By Krishnan Nandela
Asso. Professor & Head, Dept. of Economics,
Dr. T. K. Tope Arts & Com. College, Mumbai
Mahatma Gandhi had expressed his views and had written on numerous issues that concerned the Indian Society in particular and humanity in general. This article examines the importance and relevance of his views on issues that directly or indirectly impacts the status of women in India. The following issues are being considered:
The perception of the self is a matter of conditioning. The way men and women perceive themselves is also a matter of conditioning that had and is taking place since the dawn of human race on earth. Given the biological differences, can woman be psychologically different from man? Can women be cerebrally inferior to man? I am sure that the answer would be clear ‘No’. Yet, differential conditioning over many a millennia have contributed to the perception that both men and women are different, both psychologically and cerebrally. Religion, customs and laws from times immemorial had relegated women to the backyards of human civilization. When you fear the power of the other and when you have no means to equal the other, you connive and lay traps for the subjugation of the other. This is what the history of hitherto existing man’s civilization has done to women, save exceptions like the Mahatma.
Unlike many other noble souls who wrote and worked with the principle of sexual equality in mind, Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, sought to bring about a revolutionary change in the status of women in the first half of the 20th century. The views expressed by the Mahatma and the actions undertaken by him may not go entirely with the current times because the times have irreversibly changed but the honesty of the Mahatma, the love and respect he had for women can never be doubted.
The Mahatma said that women have been suppressed under custom and law for which man was responsible and in the shaping of which she had no hand. Rules of social conduct must be framed by mutual co-operation and consultation. Women have been taught to regard themselves as slaves of men. Women must realize their full status and play their part as equals of men. (Ref. Constructive program, pp. 17-18).
Wives should not be dolls and objects of indulgence but should be treated as honored comrades in common service. The educationally ill-disposed should be educated by their husbands. The customary and legal status of women is bad and demands radical change. (Ref. Constructive program, pp. 17-18).
Legislation has been mostly done by men and has not been always fair. The blemishes represented in our Shastras should be removed by women. Women of firm, pure and self-controlled character like Sita, Damayanti and Draupadi should be produced and they will be able to remove these blemishes from our Smritis.
Gandhi considers these women of pure, firm and self-controlled character. Yes they were firm and self-controlled but one can always debate about the purity aspect of a character, particularly women, because purity is generally related to sexual purity. The question is therefore, whether sexual purity is a virtue or an ideal criterion to measure the character of a person. Or for that matter, is sexual purity the only criterion to measure the character of a woman? These women suffered the domination of men in the society, they suffered an oppressive social system and succumbed to it. For instance, Sita rejected this world of men and their laws and vanished in the parted earth. Draupadi married to Arjuna in the Swayamwar and accepted his four brothers as co-husbands against her desire (a rare case of fraternal polyandry amongst the ruling classes). Damayanti fought for her beloved Nala and succeeded. But none of these women fought against the oppressive social system created by Manu and his ilk. Could these women be considered as role models for the modern woman?
Women are gifted with equal mental capacities and therefore she has equal rights. However, due to the force of custom, ignorant and worthless men have been enjoying superiority over women. (Speeches and Writings of Mahatma Gandhi, ps. 424-425).
The blemishes referred to by the Mahatma as obtained in Manusmriti can be found in Chapter IX which deals with the Eternal Laws for Husband and Wife. There are in all 336 verses in this Chapter which describes women in abysmally lowly words. While a great part of this body of laws are hateful and deserves to be condemned and not expunged as the Mahatma wanted it, I must say that every Indian women and men must read Manusmriti to know what great damage it has done to women and Indian society. (Ref. Manusmriti translated by George Buhler, www.sacredtext.com).
Women must not suffer any legal disability which is not suffered by men. Both are perfectly equal (Young India, 17th October, 1929). Sexual equality does not translate into occupational equality in spite of the absence of a legal bar. Women instinctively recoil from a function that belongs to men. Nature has created sexes as complements of each other. Their functions are defined as are their forms. (Harijan, 02nd December, 1939).
The Mahatma’s view on sexual equality will not be taken kindly either by the modern man or the woman. The instinctive recoiling of women from a function that belongs to men is a consequence of historical indoctrination. What belongs to men and what belongs to women is deeply embedded in the psyche of men and women. The question is therefore who should complement whom. It should be matter of choice both for the man and the woman as husband and wife as to what vocation they should take up. It is unjust to expect the women to complement as a matter of an unwritten rule. To say that their functions are defined as are their forms is to emphasize on the sexual division of labor. The theory of sexual division of labor has been set aside by the developments since the departure of the Mahatma. Today men and women, compete and co-operate, complement and even supplant each other. However, the Mahatma’s view on women being a complement of man should be looked at from the point of view of his intention. The Mahatma’s intention was honest. He wanted to protect the institution of family and at the same time exalt women with equal status.
Marriage is a sacrament. It is a natural thing in life (Harijan, 22nd March, 1942). Thinking of the state of affairs in our country, very few Indians need marry at the present time. The purpose of marriage is to get progeny but all progeny that is born now is the issue of passion, mean and faithless. Gandhi advised young men not to marry till 25 or 30. He preferred arranged marriages but the young man needs to be consulted by the parents if he is more than 25 (A Handbook of Sarvodaya, Part-2, p55, compiled by Subhash Mehta).
Marriage has become a contract between consenting individuals. It is an artificial fact of life. However, considering the fact that the population of India grew from 23 crores in 1891 to only 25 crores in 1921 and that from 25 crores in 1921 to 36 crores in 1951, a phenomenal increase in the latter period, the Mahatma was duly alarmed by the rapid increase in population and therefore was right in saying that “very few Indians need marry at the present time”. His views on the age at marriage for young men are however relevant to this day. His view that marriages should be arranged by parents and that a young man of more than 25 should be consulted by the parents reflects upon the fact that the Mahatma had a traditional view of life and that he wanted reforms within the tradition.
Chastity cannot be protected by the surrounding wall of the Purdah. It must grow from within and it must be capable of withstanding every unsought temptation (Young India, 3rd February, 1927). Why is there all this morbid anxiety about female purity? Have women any say in the matter of male purity? Female or male purity cannot be superimposed from without. It is a matter of evolution from within and therefore of individual self effort (Young India, 25th November, 1926).
The Indian man has been unduly obsessed with female chastity right from the ancient times. The Mahatma was different to the extent that he demanded male chastity also. That the Hindu Purdah or the Muslim Purdah cannot protect chastity and that only self-control and purity of mind can do that is absolutely right.
The dowry system is a product of the caste system. The abolition of caste will lead to the abolition of dowry (Harijan, 23rd May, 1936). Demanding dowry is akin to discrediting womanhood. Young men who demand dowry should be excommunicated. Parents of girls should cease to be dazzled by English degrees and should not hesitate to travel outside their little castes and provinces to secure true, gallant young men for their daughters (Young India, 21st June, 1928).
The Mahatma was a very complex personality. He expected the women to play a complementary role in the society and wanted women to scale the highest peaks of life in the female domain, not realizing the fact that the complementary status of women was a product of the caste system. However, when it came to the dowry system, he wanted the abolition of the caste system. He came down on the dowry system very strongly and wanted the dowry demanding husband to be ex-communicated. He advocated inter-caste marriages and expected gallantry or chivalry from men. He wanted women to wait till the ideal suitor comes. The Mahatma had a very sublime and soft view of women and did everything to protect the pleasing side of the traditions.
Widowhood imposed by religion or custom is an unbearable yoke and defiles the home by secret vice and degrades religion. In order to save Hinduism, enforced widowhood must be ridden. Child widows must be duly and well married and not remarried. They were never really married (Young India, 5th August, 1926).
One cannot have a better view on Widow Remarriage than what the Mahatma has presented. He was clearly against Child Marriages and wanted child widows to be well married because they were not really married. He was the man who led the country by example. In 1918, when Hiralal’s wife died of influenza, he was fifty and wanted to remarry. Gandhi did not allow his son to remarry. He later on relented but wanted Hiralal to marry only a widow. Hiralal was emotionally bankrupt after his wife’s death and took to alcohol and women, only to be found dead in the Sewree hospital in midtown Bombay (Mahatma Gandhi, His Life and by Times, p261 by Louis Fischer and Mahatama versus Gandhi, p15 by Dinkar Joshi).
Marriage confers no right upon one partner to demand obedience of the other. However, divorce is not the only alternative. Marriage is a state of discipline. When one partner breaks discipline, the other can break the bond. The breach here is moral and not physical. It precludes divorce. Hinduism regards each as absolute equal of the other. Hinduism leaves the individual absolutely free for the sake of self-realization, for which and which alone he or she is born (Young India, 21st October, 1926).
The Mahatma believed that marriage was not serfdom for men and women and that men and women had equal status. The loss of discipline is a moral breach and divorce is not a solution. Moral breach can be corrected by moral restraint and repentance. More importantly, he says that Hinduism offers the freedom of self-realization for both men and women. The Mahatma is clearly against any kind of male chauvinism.
It is physically impossible to violate a woman against her will. The outrage takes place only when she gives way to fear or does not realize her moral strength. If she cannot meet the assailant’s physical might, her purity will give her the strength to die before he succeeds in violating her, for example, Sita (Harijan, 14th January, 1940). When a woman is assaulted, her primary duty is self protection. God has given her nails and teeth. She must use them with all her strength and if need be, die in the effort (Harijan, 01st March, 1942).
Perhaps due to the overriding importance given to female chastity in the Indian society, the Mahatma emphasizes once again on female chastity and purity. His solution for the helpless woman under sexual assault to die before the violation takes place is a very traditional view of what women should do when they are sexually assaulted. It is akin to hara-kiri or jouhar. In the days of armed sexual assaults and gang or group sexual assaults on women, the Gandhian solution is inadequate. Further, chastity is not an exclusively female virtue. The male person who assaults sexually also loses his chastity and therefore, he must also die. In fact, chastity as a virtue has been imposed upon women since times immemorial and has been the single most important cause of her degraded status in the society.
Education enables women to uphold their natural rights. Men and women are complementary to each other. Man is supreme in the outward activities and therefore he should have a greater knowledge thereof. Home life is entirely the sphere of woman and therefore in domestic affairs, in the upbringing and education of children women ought to have more knowledge. Unless courses of instruction are based on a discriminating appreciation of these basic principles, the fullest life of man and woman cannot be developed (Harijan, 27th Febraury, 1937).
The Mahatma’s views on women’s education are based on family ideals because he assumes that man is supreme in the extra-mural activities and that woman is supreme in intra-mural activities. Hence, education imparted to both men and women should be according to their pre-ordained stations in life. The Mahatma’s views on women’s education are based on his belief in woman being a complement of man and are therefore out of sync in the modern context.
Brahmacharya is an infallible sovereign remedy. Artificial methods are like putting a premium upon vice. They make man and woman reckless. Adoption of artificial methods must result in imbecility and nervous prostration. The remedy will be found to be worse than the disease.
It is immoral to seek escape from the consequences of one’s acts. Moral results can only be produced by moral restraints. All other restraints defeat the very purpose for which they are intended (Young India, 12th March, 1925). The use of contraceptives kills the desire to exercise self restraint. Man must understand that woman is his companion and not a means of satisfying his carnal desire. The purpose of human creation was wholly different from that of the satisfaction of animal wants (Key to Health, pp.52-54). Sex is only meant for creation. Any other use is a sin against God and humanity (Harijan, 28th March, 1936).
Woman must be taught the art of saying no even to her husband. She has rights as well as duties. The first thing is to free her from mental slavery, to teach her sacredness of her body and to teach her dignity of national service and the service of humanity (Harijan, 02nd May, 1936).
If Brahmacharya was to be taken as a solution to birth control, we would need to spiritualize India as a whole. Given the impossibility of the task, the Mahatma’s solution of Brahmacharya, although virtuous in every sense of the term, can only be considered as one of the remedies of birth control.
I consider it inhuman to impose sterilization law on the people. I am against the use of contraceptives in case of women. I do not mind voluntary sterilization in case of man since he is the aggressor (Amrita Bazaar Patrika, 12th January,1935).
While the Mahatma conceded Sterilization for men because he thought that man was the aggressor, he was clearly against the use of contraceptives by women. His thoughts about self control and purity seems to have clouded his mind and prevented him from making practical big time solutions to big time problems like the problem of population explosion.
The Mahatma was convinced about the need of self control in matters of sex. The overriding belief in self control was also because of his personal success in pursuing Brahmacharya. While self control is a very good solution, a virtuous solution by every means, it cannot be expected from the entire population. The Mahatma always led the society by example. In South Africa, a young Indian married woman successfully assaulted Manilal’s continence (bramhacharya). When the dereliction was discovered, Gandhi made a public scandal, fasted, persuaded the woman to shave her hair and said he would never allow Manilal to marry. He only relented under Ba’s pressure, in March 1927 when Manilal was thirty five.
On a scale of one to ten, the Mahatma comes out with flying colors for his views on the various aspects concerning women in our society. Considering the fact that he wrote his ideas about 70 to 80 years ago, we can set aside some of his views such as the women being a complement of men in matters of occupation and education and female chastity in the context of women’s honor. The Mahatma, by far, can be considered the best friend of women in India and the world. The Mahatma’s purity of thought and honest intentions are beyond question. No other man in the entire history of India or in the world had such godly ideas about women. For both men and women, to have a better perspective of each other and life, Gandhian literature will continue to be a prescription for many years to come.
The Mahatma by far was one of the most honest and divine historical figures of the modern age. His philosophy of non-violence, although not new, assumed revolutionary proportions under his tutelage and captured the hearts and imaginations of people all over the world. Non-violence as enunciated by the Mahatma is the strongest weapon of the strong as against violence which is the weakest weapon of the weak. Humanity as a whole can seek deliverance from darkness to light and from bondage to freedom with this mighty weapon of non-violence. The power of non-violence is located in the spirit of the human being and the Mahatma indubitably is the greatest architect of this spirit and spirituality, he is the greatest sculptor of this spirituality called non-violence. He is the noblest of all nobles and the bestowal of the Nobel on him will only be a recognition which is widely known and recognized.