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Did Mahatma Gandhi Empower Women Or Cause Their Oppression?

  • IWB Post
  •  July 4, 2019

Gandhi played a seminal role in the emancipation of women in India. Many scholars believe that he revolutionized the way women are approached today.

Gandhi understood early on that for social reforms, certain evil practices such as sati, child marriage, and purdah had to be condemned. Not only did these evils hamper the liberation of women but they were also antithetical to the true spirit of development. Not surprisingly, Gandhi became the social crusader for creating a new identity for the oppressed women and re-establish them as strong individuals who could help in achieving freedom from the British. However, not all of his reflections were correct; in fact, many of them were puritan, which resulted in further oppression of women and amplifying the patriarchal ambition of exploitation.

Gandhi‘s idea of empowerment of women and their inclusion in the national movement was designed in such a way it did not hamper with their traditional household responsibilities but instead complemented it. The propaganda used by him to achieve it was to give them the task of spinning and weaving of Khadi. This activity allowed them to earn and gain economic independence from the boundaries of their respective homes. Furthermore, this step was also undertaken to foster a sense of nationalism in these houses.

Beyond this, Gandhi used women as a tool to remove untouchability and fight communalism. For example, from the arena of their homes as mothers and wives, they could refuse to cook for their husbands until and unless they took a plunge not to involve themselves in communal fights. The next important role came during the Salt Satyagraha. For the first time, women joined the Dandi march and did their bit to fight against the British salt laws. However, when they demanded a more affirmative role by becoming part of the core group for the same march, Gandhi refused the participation. The reason behind this refusal was that according to him women were more suited for the private sphere and did not need to become a part of the public domain which was reserved for men. He further justified it by saying that they played a more significant role just by breaking the salt law and by often making it at home.  Further, women played a pivotal role in the picketing of foreign cloth shops and liquor; much better than men. This was because their fight hardly resulted in provocation or hostility since their appeal was done through non-violence methods.

Gandhi very smartly used women’s traditional values to increase their role in the national struggle by portraying these qualities as having a superior significance. Amongst his contemporaries, he was rather progressive in understanding that freedom would not be achieved only through the involvement of men – women also had to be given an important role.

Despite these attempts, the role of women remained auxiliary and peripheral. Most of the women could not join full-time as that would undermine their familial responsibilities; leaving them with no option but to play a supportive and nurturant role. Gandhi envisioned their economic independence only through the spinning of Khadi. What he attempted to do was to change the “moral conception” of these women, without changing the intricate contours of sexuality, reproduction, and family life.

Even though Gandhi believed in equality of both the sexes, it was not, however, in terms of power and occupation. The man remained the bread-winner of the family, while the wife was entirely in charge of the household responsibilities. An egalitarian relationship between the two was to be achieved but not by changing the traditional family roles. Women could be empowered and free while playing a subordinate role to their husband. For him, the genders could be equal, but only with a strict division in certain areas. This is why there is an inherent dichotomy within Gandhi’s understanding of women. He made a clear distinction between the public and private role. For him, women should be given more importance, but only within the boundaries of the domestic sphere, they should not get involved in the political public sphere. Their empowerment was to be done in such a way that it did not undermine men’s masculinity and their traditional familial responsibilities.

May 1946: Hindu ldr. Mohandas Gandhi (4R) walking w. (L-R) his secretaries Shushila Pai, Raj Kumari, his son Manilal, his secy. Pyarelal, his son's wife, his granddaughter Sita, his nephew's wife Abha, & two unident. men, on his daily walk around his colony. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

May 1946: Hindu ldr. Mohandas Gandhi (4R) walking w. (L-R) his secretaries Shushila Pai, Raj Kumari, his son Manilal, his secy. Pyarelal, his son’s wife, his granddaughter Sita, his nephew’s wife Abha, & two unident. men, on his daily walk around his colony. (Photo by Margaret Bourke-White/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)

Another very problematic Gandhian ideology was the institution of marriage, which he said should only be pursued for procreation. Having a child, outside this holy sanctuary was considered to be abnormal. By giving it a higher superior position in the society, any sexual relationship between both the genders should only exist within its boundaries; outside which it was impure. According to him, the purpose of marriage was “sublimation of the sexual passion”. There should not be any lust or sexual enjoyment in a marriage, as this institution is more for the spiritual development of two people. Furthermore, he emphasized that women should impose “sexual restraints” on themselves as that was the only way they could avoid being a puppet in the hand of their husbands. They should learn to say no. Moreover, Gandhi was also against the use of contraceptives in a marriage. The only method of birth control should be self-restraint. Through this, he attempted to create a new identity of women, which included “patience”,”courage,” and “sexual restraint” as essential virtues.

Gandhi’s understanding of sexuality stems a lot from his practices and contradictions. For him, denial of sexual needs or instincts was the universal ideal and the attainment of which would enable happiness, personal growth and moral superiority. For him, the individual who best advocated his ideology was the widow. By keeping her away from the joys of re-marriage, reproduction and family life people reduced threats to her “chastity “; and she could now completely devote herself towards the welfare of the humanity.

Gandhi did not think much about women’s sexual liberation. It is a widely known fact that sex is a fundamental desire. So to expect one gender to control it or put self-restraint is unfair. This ideology stems largely from his own social roots and his attempt with celibacy. His experiments to test his celibacy by sleeping naked with his niece would outrage today’s feminists, putting a dent on his “Bapu” image. It would not be wrong to say, that Gandhi used his powerful position to cement certain attitudes towards sex, which curbed the sexual freedom of women.

So despite the fact that Gandhi was much more progressive in comparison to his contemporaries, his ideologies regarding women were extremely problematic. And today, when we attempt to build a more just and inclusive future, we need to re-assess our past to dethrone ideologies that continue to promote patriarchal values. Non-partisan scrutiny of our political leaders can inspire resistance to patriarchal authoritarianism in public and private domain.

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