Gandhi’s vision for women: How he would have looked at the Women’s Reservation Bill : The Tribune India

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Gandhi’s vision for women: How he would have looked at the Women’s Reservation Bill

Mahatma Gandhi treated women as conscious agents and not as passive recipients. With one-third representation in legislative bodies now a matter of time, how would he have looked at it?

Gandhi’s vision for women: How he would have looked at the Women’s Reservation Bill

The limitations in Mahatma Gandhi’s worldview notwithstanding, he created great openings for more public participation by women. This participation inevitably brought in its wake political empowerment too. Photo courtesy: The publications division, Ministry of Information And Broadcasting



Salil Misra

ALL progressive minded thinkers would agree that patriarchy is easily the last and the most formidable bastion to overcome in the pursuit towards an egalitarian social order. Discriminations on the basis of caste, religion and wealth may possibly be overcome in some distant future, but the ideal of achieving gender equality appears most elusive. The practice of gender discrimination derives its justification from the idea of patriarchy. It is deeply entrenched in the human mind as well as in the social world. Patriarchy as an institution has an old history, perhaps as old as that of the family, the other important institution. Tradition, social structure, religion, nationalism and eventually capitalism have all played their role in promoting patriarchy and according a lower status to women. Women, consisting of half the population, have always had a minuscule share in wealth, property, jobs and other important social roles. This fact of an absolutely uneven distribution is as true of the past as the present. Gender discrimination is, by all accounts, the biggest social problem confronting humanity. How did Mahatma Gandhi understand this question and try to cope with it?

Gandhi’s engagements with the gender question did not start on a clean slate. He inherited great disquiet on this question from the 19th century social reformers. In particular, the question of child marriage, denial of opportunities to widows and girls’ education had been at the centre of concerns of the 19th century reformers. Gandhi fully shared their concerns. However, he was different from them in one respect. The reformers saw women as passive recipients of reforms. Gandhi, in contrast, accorded great agency to women and saw them as active agents who would alter their conditions through their own endeavours. His main efforts were also geared in that direction. He constantly highlighted that bravery, courage, defiance and independence were not masculine traits; men had no monopoly over them. Gandhi projected them as feminine virtues. To demonstrate his point, he invoked the characters of Sita, Draupadi and Mirabai from tradition. Sita was Ram’s wife who made an enormous contribution to his life as an equal partner. Draupadi was the exemplar of self-reliance and fierce independence, fully capable of defending her honour by herself. Mirabai displayed great courage to defy social norms and authority, and chart her own independent trajectory. With such reservoirs, women will be able to pursue their chosen ideals.

Only dalit in constituent assembly

Dakshayani Velayudhan was one of the 15 women members of the Constituent Assembly and its only Dalit member. She came from the Pulaya community of Kerala and at 34, was the youngest member of the Assembly. She lived in Gandhi’s ashram at Wardha and married an inmate, Raman Kelam Velayudhan. She was quite active in the Constituent Assembly debates and often disagreed with Dr Ambedkar on many important issues. She was associated with the All India Women’s Association (AIWC). She remained politically active after Independence, particularly among women slum dwellers. Dakshayani Velayudhan remained a Gandhian all her life and died in 1978 at the age of 66.

However, while invoking tradition, Gandhi had to be very careful. He could see that history had played a double trick in perpetuating women’s subordination. Tradition had created certain social roles for women as mothers and wives. Although it subordinated them, it also put them on a high pedestal. Women were subordinated and sacralised at the same time. An aura of self-denial and sacrifice was implanted in their identity. Curiously, the industrial civilisation destroyed that aura while retaining the subordination of women. They remained ‘inferior’ in modern times, but this inferiority was not sugar-coated by noble and pious words. This was to be expected from an instrumentalist capitalist civilisation that valued success as the greatest virtue. There is no doubt that in modern times, the institution of patriarchy has become stronger in some respects.

Gandhi was acutely aware of this double trick played by history and of the pitfalls of relying on tradition. Even though intuitively a traditionalist, he was very guarded in his invocation of tradition to counter gender imbalances. He wrote: “It is good to swim in the waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicidal.” He was aware that religious texts were heavily pitched against women and therefore, religion and tradition could not be fully relied upon while removing the injustices done to women. “The largest part of our effort in promoting the regeneration of women shall be directed towards removing those blemishes which are represented in our Shastras as the necessary and ingrained characteristics of women. Who will attempt this and how?”

The trouble was, if tradition was pitched against women, modernity was even more so. It replaced the sacralisation done by tradition with a masculine gaze in which the totality of women was reduced to bodily and physical attractions. Women were reduced to sex objects. Gandhi tried to counter this stereotyping of the image of women by a complete negation of sexuality. If he celebrated Draupadi for her fierce independence, he invoked Sita in his effort to liberate women from what he perceived to be the shackles of sexuality. His appeal to all women was to fashion a new identity for themselves, as sisters rather than wives: sister-hood was universal; wife-hood had to be exclusive. By being sisters, women could transform not just their conditions, but the social order as a whole.

However, it is also true that on the one hand, Gandhi believed that only transformed women could transform the social order. But, on the other, his imagination of a transformed woman was extremely restricted. He located this transformation purely in ethical-moral domains and not in social-structural ones. In other words, he did not question the gendering of social roles and was content with a situation in which women continued to perform their traditional roles, prescribed by the social order. He wrote: “While [men and women] are fundamentally one, it is also equally true that in the form, there is a vital difference between the two. Hence, the vocation of the two must also be different. The duty of motherhood, which the vast majority of women will always undertake, requires qualities which men need not possess. She is passive, he is active. She is essentially the mistress of the house. He is the bread-winner, she is the keeper and distributor of the bread. She is the caretaker in every sense of the term... In my opinion, it is degrading both for man and woman that a woman should be called upon or induced to forsake the hearth and shoulder the rifle for the protection of the hearth. It is reversion to barbarity and the beginning of the end. In trying to ride the horse that man rides, she brings herself and him down. The sin will be on the man’s head for tempting or compelling his companion to desert her special calling.”

Gandhi believed that women could bring about an ideational transformation from their own location. In his worldview, it was the ideational software of the social order that needed to be transformed (and only women could do it). The material hardware of the social order did not have to be dismantled for that. In his blueprint of this transformation, he accorded a low priority to economic and political empowerment of women. It is true that Gandhi treated women as conscious and reflexive agents and not as mere passive recipients; he also expected them to carry great burdens as active agents. The onus of social transformation rested on their shoulders. As India approached Independence, Gandhi began to argue: “Women must have voting and equal status. But the problem does not end here. It only commences at the point where women begin to effect the political deliberations of the nation.”

All these limitations in Gandhi’s worldview notwithstanding, it is undeniable that he created great openings for more public participation by women. This participation inevitably brought in its wake political empowerment too. Madhu Kishwar, in her two-part essay in Economic and Political Weekly in 1985, made an extremely important point that the concrete initiatives undertaken by Gandhi were much more important with great consequences, compared to his words and utterances, which were extremely limited in scope. Women’s entry into the national movement was initially marked by spinning khadi and constructive programme. Gandhi called spinning and weaving “a woman’s full lesson in the school of industry”. For middle-class women, it was an added income for the family. For a poor woman, it was a means of livelihood. For a widow, the spinning wheel was a “loving companion”. For the educated and affluent women, it was a duty, dharma. He exhorted women to give up wearing jewellery and all the external manifestations of feminity. With the Civil Disobedience Movement (1930-34), women’s participation in public activities increased manifold. They participated in the salt Satyagraha and also picketing of shops selling liquor and foreign cloth. From spinning to picketing was certainly a great leap forward. Well over 3,000 women courted arrest during the Civil Disobedience Movement. The political resistance by women increased in subsequent years, much beyond the parameters set by Gandhi. It may also be said that the large participation by women also owed itself to the new politics that was brought into prominence by Gandhi, with its focus on non-violence, open demonstrations, transparency and public defiance. All these features of the new politics made it easy, and quite attractive, for the women to participate in the new venture and occupy leadership positions.

Gandhi’s position on the politics of representation was quite complex. He had his reservations on reservation as a part of positive discrimination. He argued: “It would be a dangerous thing to insist on membership on the ground merely of sex. Women and for that matter any group should disdain patronage. They should seek justice, never favours.” But he also added: “Seeing however that it has been the custom to decry women, the contrary position should be to prefer women, merit being equal, to men even if the preference should result in men being entirely displaced by women.”

When the Constituent Assembly met in 1946 to frame a Constitution for Independent India, it did not show much enthusiasm towards ensuring women’s participation in the political process. One reason may have been that the women members of the Constituent Assembly did not insist on it. They insisted on equality of citizenship rather than any positive discrimination in favour of women. It may not have occurred to them that an insistence on equality under deeply unequal conditions will only end up promoting inequality. The extremely inadequate representation of women in Independent India’s political institution has borne this out. A Bill ensuring one-third representation for women in the legislative bodies languished for well over two decades and suffered from an overall neglect by the political class, before it was eventually passed recently. How would Gandhi have looked at this development? He may or may not have approved of the procedures to ensure women’s representation in the apex decision-making bodies. But, given the appalling lack of political will to bring it about, he would have wholly approved of the outcome.

— The author teaches history at Ambedkar University, Delhi

#Mahatma Gandhi


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