Women’s Education in North India in the Colonial Period: A Survey

Abstract: In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, in the region of Oudh, a woman’s education was considered to be of far less importance than her safety. There were a host of apprehensions about sending girls to school. The authorities found that each time a Headmistress retired or resigned, there would be a sudden drop in the number of girls attending the school. One of the major impediments in the setting up of a girls’ school was the lack of adequate female teachers. The government, thus had a convenient excuse to avoid setting up schools for girls.

Keywords: Indian women’s education, development of women’s education, social/political educational roles, Prayag Mahila Vidyapith, rural women, Benares Hindu Univeristy, girls’ schools, female enrollment ratio, Nehru, legislative assembly input, educational institutions

To educate women is considered of far less importance than to keep them under the strictest custody and preserve them from every, even the faintest, possibility of harm (Bhattacharya 65).

This was how the Department of Public Instruction described the mentality of parents in the Oudh region in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. While on the one hand education for girls was increasingly becoming acceptable at that time for a variety of reasons, there were a host of apprehensions about sending girls to school. First of all, it was necessary to have complete faith in the teacher or the Headmistress of the school. The authorities found that each time a Headmistress retired or resigned, there would be a sudden drop in the number of girls attending the school. Parents (usually the fathers) were unwilling to entrust their daughters to a new incumbent. One of the major impediments in the setting up of a girls’ school was the lack of adequate female teachers. Even those who received some kind of teachers’ training and were in a position to take up jobs in schools would be married off at a young age and discouraged from going out of the home to teach. That left the widows and unmarried women who were often not acceptable to parents. As a result, the government had a convenient excuse to avoid setting up schools for girls (UP Legislative Assembly Debates XXIII.1 (26 July 1946): 569).

Yet, in the Agra region there had been attempts to set up educational institutions for girls in the mid-nineteenth century. On the eve of the 1857 Revolt, there were reportedly some 288 “Female Schools” in the Agra district, to which 4,927 girls were admitted. Gopal Singh, an officer in the Education Department and Deputy Inspector of Schools was apparently the moving spirit behind this remarkable effort. Besides the schools in Agra, there were 16 schools with 303 girls in the adjoining Mathura district, 3 schools with 54 girls in Manipuri district and a few in the district of Banda as well. But the incidents of 1857 took their toll and “extinguished” these schools, according to a governmental report (Bhattacharya 31). The schools were not revived, but a fresh effort was made in 1859, now at the behest of Thakur Kalyan Singh, one of the “native masters at the Agra College” (Bhattacharya 32). Kalyan Singh also undertook the task of “training a class of native ladies, belonging to the families of his kinsmen, as School-mistresses” (Bhattacharya 117-119).

Through the 1860s, there was an expansion in the number of girls’ schools in the Province and in 1875 the number of girls’ schools in Oudh alone stood at 89. But thereafter there was a decline. It appears that, whenever the British Government of India was faced with financial difficulties, the first casualty would be female education. Of course the reasons offered were different. It was argued that setting up a girls’ school was “a great deal more expensive than boys’ schools,” since the entire expenditure had to be met by the government. The parents of girls were unwilling to spend a pie on their daughters’ education. Another interesting reason provided by the government for withdrawing from the project of educating girls was that, unlike their Burmese counterparts, the women of Oudh had “nothing whatsoever to do with the progress of trade, or in fact, with any other pursuits except what are purely domestic and secluded.” Since women’s education would not contribute in any significant way to the “material prosperity of the Province,” the State had no interest in the matter, which should be settled by “fathers, husbands and guardians” (Bhattacharya 65).

It is not surprising then, that all the early efforts to set up schools for girls in the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh (as Uttar Pradesh was known prior to Independence) were made by Indians. The efforts of Sayyid Karamat Husain, who established a series of girls’ schools in Aligarh, Lucknow and Allahabad at the turn of the century and Babu Sangam Lal Agarwal, who set up the Prayag Mahila Vidyapith in Allahabad in the 1920s, are particularly noteworthy. Sayyid Karamat Husain had studied law in England and in the course of his stay there, he was particularly impressed by the social position of women in English society. He became convinced that the best way for a country to progress was for its women to be educated. Of course he believed that a woman’s duty was to manage the household. But in order to keep the household clean, to prepare nutritious food and to supervise the early education of children, women required education. If men wanted future generations to succeed in the world, it was perhaps more important to educate the daughters. This was a typical pattern of thought shared by many nineteenth century social reformers, who championed the cause of women’s education. What was different, however, was Karamat Husain’s insistence on schools for girls – he argued that it was more desirable to send girls to schools than to educate them at home, because a school could afford better teachers and a broader curriculum than any home could (Minault 162). He put his ideas into practice and set up three institutions for girls: the Aligarh Girls School in 1906, the Crosthwaite Girls School which was first established in Lucknow in 1895 but was later shifted to Allahabad owing to opposition from the conservative sections of the city and the Muslim Girls’ School in Lucknow in 1916.

However, educational institutions for girls became more generalized only from the 1920s, as a consequence of changes in the Indian Municipalities Act, which gave more powers to Indian members on the Municipal Boards. One of the first issues taken up by the newly empowered municipal members was the expansion of educational opportunities. Babu Sangam Lal Agarwal, an Allahabad lawyer, set up the Prayag Mahila Vidyapith with the intention of providing opportunities to girls who had acquired some basic education, to go on to higher studies in the vernacular. The Vidyapith did not attempt to hold regular classes in the beginning, keeping in mind the practical difficulties that women would face if they were required to attend classes on a daily basis. Hence the Vidyapith limited its activity to holding examinations. Every possible effort was made to enable women to take the examinations for the Middle School, the High School Matriculation, the BA and even the MA, at places that suited their convenience. An examination would be conducted wherever a minimum number of 3 students could be got together. There was no age limit for any examination, a candidate could appear for a single subject at a time and thus take her own time to complete the syllabus (Schomer 214). This experiment had a good response not only in UP but in Bengal and Punjab as well. But after a few years, the authorities realized that it was not sufficient to merely hold these examinations. Without regular classes it was extremely difficult for students to prepare for the examinations and succeed in them. Hence, from 1932 onwards, the Prayag Mahila Vidyapith became a teaching institution, which even provided hostel accommodation for women. The response was overwhelming, since a degree from the Vidyapith enabled women to find jobs as schoolteachers in private schools. Among the students who enrolled in the institution were widows as well as the wives and daughters of those who participated in the national movement. The very fact that such a large number of women were willing to come forward to receive an education and seek employment thereafter, was significant. It indicated a definite change in the mentality of parents and guardians. This change had come about largely because of the influence of the national movement, which brought women out of their homes into the public sphere in large numbers.

Benares, despite being the seat of conservatism, was making interesting contributions to women’s education in the 1920s and 30s. Much of this was organized on a community basis. For instance, the Agarwal Samaj, which was founded in 1896, set up a Kanya Pathshala in 1918. There was also the Arya Mahila School, which was set up in Benares in 1926 by Vidya Devi, a widow from Bihar with a remarkable ability to raise funds. Begun initially as a primary school, it was recognized as a High School six years later (Kumar 214). The Trust that had set up this school was opposed to widow remarriage on the one hand, but on the other, it felt obliged to do something about the widows. The answer found was to educate them and involve them in teaching. Consequently, the widows of Benares became instrumental in promoting women’s education in the city. The Durga Charan Girls’ School was founded by Krishnabhamini, a wealthy widow, who was described as being “highly charged with nationalism and independence”. It was meant to provide free education for Bengali widows. The curriculum was half academic (English, mathematics, history) and half-vocational. By 1931, it had become the Anglo-Bengali Lower Middle Girls’ School and was probably more nationalistically inclined than the other two schools (Kumar 224).

Besides all these individual efforts, something extraordinary seems to have happened in the UP in the 1930s. The report of the Public Instructor noted that there was a “new spirit” with regard to the education of girls. There were 13,000 more girls in schools and 35 more recognized institutions. The Report even stated that the Universities were being successfully invaded by the women. In fact, beginning in the 1930s, this surge towards educational institutions swelled to reach unmanageable proportions by the 1940s. Newspapers reported that in some districts, hundreds of students had to be refused admission to secondary schools because of lack of seats. As Kamladevi Chattopadhyay observed, “Education had by now become the over-riding factor of national regeneration.” For women in particular, “it had become the magic wand at whose touch their present disabilities would get dissolved” (Chattopadhyay 76).

Women who participated in the mass movements and got arrested were able to improve their educational prospects. Once inside the prison, where they had to serve jail terms ranging from three months to one or two years, their life patterns changed. They now had a break from the endless routine of household chores and could devote their time to scholarly pursuits. Since they were often thrown in the company of other women who were sometimes more educated, this was an opportunity to indulge in academic activities. Women like Aruna Asaf Ali, Sucheta Kripalani and Khurshedben Naoroji, when arrested, would invariably hold literacy classes and organize study groups in jail. Books were exchanged and for many women (as also the men), this was the time to be exposed to new philosophies and political trends like socialism and Marxism. They also learnt new languages – several learnt English for the first time and Prabhavati, the wife of Jayaprakash Narayan, used this opportunity to brush up her Gujarati. Purnima Banerji, an Allahabad-based Congresswoman and sister of Aruna Asaf Ali, managed to complete her B.A. degree while in jail. Others became sufficiently motivated to pursue a formal educational career once they came out of jail. Durga Devi Vohra, wife of the well-known revolutionary terrorist leader Bhagvati Charan Vohra and associate of Bhagat Singh, had only attended school for a year and a half before her marriage. It was after the death of her husband and following upon a jail term in the early 1930s, that she went to Madras and acquired Montessori training. She then went on to set up the Lucknow Montessori School in 1940.

We had noted earlier that the initial impetus for educating girls had come from those who believed that such girls would make better wives and mothers. The more conservative nationalist leaders also subscribed to this theory. Even in the late 1920s, Madan Mohan Malaviya held the view that:

The education of our women is a matter of even greater importance than the education of our men. They are the mothers of the future generations of India. They will be the first and most influential educators of the future statesmen, scholars, philosophers, captains of commerce and industry and other leaders of men. (Sundaram 509)

On the other hand, Jawaharlal Nehru wanted his daughter to have an education that would “enable her to do some socially useful work in after-life efficiently and at the same time enable her to be economically independent.” He went on to add, “She is not likely to have an unearned income and it is not considered desirable by her parents that she should depend for her subsistence on a husband or others” (Masani 38).

Jawaharlal Nehru may not represent the thinking of the average parent in UP in the 1930s, but there is evidence to suggest that the content and the purpose of women’s education were being debated upon in these years. Until now it was the norm to have a separate curriculum for girls with emphasis on the development of household skills and proficiency in music and the visual arts. Rameshwari Nehru, wife of Jawaharlal Nehru’s cousin, who had started Stree Darpan, a women’s journal in Allahabad in 1909, had never received a formal education. Yet, in the course of her involvement with the journal and her participation in Gandhian constructive work, she developed a clear set of ideas on the kind of education that was suitable for women. Speaking to the students of the Kanya Gurukul in Dehradun in 1939, she stated that it was not enough for a woman to be educated so as to become a good housewife and a good mother – the education she received should also help her to become a good citizen and a good human being. Being equipped to earn a livelihood was also important and to enable her to do this, girls should be taught a craft as boys were.

Uma Nehru, the wife of another cousin of Jawharlal Nehru, who became an MLA in UP in 1937, was more forceful:

Every factor in the present civilization is tending to generate in woman the desire to be economically free of man … The efforts of a Hitler or a Mussolini to send woman back to the kitchen or to coax or cudgel woman into matrimony will not succeed (Shyam Kumari Nehru 413-415).

Her own daughter, Shyam Kumari Nehru, had a distinguished academic career, having obtained an M.A. as well as a degree in law from Allahabad University in the mid 1930s. She went on to become the first woman lawyer at the Allahabad High Court.

However, this expansion of opportunity was confined to the major cities of the Province. In the rural areas, women had very little access to education. The efforts of some politically active women to get girls’ schools opened were ignored by the colonial administration. Jaggi, the wife of the Pratapgarh-based kisan leader, Baba Ramchandra, wrote a letter to the Deputy Inspector of Schools, Pratapgarh in 1934, asking for education for rural women. These women were even given an appointment to meet the official. Some two hundred to two hundred and fifty women went to meet the official but they were kept waiting and finally forced to return without meeting him (Mehrotra 131-2). Things changed to some extent after the popular Congress Ministries assumed office in 1937. The degrees awarded by the Prayag Mahila Vidyapith were now officially recognized. Free and compulsory primary education was one of the objectives of the Congress Government. But the work of taking education to rural women was pursued systematically only in the post-1945 years. The Kasturba Memorial Committee was set up in memory of Mahatma Gandhi’s wife who had passed away in February 1944. One of its activities was the holding of a one-year training course for women to equip them to work in the villages (National Herald, 22 Jan. 1946:7). Besides this, legislators like Uma Nehru had announced that they would pay greater attention to “programmes other than Parliamentary”. She voiced the need to bridge the gap between urban and rural women. “Our educated woman is mentally and psychologically more apart from rural life than our educated men,” she stated. In order to rectify this, she announced that a provincial camp would be held in the district of Unao to which all those who wished to devote their time to rural work among women were invited (National Herald 23 Mar 1946:3).

Of course, even earlier, there were women who had felt the need to reach out to their rural counterparts. One prominent figure was the poetess Mahadevi Varma, who had become Principal of the Prayag Mahila Vidyapith in the 1930s.Throughout her years in Allahabad, she spent her weekends in the villages of Jhusi and Arail, teaching the rural children the rudiments of literacy and hygiene. In the words of her biographer, Karine Schomer:

She had begun this volunteer teaching out of a sense of duty, as an attempt to put into practice Gandhi’s injunction to work for the uplift of the villages. Soon, however, she found that it was something she genuinely enjoyed doing. Not only were her efforts greatly appreciated, but weekends in the villages gave her contact with a way of life that was far removed from her urban middle-class culture, the world of formal education, and the company of ‘literary people’. (Schromer 206)

In due course of time she set up a small village school in Arail. It had a building of its own and a resident teacher. In 1942, at the time of the Quit India Movement, the British authorities became suspicious of the school, especially since they suspected that Mahadevi was secretly sympathetic to the Quit India agitators. They first tried to prevent Mahadevi from going there and when that did not succeed, they burnt down the school building.

Mahadevi Varma was not the only educated woman to be inspired by Gandhian ideals to work among rural women. Students of the Benares Hindu University were also in the habit of going to the neighbouring villages on Sundays and undertaking constructive work, which included teaching women and children and advising them on hygiene and nutrition.

But these were all piecemeal efforts. At the time of Independence, the problem of women’s education was still a pressing one which needed to be addressed. In July 1946, Sampurnanand, the education minister stated that the Congress government intended to introduce free and compulsory primary education in the state. However, he went on to state his apprehensions about implementing this for girls. The reasons offered were that there were not enough female teachers available, that parents were unwilling to send their daughters to boys’ schools and so on (UP Legislative Assembly Debates: 569). Purnima Banerji, participating in the debate on women’s education in the U.P. Assembly, was of the view that these were not insurmountable problems. She suggested that, for the primary schools, the Government could lay down a condition that grants would be given only if the school had a minimum number of girl students. She emphatically stated that:

“If boys’ education goes apace and women’s education is left behind, or little girls do not go to the schools at the same rate as boys then the progress of education in its true sense will … never be possible” (UP Legislative Assembly Debates  XXIII.I (26 July 1946):647).

Thus it can be said beyond doubt that the privileges enjoyed by women today owe much to the pioneering efforts undertaken by their predecessors.

Bhattacharya, S, et al. The Development of Women’s Education in India: A Collection of Documents 1850-1920. New Delhi: Govt. of India, 2001.

Chattopadhyay, Kamaladevi. Indian Women’s Battle for Freedom. New Delhi, 1983.

Kumar, Nita, ed. Women as Subjects. Kolkotta, 1994.

Masani, Zareer. Indira Gandhi: A Political Biography. New Delhi, 1975.

Mehrotra, Deepti Priya. Women’s Participation in Peasant Movements. New Delhi: Delhi Univ., 1986.

Minault, Gail. “Sayyid Karamat Husain and Education for Women.” Violette Graff. ed. Lucknow Memories of a City. New Delhi, 1977.

Nehru, Shyam Kumari, ed. Our Cause. Allahabad.

Schomer, Karine. Mahadari Varma and the Chayavad Age of Modern Hindi Poetry. California, 1983.

Sundaram, V.A, ed. Benares Hindu University 1905-1935. Benares, 1936.

Is Reader, Department of History, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi and currently Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti House, New Delhi. Her forthcoming publications are, From Movement to Government: The Congress in the United Province 1937-42 (Sage Series in Modern Indian History ) and The Nationalist Awakening and Indian Women: A Case Study of the UP (Shakti Series, Har Anand).

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Is Reader, Department of History, Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi and currently Fellow, Centre for Contemporary Studies, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, Teen Murti House, New Delhi. Her forthcoming publications are, From Movement to Government: The Congress in the United Province 1937-42 (Sage Series in Modern Indian History ) and The Nationalist Awakening and Indian Women: A Case Study of the UP (Shakti Series, Har Anand).

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