by Jyotsna Kamat
Page Last Updated: February 09, 2014
Article on how Mahatma Gandhi's experiments with truth
involved and affected women's status in the 20th century in India.
Excerpts from a lecture
given at the Gandhi Peace Foundation in December 1998
Women's status at
When Gandhiji 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 very large number.
Only 2% of the women had any kind of education and women did not have an identity of their
own. In North India, they practiced the purdah (veil) system. Women could not go
out of the house unless accompanied by men and the face covered with cloth. The fortunate
ones who could go to school had to commute in covered carts (tangas).
It is in
this context that we have to recognize the miracle of Gandhi's work. Gandhiji claimed
that a woman is completely equal to a man and practiced it in strict sense. Thousands and
millions of women, educated and illiterate, house wives and widows, students and elderly
participated in the India's freedom movement because his influence. For Gandhiji, the
freedom fight was not political alone; it was also an economic and social reform of a national
proportion. After a couple of decades, this equality became very natural in India.
After India's freedom (in1947) and adoption of constitution (1950), emphasized equality of women, when Hindu code was
formulated, the population was not even impressed. They said -"Of course, it
had to be done."
Woman and Progress
Gandhiji always advocated a complete reform which he called
"Sarvodaya" meaning comprehensive progress. He believed that the
difference between men and women was only physical and has expressed several times in his
writings that in many matters especially those of tolerance, patience, and sacrifice
the Indian woman is superior to the male. You will discover this when you read his articles from "Young
India" and "Harijan". During the 40 years of his political career, he only
found more reasons to deepen his faith in what he wrote. He never had a specific program
for women, but women had a integral role to play in all his programs. I feel that this is
one of the reasons why women participated in his programs so overwhelmingly.
declared that there is no school better than home and there is no teacher better than
parents. He said men and women are equal, but not identical. "Intellectually, mentally, and
spiritually, woman is equivalent to a male and she can participate in every activity."
Indian society is a male dominated one. Gandhiji has illustrated in his autobiography (The
stories of my experiments with truth) how early in his marriage he too wanted to
dominate his wife. He often said that paternal society is the root cause of inequality. In
his book, there is a very touching chapter about when he asked his wife to clean a public
toilet and the resulting conflict between him and his wife. He has written how ashamed he
was of himself, and how he took care not to hurt her anymore for the rest of his life.
Even though there was big gap between him and his wife intellectually, it did not affect
their family life. He has said that Kasturba followed her husband more than was expected of
her. Gandhiji followed Bramacharya (strict discipline of food, drinks, and
of celibacy) from a very young age, but when his wife passed away, Gandhi grieved that
without Ba, his life would have been meaningless. That was the bondage of his 62
years of marriage.
Woman and Social Service
Gandhiji struggled very hard to understand a woman's physical
and mental pain. From a young age he introduced his wife and children to social
sacrifice and service. He believed that service has to be performed for self-fulfillment,
not for public consumption or exhibition. He believed that the publicity given to one's
social service actually decrements the value of the service. He tried very hard to
eliminate job indignity and bias based on caste system. He tried to do the work of a barber, dhobi
(washer man), and janitor to understand them and demonstrate that the work one does has no
impact on one's status in the society. For me, the fact that he contributed a great deal in
raising his children is very modern concept. On one occasion the white midwife would not
show up for his wife's delivery and Gandhiji himself delivered his child. He helped wife
with feeding, bathing, and toiletries of the infant. In western countries these days men
are encouraged to be with their wives during the delivery and the men are supposed to
pitch in with diaper changing, etc. Gandhiji practiced this very modern concept 90 years
ago in his own family.
Role of Women
"Womanhood is not restricted to the kitchen", he
opined and felt that "Only when the woman is liberated from the slavery of
that her true spirit may be discovered". It does not mean that women
should not cook, but only that household responsibilities be shared among men, women and
children. He wanted women to outgrow the traditional responsibilities and participate in
the affairs of nation. He criticized Indian's passion for male progeny. He said that as
long as we don't consider girls as natural as our boys our nation will be in a dark
Gandhiji was especially considerate of the young widows. In
the last 80 years, as a nation, if we have made any progress on the matter of child widows (girls used
get married very early and after untimely deaths of their husbands, they were condemned to
a life of great agony, shaving heads, living in isolation, and shunned by the society.) it
is due to the reformers like Gandhiji and his contemporaries. Gandhiji once noted during
his legendary travels across India that he never came across 13 year old who was not
married. He declared the marriages in which the girls were not consulted were unholy. At
that time in Madras presidency, the number of child widows were alarmingly large. He called
upon the young to marry the widows and also to boycott child marriages. (It may be noted
here that Gandhiji himself married when very young; he was thirteen.) The history of India knows
of many such young men who married widows and went on to work as social reformers.
Temple women and Prostitutes
Gandhiji was very disturbed by the plight of
this low caste
untouchable section of the society, namely the Devadasis. (see
also: The Temple Women) He was hurt by the
miserable way the children of brothels were treated. He had made elaborate plans for their
rehabilitation. He declared that protecting women's honor was important and as holy as
protecting cows. His book "Women and Social Injustice" contains discussions of
very deep thoughts and solutions on the topic. He felt that after India became free, the
system of temple women and brothels must be abolished. Even though on paper we have abolished
the system of Devadasis, rampant exploitation of women as sex servants has continued.
There was no way Gandhiji could have predicted modern ways and means of prostitution (call
girls, phone sex etc) but he certainly identified its social evil and tried to fight it.
Gandhiji's contribution for betterment
of women in India
As we look back at the Indian history and compare the
conditions of women before Gandhi's rise, and now, the progress we have made is quite
enormous. A whole generation of women leaders came up influenced by Gandhi's vision. If
today in India so many women can go to work in offices, educational institutions, and
factories without fear or hesitation, the roots for such system were laid 90 years ago by
Gandhiji and his followers.
As mentioned earlier, Gandhiji formulated India's freedom
struggle as a comprehensive plan for women's development. Even though a lot of
inequalities remain in our society, there is a fundamental agreement that men and women
are equal. As Indians, we can be very proud that the same cannot be claimed even by so
called "advanced nations". In Britain as well as in the U.S.A., women could not
vote 75 years ago. But women's voting came very naturally to us from the beginning.
years ago, the western woman could not own property, get a divorce or take the custody of
her children. We just have to look at the life and struggles of Dr. Annie
understand the status of western women during Gandhiji's time. The western women had to
take to streets, overcome many stereotypes to establish themselves voting and other
rights. But for us, political, economic and voting rights came so naturally through the
Today, if Gandhi's agenda has fallen apart, it is due to
Indian politics. The continued exploitation of women can be attributed to the degradation
in moral values of the society, and utter poverty of our nation. We ignored the role of social service,
job dignity, and self reliance. Once in a while we run into true volunteers (like
Sushilamma - see visit to an ashram) who believe in
Gandhiji's ideals and have implemented his programs. I hope that at least a few of the
younger generation take up Gandhiji's unfinished manifesto and work to eliminate social
barriers facing women.