Mahatma Gandhi had expressed his views
and had written on numerous issues that concerned the Indian Society
in particular and humanity in general. This article examines the
importance and relevance of his views on issues that directly or
indirectly impacts the status of women in India. The following
issues are being considered:
- Equality of Sexes.
- Dowry System.
- Widow Remarriage.
- Women’s Honor.
- Education and Co-education.
- Birth Control.
The perception of the self is a matter
of conditioning. The way men and women perceive themselves is also
a matter of conditioning that had and is taking place since the dawn
of human race on earth. Given the biological differences, can woman
be psychologically different from man? Can women be cerebrally
inferior to man? I am sure that the answer would be clear ‘No’.
Yet, differential conditioning over many a millennia have
contributed to the perception that both men and women are different,
both psychologically and cerebrally. Religion, customs and laws
from times immemorial had relegated women to the backyards of human
civilization. When you fear the power of the other and when you
have no means to equal the other, you connive and lay traps for the
subjugation of the other. This is what the history of hitherto
existing man’s civilization has done to women, save exceptions like the Mahatma.
Unlike many other noble souls who
wrote and worked with the principle of sexual equality in mind,
Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, sought to bring about a
revolutionary change in the status of women in the first half of the
20th century. The views expressed by the Mahatma and the actions
undertaken by him may not go entirely with the current times because
the times have irreversibly changed but the honesty of the Mahatma,
the love and respect he had for women can never be doubted.
The Mahatma on Women
The Mahatma said that women have been
suppressed under custom and law for which man was responsible and in
the shaping of which she had no hand. Rules of social conduct must
be framed by mutual co-operation and consultation. Women have been
taught to regard themselves as slaves of men. Women must realize
their full status and play their part as equals of men. (Ref.
Constructive program, pp. 17-18).
The Mahatma on wives
Wives should not be dolls and objects
of indulgence but should be treated as honored comrades in common
service. The educationally ill-disposed should be educated by their
husbands. The customary and legal status of women is bad and
demands radical change. (Ref. Constructive program, pp. 17-18).
The Mahatma on traditional rules and regulations
Legislation has been mostly done by
men and has not been always fair. The blemishes represented in our
Shastras should be removed by women. Women of firm, pure and
self-controlled character like Sita, Damayanti and Draupadi should
be produced and they will be able to remove these blemishes from our Smritis.
Gandhi considers these women of pure,
firm and self-controlled character. Yes they were firm and
self-controlled but one can always debate about the purity aspect of
a character, particularly women, because purity is generally related
to sexual purity. The question is therefore, whether sexual purity
is a virtue or an ideal criterion to measure the character of a
person. Or for that matter, is sexual purity the only criterion to
measure the character of a woman? These women suffered the
domination of men in the society, they suffered an oppressive social
system and succumbed to it. For instance, Sita rejected this world
of men and their laws and vanished in the parted earth. Draupadi
married to Arjuna in the Swayamwar and accepted his four brothers as
co-husbands against her desire (a rare case of fraternal polyandry
amongst the ruling classes). Damayanti fought for her beloved Nala
and succeeded. But none of these women fought against the
oppressive social system created by Manu and his ilk. Could these
women be considered as role models for the modern woman?
Women are gifted with equal mental
capacities and therefore she has equal rights. However, due to the
force of custom, ignorant and worthless men have been enjoying
superiority over women. (Speeches and Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, ps. 424-425).
Manusmriti on women
The blemishes referred to by the
Mahatma as obtained in Manusmriti can be found in Chapter IX which
deals with the Eternal Laws for Husband and Wife. There are in all
336 verses in this Chapter which describes women in abysmally lowly
words. While a great part of this body of laws are hateful and
deserves to be condemned and not expunged as the Mahatma wanted it,
I must say that every Indian women and men must read Manusmriti to
know what great damage it has done to women and Indian society.
(Ref. Manusmriti translated by George Buhler, www.sacredtext.com).
Equality of sexes
Women must not suffer any legal disability which is not suffered by men. Both are perfectly equal
(Young India, 17th October, 1929). Sexual equality does not
translate into occupational equality in spite of the absence of a
legal bar. Women instinctively recoil from a function that belongs
to men. Nature has created sexes as complements of each other.
Their functions are defined as are their forms. (Harijan, 2nd December, 1939).
The Mahatma’s view on sexual equality
will not be taken kindly either by the modern man or the woman. The
instinctive recoiling of women from a function that belongs to men
is a consequence of historical indoctrination. What belongs to men
and what belongs to women is deeply embedded in the psyche of men
and women. The question is therefore who should complement whom.
It should be matter of choice both for the man and the woman as
husband and wife as to what vocation they should take up. It is
unjust to expect the women to complement as a matter of an unwritten
rule. To say that their functions are defined as are their forms is
to emphasize on the sexual division of labor. The theory of sexual
division of labor has been set aside by the developments since the
departure of the Mahatma. Today men and women, compete and
co-operate, complement and even supplant each other. However, the
Mahatma’s view on women being a complement of man should be looked
at from the point of view of his intention. The Mahatma’s intention
was honest. He wanted to protect the institution of family and at
the same time exalt women with equal status.
Marriage is a sacrament. It is a
natural thing in life (Harijan, 22nd March, 1942). Thinking of the
state of affairs in our country, very few Indians need marry at the
present time. The purpose of marriage is to get progeny but all
progeny that is born now is the issue of passion, mean and
faithless. Gandhi advised young men not to marry till 25 or 30.
He preferred arranged marriages but the young man needs to be
consulted by the parents if he is more than 25 (A Handbook of
Sarvodaya, Part-2, p55, compiled by Subhash Mehta).
Marriage has become a contract between
consenting individuals. It is an artificial fact of life. However,
considering the fact that the population of India grew from 23
crores in 1891 to only 25 crores in 1921 and that from 25 crores in
1921 to 36 crores in 1951, a phenomenal increase in the latter
period, the Mahatma was duly alarmed by the rapid increase in
population and therefore was right in saying that “very few Indians
need marry at the present time”. His views on the age at marriage
for young men are however relevant to this day. His view that
marriages should be arranged by parents and that a young man of more
than 25 should be consulted by the parents reflects upon the fact
that the Mahatma had a traditional view of life and that he wanted
reforms within the tradition.
Chastity cannot be protected by the
surrounding wall of the Purdah. It must grow from within and it
must be capable of withstanding every unsought temptation (Young
India, 3rd February, 1927). Why is there all this morbid anxiety
about female purity? Have women any say in the matter of male
purity? Female or male purity cannot be superimposed from without.
It is a matter of evolution from within and therefore of individual
self effort (Young India, 25th November, 1926).
The Indian man has been unduly
obsessed with female chastity right from the ancient times. The
Mahatma was different to the extent that he demanded male chastity
also. That the Hindu Purdah or the Muslim Purdah cannot protect
chastity and that only self-control and purity of mind can do that
is absolutely right.
The Dowry System
The dowry system is a product of the
caste system. The abolition of caste will lead to the abolition of
dowry (Harijan, 23rd May, 1936). Demanding dowry is akin to
discrediting womanhood. Young men who demand dowry should be
excommunicated. Parents of girls should cease to be dazzled by
English degrees and should not hesitate to travel outside their
little castes and provinces to secure true, gallant young men for
their daughters (Young India, 21st June, 1928).
The Mahatma was a very complex
personality. He expected the women to play a complementary role in
the society and wanted women to scale the highest peaks of life in
the female domain, not realizing the fact that the complementary
status of women was a product of the caste system. However, when it
came to the dowry system, he wanted the abolition of the caste
system. He came down on the dowry system very strongly and wanted
the dowry demanding husband to be ex-communicated. He advocated
inter-caste marriages and expected gallantry or chivalry from men.
He wanted women to wait till the ideal suitor comes. The Mahatma had
a very sublime and soft view of women and did everything to protect
the pleasing side of the traditions.
Widowhood imposed by religion or
custom is an unbearable yoke and defiles the home by secret vice and
degrades religion. In order to save Hinduism, enforced widowhood
must be ridden. Child widows must be duly and well married and not
remarried. They were never really married (Young India, 5th August, 1926).
One cannot have a better view on Widow
Remarriage than what the Mahatma has presented. He was clearly
against Child Marriages and wanted child widows to be well married
because they were not really married. He was the man who led the
country by example. In 1918, when Hiralal’s wife died of influenza,
he was fifty and wanted to remarry. Gandhi did not allow his son to
remarry. He later on relented but wanted Hiralal to marry only a
widow. Hiralal was emotionally bankrupt after his wife’s death and
took to alcohol and women, only to be found dead in the Sewree
hospital in midtown Bombay (Mahatma Gandhi, His Life and by Times,
p261 by Louis Fischer and Mahatama versus Gandhi, p15 by Dinkar Joshi).
Marriage confers no right upon one
partner to demand obedience of the other. However, divorce is not
the only alternative. Marriage is a state of discipline. When one
partner breaks discipline, the other can break the bond. The breach
here is moral and not physical. It precludes divorce. Hinduism
regards each as absolute equal of the other. Hinduism leaves the
individual absolutely free for the sake of self-realization, for
which and which alone he or she is born (Young India, 21st October, 1926).
The Mahatma believed that marriage was
not serfdom for men and women and that men and women had equal
status. The loss of discipline is a moral breach and divorce is not
a solution. Moral breach can be corrected by moral restraint and
repentance. More importantly, he says that Hinduism offers the
freedom of self-realization for both men and women. The Mahatma is
clearly against any kind of male chauvinism.
It is physically impossible to violate
a woman against her will. The outrage takes place only when she
gives way to fear or does not realize her moral strength. If she
cannot meet the assailant’s physical might, her purity will give her
the strength to die before he succeeds in violating her, for
example, Sita (Harijan, 14th January, 1940). When a woman is
assaulted, her primary duty is self protection. God has given her
nails and teeth. She must use them with all her strength and if
need be, die in the effort (Harijan, 01st March, 1942).
Perhaps due to the overriding
importance given to female chastity in the Indian society, the
Mahatma emphasizes once again on female chastity and purity. His
solution for the helpless woman under sexual assault to die before
the violation takes place is a very traditional view of what women
should do when they are sexually assaulted. It is akin to hara-kiri
or jouhar. In the days of armed sexual assaults and gang or group
sexual assaults on women, the Gandhian solution is inadequate.
Further, chastity is not an exclusively female virtue. The male
person who assaults sexually also loses his chastity and therefore,
he must also die. In fact, chastity as a virtue has been imposed
upon women since times immemorial and has been the single most
important cause of her degraded status in the society.
Education enables women to uphold
their natural rights. Men and women are complementary to each
other. Man is supreme in the outward activities and therefore he
should have a greater knowledge thereof. Home life is entirely the
sphere of woman and therefore in domestic affairs, in the upbringing
and education of children women ought to have more knowledge.
Unless courses of instruction are based on a discriminating
appreciation of these basic principles, the fullest life of man and
woman cannot be developed (Harijan, 27th Febraury, 1937).
The Mahatma’s views on women’s education are based on family ideals because he assumes that man is
supreme in the extra-mural activities and that woman is supreme in
intra-mural activities. Hence, education imparted to both men and
women should be according to their pre-ordained stations in life.
The Mahatma’s views on women’s education are based on his belief in
woman being a complement of man and are therefore out of sync in the modern context.
Brahmacharya is an infallible
sovereign remedy. Artificial methods are like putting a premium upon
vice. They make man and woman reckless. Adoption of artificial
methods must result in imbecility and nervous prostration. The
remedy will be found to be worse than the disease.
It is immoral to seek escape from the
consequences of one’s acts. Moral results can only be produced by
moral restraints. All other restraints defeat the very purpose for
which they are intended (Young India, 12th March, 1925). The use of
contraceptives kills the desire to exercise self restraint. Man
must understand that woman is his companion and not a means of
satisfying his carnal desire. The purpose of human creation was
wholly different from that of the satisfaction of animal wants (Key
to Health, pp.52-54). Sex is only meant for creation. Any other
use is a sin against God and humanity (Harijan, 28th March, 1936).
Woman must be taught the art of saying
no even to her husband. She has rights as well as duties. The
first thing is to free her from mental slavery, to teach her
sacredness of her body and to teach her dignity of national service
and the service of humanity (Harijan, 02nd May, 1936).
If Brahmacharya was to be taken as a
solution to birth control, we would need to spiritualize India as a
whole. Given the impossibility of the task, the Mahatma’s solution
of Brahmacharya, although virtuous in every sense of the term, can
only be considered as one of the remedies of birth control.
I consider it inhuman to impose
sterilization law on the people. I am against the use of
contraceptives in case of women. I do not mind voluntary
sterilization in case of man since he is the aggressor (Amrita
Bazaar Patrika, 12th January,1935).
While the Mahatma conceded Sterilization for men because he thought that man was the aggressor,
he was clearly against the use of contraceptives by women. His
thoughts about self control and purity seems to have clouded his
mind and prevented him from making practical big time solutions to
big time problems like the problem of population explosion.
The Mahatma was convinced about the need of self control in matters of sex. The overriding belief in
self control was also because of his personal success in pursuing
Brahmacharya. While self control is a very good solution, a virtuous
solution by every means, it cannot be expected from the entire
population. The Mahatma always led the society by example. In South
Africa, a young Indian married woman successfully assaulted
Manilal’s continence (bramhacharya). When the dereliction was
discovered, Gandhi made a public scandal, fasted, persuaded the
woman to shave her hair and said he would never allow Manilal to
marry. He only relented under Ba’s pressure, in March 1927 when
Manilal was thirty five.
On a scale of one to ten, the Mahatma
comes out with flying colors for his views on the various aspects
concerning women in our society. Considering the fact that he wrote
his ideas about 70 to 80 years ago, we can set aside some of his
views such as the women being a complement of men in matters of
occupation and education and female chastity in the context of
women’s honor. The Mahatma, by far, can be considered the best
friend of women in India and the world. The Mahatma’s purity of
thought and honest intentions are beyond question. No other man in
the entire history of India or in the world had such godly ideas
about women. For both men and women, to have a better perspective
of each other and life, Gandhian literature will continue to be a
prescription for many years to come.
The Mahatma by far was one of the most
honest and divine historical figures of the modern age. His
philosophy of non-violence, although not new, assumed revolutionary
proportions under his tutelage and captured the hearts and
imaginations of people all over the world. Non-violence as
enunciated by the Mahatma is the strongest weapon of the strong as
against violence which is the weakest weapon of the weak. Humanity
as a whole can seek deliverance from darkness to light and from
bondage to freedom with this mighty weapon of non-violence. The
power of non-violence is located in the spirit of the human being
and the Mahatma indubitably is the greatest architect of this spirit
and spirituality, he is the greatest sculptor of this spirituality
called non-violence. He is the noblest of all nobles and the
bestowal of the Nobel on him will only be a recognition which is
widely known and recognized.
- ‘India of My Dreams’ – A compilation of Gandhian writings by RK Prabhu, Navjivan
Publishing House, Ahmedabad. Eighth Reprint, May 2001. (Chapters 54 to 57).
- ‘A Handbook of Sarvodaya – Gandhi, Vinoba and Jayaprakash Narayan: The Triumverate
of Sarvodaya’ – A compilation by Subhash Mehta (P.No.55 – Social Institutions.)
- ‘Mahatma Gandhi – His Life and Times’ by Louis Fischer.
- ‘The Story of My Experiments with Truth’ by MK Gandhi.
- ‘Gandhi – A Life’, by Krishna Kriplani
- ‘Mahatma versus Gandhi’ by Dinkar Joshi, Jaico Publishing House, MG Road, Mumbai – 400 001.
- ‘A Tribute to Mahatma Gandhi: His Views on Women and Social Changes’ by Sita
Kapadia, Director, Self Enhancement Learning Forum, Houston, Texas, United States.
- ‘Gandhi and Women’ by Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur, an associate and follower of Gandhi.
- ‘Gandhi and Empowerment of Women’ by KD Gangrade, Vice Chairman, Gandhi Smiriti
and Darshan Samiti, Rajghat, New Delhi.
- ‘Gandhi and Women’s Empowerment’ by Jaya Jaitly.
- ‘Gandhi’s Feminist Politics, Gender Equity and Patriarchal Values’ by Kiran Saxena.
- ‘Women the Comrade’ by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, an associate and follower of Gandhi.
- Gandhi on Gender Violence and Gender Equality’ by Dr. Anupama Kaushik, Reader in
Political Science, Basnasthali University.
* Asso. Professor & Head, Dept. of Economics, Dr. T. K. Tope Arts & Com. College, Mumbai.