Mahatma Gandhi and Women’s Emancipation

Review of the Contributions of a Major Thinker
This issue of Samyukta highlights the contributions of Mahatma Gandhi

Abstract: Mahatma Gandhi the great votary of truth and ahimsa could not tolerate the fact that by sheer force of a vicious custom even the most ignorant and worthless men have been enjoying a superiority over women which they do not deserve. This paper examines the thoughts of the great leader Gandhiji, with reference to women.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has played an important role in the emancipation of Indian women. Greatly influenced by his mother and wife, Gandhi become uncompromising in the matter of women’s rights. According to him woman is companion of man, gifted with equal right of freedom and liberty with him. Woman is the better half of humanity, not the weaker sex.

Mahatma Gandhi was the greatest advocate of the cause of women the world has so far seen. A votary of truth and a passionate lover of humanity, Gandhi could not tolerate the fact that worthless men have been enjoying a superiority over women which they do not deserve and ought not to have. An implacable enemy of all injustice and inequality, he endeavoured to mitigate the discrimination between the sexes. With an almost instinctive understanding of women and their problems Gandhiji early espoused the women’s cause and contributed greatly towards the emancipation of Indian women. He envisaged an India where there will be the same respect for women as vouchsafed to men, and the chastity and purity of men and women will be jealously guarded, where every woman, except one’s wife, will be treated by men of all religions, as mother, sister or daughter according to her age.

Gandhi became a great advocate of the equality of men and women in educational, civic and spiritual matters and worked for the removal of many customs that cramped the development of Indian womanhood. He considered woman as the companion of man gifted with equal mental capacities. In his speech at Bhagini Samaj, Bombay, in February 1918 he said that woman has the right to participate in the very minutest detail in the activities of man and has an equal right of freedom and liberty with him. “She is entitled to a supreme place in her own sphere of activity as man is in his,” he said. He wrote in Young India in 1921 that the female sex is the nobler of the two, as it is the embodiment of sacrifice, silent suffering, humility, faith and knowledge. “Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none to me is so degrading, so shocking, or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity, the female sex, not the weaker sex,” (CW. XXI: p. 105) He realised that the backwardness of woman was a stumbling block in the path of progress. He had written in 1907.

Woman is known as the better half of man. If a half of one’s body ceased to function, we call it paralysis and the person becomes unfit for any activity. Thus, if women in India are not as employed as they should be, it can be said that the entire country suffers from paralysis. How is it surprising then that India is not able to keep pace with other countries? (CW. VIII : )

He believed that man and woman are a peerless pair being supplementary to one another, each helping the other so that without one the existence of the other cannot be conceived. He felt that the way to woman’s freedom was not through education, but through the change of attitude on the part of men and corresponding action. Gandhi believed that man is equipped by nature to support and protect the women. Each is a complement of the other. One of the two cannot live without the other’s active help. At the same time he did not want to exaggerate the distinction between man and woman and ignore their fundamental spiritual unity. According to Datta, the heroic parts played by women for the political emancipation of India as followers and associates of Gandhi were the rewards for his service in the interest of women. A symbol of “old Indian unobtrusive womanhood which claimed neither any separate existence nor any separate recognition,” by complete self-effacement and identification with her husband, she enjoyed the silent glory of a merged and united existence.(Datta:18) in Chapters 3 and 4 of An Autobiography Gandhi describes how he tried to play the role of an infatuated and possessive husband and attempted to educating his illiterate wife. But Kasturba, by nature simple, independent, persevering and reticent was not ashamed of her ignorance. G.Ramachandran recalls in his book of anecdotes Gandhi : The Archetype of Higher Values of Life that if Gandhi was afraid of anyone, “maybe, he was a tiny bit afraid of the little indomitable woman who was his wife.” Ramachandran points out that she was a little, imperious old lady with flashing eyes, sharp voice and firm-set lips and ruled her part of the Ashram with an iron hand. As lust yielded to love, Gandhi and Kasturbai became a model couple, “she the acme of service, he a paragon of consideration. . . . . . Ba . . . retained her personality; yet she attained a high degree of self effacement.”(Fischer : 205). This self-willed woman became an asset to his Satyagraha movement even in South Africa.

The upliftment of women was given an important place in Gandhi’s constructive programme. Hearing his clarion call to action women came out in large numbers giving up their sheltered and secluded existence to play their role in the national movement. Aristocratic women discarded their fineries and adornments and cheerfully marched to prison wearing coarse handspun and handmade chappals. Kamala Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, Anasuya Sarabhai, Sushila Nayyar and Miss Slade (Miraben) are a few of the illustrious women associated with the Gandhian movement. The emancipation of the Indian woman has largely been attributed to the political awakening of the pace of national life in all spheres. The picketing of liquor, opium and foreign cloth shops in the thirties was almost exclusively done by women. Prolonged sublimation of sexual passions had made Gandhi so feminine that women shed their bashfulness before him and Muslim women removed their purdah. During the partition riots the cry of the outraged womanhood across the borders of the newly formed nations hurt him most. He advised women to give up their life rather than their honour and tried to convince the victims of rape and abduction that they were pure, unless their minds had been polluted.

In his lecture on Gandhi’s concept of the role of women in society (delivered at the University of Delhi on 28 – 29 October, 1968) Nirmal Kumar Bose said that Gandhi’s greatest contribution to modern civilisation was an attempt to introduce into it those qualities which women represented best and which had never before been allowed to exercise their due influence. He recalled the great solitude with which Gandhi tried to enlist women in his band of civil registers. Bose recalls that the call which Gandhi gave to the women of India was of such a nature that they responded to it in a manner which they had never done before. “His civil disobedience campaigns brought about, in a dramatic manner, the entry of women in larger numbers into the public life of India. These became the starting points of women’s emancipation in our land.”(Bose : 74). Gandhi proclaimed that woman is the incarnation of ahimsa which is infinite love, infinitive capacity for suffering. “It is given to her to teach the art of peace to the warring world thirsting for that nectar. She can become the leader in satyagraha . . . which does require the stout heart that comes from suffering and faith.” (Harijan . 24. 2- 4).

In order to facilitate greater mutual understanding between the sexes Gandhi suggested that each should try to emulate the other and absorb the best of its supposedly natural traits:

“My ideal is this : a man should remain man and yet should become woman; similarly a woman should remain woman and yet become man. This means that man should cultivate the gentleness and the discrimination of woman; and woman should cast off her timidity and become brave and courageous. (CW. XXXII:485-86). Writer after writer on Gandhi have eulogised him for having taken up the cause of womsn. Sucheta Kripalani’s article “Leader and Teacher of Women” written in the Gandhi Centenary Year opens thus :

In the midst of a vast ocean of ignorant, illiterate and often exploited women, we find in India today a few who have attained a status of complete equality with men, who are able to take their rightful place of equal responsibility in society, and who go about their business with complete self confidence. (Radhakrishnan : 211)

She points out that in spite of a long history of suppression and exploitation, of evil social customs like child marriage and purdah, of the denial of educational opportunities to girls, of laws and religious sanctions that relegated women to a lower position in society, the Indian women made phenomenal progress in the early 20th century because they were fortunate to have a leader like Gandhi who had an almost instinctive understanding of women and their problems and a deep and abiding sympathy for them(Radhakrishnan : 216). She quotes Rajkumari Amrit Kaur’s words in support of her argument :

Of all the factors contributing to the awakening of women in India none has been so potent as the field of non-violent action which Gandhi offered to women in his “war” against British domination of India. It brought them out in their hundreds from sheltered homes to stand the furnace of a fiery trial without flinching. It proved to the hilt that woman was as much able as man to resist evil or aggression (Radhakrishnan : 218).

She concludes her article with the words: “Many a leader and reformer has espoused the cause of woman in this country but none held women in such high esteem as did the Father of the Nation. With infinite compassion and love he held us by the hand and led us forward to our rightful place in society (Radhakrishnan : 222). Sushila Nayyar’s article in the Gandhi Centenary Volume entitled “This I Saw” throws light on “the magnetism of Mahatma Gandhi’s personality,” how he attracted towards him her elder brother Pyarelal, her mother and finally herself. As a freshly graduated medico, Sushila had gone to Sevagram to stay with him for a few days. “I stayed with him for nearly 10 years till he was taken away from us by the assassin’s bullet,” writes Sushila (Radhakrishnan : 271). She also recalls that Gandhi had posted her to Changirgaon in Noakhali, telling her to endeavour to overcome fear as well as anger for the Muslims and to commit suicide if there was no other way to preserve her honour. Thanks to the training that Gandhi had given her, she comes into intimate contact with the Muslims and wins their confidence. The example of an unprotected Hindu girl living in the midst of Muslims put heart into the Hindus. Gandhi’s long life was full of such dramatic anecdotes, of heroes being made out of clay, most of which appear stranger than fiction.

Bose, Nirmal Kumar. Lectures on Gandhism. 74.

Datta, D.M. The Philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi. 18.

Fischer, Louis. The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. 205.

Gandhi, Mohandas Karam Chand. Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. (CW.XXI ;105)

—. Collected Works. VIII:51

—. Collected Works. XXXII : 485 – 86.

Radhakrishnan, S. Ed. Mahatma Gandhi: 100 Years. 211.

ibid 216.

ibid 218.

ibid 222.

ibid 271

Teaches English at the University College, Thiruvananthapuram. Much interested in Gandhian Studies in which she has a doctoral degree.

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Teaches English at the University College, Thiruvananthapuram. Much interested in Gandhian Studies in which she has a doctoral degree.

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