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Gandhi's Feminist Politics, Gender Equality and Patriarchal Values

By Kiran Saxena

GANDHI'S socio-political philosophy is feminist, which addresses to gender equity, constructed on patriarchal values. There is a contradiction in them; however Gandhi based the edifice of his philosophy on this contradiction. Politics and social life has always been associated with masculinity. It is concerned with power struggle, coercion, war, greed, selfishness, domination, bloodshed, hatred, deceit, cruelty and above all violence. They are masculine values and incapacitates women to participate in it as they are against the feminine character. The history of social and political life is an evidence that brute and aggressive people captured power and used it to perpetuate their self-interest. They exploited the poor, the needy and the helpless. In the slave society politics create situations which facilitated the slave owners to ruthlessly exploit human beings converting them as slaves. The desire to acquire land, money and women as property led to war and killing of innumerable human beings. In a feudal society the landlords indulging in wasteful luxuries usurped the fruits of labour of serfs. Hunger of land and wealth and the egoistic desire to dominate others resulted in war, in the killing of millions of people and large-scale destruction. In modern times capitalism, imperialism became great sources of dehumanizing colonial people. A vivid description of this has been given by R.P. Dutt in India Today showing how industrial-capitalist-imperialism of Britain destroyed the Indian economy. The effects of this wholesale destruction of the Indian manufacturing industries on the economy of the country can be imagined. The old populous manufacturing town Dacca, Murshidabad (which Clive had described in 1757 to be "as extensive, populus and rich as the city of London), Surat and the like, were in a few years rendered desolate under the "Pax Britannica with a completeness which no ravages of the most destructive war or foreign conquest could have accomplished.

Gandhi's Hind Swaraj echoed the same sentiment. He called modern civilization as "Satanic civilization." Fascism and Nazism, the twin most devastating phenomenon of modern times have created immense havoc for human kind by creating jingoist militaristic politics of masculine culture which eclipsed all that has been soft, humane, subtle, or can be characterised as feminine. The communist regimes promised a world free from exploitation, but built on bloodshed and regimentation collapsed like a house of cards.

The post-cold war world situation is quite dismal. The rivalry among the countries of developed capitalist system, their efforts to dominate the people of developing countries, the religious fundamentalism and ethnic strife, the mutual suspicion and hatred amongst the people of the developing countries. The inherent violence in the system represents a culture which is opposite of feminine- character. Coming back to Indian history one finds that the situation here has not been better. The social hierarchy creating a large segment of human population as untouchable, was rooted in the most heinous injustice. The Indian political history as the history of other countries is replete with wars, struggles, bloodshed, treachery and back stabbing. Whatever period of history, it remained out and out masculine. Devoid of feminist qualities it closed the door for women for the social and political life. Masculinity created a boundary for women and dismissed them from the outside world. Imprisoned in the four walls of the house, they became outcastes, invisible from dark, brute and inhospitable public life.

The greatest contribution of Gandhi was 'Satyagraha' which not only aimed at creating a society which would be based on feminine values but also advocated a feminist strategy to achieve that ideal. Gandhi aimed at creating a non-violent society based on truth. He had mystified the concept of truth using an abstract language, like his definition of truth "that there is an unalterable law governing everything that exists or lives. It is not a blind law, for no blind law can govern the conduct of living beings. For Gandhi this unalterable law was truth. This truth is non-violence which is love. These virtues according to him are not sensory or empirical but are also transcendental. Nevertheless, behind Gandhi's mystical explanation there is an advocacy of a society based on humanitarian values.It envisages a society free of exploitation, establishing equality-social, political and economic--which would not discriminate against human beings on the basis of birth, colour, sex or nation. The basis of this society will be love, cooperation, care, sympathy, all those virtues with which women are associated, against coercion, selfishness or brute force.Indeed this kind of society will be congenial for providing a place for women they have been denied so far. It is "Sarvodaya" - for all including women.

The remarkable feature of this society is women's participation in creating it. Gandhi's enunciation of a feminine strategy that is 'satyagraha' is a unique strategy which has never been used as a practical method of socio-political change. Asoka, the great Emperor, at the fag end of his political career after going through the devastating experience of the immense suffering, agony of the people slaughtered in the Kalinga war realised the futility of war and worked on the principles of Gautam Buddha's philosophy of love and peace. Gandhi had started his experiment with truth from the very beginning of his political career. The satyagraha technique he started Africa continued throughout his life refining, sophisticating and sharpening it. In South Africa, Gandhi introduced the method of passive resistance against the unjust "Transvaal Asiatic Registration Act" as civil disobedience. Gandhi explained, "passive resistance is a method of securing rights by personal suffering, it is the reverse of resistance by arms. When I refuse to do things that are repugnant to my conscience, I use soul force. "... It involves sacrifice of self. Everybody admits that sacrifice of self is infinitely superior to sacrifice of others.'

Gandhi had launched many struggles in India for innumerable causes like those against untouchability, cow protection, basic education and above all the freedom struggle.They were termed as non-cooperation movement, civil disobedience movement and Quit India movement and were based on his philosophy of satyagraha. Its basic meaning is holding on to truth, hence truth-force. He added: "I have also called it love force or soul force. In the application of satyagraha, I discovered in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one's opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy. He made it clear that "in the method (satyagraha) we are adopting in India, fraud, lying, deceit and all the ugly brood of violence and untruth have absolutely no room. Everything is done openly and above board, for truth hates secrecy. The more open you are the more truthful you are likely to be." There are different manifestations of satyagraha, it could be individual or mass civil disobedience, assertive or defensive civil disobedience, fast and boycott or 'Hijrat' (running away from the place if the violence of the oppressor is unbearable).

Since Gandhi based his programme of action not on traditional political methods, its source was those virtues, would be suitable for women. Gandhi had admitted that he had designed his strategy and chosen his particular forms of struggle very consciously and deliberately, so as to encourage women's participation in them. He wrote: "My contribution to the great problem (of women's role in society) lies in my presenting the 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.

Indeed Gandhi's advocacy of nonviolence created favourable condition for mass participation of women in all the movements he launched. They came out from home instead of hiding in fear, as they usually did when the movements were violent. The satyagraha made women feel that because of their feminity they are not inadequate or inferior to men.Their feminity has not been down-graded because of their propensity to face violence is considered less, but rather they we made to feel that as women they are strong because of their feminine character. Madhu Kishwar explains "Gandhi saw woman as the embodiment of sacrifice and suffering" and felt her advent to public life should therefore result in purifying it, in restraining unbridled ambition and accumulation of property.

Interestingly, Gandhi had admitted that he learnt technique of non-violent passive resistance from women, especially from his wife and mother. It was Kasturba's passive resistance against Gandhi's, as a man and husband, unreasonable actions and attitudes, that compelled him change himself from a domineering husband to an understanding husband realizing the spirit of equality and acted upon principle of mutual consideration.

Nevertheless, there were some occasions when Gandhi suggested women to play a supportive role in political movements. The case in point is the famous Dandi March of 1930. Gandhi wanted to keep women out amongst the core group of 79 Satyagrahis to break the salt law. The women however resented it. Gandhi pleaded with the women that there were other reasons to exclude the women from the movement than their frailty, that he did not want to give opportunity to the British administration to accuse the Satyagrahis that they used women as a shield to protect themselves. Women did agree with Gandhi's plea and Mrs. Sarojini Naidu had participated in the Dandi March, and large number of women also associated with Gandhi's civil disobedience movement by breaking the Salt Law.

Whatever task Gandhi was involved women were always participating in all the constructive activities Gandhi had undertaken. They managed the various Ashrams he had setup on the basis of his philosophy at Phoenix, Sabarmati and Sevagram. Besides his wife, many distinguished women like Sarojini Naidu, Dr. Sushila Nayar, Rajkumari Arnrit Kaur, Sucheta Kriplani et. al. were his associates.

Peace-loving Gandhi felt that only women can fight militarism.In Paris he said, "I have no doubt that they can do infinitely more than men against war." He elaborated his argument to the women there. "Answer for yourselves what your great soldiers and generals would do, if their wives and daughters and mothers refused to countenance their participation in militarism in any shape or form."

Speaking to a group of women in Italy he said that "the beauty of non-violent war is that women can play the same part in it as men. In a violent war women have no such privilege, and Indian women played a more effective part in 'our' last non-violent war than men. The reason is simple. Non-violent war calls into play suffering to the largest extent, and who can suffer more purely and nobly than women". Giving the example of women of India, he added, "The women in India tore down the purdah and came forward to work for the nation. They saw that the country demanded something more than their looking after their homes. They manufactured contraband salt, they picketed foreign cloth shops and liquor shops and tried to wean both the seller and the customer from both. At late hours in the night they pursued the drunkards to their dens with courage and charity in their hearts. They marched to jails, and they sustained lathi blows as few men did. If the women of West will try to vie with men in becoming brutes, they have no lesson to learn from the women of India. They will have to cease taking delight in sending their husbands and sons to kill people and congratulating them on their valour".

Gandhi's unflinching confidence in women did not blind him to the real situation of women in the country. The unjust social structure, anti-women religious practices, rituals and conventions have debilitated women that have been not only marginalised women but were victims of inhuman cruelty. Gandhi wanted cessation of that cruelty and wanted an end to their marginalisation. He wrote: "I have always had a passion to serve the womankind. Ever since my arrival in India, the women have recognised in .me their friend and servant. Women have come to look upon me as one of themselves. I hold radical views about the emancipation of women from their fetters which they mistake for their adornment...........My experience has confirmed the views that the real advancement of women can come only through their own efforts.'

Gandhi, as friend, philosopher and guide of women used to receive large number of letters wherein the women wrote about their pitiable conditions. Gandhi had advised them to face them bravely and also suggested solutions. He opposed sati, child marriage, evil system (purdah) or husband's domination over his wife. He had supported widow marriage, advocated women's education.

There is a strong streak of gender sensitivity in Gandhi's analysis of man-woman relationship, marriage and sexuality. He asserted that woman is the companion of man gifted with equal mental capacities. She has a right to participate in the minutest detail of the activities of man, and she has the right of freedom and liberty as she is entitled to supreme place in her own sphere of activity as man is in his. This ought to be the natural condition of things only as of learning to read and write. By sheer force of a vicious custom, even the most ignorant and worthless men have been enjoying a superiority over women which they do not deserve and ought not to have.

About marriage, using Ram-Sita symbols he delineated his ideal relationship between husband and wife, that they have equal rights and status.He was aware of the fact that in a household "more often than not a woman's time is taken up, not by the performance of essential domestic duties, but in catering for the egoistic pleasure of her lord and master and for her own vanities. To me this domestic slavery of woman is a symbol of barbarism." He opined that "the slavery of kitchen is a remnant of barbarism only. It is high time that our womankind be freed from incubus. Domestic work ought not to take the whole of woman's time."

Celibacy was Gandhi's ideal. Gandhi's view on sexuality revolves around his advocacy of observing abstinence. Gandhi considered sexual union between man and woman should be only for procreation. Otherwise their relationship should be asexual. Gandhi was a protagonist of control of sexuality of women, but that control is not social, or outside control but self-control and women should observe celibacy, out of will and not by social coercion. Indeed Gandhi's advocacy for celibacy was not gender oriented. Men should also observe celibacy. The greatest contribution of Gandhi in this regard is that he very vehemently stood for the rights of women over their own body, which the feminists of today have been crusading for. Men do not have a right to violate a woman. He even exhorted women that they should resist the advances of their husbands in marriage and should not succumb to their carnal desires. The modern women's movement has been raising the voice that marriage does not legitimize rape in marital life. Gandhi stood for this long back and admitted women's inalienable right over their body and marriage does should not and cannot take away that right from her.

Nevertheless, Gandhi had a great insight into man-woman relationship ensuring women's total equality. However, his advocacy of rights of women within the patriarchal values was his undoing. Gandhi's revolutionary ideas are trapped in established socio-cultural values, which created a contradiction in his understanding of woman's place in family, society and politics. He reverts back to the dominant values of gender relationships as it exists in society. The basic gender explanation is that man and woman are biologically different: therefore, their work roles in society are different. The contention is that the determination of role is not social but biological, that woman, who plays an important role in reproduction should play a marginalised role in social production.Janet Saltzman Chafetz explains: "Gender permeates all aspects of socio-cultural and personal life in most societies. The term 'gender system' refers to socio-cultural status quo in stable systems, as it relates to gender. When the term 'gender system" is used, it includes systems of gender stratification and differentiation, as well as the gender division of labour, gender social definitions, and power inequities between the genders."

Gandhi thinking within the parameters of reformist patriarchal social order was not able to see that treatment to women in this social order is fundamentally discriminatory.Gandhi, like the religious social reformists of India in the nineteenth century stood for the end of inhuman treatment to women. Women's special social role as 'reproducer' all the religions have accepted and always propagated that. For that reason all the care and comfort should be provided to her. Manu, the Hindu law giver, and others like him in all religions understood the importance of women in a patriarchal system as a reproductive specie, and in spite of passing extremely degrading statements against women, always, side by side had said that where women are respected there is heaven (Yatra Pujyate Naryastu, Ramante Tatra Devata). Gandhi, aware of the fact that "Smritis bristle with contradictions" did not analyse the root cause of contradictions and in a peripheral way stuck to half truth that legislation has been mostly the handiwork of man, and man has not always been fair and discriminate in performing that self-appointed task. The largest part of our effort in promoting the regeneration of women should be directed towards removing those blemishes which are represented in our Shastras as the necessary ingrained characteristics of women. Here Gandhi puts the blame on men who wrote the Shastras not the patriarchal system, its ideology which constructs the mind of men and women which is articulated in the religious, social and traditional culture.

Basing his basic premise that men were responsible for anti-women character of the Shastras Gandhi's delineation of the role of women in society is blurred with gender-dominated patriarchal value system. His explanation "since the beginning of time there has been a division of labour between and women--Adam wove and Eve spun. The distinction persits to present-day and "nevertheless that at some time is a bifurcation. Whilst both are fundamentally one, it is also equally true that in the form there is a vital difference between the two. Hence the vocations of the two must also be different, the duty of motherhood which the vast majority of women always undertake, requires qualities which man need not posses. She is passive, he is active. She is essentially mistress of the house. He is the bread winner; she is keeper and distributor of bread. She is care-taker in every sense of the term. The art of bringing up the infants of the race is her social and sole prerogative"... Gandhi emphasising the reproductive role over other roles, woman as mother and keeper of hearth-exhorts her to keep off from public life. Politics and professions were to be, by and large, exclusively male domains" Gandhi asserted, "and you sisters, what would you do going to parliament? Do you aspire after the Collectorship, Commissionership or even Vice royalty? You would not care for the Viceroy has got to order executions and hangings, a thing you would heartily desist"

Thus Gandhi's framework for w omen's position in social life is a "long suffering, selfless and self-effacing" one. The capacity for silent suffering which Gandhi idealised was in fact one of the key symptoms of her subordination, a glorified cult of eternal womanhood.

Gandhi's life mission was to save humanity from barbarity and he had insight that in any social situation where "violence and brute force reign supreme or when social conflicts are sought to be resolved through the use of weapons, women tend to be pushed into more and more peripheral roles, and all the positive qualities tend to be looked upon with contempt". Gandhi did realize that women's entry in the national movement of India was a life-preserving and humanising force which would prevent the movement from getting dissipated by senseless and self-destructive violence.

Having realized the important role women could play in purifying public life Gandhi, a great visionary constructed feminist politics and himself became an embodiment of feminine virtues, understood the plight of women specially in Indian society, however, remained imprisoned in the mindset of patriarchal values and was unable to subscribe that "unfair treatment of women is a disease as bad as untouchability."

The remarkable insight that he had, was blurred with the traditional logic. The consequence is that post-Gandhi politics, in the fiftieth year of independence in India, is witnessing fifty per cent population of marginalised women begging for 33 per cent reservation in the legislative bodies, so that they could have a say in the policy decisions of the country so that the crass politics of corruption and criminalisation give way to politics of love, peace, goodwill and non-violence to feminise politics Gandhi strove for. What a pity?

Source: Empowerment of Women: Miles to Go By Dr. Savita Singh