Mahatma Gandhi - Feminist sage?
by Aparna Jacob
That old 'g' word. Now dulled like long-used gold. Yet one that is still
hailed as the panacea for all human ills. Including those of the enslaved
lot known as the Indian women.
Believing he was the compass that would guide them to the path of emancipation, they would come to him in locust-droves to listen in rapt attention as the half-clad man spoke. Why, I wonder.
"Because he listened to them," explain several smug Gandhians and faithfuls.
"Something society has rarely done," they throw in for good measure. And paradoxical as it may seem, they insist that the nation's patriarch did have solutions for the salvation of womankind.
"Gandhi must be approached as a reformer of humanity," explains activist Jaya Jaitly. "By liberating himself from sexual desires, he'd transcended the line dividing man and woman."
Reason enough to listen.
Prominent Gandhian Nirmala Deshpande elaborates on Gandhi's choice of women as his best crusaders: "Gandhi crowned the Indian woman as the incarnation of ahimsa and lauded her incredible power to endure as her greatest strengths."
I bristle. Isn't this self-effacing, long-suffering Indian woman the pitiful product of a deeply patriarchal Indian culture? And isn't the glorification of the subservient aspects of women just another means to bind her in her own weaknesses? And should that also explain the setting up of ideals of womanhood such as Sita, Savitri or Draupadi?
"These mythological figures are revered and related to by 75 per cent of India, mainly the rural women," explains Jaitly.
"In the interior regions of UP and Bihar, there are fabulous and progressive interpretations of these characters. Gandhi used these to strike the right chord among women."
Behind Gandhi's setting up of 'chaste and pure' Sitas and Savitris as role models is the fact that he equated the nobility of womanhood with absolute sexlessness.
Says Deshpande: "By asking women to attain control over their sexuality, he showed how she could assert her right over her body, refusing even her husband. By choosing to be a celibate, she wouldn't have to pledge her body to a man."
A celibate herself, this septuagenarian cites from her own experience: "By renouncing sex, one can channel one's energies towards higher goals. Gandhi encouraged those who wanted to lead a socially useful life to stay unmarried. Because married individuals channel their altruism only towards their immediate relations."
Dr Savita Singh, deputy director of Gandhi Smriti and Darshan Samiti, Delhi, clarifies: "Gandhi did not reject marriage. But he stressed sexual restraint. He advocated abstinence as the best form of birth control, a veritable solution to our population crisis."
Those approaching Gandhi for the first time are apt to notice the patriarchal conservatism inherent in the political and social role he envisioned for women.
For instance, he decreed: " Nature has made men and women different, so it is necessary to maintain a difference between the education of the two."
Ergo, he concluded: "It is a woman's right to rule the home. Man is the master outside it."
But what if a woman does not want to rule the home? Should the Marie Curies and P.T. Ushas of the world be relegated to the kitchen and nappies?
Madhu Kishwar, editor of Manushi, a journal about women and society, critiques: "He saw male and female in terms of the 'active-passive' syndrome, which has been an ideological device for denying women any chance to acquire power in the family or the society."
She continues: "The unjust domination of woman by man that Gandhi thought he opposed is something inherent in the very role that he envisaged for her-that of being a 'complement' to man. 'They are equals in life, but their functions differ', was how he saw it."
Gandhi's views on women with a career seem equally acerbic.
Kishwar points out: "Gandhi could not envisage the wife following an avocation independently of her husband. He felt that the care of the children and the upkeep of the household are quite enough to fully engage all her energies."
Not something that would go down well with today's woman, who straddles both home and a career. In Gandhian perspective, a modern nuclear family where both the partners participate equally in household chores as well as career management, was clearly not an option worth considering.
Dr Singh does not agree: "Because of her childbearing functions, a woman is at times compelled to stay home. But ground realities today demand that women step out of their homes and become breadwinners. In fact, as far back as 1920, Gandhi was talking of equal wages for women."
Deshpande observes: "One cannot expect rural women to make radical changes in their lives. They had to look after their homes. But he gave these unskilled, illiterate women the charkha and khadi as an economic solution."
"It was with a remarkable insight that Gandhi, without challenging their traditional role, could make women an important social base for the movement."
Adds Deshpande: "And they were handed their rights as equal citizens when the country became free. They didn't have to fight for voting rights and property rights like their western counterparts."
So, how has Gandhi affected the status of the modern Indian woman, both urban and rural? According to Dr Singh, even though the modern urban woman considers herself liberated, it is rarely in terms of the Gandhian ideal. And, sadly enough, in rural India, the girl child is still being killed.
"Gandhi had given India a blueprint for development," says Dr Singh.
"Including the upliftment of the nation's women. But today, a girl child is still deprived of education.''
But, while Indian women are grateful for the fundamental rights Gandhi procured for them, there's ambivalence over the pertinence of his ascribed tenets for women's emancipation. Perhaps it is time to get some real answers.
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