The platform of women’s rights was central to the nineteenth-century social reform movement, which crystallized both nationalist aspirations and feminist responses to patriarchy. In the twentieth-century nationalist upsurge, Indian women mobilized against colonial rule. When independence was granted in 1947, they achieved important rights.
Colonial Constructions of Gender
Women’s rights were first advocated in India by men of the elite, whose missionary teachers compared the modern post-Enlightenment developments of the West with India’s apparently moribund society burdened by archaic caste and gender hierarchies. Filtering their understanding of these new Western ideologies through the humanistic lens of ancient Hindu scriptures like the Upanishads, men of the literate castes concluded that India had declined from a “golden age” free of caste and misogyny, which were medieval accretions. Like their British colonial rulers, the reformers denounced female illiteracy and high caste customs like prepuberty marriages, sati (widows’ immolation on their husbands’ funeral pyres), polygamy, widow abuse, and enforced widow celibacy. They also cast a critical eye on female domestic seclusion in the zena-na-(women’s quarters) and the purdah (veil), a custom prevalent among Muslims and Hindus. Elite class men reinforced the rhetoric of Britain’s civilizing mission by accepting the colonial critique of Indian society. Early official surveys on the absence of high caste women in schools appeared to prove that Indian women were completely subjugated and submerged in ignorance. Feminist scholars argue that customs like sati became more common during the wars for colonial hegemony over India. Women of the literate classes, however, were often taught informally at home, and village women often chose religious mendicant vagrancy over a brutal domestic life. Influenced by Victorian views, literate Indian men undertook to improve the condition of elite caste women, while underestimating the potential of working-class women.
Male Reformers’ and Women’s Rights
The earliest Bengali reformer was Ram Mohan Roy (1772–1833), who denounced polygamy and sati through his Amitya Sabha (Friendship Association) in 1815, and the Brahmo Samaj (Society of Brahma) in 1828. A similar bhadralok (elite class) humanist was Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, who petitioned to legalize widow remarriage in Bengal in the 1850s; Vishnusastri Pandit, D. K. Karve, and Viresalingam Pantulu started widows’ remarriage associations in Bombay and Madras in the 1870s and 1880s. The Prarthana Samaj (Prayer Society) in 1867 and the Vedic Hindu revivalist Arya Samaj (1875) also promoted women’s education and criticized misogynistic marriage customs as detrimental to female health. In 1896, Justice M. G. Ranade and his wife Ramabai started the Ladies Social Conference, a secular forum within the Indian National Congress. In 1884 B. M. Malabari’s tract on child brides and abused widows horrified Victorian England. In 1891 colonial legislators enacted the Scoble Bill, raising the age (of married girls) for consensual sex from ten to twelve in India. Liberal Hindus like Raghunatha Rao, M. G. Ranade, and Gopal Krishna Gokhale supported such legal reforms, unlike Bal Gangadhar
Tilak who opposed colonial intervention in Hindu customs.
Feminist Writers and Activists
Several nineteenth-century women writers refuted the charge of female intellectual inferiority and denounced child marriage, widow abuse, dowry, and purdah in vernacular and English literature, while founding schools. The pioneer was Pandita Ramabai Saraswati (1858–1922), a Sanskrit scholar who married out of her caste and who became a vociferous feminist after her husband and family died in a famine. She began the first Indian feminist organization, A¯ rya Mahila¯ Sabha¯ (Association of Aryan Women) in 1881. Male reformers appreciated her call to the colonial government to create schools for women doctors and teachers. To pay for her studies in England, she wrote Stree Dharma Niti (Women’s religious ethics) in Marathi in 1881. After much soul-searching, she converted to Christianity in 1884, and she wrote The High Caste Hindu Women (1888) in English to finance her nonsectarian widows’ home, Sharada Sadan. Conservative Hindus like Bal Gangadhar Tilak accused her of proselytizing their daughters, whom they withdrew from the school. Clearly, feminists had to toe the line or be punished
by male nationalists. In 1882 Tarabai Shinde wrote Stri Purush Tulana (A comparison of men and women) in Marathi, accusing men of lust and duplicity and of falsely portraying women as seductresses. In 1891 Sarat Kumari Chaudhurani exposed the neglect of girls in her Bengali work, Adorer na Anadorer? (Loved or unloved?). The Muslim Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain advocated gender equality in Bengali, while her English novel, Sultana’s Dream (1905), describes a topsy-turvy world of male seclusion in mardanas resembling women’s zena¯na¯s. Savitribai Phule (1831–1897), a dutiful Hindu wife, described her radical work of educating the lowest castes. Some others were loyal Indian wives but ardent Christians, like Kripabai Sattianadhan (1862–1894), who laid the blame for women’s plight squarely on Hinduism in her English novel, Kamala: The Story of a Hindu Life (1894). Less famous women criticized patriarchy in journals like Mathar Manoranjani in Tamil in the 1890s, Sadhana in Bengali in the 1890, Stree Darpan in Hindi in 1909, Khatoon in Urdu, and Stree Bodh in Gujarati.
Motherland and Mothers of the Nation
Nationalism intensified after Bankim Chatterji’s 1883 poem “Bande Mataram” (Hail to the motherland) was set to music by Rabindranath Tagore (Thakur) and became the anthem of Indian nationalism. The paradigm of divine motherhood for the nation helped raise the status of its domestic mothers. After the 1905 Partition of Bengal, women joined men in boycotting and burning English goods. Young men in Maharashtra and Punjab, as well as Bengal, appeared ready to become martyrs for the motherland; “New Party” Congress activists, led by Bipin Chandra Pal and Tilak, advocated radical revolution.While some men felt threatened by women emancipated from domestic servitude, humanist authors Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), C. Subramania Bharati (1882–1924), and A. Madhaviah (1872–1925) praised women’s education in their prose and poetry. Women awakened to their dual identities as feminists and nationalists in this era. Sarladevi Ghoshal Chaudharani (1872–1946), a feminist Hindu revivalist, started her journal Bharati in 1895 and the Bharat Stree Mahamandal (Great Society of Indian Women) in 1910 at Allahabad. At an international women’s suffrage meeting in 1910 in Budapest, Kumudini Mitra advocated violent revolution to win gender rights. Women like Bina Das (b. 1911) and Santi Ghose (b. 1916) attempted to kill British officials. Communist women often subordinated feminism to the class struggle, while nationalists argued that freedom would guarantee women’s rights. Elite women believed that women’s rights were central to national revival through legal means, and they began feminist associations across India to improve their conditions. Mahatma Gandhi’s exhortations to men to emulate female moral superiority helped to empower women. Perceiving themselves as selfless mothers of the nation, they heeded his call to aid its poor women. When he launched his satyagraha (“hold fast to the truth”) campaigns of nonviolent resistance in India after 1917, many women joined, energized by his fervor.