Mahatma Gandhi and his views on the social status of Indian women

Mohandas K. Gandhi ;Manilal Gandhi ;Mrs. Kanu Gandhi;Pyarelal;Sita Gandhi;Sushila Pai;Raj Kumari
(Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

By Sahil Bansal and Anirban Chanda 

“…If non-violence, is the law of our being, the future is with women.”Young India, April 10, 1930

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Mahatma, is undeniably the biggest name in the political history of India. The Gandhian political philosophy already has and continues to attract millions of admirers across all backgrounds within India and outside.

However, an individual is not remembered for their noble deeds alone; there is always a critique worthy side that history remembers. India’s greatest leader is no exception. The Mahatma’s views have been put to trial time and again. It would be apt to express the underlying sentiment of this article’s enquiry in the words of the distinguished Indian scholar Professor Vinay Lal, who states that there is a “Gandhi Everyone Loves to Hate.” Echoing a similar emotion, this article endeavors to tread upon Gandhi’s views on the social status of Indian women and, at the same time, assess the genuineness with which the much-revered political leader demonstrated his willingness to act upon the causes that he advocated. This topic has invited strong emotional critiques from various quarters and generally provokes a raging debate between Gandhian supporters and those known to be critical of Gandhi. What unfolds is our humble attempt to document and study a perpetual about Gandhi’s views on Indian women that keeps surfacing every now and then. 

Mahatma Gandhi’s insightful and deep socio-political understanding of India and the diverse requirements of the freedom struggle made him realise that men alone will not be able to lay the foundational bedrock of the Swaraj he had dreamt for India. If India were to become truly self-sufficient and untangle itself from the colonial shackles, it had to be both personal and political. In order to ensure that the former sphere of societal existence was properly reformed, he understood that women had to be mobilised so that they can contribute to the freedom struggle. Gandhi’s message was that Swaraj and reformation in the personal sphere of the Indian society could not be achieved without the emancipation of Indian women.

He experienced this spirit in millions of women, especially from Indian villages, whose life he watched and with whom he had direct communication. The women in his own life justified his expectations. It was his mother, Putlibai, and his wife Kasturba, who Gandhiji claimed had taught him the efficacy of non-violence. As he writes in the Harijan of November 5, 1938: “It may be that there shall arise one among them who will be able to go much further than I can ever hope to do. For, woman is more fitted than man to make explorations and take bolder action in ahimsa.”

According to Gandhi, women were stronger than men in terms of endurance and were amenable to the adoption of non-violent means than men who could be easily provoked and were swayed by an aggressive idea of their masculinity. Secondly, he had concrete proof of this in the effective manner in which women in India had participated in the non-violent struggle from 1917 onwards. Speaking of the 1941 struggle, he said that while both men and women played a noble part in the non-violent struggle, women had surpassed men in their exhibition of courage, while demonstrating admirable exhibits of resistance. The fact that as early as the second and third decades of this century women went against the custom of purdah and renounced willingly the age-old tradition of wearing jewels, struck him as being extraordinarily courageous.

“Men alone can’t achieve Swaraj”

Gandhi’s ideas on women crystallised in a coherent fashion in the period between 1917 and1922. This period also saw the emergence of Gandhi as the leader directing this struggle. This phase is characterised by an organised expression of protest against the British and participation of both men and women in this struggle. Thus, it is difficult to separate analytically which proceeded first: women’s participation or Gandhi’s advocacy of this. Gandhi did not show any displeasure at this participation of women. In fact, Gandhi treated women as a major force in some of the mass national movements that he led. One of the most significant examples of this can be found in the popular Salt Satyagraha which he had organised to protest against the oppressive Salt Tax Laws which were put in place by the colonial government. Interestingly, as a part of his contingent plan in this march Gandhi had appointed Sarojini Naidu as his successor in leading the march in case he was to be arrested. This act his reveals his vision of including women in the freedom struggle. Some of his earlier writings show his fascination for the potential that such participation can have in a moment of struggle.

Gandhi’s writings till 1916 on women have been similar in sentiment to that of the reformists. Gandhi’s writing is especially similar to that of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar’s ideas on women’s education which Gandhi agreed with and advocated. In a speech that he delivered before All India Service Conference, he clearly reveals his differences from the early nationalist thinkers by inverting the equation that they had posed between education and the upliftment of the status of women. He says that for the real “reformer… the way to women’s freedom is not through education but through the change of attitude on the part of men and corresponding action.”

Gandhi attempted to end the seclusion of women and their image as a sexual object, while simultaneously asserting her power in all decisions pertaining to the household and the freedom struggle. At the same time, we find that Gandhi was very careful in realising the pragmatic limits of his expectations. While he introduced national politics into the household, it is interesting to note that he did that without breaking the domestic space which defined women in the society of his time. He was conscious of the fact that centuries of colonial domination had already jolted the daily lives of the Indian society. There was a high probability that another shock in the name of ideological progressiveness might stretch it beyond its limits and result in a total breakdown. Therefore, it is very clear from his writings on women and division of work that he wished to affirm and emphasise the crucial role of women in the household as against her activity outside. Gandhi, when confronted with what appears to him a problem of ‘honour’, ‘purity’, and ‘chastity’ which is mediated by his own middle-class patriarchal attitudes, reasserted with more directness, the need for women to remain in the house and fight for Swadeshi from within the house. The vow of Swadeshi is thus transformed from its political roots into a moral one. To practice Swadeshi meant to respect Indian womanhood.

The fight for the country’s freedom, the protection of its wealth and the emancipation of Indian women became central to Gandhi’s programme for the future. During the period when  Swadeshi movement gained momentum, the lives of Indian women operated under the thrall of a patriarchal prescription which glorified and mandated that for their lifespan they were to serve their family and spend their lives doing domestic chores. But with the advent of the Swadeshi movement Gandhi gave the clarion call to emancipate Indian women from the oppressive thrall of patriarchy, by encouraging them to  spin the charkha in their households. This was done to ensure that the khadi cloth that they would produce would serve as an Indian alternative to colonial merchandise. Moreover, this not only contributed to the Swadeshi movement but also instilled a sense of empowerment in the Indian women who were convinced that their work was contributing to a greater purpose which was beyond the four walls of their household.

The Gandhian approach to fighting colonial oppression lay in transforming one’s weakness into their strength. He was convinced that the participation of Indian women was very crucial for the success of the freedom struggle movement. He also realised that in a society such as twentieth century India which was entrenched with patriarchal and conservative notions the social position of women had to be uplifted before they could be encouraged to contribute in any form. Therefore, throughout his movements, be it the Dandi March or the Swadesh movement against the British goods, Gandhi emphasised on the need to make Indian women self-reliant.

Gandhi did not consider the social norms for constraining women found in the Smriti texts to represent moral laws. He was disappointed when his critics quoted the Smriti texts arguing for woman’s dependence on man and her complete obedience to her husband regardless of the husband’s moral and physical infirmities. Gandhi countered that such sanctions in religious texts were “repugnant to the moral sense.” Throughout his life, Gandhi reinterpreted texts and myths of Sita, Savitri, and Draupadi to explain the inherent strengths of women. Gandhi wanted to cast them in a new image of independence and defiance.

Gandhi disagreed with the idea that women were unworthy of high spiritual attainments in the ascetic tradition. This was a causal factor in the custom of segregation of women and men on sexual grounds, leaving women confined to the domestic sphere. Such customs made women perceive themselves as dependent and inferior. Traditionally, ascetic literature describes women as dangerous to an ascetic life and therefore brahmacharya – male celibacy – presupposes withdrawal from any close contacts with women. But Gandhi deliberately transgressed the advice of orthodox ascetic literature and proclaimed: “Man is the tempter and aggressor.” By declaring men accountable for their own lust of women, Gandhi, using the authority of an ascetic, sought to liberate women from this unwarranted stereotype.

Gandhi realised that women in the Indian society could not even freely talk about the inconveniences or medical issues that they might have been facing in their daily lives. This was primarily because of the stigma and taboo associated with publicly discussing and addressing issues related to personal hygiene and private bodily parts of women. Gandhi expressed his angst as he said that “hundreds and thousands of women suffer because of such shame” and gave examples of the woman who “would not let her private parts be examined even by a woman doctor.” Gandhi’s observations of women’s private issues were progressive for his time, but with the authority of a religious figure he used the traditional vocabulary of innocence and passionless-ness within his indigenous narrative of celibacy to inspire women to abandon shame. By including women and men equally in his private activities of bathing and massages, Gandhi set a model for encouraging women to shed false modesty and to embrace gender equality.

In this article, we have attempted to chart the layered progression of Gandhi’s dynamic views on the social status of women through a sieve of celibacy. We have tried to understand the foundation of Gandhi’s willingness to bring women to the forefront. His inspiration was derived from his mother Putlibai and his wife Kasturba. Mahatma Gandhi’s contributions towards the emancipation of Indian women continue to inspire courage and strength in a number of major movements which aim to achieve gender equality in present day India.

Sahil Bansal
is a final year law student at Jindal Global Law School, India. His academic interests include reading and writing about Law, Gender, and History.  

Anirban Chanda is a final year undergraduate law student at Jindal Global Law School, India. His academic interests include Constitutional Law, Legal History and Political Theory.


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