in fact transformed an otherwise political struggle into a much broader socio economic movement. It is true that the collective struggle of Indian people of both sexes has achieved the much awaited political liberation for India. A simultaneous achievement is that this movement could even open special doors of social liberation for Indian women from the long enduring social bondages like purdah system and similar taboos on their public life. The qualitative participation of Indian women in the national movement has proved the belief of Gandhiji’s that a woman is a ‘sabala’ and not an ‘abala’. As rightly remarked by an Indian scholar, our national movement has inculcated the spirit of dignity, self respect, social equality and individual freedom among women.
Gandhiji’s perspectives on women empowerment remain relevant even in the post independent era. During pre independence period, Gandhiji said that he saw no hope in the emancipation of India while her womanhood remained unemancipated. Well, this statement retains its significance even in the post independent era. Mere political emancipation is not a complete emancipation unless the women and men of a given society enjoy equality of status. Therefore, a real tribute to Mahatma Gandhiji, would be to collectively strive for building an Indian society in which the women lead a life of equality and dignity to realize their full potential and be the active agents of social transformation and development.
Prof (Dr) V.Rajyalakshmi, Honorary Professor of Law, Andhra University, Visakhapatnam