Women's status at the time
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 (in 1947) 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.
Gandhiji 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 the kitchen, 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 eclipse.
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. 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. About 100 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 Besant to 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 constitution!
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) 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.
(Excerpts from a lecture given at the Gandhi Peace Foundation in December 1998)