Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Gandhi on Women

The two words which define Mahatma Gandhi’s essence are “constant experimenter”. Spirituality, religion, self reliance, health, education, clothing, medicine, child care, status of women, no field escaped his search for truth. During his lifetime, Gandhiji sowed the seeds of several revolutions: revolution against consumerism and unlimited materialism; revolution against technology beyond human control, the revolution for decentralization of socio-economic, political and cultural system; the revolution for non-violent and peaceful methods of social change; the revolution for ecological balance and pollution free society; the revolution for gainful employment, the revolution to set the Indian the Indian women free from the cruel shackles of illogical tradition and depressing values; and the revolution for maintaining cultural identity of nations, small communities against monocultures. Gandhiji worked for a major change in human nature, a change of heart. His thoughts when appeared in the form of talk or article became official words of action with the masses of India. He was a man who did what he said and led an exemplary and transparent life. Now the irony of leading a transparent life is that there is bound to be controversies. And Mahatma Gandhi was no exception.

For the present purpose we would focus on the Gandhi’s position on the status of women, one of the most controversial aspects of his social and moral vision. It is interesting to see that Gandhi went beyond Bankim Chandra Chatterjee and Swami Vivekananda in linking womanliness with political emancipation. Gandhi sought to break down the barriers between the private and the public demesne and to encourage women to assume a greater responsibility in public life. But noted feminists like Sujata Patel and Madhu Kishwar allege that Gandhi’s stand on women was primarily to fulfill his own political agendas; that he was and still continues to be an essential paradigmatic pillar which argues that women, no matter how advanced, ought to first serve her household. He is charged of being a biological essentialist. They doubt whether Gandhi actually could free himself of his stern patriarchy.

This paper is divided into three sections which focuses on Gandhi’s take on women, position of his critics, and finally an impartial analysis of how far are the critics logical in imposing their charge.


It would make an interesting beginning to see what exactly the condition of women was during the time in which Gandhi functioned. When Gandhi assumed India’s leadership, the average life span of an Indian woman was only twenty seven years. Babies and the pregnant women ran a high risk of dying young. Child marriage was very common and widows were in high numbers, statistically. In short, the condition of women in India was out rightly pathetic. Further interesting observation is that the question of women’s status was considered as one of the indices for the measurement of modernization and traditionalism in India in the late 19th and 20th century. In the early 19th century, a women’s place in the society invariably meant that her actual place is in the household under the rule of the elders, her in laws and her husband. It is also interesting to see that while there was a modicum of freedom in the lowest rung of the society, the upper and the middle class women hardly enjoyed any freedom at all. But this was not because the lowest rung of Indian society was more liberal or permissive, it’s just that the dire financial stress forced the peasant women to participate in the process of production and do odd jobs. In the upper classes, this distinction between man and woman was considerably vast and they belonged to two groups- ‘the ruler’ and ‘the ruled’.

But with the advent of western education and the impact it had on society, the position of women started undergoing subtle changes. The banning of sati and the widow remarriage act were the important milestones in the process of change. The national movement provided the women of India, a unique opportunity to break from this social conservatism. The swadeshi era roused positive hopes. Gandhiji realized their problems, recognized them as ‘repositories of moral strength and stamina’ that could constitute an important ingredient in his conquest by non violence. Gandhiji wanted to effect a complete re-structuring of society in which women and other depressed classes would be given due recognition. He always advocated a complete reform which he called “Sarvodaya” meaning comprehensive progress. He believed that the difference between man and women was only physical and has expressed this notion several times in his writings. He advocated that in many matters concerning especially those of tolerance, patience, and sacrifice, the Indian women is any day superior to men. The peculiarity of Gandhi’s treatment of women is that he never had a specific programme for women, but women had an integral role to play in almost all of his programmes. And this fact gets approved by the historical evidences of the overwhelming amount in which women participated in his programmes.

Gandhiji declared that there is no school better than home and there is no teacher better than one’s parents. It would be an insightful exercise to see the extent to which he derived his determination from the strengths of his mother Putli Bai and his wife, Kasturba Gandhi. He writes:

If you notice any purity in me, I have inherited it from my mother and not from my father.

As for the way Kasturba influenced him, he writes:

Her determined submission to my will on the one hand and her quite submission to the sufferings of my stupidity involved on the other, ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born to rule over her…and in the end she became my teacher in non-violence.

These words drop enough hints to impress the point that Gandhi’s concern for the upliftment of women rose from his very own house, amidst his very own people. True to his words, Gandhiji was an ardent follower of his own beliefs. He shared the works like cooking, cleaning, fetching water, washing clothes, etc- works which were considered as belonging essentially to women. For this, he even faced the taunt of being an effeminate. But he regarded this as a proud symbol of his manhood. And though Gandhi advocated equality for women, this did not mean that women had necessarily to prove their strength in performing the same tasks as men. Rather he felt that men and women should follow different vocations suitable to their different physical and emotional temperaments. His opinion was that men and women are equal, but not identical. He writes:

Intellectually, mentally, and spiritually, woman is equivalent to a male and she can participate in every activity.

Now, the moment Gandhiji utters that men and women are equal but not identical, he becomes the object of skepticism and cruel scrutiny. We’ll get back to it in the second section, where we discuss the critics of Gandhiji’s ideologies, but first there is more of what Gandhiji did to improve the status of women. The most significant contribution of Gandhiji to the cause of women lay in his absolute and unequivocal insistence on their personal dignity and autonomy in the family and in the society. Out of his personal experience, he learnt how ‘man has regarded woman as his tool, and how woman has learnt to be his tool and in the end found it easy and pleasurable to be such, because when one drags another in his fall, the decent is easy.’ Nevertheless he wanted the Indian women to work for self upliftment. Women ought to protest against being treated as sex objects. He writes:

If you want to play your part in the world’s affairs, you must refuse to deck yourself far pleasing man and revolt against any pretension on the part of man that woman is born to be his plaything.

But all things said, Gandhiji realized that the chief problem lay at the very foundation of the customs and scriptures. The custom’s attempt to abuse the women by giving her into child marriage is no custom. It is rather, sin. In Gandhiji’s view this is perhaps the most glaring abuses of Indian womanhood. Let us see for far can he adhere to his much adored scriptures as far as the issue of child marriage is concerned.

Gandhi on Child Marriage and Widowhood

Gandhiji saw the evil of child marriage as intimately related to that of child widowhood. He realized that it is actually the past customs constructed by purely patriarchic set up that led to the plight to women, disguised in forms of child marriage and child widowhood. The scriptures give the opinion that if the women are not married off before puberty, then they might indulge in immoral sexual acts which would cause a major harm to the sanctity of the society. It is thus good that they should be married off before they even begin to feel grown up. But Gandhiji challenged this opinion on the grounds that why should it be only and always women who should be tested on that scale. Why should men not be held accountable for their puberty sexual misdemeanor?

Gandhiji also came up with this idea that the parents who committed the sin of marrying their daughters at tender age should expiate for their sin by remarrying these daughters, should they become widowed while they are yet in their teens. He was of the opinion that women should have the same freedom to remarry as men had. To Gandhiji, it was a serious menace that such large number of child widows be in the country. It is understandable that Gandhiji advocated child widow remarriage because of his interest in social health. He writes:

It is better that a widow married openly than that she should sin secretly.

Thus, every sexual relationship outside of marriage was seen as sinful, and that is why Gandhiji was emphatically in favor of remarriage in cases of child widows. Madhu Kishwar in one of her articles titled Gandhi on Women, quite insightfully notices that while Gandhiji was strict about the remarriage of child widows, he was equivocal as far as the young widows were concerned. She elaborates in the paper how Gandhiji favored asceticism as one of the purest marks of being a Hindu; and if a young widow wishes to walk that path then there is nothing better than this. According to him, if a young widow wants to live a pure ascetic life by her own rational will then she only and truly makes Hinduism proud. Such women are the rightful owners of the society and its upliftment. He believed that the widows of India carried real potential to be the true servants of the nation.

Gandhi on Dowry

Apart from child marriage and widowhood, another practice found unfavorable by Gandhiji was the custom of dowry. Dowry was an oppressive custom which was prevalent in the materially illumined society. Gandhiji preferred girls to remain unmarried all their lives than to be humiliated and dishonored by marrying greedy men who demanded dowry. He appealed that marriage must cease to be a matter of arrangement made by parents for money. According to him, the only honorable terms in marriage are mutual love and consent. Gandhiji’s wide appeal brought about remarkable changes in the workings of the society. There began simple, ritual-free wedding which came to be known as ‘Gandhi lagan’. Lagan is a Hindi term to denote a marriage ceremony. Gandhi lagan consisted of the exchange of garlands by the bride and the groom in the presence of friends and family.

Gandhiji also foresaw how important education was as an essential means for enabling women to uphold their natural rights, to exercise them wisely and to work for self improvement. He argued that there really is no justification for men to deprive women or to deny them equal rights on the grounds of illiteracy. Gandhiji also advocated property rights for women and generated unlimited employment opportunities for them. The reason why Gandhiji advocated opportunities for the women was because he could see the immense untapped power that lay in Indian women. To Gandhiji, women is the companion of man gifted with equal mental qualities. He urged the women to take part in the Indian struggle for freedom because it is only then that the women would be able to break free from their long imposed seclusion. He further saw that his non-violent agitation is particularly suited for women because it required not physical strength but moral courage and spiritual determination, which the women held in abundance. He writes:

If non-violence is the law of our being then the future is with women.
To Gandhiji, non-violent agitation was a great equalizer, for, the women could play same part as men. Gandhiji found women to embody the three essential qualities required of a satyagrahi, namely, love, nonviolence, and self-sacrifice. He remarks:

For the courage of self sacrifice, woman is any day superior to man.

If by strength is meant moral power then women is immeasurably man’s superior.

Another remarkable way in which Gandhiji made women an important social base for the movement was through the program catering around boycott of foreign goods, spinning and wearing khadi. This program enabled the women to participate and get employed from within their own household. Gandhiji promoted the function of spinning because apart from being imperative fro the economic regeneration of the country, it was a source of income for middle class, a means for livelihood for poor women, and if well-to-do women spun, it would make yarn cheap. This makes it crystal clear that whenever Gandhiji talks about the emancipation of women, he is not only bothered about the downtrodden class but associated himself to all the classes. What follows from the above discussion is that Gandhiji did not see women only as objects of reform and humanitarianism but rather as conscious subject who had a definite social role to fulfill as active self conscious agents of social change. Gandhiji’s main concern was to bring about a radical reconstruction of society by creating an atmosphere in which women would be able to regain the self confidence she had lost through years of subjection.

Gandhiji’s unique approach is revealed by the fact that while Swami Vivekananda recognized the power of women in Indian society by linking the traditional image of sacred motherhood, Gandhiji tries to give a new dignity to women by striking a new equation between womanliness and political potency. In the process, he denied the western association between maleness and statecraft, rejected the partial tradition in India which debased the womanhood, and also abrogated the colonial identity which equated feminity with passivity, weakness, dependence, subjugation, and absence of masculinity. Through this, he aimed at a social reconstruction and was confident that in the process of reconstruction, the women would free themselves from the bondages that affected them as women. It is turn now to look at some of the finest criticisms leveled against Gandhiji, on various charges ranging from him being a biological essentialist to selfishly using the women power to fulfill his political agendas.


The following criticisms mainly focus on Gandhiji being a biological essentialist, and also promoting the view that Gandhi led nationalistic movement is an example of his policy of first mobilizing and then subordinating women. It is alleged that Gandhiji know that his fight for swaraj would be incomplete without the support of women who constituted one half of the population. To Gandhiji’s critics, this looks more like a part of his political strategy because Gandhiji, somehow, did not challenge the oppressiveness rampant patriarchal tradition within his own home.

While Gandhiji believed in equality of sexes and said that ‘women is gifted with the same mental qualities as men’ and that ‘she has the same right to freedom and liberty as he’, he also admitted that three are important physical and emotional differences. She is passive, he active. It is an irony that Gandhiji saw men and women in those very terms which wre used to reinforce the disability of women to acquire power in the family or the society. It seems that by making woman a complement of man, Gandhiji ended up extending the dominion from which he had tried to free women. Gandhiji made a clear cut distinction between women’s private domain where she is the queen and the outside world of which he is the master.

Madhu Kishwar in one of her articles Gandhi on Women, explicitly writes that Gandhiji’s thoughts were mostly misunderstood and distorted for personal gains and convenience. She writes:

Gandhi’s legacy in the contemporary political culture has been distorted to mean encouraging ‘tokenism’ at the very top without bringing about any real changes at the bottom.

Another objection leveled against Gandhiji’s treatment of women is that why should Gandhiji ask the women to transcend the sexual need? This stand shows that, for Gandhiji, the sexual life of women was not significant. In his mind women’s need seem to exist only in response to men’s needs, which is not in line with the impartial freedom he has planned for women. What of women’s sexual expression, if all she has to do is to totally renounce her own sexual urges to keep the man in control? It is also interesting to see that what Gandhiji objected was to the excessive subordination of the wife to the husband, not the fact of women generally playing the role of a ‘subordinate’. As a good patriarch, the maximum he could do was to rationalize authority, make it look just and humane. Madhu Kishwar observes:

…the best he could do was to advocate and expect harmony and not tyranny in the social division of labor.

These are some of the minor things which are present as little loopholes in the vast program Gandhi had for the emancipation of Indian women. Nevertheless, there are loopholes in the critics arguments too, which should be mentioned in Gandhiji’s fairness.


Standing on the threshold of twenty first century, we confuse and criticize Gandhi’s view on women’s role in domestic and public sphere as essentially narrow and constricted, not realizing that like any other person, Gandhi too was the product of the age in which he lived and struggled; the age in which we did not live and we did not have to struggle. Moreover he came from a traditional patriarchal bania family which was certainly not free from the structural bias conducive to the subordination of women. It seems that Gandhi could overcome some limitation and could not overcome others which he subconsciously imbibed from his family. It is for this reason that Gandhi did not see his advocacy of women’s participation in satyagraha as contradictory to his basic concept of women as nurturer and care taker. In fact, he considered women’s participation in stayagraha as an extension of her special mission as the care taker of the humanity.

But though Gandhi did not advocate radical reform of family structure, he was certainly aware that the problem lay deeply ingrained in the very fabric of society. Critics make a valid point when they say that Gandhi failed to perceive that the capacity for silent self suffering which he so idealized in women, happened to be one of the ‘key symptoms of her subordination’. Despite all these, there is not one point in Gandhiji’s thought which has the potency to prove his approach as that of a biological essentialist. He is correct when he says that women’s first station is her household because if the household is not in place, the society cannot be in place, and if the society is misplaced then the entire nation can never achieve the national stability it strives for.

To sum up, we must never forget that Gandhiji’s real achievement with regard to women’s issue lies not in the extent to which he materially altered their situation but on the process of self realization which he worked up in their minds.

1 comment:

  1. Ultimate..n true portrayal of Bapu's perception.