Being a woman is a terribly difficult task, since it consists principally in dealing with men. Joseph Conrad
India’s two main religions, Hinduism and Islam, are both deeply patriarchal. Their scriptures and their historical practice have relegated women to an inferior status. Women were not allowed to assume positions of power and authority. Women were denied the right to follow the profession of their choice. Men could choose to have several wives at once, but women had to be content with a single husband, this chosen for them by their father or grandfather.
The attitude of India’s major religions towards women was strikingly manifest in some responses to the horrific rape and murder of a young girl in Delhi. The RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, and the Shankaracharya of Puri both blamed ‘Western’ culture; in traditional Hindu culture, they claimed, such incidents did not and could not happen. A Hindu Godman, Asaram Bapu, blamed the girl herself; she should, he said, have gone down on her knees and begged for mercy.
The statements of these three guardians of Hindu orthodoxy were widely reported. Less noticed, perhaps, were the remarks of a Sunni cleric in Kerala, Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musaliyar. Endorsing the statements of Hindu patriarchs, he said: ‘The demand for male-female equality is against nature. Man and woman have different faculties and different responsibilities’. Mr Aboobaker Musaliyar went on to dismiss the idea of women’s equality as a Western concept.
In 1950, the Indian Constitution put women and men on the same plane. Unlike in Western democracies, where men were granted the franchise well before women, in our first General Elections, held in 1952, all citizens over the age of twenty-one were encouraged to vote—regardless of their class, caste, or gender. Five years later, a series of laws passed by Parliament granted Hindu women the right to own and inherit property, to choose their spouse (even if he was of another caste or another religion), and to divorce him in case he abused or ill-treated her.
All these rights were absolutely new. They were completely un-Hindu. In fact, the reform of Hindu personal laws was opposed at every stage by the guardians of Hindu orthodoxy. The RSS and the Sankaracharyas did not want their Hindu sisters to be allowed to choose their marriage partners. They thought their Hindu sisters incapable of owing or managing property. And they were extremely reluctant to allow them to look for dignified and gainful employment outside the home.
In these respects the Hindu patriarchs have been adequately matched by their Islamic counterparts. The reform of Hindu laws was supposed to be followed by a similar reform of Islamic law, to create a common civil code in which all Indian women would have the social and legal rights already enjoyed by men. That this has not happened is largely because timid politicians have not dared take on reactionary mullahs.
The task of achieving gender equality is as yet unfinished. That said, over the past century, Indian women—both Hindu and Muslim—have made far greater progress in securing their fundamental human rights than in the previous ten centuries. Left to the religious patriarchs, women in India would be even worse off than they are now.
Perhaps the first man to recognise the pervasive sexism in Indian society was the Bengali reformer Rammohan Roy. The dissenting tradition he inaugurated was furthered, and deepened, by (among others) Jotiba Phule, E. V. Ramaswami, Jawaharlal Nehru and B. R. Ambedkar. Meanwhile, some women were no longer relying on men to make their case. Maharashtra was in the lead here, producing such remarkable feminists as Pandita Ramabai and Tarabai Shinde. Later, in the first half of the 20th century, Ammu Swaminadhan, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Sarojini Naidu, Aruna Asaf Ali and others organized meetings, rallies, unions, and co-operatives where women were encouraged to speak out for themselves, and to demand rights of equal citizenship in the nation-in-the-making.
Also involved in the movement for greater rights for women was a certain Mohandas K. Gandhi. In terms of his upbringing, Gandhi was a typical, traditional, Hindu patriarch. How then did he become more open-minded? In a speech to a group of women students in Lahore in July 1934, Gandhi remarked: ‘When I was in South Africa, I had realized that if I did not serve the cause of women, all my work would remain unfinished.’
Gandhi’s sensitivity to women’s concerns originated in a home his wife and he shared in Johannesburg with an English couple named Henry and Millie Polak. Millie Polak was a feminist, who pressed Kasturba to stand up to her husband, and chastised Gandhi for having such a conservative attitude towards women. Millie herself held—as she once wrote to a friend—that ‘all the questions relating to life really belong to women’. She believed that for ‘thousands of years, men have used women and the greatest beauties in their nature rather to their detriment than her glory’. She insisted that ‘only when the finer forces of life are realised can women come into her own.’
In 1931, Millie Polak published a memoir of her life with the Gandhis. Here, she remembered Gandhi claiming that the East had given the woman a higher position than in the West. ‘I do not see that’, responded Millie: ‘The East has made her the subject of man. She seems to possess no individual life’.
Gandhi now said, continuing the argument, that ‘the East has given her a position of worship’. As proof, he mentioned the story of Satyavan and Savitri, which held that when Satyavan died, Savitri wrestled with the God of Death for the return of his beloved. ‘She had a hard battle to fight’, said Gandhi, but after showing ‘the highest courage, fortitude, love and wisdom’, eventually won her husband back to her side.
Millie answered that this story actually proved her point. In Indian mythology, it appeared ‘woman is made to serve man, even to wrestling with the God of Death for him’. In myth and in reality (seeing how Gandhi treated Kasturba), Millie found Indian women ‘always waiting on the pleasure of some man’.
These arguments with Millie Polak forced Gandhi to reconsider, and in time abandon, his own prejudices. The education of the patriarch was carried on by other women he came to know in South Africa, such as his secretary, Sonja Schlesin, a feisty, independent-minded woman always ready to tell her boss when he was wrong.
In 1906 and 1909, on extended visits to England, Gandhi watched the protests of the suffragettes, admiring their fortitude and resolution, their willingness to court arrest and to be beaten up by the police, so that their sisters would be granted the right to vote. Back in South Africa, Gandhi was moved by the courage of Tamil women, who selflessly supported the satyagrahas he was organizing. In the last of these satyagrahas, in 1913, the Tamil ladies and his own wife Kasturba courted imprisonment, this at a time when women were kept away from the national movement in India itself.
In an essay published many years ago in the Economic and Political Weekly, Madhu Kishwar claimed that Gandhi brought more women into public life than any other politician. This may be true. Marxism promises gender equality in theory; but Marxists like Stalin and Mao were as patriarchal in their behaviour as any sant or mullah. (Their legacies are visible in the leadership of the CPI(M), where women are massively under-represented). While there were few women in the Bolshevik Revolution or the Long March, many women played active, leading roles in the Indian freedom struggle.
It seems clear that the path of women’s emancipation has been charted by those who have bravely stood against religious orthodoxy, those who have challenged the scriptural sanctions and social practices of Hinduism as well as Islam. Some of these reformers have been instinctive modernists, their education and orientation predisposing them in favour of equal rights for women. Others have had their minds opened and their certitudes challenged by women they came into contact with.
Ambedkar and Nehru fall in the first category, Gandhi in the second. In retrospect, we may think Gandhi fortunate in having had the opportunity to have arguments with the likes of Millie Polak, Sonja Schlesin, and Kamaladevi Chattopadhay. Restricted as they are to male company, to male friends alone, Mohan Bhagwat, Asaram Bapu, the Sankaracharya of Puri, and Kanthapuram AP Aboobacker Musaliyar have—alas for them and for India—not been so lucky.
Postscript: As this article goes to press, word comes of a ‘Grand Mufti’ in Kashmir demanding that an all-girl music band stop playing. Doubtless this cleric has never had the privilege of friendship with women, either.
PATRIARCHY AND PREJUDICE
by Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 16th February 2013)