Women Organizations and Movements

Women Organizations and Movements

This article deals with  Women Organizations and Movements ’ . This is part of our series on ‘Society’, which is an important pillar of the GS-1 syllabus. For more articles, you can click here.


Unlike the women’s movement in the West, the Indian women’s movement began in the shadow of colonial rule and the commitment to attain freedom from colonial rule. Thus, the Indian women’s movement transcended the limited gender framework, unlike the women’s liberation struggles in other parts of the world, especially in the West, where the principal purpose was to address the relationship between women and men in the private and public spheres. Questions of independence and freedom from colonial power were inextricably linked with the consciousness of the Indian women’s movement

Since the late 19th century, the Indian society has witnessed an active feminist movement. The early attempts at reforming the conditions under which Indian women lived were mainly carried out by western educated middle and high-class men. However, soon they were joined by the women of their families. These women and the men began organized movements fighting against oppressive social practices such as female infanticide, sati, child marriage, laws prohibiting widow remarriage, etc.

After Independence, many of the bourgeois women within the liberal section advocated for representation. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, India witnessed the resurgence of the women’s movement, mainly due to the repercussion of the problems that cropped up at the national front (such as price rise) and the women’s active mobilizations on the international front. 

Pre-Independence Movements

Women’s Organizations Started by Men

1. Brahmo Samaj

  • Raja Ram Mohan Roy founded Brahmo Samaj in 1825. It attempted to abolish restrictions and prejudices against women, including sati, child marriage, polygamy, and limited rights to inherit property.
  • Raja Ram Mohan Roy played an essential role in getting Sati abolished.

2. Prarthana Samaj

  • Founded by MG Ranade & RG Bhandarkar in 1867
  • Its objectives were more or less similar to that of Brahmo Samaj but remained confined to western India.

3. Arya Samaj

  • Founded by Dayanand Saraswati in 1875
  • Unlike the above two, it was a religious revivalist movement that aimed to revitalize ancient Hindu traditions. It advocated reforms in the caste system, compulsory education for men and women, prohibition of child marriage by law, and remarriage of child widows.

While the men wanted women to be educated and take part in public activities, at the same time, they regarded the home as the primary focus for women. Gender equality was never an agenda for any of the movements mentioned above. They had a very limited perspective on changing the position of women within the family.

Women’s Organization Started by Women

By the end of the nineteenth century, a few women emerged from reformed families who formed their organizations. 

1. Swarnakumari Devi

  • She was the daughter of Devendranath Tagore, a Brahmo leader, and sister of the poet Rabindranath Tagore, who formed the Ladies Society in Calcutta in 1882 to educate and impart skills to widows and poor women to make them economically self-reliant. 
  • She edited a women’s journal named Bharati. 

2. Ramabai Saraswati

  • She formed the Arya Mahila Samaj in Pune in 1882 and Sharda Sadan in Bombay after few years.

Women in Calcutta, Bombay, Madras and other smaller cities formed associations whose members were drawn from among a small group of urban educated families. They helped bring women out of their homes, giving them an opportunity to meet other women, doing philanthropic work, encouraging them to take an interest in public affairs and thus broadening their horizons.

National Women’s Organizations

  • The early women’s organizations were confined to a particular locality or city. In 1910, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, daughter of Swarnakumari Devi, formed the Bharat Stree Mandal to bring together “women of all castes, creeds, classes and parties based on their common interest in the moral and material progress of the women of India.” Branches were started in cities such as Lahore, Amritsar, Allahabad, Hyderabad, Delhi and Karachi. 
  • The early 20th century saw the growth of women’s organizations at a national and local level. The Women’s India Association (WIA) (1917), All India Women’s Conference (AIWC) (1926) and National Council for Women in India (NCWI) (1925) were the prominent ones.

National Freedom Movement

  • Gandhian Movement: Women had been associated with the freedom struggle before Gandhi’s arrival. They had attended sessions of the Indian National Congress and taken part in the Swadeshi movement in Bengal. But the involvement of a large number began when Gandhiji launched the Non-Cooperation Movement and gave a special role to women.
  • Revolutionary Movements: While thousands of women joined the freedom movement in response to Gandhi’s call, others could not accept his creed of nonviolence and joined revolutionary or terrorist groups. Their hatred of the British was intense, and they planned to make attempts on European lives as widely as possible.  
  • Agrarian Movements: Women participated along with men in struggles and revolts in the colonial period. The Tebhaga movement originating in tribal and rural areas in Bengal, the Telangana arms struggle from the erstwhile Nizam’s rule, and the Warli Tribal Revolt are some examples. 
  • Labour Movements: In 1917, Anasuya Sarabhai led the Ahmedabad textile workers’ strike, and in 1920 under her leadership, the Ahmedabad textile mill workers union was established. By the late 1920s, the presence of women in the workers’ movement was noticeable. There were several prominent women unionists. 

Post Independence Women’s Movements

During the freedom movement, it was felt that with the nation’s Independence, many of the disabilities would disappear, and problems of women attributed to colonial rule would end. The national government undertook to remove the legal disabilities suffered by women and initiatedmajor reforms in the form of Hindu family laws. The legal reforms in the 1950s sought to provide greater rights to Hindu women in marriage, inheritance and guardianship. However, they failed to bridge the gap between legal and social realities. Similar changes in the family laws of other communities, like Muslims, Christians, Parsis and Jews, have not yet come up due to political resistance despite the Directive Principle of State Policy clearly stating the need for uniform laws for all the communities. 

Feminist Movements

Feminist activism in India gained momentum in the late 1970s. 

  • Towards Equality Approach: United Nations declared 1975-85 as the International Decade of the Woman and organized the World Conference on Women in Mexico (1975). As a result, in India, the National Committee on the Status of Women was set up to examine the status of women in the country and investigate the extent to which the constitutional and legal provisions had impacted women’s status. The Committee came out with its findings in the form of a report popularly known as the Towards Equality Report (1974). The beginnings of the women’s movement in India have often been traced back to this report. It showed that women were far behind men in enjoying the equal rights conferred on them by the constitution. This report led to a change in ideology to ‘Women in Development’ rather than ‘Women and Development’.
  • New organizations such as the Self-Employment Women’s Association (Gujarat), Working Women’s Forum (Tamil Nadu), Shramik Mahila Sangathan (Maharashtra) etc., concerned themselves with the plight of women workers in the unorganized sector. These organizations organized women’s labour and took up the issues of their wages, working conditions, exploitation and health hazards. 
  • Mathura Rape Case: This case brought women’s groups together for the first time. The reason was the acquittal of policemen accused of raping a young girl in a police station leading to country-wide protests in 1979-1980, which forced the Government to create a new offence of custodial rape.
  • Alcoholism (Anti-Arak Movement): Alcoholism leads to violence against women. Women groups launched anti-liquor campaigns in Andhra, Himachal, Haryana, Odisha, MP etc. 
  • Anti-Dowry Movement: In the 1980s, several women’s and other progressive organizations formed a joint front in Delhi called “Dahej Virodhi Chetna Manch” and campaigned through protest, demonstrations, discussions, street theatre, posters etc. After much deliberation, the Dowry Prohibition (Amendment) Act 1984 was passed.
  • Deforestation and Ecological Movement: Women have direct contact with natural resources like fuel, food and fodder, forest, water and land, especially in rural areas. Economic hardships faced by women in the Himalayan region due to the cutting down of forests resulted in the spontaneous mobilization of women. They hugged the trees to prevent the contractors from felling them. It is popularly known as the Chipko movement. It was just the beginning, followed by several other movements, such as the Green Belt movement in 1977 (planting trees), the Appiko movement (hugging the trees), Narmada Bachao Andolan etc., which saw significant participation of women at all levels. 
  • Triple Talaq: Started in the Shah Bano Case & culminated with the Shyara Bano case in the Supreme Court, which has effectively banned the practice of Triple Talaq in Muslims. 
  • Bhanwari Devi Gangrape Case (1992): Bhanwari Devi was a Saathin in Rajasthan with the job of raising consciousness in her village about child marriage, dowry etc. Men of the dominant caste resented her efforts wrt Child Marriage, and she was brutally gang-raped. NGO named Vishakha filed a Case in Supreme Court culminating in Vishakha Guidelines.

Self Help Groups (SHGs)

  • SHGs were key instruments in women’s empowerment. 
  • 10-20 rural women from the same village, mostly poor, come together to contribute fortnightly or monthly dues as savings and provide group loans to the members.

Literary Movements

Journals devoted to promoting women’s equality in various languages started to raise women’s issues. These include

Feminist Network English Bombay
Ahalya Bengali Calcutta
Women’s Voice English Bangalore
Stree Sangarash Hindi Patna
Manushi Hindi Delhi

Present Movements

  • ‘Pinjra Tod’: fighting against the discriminatory rules in colleges and university hostels against girls.
  • Temple Entry Movement: Women leaders like Tirupati Desai (of Bhumata Brigade) raised their voices for entry of women inside the sanctum sanctorum of Temples like Shani Shignapur and Sabarimala etc. 
  • #MeToo Movement: MeToo Movement was started in the US and came to India, where women named powerful men who have sexually assaulted their colleagues in the workplace. The movement showed that the Balance of Power in the workplace is skewed in favour of perpetrators of sexual harassment. 
Women Organizations and Movements

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