Educational Resources

Breaking the Shackles : Gandhi's Views on Women

Usha Thakkar

Gandhi worked not only for the political emancipation of the nation, but for liberation of all the suppressed and oppressed sections of society. One of the noteworthy results of his life-work has been the awakening of women, which made them shed their deep-rooted sense of inferiority and rise to dignity and self-esteem. For Gandhi, "When woman, whom we all call abala becomes sabala, all those who are helpless will become powerful". The welfare of the weaker sections of society was dear to his heart. He had no qualms about the priority of social over political ends. In his opinion, to postpone social reform till after the attainment of Swaraj} was not to know the meaning of Swaraj.

Women, urban and rural, educated and uneducated, Indian and foreign, were attracted to his ideas and deeds. While some like Sarojini Naidu, Lakshmi Menon, Sushila Nayyar and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur rose to prominence, there were thousands of unsung and unnoticed heroines of India who learnt the meaning of liberation from him and contributed with all their energy to the struggle for independence. Life sketches and reminiscences of women freedom-fighters give us glimpses of their crusade against injustice and inequality.

An attempt is made in the present paper to understand Gandhi's views on women in the context of social, economic and political issues.

Social Regeneration

Gandhi respected traditions of the society, but not at the cost of loss of individual dignity. His practical and dynamic advice was "It is good to swim in the waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicide". He never hesitated to criticize the evils which had gripped the Indian society, and tried to mobilize public opinion against such evils. He realised that there were deep-rooted customs hampering the development of women, and women's freedom from such shackles was necessary for the emancipation of the nation.

According to Gandhi, the custom of child-marriage is both a moral as well as a physical evil, for it undermines our morals and induces physical degeneration. The purdah system, according to him, was "vicious, brutal and barbarous". He questioned the basis of the practice of pushing women in seclusion: "Why is there all this morbid anxiety about female purity? Have women any say in the matter of male purity? We hear nothing of women's anxiety about men's chastity. Why should men arrogate to themselves the right to regulate female purity? It cannot be superimposed from without. It is a matter of evolution from within and, therefore, of individual self-effort.4 He called prostitution "moral leprosy" and despised the fact that" the beast in man has made the detestable crime a lucrative profession". He appealed to prostitutes to give up their "unworthy profession" and become "sanyasinis" of India.

Gandhi viewed marriage as a sacrament imposing discipline on both the partners, not a license for physical union and emphasized spiritual union in marriage. He insisted on monogamous marriages and put forward a plea for inter communal marriages between caste Hindus and Harijans. In his opinion, "Woman is the companion of man, gifted with equal mental capacities. She has the right to participate in the very minutest details in the activities of man and she has an equal right of freedom and liberty with him. She is entitled to a supreme place in her own sphere of activity as man is in his". Gandhi was clear that "Woman must cease to consider herself the object of man's lust. The remedy is more in her hands than man's. She must refuse to adorn herself for men including her husband, if she will be an equal partner with man". When Gandhi was asked whether a wife could go against the will of her husband to take up national service, he supported the claim of a wife to devote herself to a noble purpose. He cited the example of Mirabai in support of his argument In his opinion, every wife" has a perfect right to take her own course and meekly brave the consequences when she knows herself to be in the right and when her resistance is for a nobler purpose".9 According to him, the only honourable terms in marriage are mutual love and mutual consent.

For him, sexuality ought to be kept at the minimum inside marriage and totally eliminated outside it. The method of birth-control, he favoured, was by exercising self-restraint in life and restricting physical union only for getting children. Referring to his own life, he observed that he began to enjoy his married life only after he abandoned sex. For him, "the conquest of lust is the highest endeavour of a man's or a woman's existence whereas physical union for the sake of carnal satisfaction is reversion to animality which has to be avoided by both."

Gandhi realised the miseries of widowhood for a woman as "men have ordained perpetual widowhood for women and conferred on themselves the right to fix marriage with another partner on cremation-ground itself". For him, "Voluntary widowhood consciously adopted by a woman who has felt the affection of the partner, adds grace and dignity to life, sanctifies the home and uplifts religion itself. Widowhood imposed by religion or custom is an unbearable loke and defiles the home by secret vice and degrades religion. He believed that it is better for a widow to remarry openly rather than commit sin secretly.

Gandhi sees these widows as a strong reservoir of energy, which could be put to use to bring light to the dark comers of the nation. In his opinion, "It is worth considering carefully in what way the country can avail itself of the services of hundreds of widows, young and old". As Gandhi respected widows who dedicated themselves to the service of humanity, he had great regard for women who chose the path of staying single to serve society and the nation. In his opinion, not every Indian girl is born to marry. There are many girls willing to dedicate themselves to service instead of servicing one man.

Gandhi had visualized a great role for women in eradicating the evil of communalism. His appeal to women was to refuse to cook, and to starve themselves in protest so long as their men "do not wash their hand of these dirty communal squabbles". Gandhi's appeal reached women everywhere in India. He expected great things from them in the areas of work concerning purity of life, removal of untouchability, propagation of Khadi. communal harmony and Swadeshi. His logic was simple: "If Kaikeyi could obtain all that she wanted from Dashrath by dint of Duragraha, what could they not achieve with the help of Satyagraha?".

Gandhi's own experience of Kasturba's resistance to acceptance of untouchables as members of the family perhaps made him aware of the role that women can play in the removal of untouchability. "If the Hindu heart is to be cured of the taint of untouchability, women must do the lion's share of the work". His appeal to women was "If you consider Harijans untouchables because they perform sanitary service, what mother has not performed such service for her children."

When Gandhi told women that the economic and the moral salvation of India rested mainly with them, he was not paying mere lip-service to them. He was evoking a creative and constructive spirit that was suppressed in them. A simple factor like their choice of clothes and jewellery was transformed by Gandhi into a force for Swadeshi. Khadi came to be identified with opposition against foreign rule and love for the nation, and giving away her jewellery means that a woman is shedding her own shackles.

Political Emancipation

Gandhi revolutionised not only Indian politics, but also the whole perception of life for women. In his words, "My contribution to the great problem (of women's role in society) lies in my presenting for acceptance of truth and ahimsa in every walk of life, whether for individuals or nations. I have hugged the hope that in this, woman will be the unquestioned leader and, having thus found her place in human evolution, will shed her inferiority complex. Women's entry into national politics through non-violent methods brought miraculous results. On the one hand, women became aware of their inner strength, and on the other, the process brought human and moral elements into politics.

Gandhi had tremendous faith in women's inherent capacity for non-violence. And his experience of participation by women in politics from his days in South Africa till the end of his life bears testimony to the fact that they never failed his expectations. With Gandhi's inspiration, they took the struggle right into their homes and raised it to a moral level. Women organized public meetings, sold Khadi and prescribed literature, started picketing shops of liquor and foreign goods, prepared contraband salt, and came forward to face all sorts of atrocities, including inhuman treatment by police officers and imprisonment. They came forward to give all that they had-their wealth and strength, their jewellery and belongings, their skills and labour-all with sacrifices for this unusual and unprecedented struggle.

Gandhi's call to women to involve themselves in the freedom struggle had far-reaching results in changing their outlook. "The cause of Swaraj swept all taboos and old customs before it". Many women in their individual lives shed their age-old prejudices against the caste system. They had no hesitation in leaving the boundaries of their protected homes and going to the jail. They even broke their glass bangles (a sign of ill omen for married women) when they were told that they were made of Czechoslovakian glass. Women's participation in the freedom struggle feminized nationalism and the nationalist struggle helped them to liberate from age-old traditions.

Though Gandhi never challenged the traditional set up, he inspired women to carve out their own destinies within it, and thereby changing its very essence. Women learnt from Gandhi that one can be strong, even if seemingly weak, to protest against injustice. They realised that they do not have to accept the norms of male-dominated politics. They evolved their own perspectives and formulated their own methods. In a way they presented a critique of the colonial unethical state.

Gandhi could see woman as connected with service and not with power. When a woman wrote to him in 1946 about the political scene and the paucity of women in it, he wrote: "So long as considerations of caste and community continue to weigh with us and rule our choice, women will be well-advised to remain aloof and thereby build up their prestige Women workers should enroll women as voters, impart or have imparted to them practical education, teach them to think independently, release them from the chains of caste that bind them so as to bring about a change in them which will compel men to realise women's strength and capacity for sacrifice and give her places of honour. If they will do this, they will purify the present unclear atmosphere." His advice to women was to teach people in villages simple lessons of hygiene and sanitation. Seeking power would be, for them, "reversion of barbarity". And still Gandhi believed that, "Women must have votes and an equal status. But the problem does not end there. It only commences at the point where women begin to affect the political deliberations of the nation."

Economic Self-reliance

Gandhi visualized a humane society, free from exploitation and in justice, built by responsible men and women. Gandhi, however, maintained that the spheres of work for woman and man were different. "She is passive, he is active. She is essentially mistress of the house. He is the breadwinner. She is the keeper and distributor of the bread. She is the caretaker in every sense of the term." Gandhi was of the firm opinion that if women have to work outside the home, they should do so without disturbing it. They can take up some work, which would supplement the income of the family, and spinning, according to him, was perhaps the best work they could undertake. Spinning and weaving for women were "the first lesson in the school of industry". The spinning wheel can be the "widow's loving companion", of livelihood for the poor family and a means to supplement the income of the family of -Pie middle class, and for the well-to-do women, it would be a means to relate their lives to those country s poor women.

Though women had no direct control over economic matters, they were the managers of homes. Gandhi was quick to grasp this fact. So, to popularize the message of Swadeshi, a cardinal economic principle for him, he demanded the support of women. In his opinion, the Swadeshi vow cannot be kept without the help of women. "Men alone will be able to do nothing in the matter. They have no control over the children, that is the woman's sphere. To look after children, to dress them, is the mother's duty and, therefore, it is necessary that women should be fired with the spirit of Swadeshi.

Ideal Models

Gandhi often presented ideals before women, drawn from Indian traditions, mythology and history. He often talked about Sita, Draupadi, Damayanti and Mirabai as great women. There is nothing new for a social reformer drawing inspiration from the tradition. What is new here is the fact that this innovate interpretation of these characters gives a glimpse of the dynamic element in his thinking. He did not accept the negative elements of the Hindu tradition. He visualized the Indian women as new Sitas, Draupadis and Damayantis, "pure, firm and self- controlled".

For Gandhi, Sita was not a weak and dependent creature, but a strong woman conveying the message of Swadeshi, who only wore "cloth made in India" and thus kept her heart and body pure. Moreover, she should defy the might of Ravana by sheer moral courage and she would not waste "a single moment on pleasing Rama by physical channs". Implying thereby that a woman could assert herself in doing what she considered right even if the husband thought otherwise. Another ideal model presented by Gandhi was Draupadi who was not dependent on men and saved herself by an appeal to Krishna when the Pandavas failed to protect her. Here the appeal to Krishna is to be understood as following one's own conscience. He saw Mirabai, as a symbol of courage, who followed her chosen path by defying the social norms of the time.

It is interesting to note that Gandhi does not advise a woman to be an ideal wife or ideal mother. Deviating from the traditional framework, he advises women to be sisters. Pointing out the greatness of a sister over a wife, he maintained that a sister is to all the world, while a wife hands herself over to one man. Moreover, it is possible to become the world's sister only by making Brahmacharya "a natural condition" and being 'fired by the spirit of service". Women have the potential to do immense service to the unfortunate, by doing this they can be "Sisters of Mercy".

Though Gandhi gave the traditional role a new vigour, he had undaunted faith in the chastity and purity of woman. He was sure that the "dazzling purity" of a woman could disarm even the most beastly of men. In his opinion, an ideal woman would rather give up her life than her purity. Construction of the woman in such terms seems to be at times too idealistic in contemporary times. According to Madhu Kishwar, "Gandhi's very vocabulary, in its exaggerated idealization of women as 'sisters of mercy' and 'mothers of entire humanity' reveals the bias of a benevolent patriarch."

And yet, there is something in his ideas that is essentially radical. He did not see women as helpless objects of reform. Neither did he think of bringing change only in some spheres of life, such as marriage or education. His vision of change was comprehensive. He connected the moral with the political, the social and the economic, presenting an eclectic view of life. For him the means had to be identified with the ends; similarly, he did not differentiate between the private and the public worlds of women. He also enhanced the dignity of woman's housework, advising his men followers to take to spinning and to do ordinary works in everyday life. He himself imbibed so many of a woman's qualities, that he became 'mother' to many.

Gandhi saw that the low status of women was the result of prejudices arid adverse traditions, which were centuries old. It was difficult to get women interested in the larger problems of life and society because they knew nothing of them, having never been allowed to breathe the fresh air of freedom. The only factor that would enable women to come out of this situation was the determination and strength of the women themselves. Though men should help in the cause of women, ultimately women will have to determine their destinies. Gandhi sympathizes with women, but he does not want to pity them all the time. Neither does he want them to be irresponsible, pleasure-loving beings.

In Gandhi's philosophy, the women of India found a new identity. His words and deeds have inspired thousands of women, and will continue to do so, in their struggle against injustice and inequality.

[Source: from the book 'Meditations on Gandhi']