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Woman is more fitted than man to make exploration and take bolder action in nonviolence.
There is no occasion for women to consider themselves subordinate or inferior to men.
Woman is the companion of man, gifted with equal mental capacity.
If by strength is meant moral power, then woman is immeasurably man’s superior.
If nonviolence is the law of our being, the future is with women.
Woman, I hold, is the personification of self-sacrifice, but unfortunately today she does not realise what tremendous advantage she has over man
These are some of the most famous quotes from Gandhiji’s writings and speeches. Gandhiji believed that India’s salvation depends on the sacrifice and enlightenment of her women. Any tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, the Great Soul, would be an empty one, if we were to take no cue for our own guidance from his words and from his life, and put his values into practice. For him ideas and ideals had no value if they were not translated into action. He saw men and women as equals, complementing each other. If men and women work together selflessly and sincerely as equals with a faith like Gandhi’s, they may indeed realise Ram Rajya, the perfect state. Traditionally, woman has been called abala. In Sanskrit and many other Indian languages bala means strength. Abala means one without strength. If by strength we do not mean brutish strength, but strength of character, steadfastness, and endurance, a woman should actually be called sabala, strong. Gandhiji’s message almost six decades ago at the All India Women’s Conference on December 23, 1936 was: “When a woman, whom we call abala becomes sabala, all those who are helpless will become powerful.”
Gandhiji’s Idea of Woman as Mother and “Mother India”
In his formative years, Mahatma Gandhiji (alia Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi) was influenced by his mother Putlibai who imparted in him a strong sense of personal ethics and compassion that is conveyed in Gandhiji’s favourite prayer song by the 15th century religious reformer, Narsinh Mehta (1414–1481), Vaishnav Jan to tene re kahiye, je pida parayi jane re (A godlike man is one, who feels another’s pain). Gandhi said: “The outstanding impression my mother has left on my memory is that of saintliness. She was deeply religious. She would not think of taking her meals without daily prayer. She would take the hardest of vows and keep them without flinching. Illness was no excuse for relaxing them.”
Gandhi married at the age of thirteen to Kasturba. He lost no time in trying to assume the authority of a husband to lord over her life. But Kasturba never acceded to her husband’s wishes easily, and Gandhi’s autobiography itself furnishes a remarkable testimony to her tenacity and independence of judgement, and the sharp disagreements she came to have with him when, in the first two decades of their marriage, he unreasonably sought to bring her under his control. This same tenacity and courage that Kasturba Gandhi possessed also proved to be the backbone for Mahatma Gandhi’s fight for justice, first in South Africa and then in India. She became his active partner and supporter in all his activities. Thus, she was among the first Satyagrahis to stage dharna at Transvaal in South Africa after the colonial government there declared all non- Christian marriages invalid. When both of them came back to India in 1914 to join the freedom struggle here, she was arrested several times while participating in Gandhiji’s campaigns. But at the same time, she was content to live in the shadow of her illustrious husband. She had a multifaceted personality. She was a fiercely independent woman, at the same time very simple and gentle. Kasturba became Ba-mother of all of Bapu’s extended family and took loving care of them.
Gandhi learnt much from Kasturba and perhaps even more from his mother. Gandhiji’s devotion to women, particularly to women as mother, began with his devotion to his mother and Kasturba. Motherhood became increasingly his model for liberation of India in the sense that a mother, having brought forth a child, selflessly devotes herself to his care till he grows up and becomes independent. Even after children are grown-up, her constant desire is to make herself one with them. Unless we have feeling and devotion for our motherland, many countries will be lying in wait to crush us. He saw no hope for India’s emancipation while her womanhood remained un-emancipated. He held men to be largely responsible for the tragedy. In the course of his social reform work, the realisation came to him that if he wanted to reform and purify society of the various evils that had crept into it, he had to cultivate a mother’s heart.
He learnt the fundamental aspects of his soul politics from his mother and his wife, but women’s influence on him was not limited to his family. When Gandhiji entered the freedom struggle in India in the second decade of the twentieth century, women had begun creating organisations such as All India Women’s Council and Bhagini Samaj, though it is also true that they were founded predominantly among the upper-middle class in urban centres. Although many associate the ideals and organisations of the ‘new woman’ with Gandhi, as Elise Boulding indicates, “well before Gandhi was calling women to practice Satyagraha, the grandmothers, mothers, wives and daughters of the educated classes in India were forming organisations providing education and action-training for other women, in order to re-build an Indian society free from colonial structures.”
Influence of Women Public Figures on Gandhiji
Among these other women who influenced Gandhi were Annie Besant, a British militant feminist and a Theosophist, Sarojini Naidu, a trusted co-worker of Gandhiji, Kamladevi Chattopadhyaya, a fiery Satyagrahi, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur and Pushpaben Mehta. Geraldine Forbes examines the model that Sarojini Naidu developed in her speech as President of the Indian National Congress, a model with India as the “house”, the Indian people as “members of the joint family” and the Indian woman as the “Mother”. Naidu, Gandhi, and many other advocates of women’s and national liberation agreed wholeheartedly that women and India would advance together to the extent this new familial model for India was adopted by the women and men of India.
Gandhi believed women could do much to transform India at all levels. In a letter written to Rajkumari Amrit Kaur from Wardha on 21 October 1936, he wrote, “If you women would only realise your dignity and privilege, and make full use of it for mankind, you will make it much better than it is. But man has delighted in enslaving you and you have proved willing slaves till the slaves and the slave-holders have become one in the crime of degrading humanity. My special function from childhood, you might say, has been to make women realise their dignity. I was once a slave-holder myself but Ba proved an unwilling slave and thus opened my eyes to my mission. Her task was finished. Now I am in search of a woman who would realise her mission. Are you that woman, will you be one?”
Gandhi drew millions of women from the lowest strata into the freedom struggle. As he wrote: “I began work among women when I was not even thirty years old. There is not a woman in South Africa who does not know me. But my work was among the poorest. The intellectuals I could not draw . . . you cannot blame me for not having organised the intellectuals among the women. I have not the gift . . . but just as I never fear coldness on the part of the poor when I approach them, I never fear it when I approach poor women. There is invisible bond between them and me.” The mass of poor women were those whose dignified upliftment he craved. Poor women understood what he was saying because he empathised with them, the language he used immediately touched their hearts. Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, echoing this aspect of Gandhiji’s personality, stated: “We found in him not a ‘Bapu’, a wise father, but what is far more precious, a mother, before whose all-embracing and understanding love, all fear and restraint vanish.”
Nobody has done as much as Gandhi to bring out masses of illiterate women from the four walls of their houses. He attracted so many millions of not just literate but illiterate women without the power of state, without the modern information technology and offering in return only sweat, toil, and pain—it was indeed an exceptional feat! Like Midas touch, anybody whom he touched became vibrant and an active soldier of the movement and not a lifeless idol of gold.
Gandhiji taught us that empowerment of women without sharing our material, financial, intellectual resources with the poor women is not possible. Sharing requires sacrifice. In short, this is the Gandhian formula (sharing and sacrifice). To go ahead on the path shown by Gandhiji, many of us will have to change our life style. Women will need to be conscious and aware and realise that they are the builders of the nation and a peaceful world. The aim of women empowerment should not be just empowering a few women, but should be ‘total emancipation’. We still have miles to go to achieve our cherished goal to empower women.
Gandhi, Mahatma (1994): The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Publications Division, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Govt. of India, New Delhi.
Gandhi, M.K. (1956): The Gandhi Reader: A Sourcebook of His Life and Writings. Homer Jack (ed.) Grove Press, New York.
Gandhi, M.K. (1940), An Autobiography or The Story of My Experiments with Truth, 2nd edition, Navajivan Publishing House, Ahmedabad, pp. Xii, 404.
Vibhuti Patel is Professor at the Advanced Centre for Women’s Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
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