Women and Independence

If early reformers had argued that women were the weaker sex, Mahatma Gandhi emphasized their nobility and self-sacrifice, and his cotton-spinning program was influenced by women. His appeal to elite class women to purify the nation and to aid their disadvantaged sisters was answered by donations of jewelry, the wearing of homespun cloth (khadi ), and the picketing of shops that sold foreign goods and liquor. However, he initially resisted allowing women to join his 1930 Salt March to Dandi, but Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya (1903–1990), and Khurshed Naoroji (1894–1966) persuaded him to change his mind. Thousands of women from across India were jailed for “stealing” salt from India’s beaches. Aruna Asaf Ali (1906–1996), Durgabai Deshmukh (1909–1981), and Rajkumari Amrit Kaur (1889–1964) were in the front ranks of “salt thieves.” The formation of the women’s wing of the Indian National Congress in 1942, led by Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, facilitated women’s mobilization in the Quit India movement.

Jawaharlal Nehru staunchly supported universal suffrage and women’s rights. In recognition of their contributions, fourteen women were included in the Constituent Assembly to draft independent India’s constitution in December 1946. These pioneers were Ammu Swaminathan, Kamala Chowdhuri, Begam Aizaz Rasul, Sarojini Naidu, Hansa Mehta, Sucheta Kripalani, Dakhsayani Velayudhan, Durgabai Deshmukh, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Begam Jahanara Shah Nawaz, Begam Ikramullah, and Lila Roy. Besides the 1940 Hindu Marriage Validating Act, which removed the caste bar in marriage, post-independence acts favorable to women include the 1955 Hindu Marriage Act, which allowed divorce, and the 1956 Hindu Succession Act, which removed gender disparities in inheritance. Progressive and conservative grassroots women’s organizations have consolidated in postmodern India. Women now organize strikes and morchas (protests) against inflation, discriminatory labor practices, and economic marginalization. They have denounced ministerial interference over female inheritance, as in the Shah Bano case; the resurgence of sati in Rajasthan, in the Roop Kanwar case; dowry deaths related to consumerism; and commercial destruction of trees and the environment, as in the Chipko movement. Others strive to improve women’s literacy and health; yet these rights must be carefully and consistently guarded against resurgent erosion.