Thus far, we have seen, read, and studied the oppression and resistance of different groups throughout history, but the topical focus for the rest of the Humanities Core classes moves to one that remains today as an issue often greatly debated: the independence of India.
Today, when thinking of the very resistance and freedom of India, Mahatma Gandhi’s name is immediately thought of and associated with one of the most famous leaders and advocates for justice in the world. As mentioned by Professor Chaturvedi in class and as a fact unbeknownst to most people, Gandhi’s ideas for civil rights actually began when he experienced racial prejudice against Indians in South Africa. By the time he was back in India, he then steered the struggle for India’s freedom from the British Empire, orchestrating numerous non-violent campaigns and protests by fasting or, for example, by walking in the Salt March. One of his most successful protests, the Salt March was provoked when Britain put a tax on salt, prodding Gandhi to stubbornly walk over two hundred miles to a sea in the village of Dandi to make his own salt and challenge the British authority, which displayed not only his dedication but also his tenacity and patience in his actions. In the end, led by a firm believer of non-violence, Gandhi’s peaceful protests and his activism prompted the country’s struggle for and eventual gain of independence, an enduring result of his influential deeds.
However, what most people never hear or think about is actually the role that women played in the advent for India’s freedom. Although India itself lacked political freedom from the British, many women within the country also were largely denied of their social freedoms. Fortunately, though, while political emancipation was critical to Gandhi, he found social emancipation just as essential to an ideal society. For Gandhi, these reforms were necessary to reorient the dominant perception of Indian women at that time since the customs and traditions of the country contradicted the spirit of development that was essential for both Indian women and the nation alike.
In India, the patriarchal standards of the country back then, and sometimes even today, left several women as subordinates to their male counterparts: their fathers and husbands. For example, an unjust system in which the cash and property of the bride’s family is given to the groom’s family, a practice known as the dowry system, was prevalent in the country. This unequal marital tradition places a great financial strain on the bride’s family, yet because of male-dominant ideals, it remained as one of India’s many social evils. Gandhi defines these marriages of dowry as “heartless”, believing that women should not marry men who demand dowry as not to give up their self-respect and dignity (Kishwar). As yet another example of the injustice towards women in India, women were not permitted to go out on their own, unless accompanied by men, and with only a select few allowed to leave their houses and attend schools, the percentage of women with a basic education in the country was at an incredible low of around two percent prior to the independence of India (Deshmukh). With that evidence and with many other inequalities apparent, it was clear that women had little to no freedoms in their own country during that time. This may have been because, before Gandhi, other social reformers and leaders had created an image of women as dependent and incapable of acting on their own accords. But with the advent of Gandhi, a differing perception of them began to arise, and women slowly began gaining currency. Unknown to most people, though, these women’s rise to power actually played a crucial role in India’s road to independence. And so, how exactly did Gandhi’s leadership of women enact both a political and social movement for change in India?
In contrast to the ideas of pre-independent India, Gandhi’s thinking asserted that men and women were essentially provided with the same spirit, with men and women as complementary to one another. He actually believed that women have the same, or an even greater, level of intelligence and mental ability as that of men and therefore should have a right to freedom as well. With this thinking, Gandhi essentially expressed that one should not be dominant over the other. In fact, to him, women were capable of displaying virtues much more important than those that men could achieve, such as manifestations of tolerance, knowledge, humility, and faith, all conditions necessary for acquiring the virtue of satyagraha, a term which can be understood as the “soul force” required for nonviolent acts. Because of this, Gandhi envisioned women, and not men, as possessing vital roles in establishing nonviolence (Kishwar).
Draupadi and Damayanti, two mythical role models whom Gandhi believed were demonstrations that Indian women were never feeble.
Because of his immense faith in women to employ a nonviolent campaign, under his leadership, women acquired the vital responsibility of moving India towards its independence through peaceful methods. By the year of 1930, women became mass participants of the Gandhian movement and fighters for freedom. With Gandhi’s guidance, women organized peaceful picketing, held public meetings, participated in national movements, and even bravely faced the police in their resistance. While the women’s contribution to India’s struggle for independence benefitted the country, it was also instrumental in altering the perspective of and attitudes towards women. Women were now seen as more potent and capable than before, especially with an intelligence similar to that of men, and with the independence of India came also several new rights for women. The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 provided equal rights for women to obtain a divorce from her husband, the Hindu Succession Act of 1956 guaranteed women’s equal rights in the inheritance of family property, and the Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961 considered the practice an offense punishable by imprisonment or fines. As shown, after the independence of India, these laws, and many more, led to a greater change in the status of women that allowed the constitution to lay down the equality of sexes as a fundamental right.
“The wife is not the husband’s slave but his companion and his help-mate and an equal partner in all his joys and sorrows – as free as the husband to choose her own path.” -Mahatma Gandhi
Overall, Gandhi, throughout his lifetime, waged a campaign for the elevation of those politically and socially oppressed, and in doing so, he enabled his country to gain its independence. At the same time, while Indian women today still do not enjoy complete freedom, Gandhi’s encouragement of their role in India’s struggle for this independence was a milestone towards their reestablishment of their identities and equality to men in society. If not for Gandhi efforts for political and social freedom, then India, and the women within, might still be largely oppressed.
Today, as India celebrates more than seventy years of independence, women are still fighting for equity both in the household as well as in workplaces, but still, their freedoms have come an astonishingly long way; and with that said, their struggle is still far from over.
Indian women shout slogans as they protest for International Women’s Day in New Delhi
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Deshmukh, Dilip P. “Gandhian Thoughts on Women Empowerment.” The Lex-Warrier, 21 Apr. 2016.
History, Staff. “Salt March.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 7 Apr. 2010.
Kishwar, Madhu. “Gandhi on Women.” Economic and Political Weekly, 12 Oct. 1985.
Nalamalapu, Ashok. “Reflections: Gandhi’s Mission of Nonviolence a Lesson in Leading by Example.” Press Herald, Reflections, 2 Oct. 2010.
Singh, Ritu. “The Love Story of Nala and Damyanti.” Indian Mythology, 4 Apr. 2014.
Thakur, Pallavi. “16 Fascinating Facts about Draupadi I Bet You Didn’t Know.”Speakingtree.in, Speaking Tree, 15 Jan. 2016.