GANDHIJI’S contributions to Indian life and thought, indeed to world life and thought, have been many and varied. But women, in particular Indian women, owe him a special debt of gratitude.
It was but natural that the heart of a man who believed so firmly in Truth and Non-violence should go out in sympathy and understanding to all those who were oppressed or unjustly treated. It hurt him to think that woman whom he looked upon as ‘the mother, maker and silent leader of man’ should have so lost herself as to have become a mere chattel of man.
Gandhiji was uncompromising in the matter of woman's rights. ‘In my opinion she should labour under no legal disability not suffered by man. I should treat daughters and sons on a footing of perfect equality.’ Those who tried to argue with him on the basis of what the great law-giver Manu is supposed to have said that ‘for woman there can be no freedom’ or what is contained in some texts in the Smritis met with scant attention. Such sayings or texts were not sacrosanct to him. They could 'command no respect from men who cherish the liberty of woman as their own and who regard her as the mother of the race.’ He upbraided those who on behalf of orthodoxy resorted to quoting such texts as if they were part of religion. He recommended that some authoritative body should ‘revise all that passes under the name of scriptures, expurgate all the texts that have no moral value or are contrary to the fundamentals of religion and morality and present such an edition for the guidance of Hindus.’ While a Sanatanist Hindu in the highest sense of the term Gandhiji was wise and good and big enough to realise that ‘the letter killeth but the spirit giveth life.’ He, therefore, had no hesitation in preaching in no uncertain terms, whether through the woman in the name of law, tradition and religion. To him even the slightest injustice was a form of violence and, therefore, an untruth. As he always maintained, Truth was impossible without Non-violence and equally the converse was true.
His indignant protests against enforced widowhood, in particular against the crime of child-widows, against the curse of child-marriage, against polygamy, against the sin of prostitution, against the cruelty of the purdah system, indeed against everything that militated against giving to with her co-partner in life, man, are there for all to read. He held that freedom and liberty to woman could in no sense be disruptive of all that was most precious in Indian culture and especially in feminine grace and modesty so peculiar to India's womanhood. In his own institutions and programme of work he paid equal attention and gave equal place to girls and women. There was an air of freedom and self-confidence in the girls and women that lived under his care whether at Sabarmati or at Sevagram which was a joy to behold and rarely visible in our society elsewhere. Nothing delighted him more than the success of women in any sphere of life. If ever he wished to elicit the opinions of his co-workers on any matters connected with the Ashram or any new undertaking he paid equal attention and lent equal weight to the views of women workers.
There is no doubt that of all the factors that have contributed to the awakening of women in India the most potent has been the field of non-violent action which Gandhiji offered to women in his battle for India’s political freedom. It brought them out in their hundreds from sheltered homes to stand the furnace of a fiery trial without flinching. They came well through the test and proved to the hilt that woman was capable of leadership and just as well able as man to resist evil or aggression. Their participation on equal terms with men in the freedom struggle gave woman a definite place so far as the salvation of India was concerned and has been responsible for the trust reposed in them, on the advice and guidance of Gandhiji, by the leaders of the nation in the shape of positions of high office which have been entrusted to them. In India’s new Constitution sex will not constitute a barrier of any kind in any sphere of life.
But while Gandhiji stood for equal status with man for woman he expected much from her too. The pamphlet on the Constructive Programme was written by him in the train from Sevagram to Bardoli in 1941. I remember so well saying to him at the time ‘What a tragedy, isn’t it, that the uplift of women has perforce to be one of the items?’ With a sigh he replied ‘It is a tragedy just as untouchability is a tragedy. But while I have always blamed men for considering themselves lords and masters of women instead of considering the latter as their friends and co-workers I do want to impress on you that your own sex is also greatly to blame for your present position.’ The words ‘surrender’ or ‘defeat’ did not exist in his vocabulary because he believed that moral force was far superior to brute force. The Almighty had a wise purpose in all that He planned. Woman had been created the physically weaker vessel but by reason of that very weakness he held her to be innately superior to man in moral strength. ‘Woman is more fitted than man to make explorations and take bolder action in Ahimsa. For the courage of self-sacrifice woman is any day superior to man as I believe man is to woman for the courage of the brute.’ He never failed to stress that violence was against the fundamental nature of woman. But he sorrowed greatly that woman had become a slave to man simply because she failed to recognise her latent strength. ‘Woman is the incarnation of Ahimsa. Ahimsa means infinite love which again, means infinite capacity for suffering. Who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure? She shows it as she carries the infant and feeds it during nine months and derives joy in the suffering involved. What can beat the sufferings caused by the pangs of labour? But she forgets them in the joy of creation. Who, again, suffers daily so that her babe may wax from day to day? Let her transfer that love to the whole humanity, let her forget she ever was or can be object of man’s lust. And she will occupy her proud position by the side of man as his mother, maker and silent leader. It is given to her to teach the art of peace to the warring world, thirsting for that nectar. She can become the leader in Satyagraha which does not require the learning that books give but does require the stout heart that comes from suffering and faith.’
Perhaps nothing distressed Gandhiji more than the fact that whenever man resorted to war, whether on a large or on a small scale, he invariably became the slave of lust and women were his first victims. That violence must breed greater violence was as true as the fact that day follows night. But what worried him was the thought that woman fell an easy prey to man’s brutality. It was his firm belief that woman had the power to die before she yielded her live body to man. ‘I wish I could be a woman under such circumstances and try out whether I could successfully resist the brute in man,’ he once said to me. ‘I believe it can be done.’ In any event he was absolutely convinced that the weapons of war were not going to save her any more than they could save a nation against superior brute force. ‘In my opinion it is degrading both for man and woman that woman should be called upon or induced to forsake the hearth and shoulder the rifle for the protection of that hearth. It is a reversion to barbarity and the beginning of the end.’ The women who celebrate his Jayanti this year will do well to ponder over these words. In a message to the women of Europe in 1932 Gandhiji quoted to them the example of Indian women who had come out in their thousands to take part in a non-violent struggle. That ideal may not be lost sight of by us if we are to remain true to him and his cause of world peace. ‘If only women will forget that they belong to the weaker sex, I have no doubt that they can do infinitely more than men against war…’ ‘If Europe will drink in the lesson of non-violence it will do so through its women.’
There was much opposition, even from amongst leaders of the women’s movements, to Gandhiji’s uncompromising attitude towards birth-control through contraceptives. His viewpoint was not due to any lack of sympathy on his part for the sufferings of women because of frequent child-bearing but because he was essentially their protector and was ever pointing to them, in particular, the higher way of life. Moral force and the chastity born of spirituality, were woman’s crowning glory. In plain language he believed that the only right use of the generative organ is to confine it solely to generation and that any other use was its abuse. It was man's, and also woman’s supreme duty to stand for self-control as against self-indulgence and that was the surest recipe for birth-control. Brahmacharya for Gandhiji meant mastery of the Science of Life but he always admitted that it was perhaps the hardest thing for both man and woman to attain.
He told me once that when he gave the cult of khadi to India he had in mind the enormous contribution that women would make through it to India’s cause. Spinning was from time immemorial a special occupation of woman. ‘The spinning-wheel was ever the widow’s loving companion.’ But more than a mere means of livelihood he looked upon spinning as a duty. This duty had not lessened because India had attained her political independence. Indeed it had increased. For him political independence meant nothing if it did not bring in its wake freedom from poverty, ignorance and disease, freedom from internecine strife and, above all, moral regeneration. In all these spheres he expected the largest contribution from women. ‘The economic and the moral salvation of India rests mainly with you,’ he said in his classic message ‘To the women of India in 1921.’ ‘The future of India lies on your knees for you will nurture the future generation. You can bring up the children of India to become simple, God-fearing and brave men and women or you can coddle them to be weaklings unfit to brave the storms of life.’ And again ‘to call woman the weaker sex is a libel: it is man’s injustice to women. If by strength is meant brute strength then, indeed, is woman less brute than man. If by strength is meant moral power then woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not greater intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, has she not greater powers of endurance, has she not greater courage? Without her man could not be. If non-violence is the law of our being, the future is with women.’
There is no doubt from the quotations I have given - and I could go on multiplying them - and from the intimate association I had the rare privilege of having with Gandhiji over many years that no one knew and no one appreciated womankind better than he. Because of this appreciation he expected greatly from women also. His human voice is stilled in death but his teachings and his spirit abide. We can only pray that strength from on High may he vouchsafed to us so that we may be enabled to fulfill the high calling of our sex as Gandhiji understood and explained it to us.