Women and Indian Freedom Movement

Women and Indian Freedom Movement

This article deals with ‘ Women and Indian Freedom Movement – UPSC.’ This is part of our series on ‘Modern History’ which is important pillar of GS-1 syllabus . For more articles , you can click here

The Women Question

  • This question first aroused in the discourses as Western Observers like James Mill used  this to construct a civilizational critique of India .Hence, status of Woman became main focus of reforming agenda of modernizing Indian intellectuals in 19th Century
  • They imagined a golden past where women were treated with dignity & honor & urged reforms to these traditions . Female Infanticide was banned , Sati was abolished & Widow Remarriage was legalized

Problem with this approach

  • In all these cases, reforms were legitimised by referring to the shastras
  • No women were ever involved in reform movement  . In Mani’s words, “women are neither subjects nor objects but, rather, the ground of the discourse on sati; women themselves are marginal to the debate”.
  • It was the  middle class women and their issues that found greater focus in the process of the anti-colonial movement . The range of issues that came up in this situation was therefore demands such as women’s education, women’s representation in various bodies, property rights and so on. For an upper caste woman the matter of education and widow remarriage was significant while for the lower caste woman in the early twentieth century just the right to cover her breasts and to be able to go to the temple of worship or learning would mean a qualitative difference . But Lower Caste Woman never figured in the debates.

And all this reformist zeal ended with virulent Hindu backlash when Age of Consent Bill in 1891 sought to push age of marriage for woman from 10 to 12 . It was seen as invading the autonomy of native masculinity

Position of Women before Colonialism

  • Women status in ancient India was never static & uniform
  • Manu wrote that  both Shudras & Women were debarred from Vedic ritual rites & he gave permanent dependent status for woman to be protected by their father, husband & sons at different stages
  • Immediately before colonial times , women were groomed to become good wives , serve their husbands as supreme god & expected to give birth to sons . If their husband die  , they were to spend their lives in strictest discipline of celibacy cherishing memories of dead husband

Muslim Society

  • Simlar restrictions on Muslim women
  • Two reform movements in Muslims
    • Islamic Revivalism by Ulama
    • Modernisation campaign by Educated Middle Class

both movements constructed SHARIF culture (sharif women were to be in Purdah)

For Hindu & Muslim women, this doesn’t mean only Purdah but multitudes of complex social arrangements which maintained social & not just physical distance between the sexes . By end of 19th century , the ideal of Purdah had become universalized for both elites & commoners & both Hindus & Muslims

Education Movements for women in 19th century

Agency of spreading Education lay with three groups

British  Rulers – Colonial government since 1850s particularly Law member Bethune & Hunter Commission  recommended for women education
Indian Male Reformers Radhakanta Deb started  School Book Society
– MG Ranade started Prarthna Samaj
– Keshub Chandra Sen in Brahmo Samaj
– Swami Dayanand’s Arya Samaj
Educated Indian Women Sister Subbalakshmi – Madras
Begum Rokeya Hussain – Muslim Women in Bengal
Pandita Ramabhai – Western India

But improvement in education didn’t improved social position of women remarkably  & answer to this lie in motivation behind programs to educate women

  • Colonial Government wanted to educate women because it wanted Civil Servants to be married to educated women so that they didn’t have to face psychological trauma of split house-hold +  thought English educated mother would give birth to sons which would be loyal to the Raj
  • Educated Indian Middle class males wanted  Victorian ideal of companionate marriage

Hence, new concept of womenhood became fine blending of self sacrificing Hindu Wife & Victorian helpmate . Education far from emancipatory further confined women to idealised domestic roles as good wifes & better mothers

But there were other rebels-like

  • Tarabai Shinde, a Marathi woman from Berar, published a book entitled, A Comparison Between Women and Men. In this she protested against the fact that in a new colonial society men enjoyed all the rights, opportunities and benefits of change, while women were blamed for all the evils and were still bound by the old strictures of pativrata
  • Pandita Ramabai
    • She formed Arya Mahila Mandal in 1881 in Pune to promote female education especially for child widows
    • In 1889 , she started Mukti Mission to give refuge to young widows deserted by their families. Later she started ‘Sharda Sadan‘ to provide vocational training , food and shelter to child widows.
    • She  was a social rebel in true sense. She was a Brahman woman who remained unmarried for a long time; she was well versed in the ancient shastras, married a man from a Sudra caste defying the restrictions on hyper-gamy, then became a widow with an infant daughter, refused to withdraw herself from public life, went to England to study medicine, and there converted to Christianity. As she asserted her independent choice and crossed the boundaries that Indian patriarchy had set on the freedom of women, she was equally criticized by the reformers and damned by the conservatives, as both considered her to be a social threat

Women & Freedom Movement

  • Started with Swadeshi Movement but within accepted gender ideology in which home was rightful arena of women . They Boycotted British goods , crushed their glass bangles etc
  • WW 1 – Saw two women leaders, Annie Besant (started Home Rule League & Presided Congress in 1917) & Sarojini Naidu who was delivering speeches since 1906 at Congress Sessions & led delegation to meet Secretary of State Montagu  to demand female franchise & also moved resolution in Congress Session demanding equal voting rights

Coming Of Gandhi

  • Marked major rupture in women’s participation in nationalist movement . What Gandhi did was he changed focus from MOTHERHOOD to SISTERHOOD. Women was represented as no slave to their husbands & capable of making supreme sacrifices
  • He realised in SA about power of self sacrifice of women & decided to harness it in service of nation . Sita- Draupadi – Damayanti were role models & Britishers were equated with Ravana. 
  • But he too accepted what he called NATURAL DIVISION OF LABOUR BETWEEN SEXES. Roles he expected for them in freedom struggle were as mothers and supporters of men and as examples of selfsacrifice and non-violence, as spinners of Khadi, picketing at foreign cloth and liquor shops and by shaming men into action. Gandhi considered women most worthy in their traditional place and avocation i.e. concerned with household tasks and upbringing of children. Thus, the vision and imagination of Gandhi was coloured with patriarchal values.
  • Gandhi accepted womens biological weakness but turned that weakness into power by glorifying their strength of soul.

Non Cooperation Movement (NCM) & Women

  • Gandhi initially prescribed limited role but women claimed for themselves greater role
  • Nov 1921 : thousands of women greeted Prince of Wales with demonstrations
  • Wife, sister & neice of CR Dass stunned nation by participating in open street demonstrations
  • At Ahmedabad, Bi Amma (mother of Ali Brothers) addressed 6,000  gathering of women to join men in picketing
  • In Andhra , Durgabhai collected over thousand of her compatriot Devadasis to listen to Gandhi & they gave 20,000 in donation for the nationalist cause
  • Although Gandhi himself wasn’t keen but women themselves took initiatives

Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) & Women

  • Gandhi didn’t want to contain women in original core group of volunteers of Dandi March but in his way when he addressed meetings many women joined . Thousands of women got involved in manufacture of salt , picketing etc
  • They joined in Parbhat Pheris & girls organised their own Manjari Senas in competition to Vanar Senas of boys.
  • They carried on Gandhi’s constructive program of spinning cloth with Charkha
  • In Chittagong Armoury Raid , Kalpana Dutta was prominent member of Indian Republican Army . Other women like Pritilata Waddedar also joined movement later.

Revolutionary Movement

  • They were involved & many a times not only in supportive roles
  • They were actually shooting pistols at magistrates & governors
  • Durgavati Devi/ Durga Bhabi (wife of Bhagvati Charan Vohra) was prominent member of HSRA . She accompanied Bhagat Singh on the train journey in which he made his escape in disguise after Saunders killing.

Quit India Movement

  • Significant Female activism
  • All front rank male leaders were behind jails & women took charge
  • Sucheta Kriplani coordinated non violent resistance & Aruna Asif Ali gave leadership to underground revolutionary activities

Communist Party and Women

  • Ban was lifted from them in 1941 & back in 1920-30s various women were members which again began to attract them
  • In Tebhaga movement of Bengal in 1946 under communists which demanded 2/3 produce to sharecroppers , women participated in large numbers.  Nari Bahinis or Women Brigades resisted colonial police with whatever weapon they could lay hand on & became martyrs
  • Then they participated in Telangana Movement from 1946 to 51 against Nizam of Hyderabad .
  • In most cases, they joined on their own , acted as secret messengers , arranged shelters & few of them took up guns . But communist leadership preferred to take only supportive & secondary role from women & couldn’t think of women outside the conventional structures of gender relations because they thought women became source of sexual immorality & indiscipline within ranks of rebels

Indian National Army (INA)

In 1943 , INA raised &  Bose decided to add Women’s Regiment under Rani of Jhansi regiment commanded by Captain Laxmi Sehgal.  They consisted of working class women of all classes & religions who were fully trained militarily for combat

Pakistan Movement & Women

  • Pakistan Movement opened for Muslim women new space of political action
  • In 1930s, they were participating in a united front with Hindu sisters to claim women’s rights but division appeared in 1935 when issue of reservation on communal basis came up . Some of leaders of All India Women’s conference refused to accept joint electorates when their men were not prepared to do so
  • Muslim League also sought to universalize its politics & in 1938 started women’s subcommittee to involve Muslim women

End Words

  • During struggle for freedom, they didn’t raise issues which affected them as women & their own goals were subordinated to those of national liberation, community honour or class struggle
  • Some leading nationalists like Nehru believed that once political freedom was achieved , women’s question would resolve automatically after they became force with voting power

Some Women Associations

Women’s Indian Association Started in 1917 in Madras
By Margaret Cousins & Annie Besant
National Council of Women Started in 1925 as branch of International Council of women
Main leader – Lady Mehribai Tata
All India Women’s Conference – To promote women’s education
– Main leader : Margaret Cousins
– Eventually got involved in nationalist struggle & lobbied for all sorts of women’s rights from franchise to marriage reform
Bharat Stree Mahamandal – Started in 1910
– Opened branches all over India to promote women’s education
– By Sarala Devi Chaudarani  (niece of Rabindranath Tagore)

About Some Women Leaders

1 . Aruna Asaf Ali

  • Breaking the social conventions, married to a Muslim Congressman Asaf Ali.
  • Went to prison during CDM and Individual Satyagraha.
  • Hoisted tricolor at Gowalia tank after Maulana Azad’s arrest.
  • In Quit India Movement , all her property was confiscated by the Colonial government
  • Editor of  ‘Inquilab’ a monthly journal of Congress

After independence

  • First Mayor of Delhi elected in 1958
  • Posthumously awarded Bharat Ratna in 1997

2. Sarojini Naidu

  • Graduated from London
  • One of the first women to participate in Freedom struggle
  • Under mentorship of G.K.Gokhale
  • Later  participated in all programs of Gandhi, including Dandi March
  • Served as President of Indian national congress.
  • Participated in 2nd Round Table Conference
  • Even her daughter Padmaja Naidu, 21, was arrested in  Quit India movement.

3. Madam Bhikaiji Cama

  • Herself influenced by Dadabhai Naoroji
  • She Inspired Indian youth in UK
  • Ran newsletter “Bande Mataram” and organization “Free India Society”.
  • Unfurled first national flag of India in Germany.

4. Sucheta Kriplani

  • Born in 1908 in Ambala and educated in Lahore. Right from childhood she dreamt of free India
  • In 1932 , she entered Public services and in 1939 , she joined Politics
  • Impressed by her work to serve the nation, Gandhi choose her for Individual Satyagraha & was arrested for that
  • In Quit India Movement , she went underground & carried on the movement. She founded Under Ground Volunteer Force for this
  • Founded All India Mahilla Congress
  • During riots at independence, she did work for resettlement of women who had suffered at that time

After independence

  • CM of UP from 1963 to 1967 . She was first women CM of independent India

5. Kalpana Dutta

  • Student of higher education from Bengal and hated English rule and language . She even wanted pledge of her school during childhood days to be changed from – To be loyal to God and King to To be loyal to God and Country
  • After completing her school education, she took admission in Calcutta University where she came in contact of Revolutionaries .
  • She conducted raids on government buildings but police failed to gather evidences against her
  • Then she joined Surya Sen and was involved in Chittagong Armoury Raid.
  • She was arrested & was released in 1943 . Then she joined Communist Party and married Communist leader PC Joshi

6. Pritilata Waddedar

  • Born in 1910
  • Very  intelligent student and did BA from Calcutta University
  • Joined Surya Sen later . She conspired with Surya Sen to raid Night club frequently visited by English to avenge death of their comrades which police had killed in various raids. In counter attack , she was hit in her leg. She knew that she would be caught , hence she consumed packet of Potassium Cynide as per their plan.

7. Rani Gaidinliu

  • Led political movement seeking to drive out the British from Manipur and the surrounding Naga areas & arrested in 1932 at the age of 16
  • She was released in 1947 after India’s independence, and continued to work for the upliftment of her people.

8. Rajkumari Amrita Kaur

  • Member of Royal family from Punjab
  • Graduated from England, influenced by Gandhi
  • Jailed for Quit India movement

9. Rehana Tyabjee

  • Member of affluent family, her father was a Judge.
  • influenced by Gandhi, joined Sabarmati Ashram, NCM, opposed Untouchability + child marriage
  • President of Youth congress
  • Jailed for QIM
  • First muslim lady to sing Vandemataram in Congress session

10. Cpt. Laxmi Sahgal

  • Young medical student
  • Became Captain of all-woman Rani of Jhansi regiment of the Indian National Army (INA) under Subhash Chandra Bose.
  • Led the troops in Burma during WW2, but caught by the British army.

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