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The contemporary relevance of Gandhi's views on women.


This review paper deals with the Mahatma Gandhi, work for the liberation of the suppressed-particularly women--as much as for the emancipation of the Indian nation. He undoubtedly contributed to the awakening of women to their rights, dignity and self-respect. This article tries to revisit his innovatory views on women and reveal their forehanded perception. The major part of this article is devoted to reflect the contemporary relevance of these views-which were set 70 to 80 years ago-compared to the present day status of women. The article tries to do so by revealing first the status of women in the Indian reality, both socially and religiously so as to reflect how inventive Gandhi's views were. The part concerning the current weight of Gandhi's attitudes towards women is done through the reflection of the controverting interpretations of 5 group discussions held in the period between September and December 2015. The outcome of these analyses had been both pro as well as against Gandhi's visions on women; but the groups had mostly agreed that his foresighted observations were typically relevant to today's ailments and achievements of women universally. Keywords: Gandhi's philosophy, contemporary relevance, hindu society, women's dharma


Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (2nd October 1869-30th January 1948) or the Mahatma (1) Gandhi (meaning the Great Soul) is invariably ranked as one of the world's most admired persons of the twentieth century (Allen, 2008). He had been one of the prominent figures of the independence movement in India. He organized demonstrations against the Colonial government and defied its rules. This was manifested, for example, in his noncompliance with the land-tax laws and its clear discrimination against peasants, farmers, and urban laborers. He also led nationwide campaigns for reducing poverty, enhancing women's rights, establishing religious coherence and for ending untouchability in the Indian society. He lived diffidently in an ashram, which is a completely self-sufficient community, wore the traditional dress woven with yarn hand-spun, ate simple vegetarian food, and performed long fasts as a means of both self-purification and social protest. By employing peaceful measures such as nonviolence, civil disobedience and nonaggressive resistance to achieve his goals, Gandhi had motivated movements for civil rights and self-determination across the world. He had been endowed the name Mahatma as an honorary title (McGregor 1993), and his birthday is commemorated world-wide as the International Day of Nonviolence.

Yet, during his lifetime and in terms of his continuing legacy Gandhi remains to be a very controversial figure, particularly concerning his revolutionary visions on almost all stereotyped aspects of Hindu life. This paper initially surpasses the ongoing debate on whether Gandhi's views represent a specialized academic philosophy, or whether they just adopt philosophical approaches to his revolutionary conventions. This paper is more concerned with the core of Gandhi's views--as philosophically and innovatory substantial--on women, and the contemporary relevance of those outlooks.

This article tries to ponder on the significance of Gandhi's attitude towards women, and how it constituted an outbreak of the norms and traditions of its time. The paper is going to shed light first on the religious and hence social status of women in the Indian Hindu faith which back-grounded Gandhi's standpoints. Then a discursive display of Gandhi's defiance of those stereotyped models of belief would be presented.

The contemporary relevance of Gandhi's views, which is the main part of this paper, is based on the demonstration of the opinions of young students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in India. These views were abstracted based on discussion groupings held in the period at the JNU campus. The aim of this part is also to assess whether the charisma of the father of the nation is still significant and vivid after 70 to 80 years of his revelations.

The status of women in the Hindu society

To understand in depth the role that Gandhi played in improving the position of women in society, it is essential to look at women's status, prevalent at that time. Hinduism is the oldest religion on earth. The most imperative and most studied ancient legal text among the many texts of Hinduism is the Manusmrti, the Manava-Dharmasastra (Olivelle 2005) or Laws of Manu (Encyclopedia of Legal History 2009). According to Hindu mythology, the Manusmriti is the word of Brahma (Supreme God), compiled and stated by Manu, the first human being and the first king in the Indian tradition (Bilmore 2011).

This versed-form text is classified as the most authoritative statement on Dharma (duties and rights) of Hindu life. It included over fifty manuscripts covering the different life topics. Its composed metric Shlokas (verses), are presented in the form of a dialogue between a dignified teacher and his disciples about the various features of dharma. The first 58 verses are attributed by the text to Manu, while the remaining more than two thousand verses are attributed to his student Bhrigu (Smith and Doniger 1992).

The Manusmriti had also formulated the Hindu Law during the colonial period. The colonial government attempted, in the case of the Hindu majority of India, to commend laws based on religious texts. Hence the Manusmriti became one of the first Sanskrit texts to be decoded and translated into English as early as 1794, by the philologist Sir William Jones, and then used to formulate the Hindu Legal system during the colonial rule.

The Manusmriti version on women and their status, roles and dharma had also articulated the laws concerning Hindu women during the British Rule in the Indian subcontinent; as the sharia had been accepted as the legal code for Muslims (of India), based on texts such the al-Sirjjiyah and Fatawa-i Alamgiri written under during the Moghul period (Ewing 1988).

Manusmriti on women

Since the Laws of Manu are the determinants of women status on all aspects of Hindu Indian life, these laws could be summed as follows: (Olivelle 2005)

Verses 3.13-3.14 of the Manusmriti oppose a woman marrying someone outside her own social class;

--Verses 5.158-5.160 preach chastity to widows

--Verses 2.67-2.69 and 5.148-5.155 preach that as a girl, the female should obey and seek protection of her father, as a young woman her husband, and as a widow her son; and that a woman should always worship her husband as a god

--Verses 3.55-3.56, declare that "women must be honored and adorned", and "where women are revered, there the gods rejoice; but where they are not, no sacred rite bears any fruit

--Verses 5.147-5.148 declare that, "a woman must never seek to live independently".

Moreover, Chapter IX of the Manusmriti deals with the Eternal Laws for Husband and Wife, and women in general (Herbermann, ed. 1913). There are 336 verses in this Chapter which label women status:

1. "Swabhav ev narinam...."--2/213. It is the nature of women to seduce men in this world; for that reason the wise are never unguarded in the company of females.

2. "Avidvam samlam...."--2/214. Women, true to their class character, are capable of leading astray men in this world, not only a fool but even a learned and wise man. Both become slaves of desire.

3. "Matra swastra...."--2/215. Wise people should avoid sitting alone with one's mother, daughter or sister. Since carnal desire is always strong, it can lead to temptation.

4. "Naudwahay...."--3/8. One should not marry women who has have reddish hair, redundant parts of the body [such as six fingers], one who is often sick, one without hair or having excessive hair and one who has red eyes.

5. "Nraksh vraksh...." 3/9. One should not marry women whose names are similar to constellations, trees, rivers, those from a low caste, mountains, birds, snakes, slaves or those whose names inspires terror.

6. "Yasto na bhavet...."--3/ 10. Wise men should not marry women who do not have a brother and whose parents are not socially well known.

7. "Uchayangh...."--3/11. Wise men should marry only women who are free from bodily defects, with beautiful names, grace/gait like an elephant, moderate hair on the head and body, soft limbs and small teeth.

8. "Heenjati striyam...."--3/15. When twice born [dwij=Brahman, Kshatriya and Vaish] men in their folly marry low caste Shudra women, they are responsible for the degradation of their whole family. Accordingly, their children adopt all the demerits of the Shudra caste.

9. "Shudram shaynam......"-3/17. A Brahman who marries a Shudra woman, degrades himself and his whole family, becomes morally degenerated, loses Brahman status and his children too attain status of shudra.

10.12. "Daiv pitiya...."--3/18. The offerings made by such a person at the time of established rituals are neither accepted by God nor by the departed soul; guests also refuse to have meals with him and he is bound to go to hell after death.

11.. "Chandalash...."--3/240. Food offered and served to Brahman after Shradh ritual should not be seen by a chandal, a pig, a cock,a dog, and a menstruating women.

12. "Na ashniyat...."--4/43. A Brahman, true defender of his class, should not have his meals in the company of his wife and even avoid looking at her. Furthermore, he should not look towards her when she is having her meals or when she sneezes/yawns.

13. "Na ajyanti...."--4/44. A Brahman in order to preserve his energy and intellect must not look at women who apply collyrium to her eyes, one who is massaging her nude body or one who is delivering a child.

14. "Mrshyanti...."--4/217. One should not accept meals from a woman who has extra marital relations; nor from a family exclusively dominated/managed by women or a family whose 10 days of impurity because of death have not passed.

15. "Balya va...."--5/150. A female child, young woman or old woman is not supposed to work independently even at her place of residence.

16. "Balye pitorvashay...."--5/151. Girls are supposed to be in the custody of their father when they are children, women must be under the custody of their husband when married and under the custody of her son as widows. In no circumstances is she allowed to assert herself independently.

17. "Asheela kamvrto...."--5/157. Men may be lacking virtue, be sexual perverts, immoral and devoid of any good qualities, and yet women must constantly worship and serve their husbands.

18. "Na ast strinam...."--5/158. Women have no divine right to perform any religious ritual, nor make vows or observe a fast. Her only duty is to obey and please her husband and she will for that reason alone be exalted in heaven.

19. "Kamam to...."--5/160. At her pleasure [after the death of her husband], let her emaciate her body by living only on pure flowers, roots of vegetables and fruits. She must not even mention the name of any other men after her husband has died.

20. "Vyabhacharay...."--5/167. Any women violating duty and code of conduct towards her husband, is disgraced and becomes a patient of leprosy. After death, she enters womb of Jackal.

21. "Kanyam bhajanti...."--8/364. In case women enjoy sex with a man from a higher caste, the act is not punishable. But on the contrary, if women enjoy sex with lower caste men, she is to be punished and kept in isolation.

22. "Utmam sevmansto...."--8/365. In case a man from a lower caste enjoys sex with a woman from a higher caste, the person in question is to be awarded the death sentence. And if a person satisfies his carnal desire with women of his own caste, he should be asked to pay compensation to the women's faith.

23. "Ya to kanya...."--8/369. In case a woman tears the membrane [hymen] of her Vagina, she shall instantly have her head shaved or two fingers cut off and made to ride on Donkey.

24. "Bhartaram...."--8/370. In case a women, proud of the greatness of her excellence or her relatives, violates her duty towards her husband, the King shall arrange to have her thrown before dogs at a public place.

25. "Pita rakhshati...."--9/3. Since women are not capable of living independently, she is to be kept under the custody of her father as child, under her husband as a woman and under her son as widow.

26. "Imam hi sarw...."--9/6. It is the duty of all husbands to exert total control over their wives. Even physically weak husbands must strive to control their wives.

27. "Pati bharyam...."--9/8. The husband, after the conception of his wife, becomes the embryo and is born again of her. This explains why women are called Jaya.

28. "Panam durjan...."--9/13. Consuming liquor, association with wicked persons, separation from her husband, rambling around, sleeping for unreasonable hours and dwelling-are six demerits of women.

29. "Naita rupam...."--9/14. Such women are not loyal and have extra marital relations with men without consideration for their age.

30. "Poonshchalya...."--9/15. Because of their passion for men, immutable temper and natural heartlessness, they are not loyal to their husbands.

31. "Na asti strinam...."--9/18. While performing namkarm and jatkarm, Vedic mantras are not to be recited by women, because women are lacking in strength and knowledge of Vedic texts. Women are impure and represent falsehood.

32. "Devra ... sapinda...."--9/58. On failure to produce offspring with her husband, she may obtain offspring by cohabitation with her brother-in-law [devar] or with some other relative [sapinda] on her in-law's side.

33. "Vidwayam...."--9/60. He who is appointed to cohabit with a widow shall approach her at night, be anointed with clarified butter and silently beget one son, but by no means a second one.

34. "Yatha vidy...."--9/70. In accordance with established law, the sister-in-law [bhabhi] must be clad in white garments; with pure intent her brother-in-law [devar] will cohabitate with her until she conceives.

35. "Ati kramay...."--9/77. Any women who disobey orders of her lethargic, alcoholic and diseased husband shall be deserted for three months and be deprived of her ornaments.

36. "Vandyashtamay...."--9/80. A barren wife may be superseded in the 8th year; she whose children die may be superseded in the 10th year and she who bears only daughters may be superseded in the 11th year; but she who is quarrelsome may be superseded without delay.

37. "Trinsha...."--9/93. In case of any problem in performing religious rites, males between the age of 24 and 30 should marry a female between the age of 8 and 12.

38. "Yambrahmansto...."--9/177. In case a Brahman man marries Shudra woman, their son will be called 'Parshav' or 'Shudra' because his social existence is like a dead body. (Buhler 1886)

Women's Dharma

Dharma according to Hinduism is the concept of leading a righteous life and fulfilling "religious duty." Women's dharma includes all the duties, rights, laws, conduct, virtues that are expected to be performed by a Hindu woman (Olivelle 2005).

According to Hinduism, women are more delicate than men; hence, they require and deserve protection. Hindu texts intensify the virtues of womanhood and emphasize that the crucial role women is in the promotion of future generations. Women are classified according to varna, and do not pass through the four stages available to men. The Manusmriti, moreover, describes three stages for a woman:

1. As a child, protected by her father: Usually, girls did not receive a formal academic education. A woman's role, considered essential in preserving social and cultural values, was learned in the home.

2. As a married lady, protected by her husband: Hinduism places great value on pre-marital chastity and this has significantly influenced practices. Girls were betrothed and married at a very young age. In married life, the wife's roles were centered on the home and she was not burdened with contributing towards the family income. Fulfilling one's responsibility as a loving and available parent was considered paramount.

3. As a widow, protected by the eldest son: If the husband died or took sannyasa, then the widow would be looked after by the eldest living son. Elder ladies were always treated with great respect.

Accordingly, the traditional values and duties expected from a female are:

1. As a child, to be obedient and respectful to her parents and elders.

2. In household life, to serve a worthy husband and treat his friends and relatives with affection. To avoid mixing intimately with other men.

3. To be fully conversant in religious principles.

4. To be expert in household affairs, and to keep the home clean and well-decorated.

5. To dress and decorate herself to please her husband. A wife should avoid dressing up if her husband is away from home.

6. To control her greed and passions and to speak truthfully and pleasingly.

7. To follow certain vratas (vows) such as fasting on days like Ekadasi (the 11th day of the moon).

8. To love, protect and nurture children.

9. In later life, to dedicate time to spiritual practices and to give counsel to younger family members.

Gandhi's philosophy on women

Gandhi described the Manusmriti laws on women as "hateful and deserves to be condemned and expunged" and that "it had done great damage to women and Indian society". He advocated a complete reform which he called "Sarvodaya" meaning comprehensive progress. He believed that the difference between men and women was only physical and that in issues of patience, endurance, and sacrifice women largely outdo men (Gandhi 1983).

Gandhi strongly favored the liberation of women; he is famous for his devotion to what he believed to be his mission to reformulate women's life, in all aspects, including the intimate sides. He speculated on topics like equality of sexes, marriage, dowry system, divorce, widow remarriage, purdah, women's honor, women's education and even on birth control and sterilization. He opposed female seclusion, child marriage, untouchability and the extreme oppression of Hindu widows and the practice of sati (widow's burning with husband body). Unlike the social norms of the time, he intensively enrolled women in the national protests like the salt tax campaigns and the boycott of foreign products (Lyn, 1997).

According to Gandhi women are in a lower and more inferior status than men not because they possess any kind of incapacity, but due to the invalid norms. Therefore, women were not supposed to suffer any legal disability which was not suffered by men since both are perfectly equal (Young India, 17th October, 1929) (2). According to him Mother Nature has created sexes as complements of each other, and their functions are defined as are their forms (Harijan, 2nd December, 1939) (3).

Socially, Gandhi stood against the deep-rooted traditions that impeded the progress of women. "It is good to swim in the waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicide" (Gandhi 1942). He used to criticize the "evils" of the society, and tried to activate resistance against them.

Politically, Gandhi struggled to transform the perception of women for politics. He encouraged the idea that the woman could constitute the future leaders of the nation, and hence would discard her inferiority complex. He reassured women to get involved into national politics through non-violent methods. He believed that, "Women must have votes and an equal status. But the problem does not end there. It only commences at the point where women begin to affect the political deliberations of the nation."

According to Gandhi "Womanhood is not restricted to the kitchen". He opined that "Only when the woman is liberated from the slavery of the kitchen, that her true spirit may be discovered". It does not mean that women should not cook, but only that household responsibilities be shared among men, women and children.

Gandhi believed that young men ought to marry at the age of 25 or 30. He preferred arranged marriages, but young men beyond the age of 25 had to be consulted by the parents (Mehta 2004).

Marriage should not confer any right upon one partner to demand obedience of the other. However, divorce ought not to be the only alternative. Marriage is a state of discipline, and when one partner breaks the discipline, the other can break the bond. Since Hinduism regarded each as an absolute equal of the other, the individual is, therefore, absolutely free for the sake of self-realization, for which and which alone he or she is born (Young India, 21st October, 1926). Wives should not be dolls and objects of indulgence but should be treated as honored comrades in common service. The educationally ill-disposed should be educated by their husbands. The customary and legal status of women is bad and demands radical change. (Gandhi 1948).

For Gandhi the dowry system--as practiced by the Indian society--was a product of the caste system, and therefore, the abolition of caste would lead to the abolition of dowry. Demanding dowry, for him, was akin to discrediting womanhood. Young men who would demand dowry should be excommunicated. Parents of girls should cease to be dazzled by English degrees and should not hesitate to travel outside their little castes and provinces to secure true, gallant young men for their daughters (Young India, 21st June, 1928).

Widowhood imposed by religion or custom, for the Mahatma, was an unbearable yoke that defiled the home by secret vice and degraded religion. In order to save Hinduism, enforced widowhood must be ridden. Child widows must be duly and well married and not remarried. They were never really married (Young India, 5th August, 1926).

The purdah system, according to him, was "vicious, brutal and barbarous". He called it the practice of pushing women into seclusion: Chastity could not be protected by the surrounding wall of the purdah. It had to grow from within and be capable of withstanding every unsought temptation (Young India, 3rd February, 1927). Why was there all that morbid anxiety about female purity? Have women any say in the matter of male purity? Female or male purity could not be superimposed from without. It should be a matter of evolution from within and, therefore, of individual self-effort (Young India, 25th November, 1926).

For Gandhi it would be physically impossible to violate a woman against her will. The outrage would take place only when she gives way to fear or does not realize her moral strength. If she cannot meet the assailant's physical might, her purity will give her the strength to die before he would succeed in violating her. (Harijan, 14th January, 1940). When a woman is assaulted, her primary duty should be self-protection. God has given her nails and teeth. She must use them with all her strength and if need be, die in the effort (Harijan, 1st March, 1942).

According to Gandhi one of the essential outlets of women inferiority and complexes is through education. Education would enable women to uphold their natural rights. Since men and women are complementary to each other, men should be supreme in the outward activities and therefore he should have a greater knowledge thereof. Home life should entirely be the sphere of the woman and therefore in domestic affairs, in the upbringing and education of children women ought to have more knowledge. Unless courses of instruction are based on a discriminating appreciation of these basic principles, the fullest life of man and woman would not develop. (Harijan, 27th Febraury, 1937).

Artificial methods of birth control, according to Gandhi, would be like putting a premium upon vice as they make man and woman reckless. Adoption of artificial methods would result in imbecility and nervous prostration. It would be immoral to seek escape from the consequences of one's acts, and moral results could only be produced by moral restraints. All other restraints could defeat the very purpose for which they were intended (Young India, 12th March, 1925). The use of contraceptives could kill the desire to exercise self-restraint. Man must understand that woman was his companion and not a means of satisfying his carnal desire. The purpose of human creation was wholly different from that of the satisfaction of animal wants (Gandhi 2011). Sex should only be meant for creation. Any other use would be a sin against God and humanity (Harijan, 28th March, 1936). Woman must be taught the art of saying no even to her husband. She had rights as well as duties. The first thing was to free her from mental slavery, to teach her sacredness of her body and to teach her dignity of national service and the service of humanity (Harijan 2nd May 1936).

The Mahatma believed that women had been suppressed under custom and law for which man was responsible and in the shaping of which she had no hand. Rules of social conduct must be framed by mutual cooperation and consultation. Women have been taught to regard themselves as slaves of men. Women must realize their full status and play their part as equals of men (Gandhi 1948). Gandhi also regarded the purdah as inhuman and immoral, for it impeded the march towards swaraj (self-rule) by restricting women It denied women freedom as well as free gift of God like light and fresh air (Gandhi 1958). It weakened instead of strengthening morality for it did not help in preserving chastity as chastity is not a hot-house growth and cannot be superimposed (Gandhi 1942).

Gandhi considered it inhuman to impose sterilization law on the people. He was against the use of contraceptives in case of women, but did not mind voluntary sterilization in case of men since the male would always be the assailant (Amrita Bazaar Patrika, 12th January 1935).

Standing against the practice of female infanticide, Gandhi believed that the birth of a girl was generally unwelcome as she was to be married off and had to live and work in her marital home. She would also expose herself and her whole family to the custom of dowry which transferred the girl into a burden for her parents. He called for the celebration of the birth of boy as well as girl, and there should not be a distinction between the two, since both are functional in the world.

For Gandhi, the origins of the practice of sail custom were attributed to the blind egoism of males. He argued that if the wife had to demonstrate her loyalty and exclusive devotion to her husband, then the husband must also prove his faithfulness and dedication to his wife (Young India Oct. 17, 1929). Loyalty could be proven through the acquisition of knowledge and improvement of her strength of mind and will. To him sati was the exercise of taking lives, and that purity could be conquered through constant striving and immolation of spirit (Gandhi 2003).

Prostitution according to Gandhi is a social disease or as he called it 'moral leprosy' promoted by men who lack morality. For him it was a source of bitter dishonor, distress and humiliation that women had to sell their chastity for men's lust. 18 He condemned prostitution as well as nightclubs and declared that men should hold the accountability for driving women into flesh trade. He advised women to give up this profession and practice spinning, so as to acquire social acceptance, and try to extend opportunities of education and employment.

Scholars like Chattopadhyay considered Gandhi as the rescuer of women. According to him one of Gandhi's greatest achievements is not what the woman actually did in the Satyagraha movement, but what the movement did to her, because it changed the face of Indian society, and the status of women had transformed completely and eternally. The women of today carry themselves with new dignity and consciousness of their larger responsibilities. Because of Gandhi's endeavors women assumed high offices and fulfilled their duties with care and diligence. They became dictators and captains. They organized and ran the entire foreign cloth boycott that Gandhi called for, and enclosed the program. They faced persecution, beatings and assaults with indomitable courage. Women had the capability to give a meaning and reality to the spirit of non-violent struggle. Gandhi stated that "The part that women played in this struggle should be written in letters of gold" (Chattopadhyay 2003).

Another scholar, Sarma Kumari concluded that "Gandhi's success in enlisting women in his campaigns, including the salt tax campaign, the anti-untouchability measures and the peasant movement, gave many women a new self-confidence and dignity in the mainstream of Indian public life" (Kumari 1994).

Nandela, on an alternative stand, opinionated that not all Gandhi's standpoints are acceptable, particularly those concerning equality of sexes and their functional interrelationships. The definition of function according to Gandhi's formula is an emphasis on the sexual division of labor, whose theory has been abandoned by recent developments. Men and women should compete and co-operate, complement and even supplant each other. However, the Mahatma's intention had been to protect the institution of family and at the same time exalt women with equal status (Nandela n.d.).

Nandela additionally thinks that Gandhi's views on the age at marriage for young men are relevant to this day and indicated that he had a traditional view of life but he wanted reforms within this tradition (Nandela n.d.).

Nandan and Sinha stressed the significance of the external and internal forces which shaped Gandhi's approach to the problem of women. Gandhi's views, particularly concerning the political rights of women and their reservation in legislatures, were highly influenced by the British women's movement for gaining voting rights in 1906-7. When he British government was reluctant to grant voting rights to women, a group of British women came to the House of Commons, belabored the members there, indulged in breaking furniture etc. for which they were sent to jail and fined five pounds each. Gandhi was impressed by the courage and determination of British women from which he deduced the possibilities of similar awakening among Indian women (Nandan 1992).

According to Ravindra Varma "Though Gandhi never challenged the traditional set up, he inspired women to carve out their own destinies within it, and thereby changing its very essence. Women learnt from Gandhi that one can be strong, even if seemingly weak, to protest against injustice. They realized that they do not have to accept the norms of male-dominated politics. They evolved their own perspectives and formulated their own methods. In a way they presented a critique of the colonial unethical state" (John 2002).

Oxanal stated that, if there had not been the struggle against imperialism, Gandhi would have not remembered the oppressed situation of women. She added that the new image of women that Gandhi created had been drawn from one particular historical and social setting and for one particular political goal: to unite the different strata in India against imperialism. The fight against colonization turned out to be very beneficial for changing the status of untouchables and women and softening of communal conflict. When confronted with the problem of mass mobilization Gandhi became aware of the fact that fifty percent of population of India was latent, overlooked and suppressed. So, he propagated the mass participation of women in the national movement (Oxanal 2004).

Patel criticized that if Gandhi was the national leader who could put forward an ideological and political perspective that could successfully mobilize the class, caste, community and gender divided Indian society into a single cohesive political force, he was also a self-conscious individual, commenting on his society from a perspective extracted and extended from his social strata and who simultaneously was also attempting to resolve his personal conflicts through a well-thought--off theory of personality" (Patel 1988).

The contemporary relevance of Gandhi's views on women:

This part is mainly based on the summation of arguments accumulated from conclusions of 5 group discussions held in the period between September and December 2015. The discussion groups consisted of Indian students of both sexes at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, aged 20-25, regardless of their academic affiliations. Each group instituted 10 students. Knowledge and interest on the topic was pre-tested and consent of participation assured. The two focal points of the discussion were:

1. What do you think about Gandhi's views on women?

2. What is the contemporary relevance of these views?

Each group was given 40 minutes, with allocated 20 minutes for each topic. Several opinions, attitudes and estimations were raised. The discussion groups' opinions varied on the two raised points. Some were pro-Gandhi's views while others were against them. All the references and statistical data raised during the discussion have later been verified by the author as per se. The variable outlooks as reflected by the discussants can be concluded as follows:

--Women have largely benefited from the political routes of action that Gandhi had surfaced for them during the freedom movement. Their post-independence activities and achievements have been very significant manifested in the various successful women's organizations to the post of Prime Minister as Indira Gandhi.

--Women of the middle classes have achieved remarkable eminence in fields such as aviation, science and space technology and administration. Regrettably women of the rural classes are still exposed to oppression, not only from within their caste but by upper caste communities as well.

--Because of Gandhi women were able to surpass the traditional responsibilities and participate in the affairs of the nation. He was the first to criticize Indians' passion for male progeny. He said that as long as girls are not considered natural creatures as boys then the nation would be in a dark eclipse.

--It is a positive premiership in the Indian history--for Gandhi--that a male struggled very hard to understand a woman's physical and mental pain and need.

--Gandhi used himself and his family members as examples for the implementation of his opinions. He used his wife and children as social sacrifice candidates and for the enactment of his theories. He believed that service had to be accomplished for the sake of self-actualization, not for public demonstration.

--The efforts of Gandhi had been worthwhile, particularly concerning child marriage. The scale of child marriages which were previously predominant in India is in a status of continuous decrease (7% nationwide child marriage rates by 2009) (Census 2009). The percentage of child marriages in India was estimated to be 47% by the UNICEF in 1998 and 30% by the United Nations Report in 2005. Moreover, the Indian government has reported in the 2011 census a level of zero married girls below the age of 10 (Census Data 2011).

--However, in some rural areas like Kerala child marriage rates have increased in recent years. Some rural rates of child marriages have become three times higher than urban India rates in 2009.

--Remembering the point that Gandhi expressed his ideas about 70 years ago, it can be said that he possessed a very frontward style of thinking the Mahatma is the greatest friend of (Indian) women.

--Gandhi succeeded in creating some reform in the societal perception of young widows. Young girls used to be married at a very early age, usually to old men, and when the husband died, they were condemned to a life of great agony, shaving heads, living in isolation, and shunned by the society. Recently, a considerable progress occurred in the public understanding of widows' status. Although the orthodox portion of the society is still strictly against widow remarrying, yet in many parts widows are not considered as a social jeopardy any more. Additionally, widow re--marriage is publicly supported and considered by many as a legal right.

--Taking into consideration the size of India's population and its problems of poverty, food, sanitation, education and management of that growing numbers of inhabitants, views of sexual repression could be reconsidered positively.

--To appreciate his endeavors, it is noteworthy to recall that at the time before Gandhi gender inequality and gender violence were all prevalent. Women were regarded as the root cause of all evil and responsible for the disgrace of men. Women had an inferior status, were entirely confined to the family and remained under legal and customary subjection of their husbands or other male family members, i.e. fully dependent on men.

--Gandhi offered an entirely new perspective regarding gender equality. He opposed the destructive application of belief and reinforced the revival of old concepts by stressing that women were not only equal, but--according to him--could even be superior to men.

--Gandhi had rightly believed that lack of education and information was the root cause of all the evils against women. Education for him was a necessity for women.

--Gandhi suffered a kind of sexual complex, and his view of the female body was distorted, "he believed menstruation was a manifestation of the distortion of a woman's soul by her sexuality" as Rita Banerji has described him in her book Sex and Power (Banerji 2009).

--21st century India is one of the lowest countries in the ladder of gender equality according to the World Economic Forum, because of ideas like those of the father of the nation. It is a strongly patriarchy society where women are considered as creatures who could bring either pride or shame to their male owners. They suffer dowry deaths, honor killings, Aids, female foeticide and the abandonment of newborn girls (WEF Reports).

--Gandhi believed Indian women who were raped became worthless human beings. He claimed that fathers should be excused for killing their daughters who had been sexually assaulted so as to preserve the family and community honor. His proposition for the sexually assault woman to die before the abuse takes place reflected the traditional social convention of the problem. Nowadays the offence takes the form of armed as well as gang sexual assaults on women whereby Gandhi's proposal would be inappropriate.

--It is a legacy of Gandhi that the prevalent norm today is that the majority of rape victims commit suicide out of "shame". It is also one of his heritages that women, do not use contraceptives, as he classified the women who used them as whores.

--Gandhi despised sexual desires including his own and despised sex in any context except for procreation He appreciated celibacy, taking his decision on sexual life unilaterally, without consulting his wife.

--It would be illogical to expect Gandhi's ideal option of self-control as a solution for sexual behavior and pointless desires to be accepted and applied by everybody. He did not even offer a long-run resolution for problems like over population, for example.

--The Mahatma seems to have been deeply confused about sex and the opposite sex functions and roles in life. When he had been staying in South Africa, he learnt that a man had been harassing two of his female followers. He cut the girls' hair off, so as to guarantee that the criminal's eyes were sanitized. He did not mention that chastity is a mutual virtue and that the man who sexually assaults a woman also loses his chastity and consequently should also die. Chastity, if ever, should be the measurement of both sexes' social grade.

--Gandhi struggled to ensure sexual oppression on the country, and he deepened the feeling of sinfulness of sexual freedom. His views were violent towards women and had contributed to the prevalence of honor homicides and female suffering.

--Gandhi never had an explicit program for women and their development, but according to him women had to play an integral role in all his programs.

--Gandhi's views on women were disappointing; even destructive. In 1918, when the wife of Gandhi's oldest son Hiralal died Gandhi prevented his son to remarry. Moreover, he wrote a letter to Harilal, accusing him of raping his deceased wife's sister who had been a child widow. Hiralal was emotionally destroyed and took to alcohol and women. He was found dead in the Sewree hospital in Bombay (Joshi 1988 and Fischer 2006).

--The views of the Mahatma on women's education are ideal, and mainly based on the controversial assumption that the roles of women and men are complementary. The type of education he suggested to be imparted on them would be according to their preordained stations in life.

--Still in the post-Gandhi period women constitute a large portion of the marginalized population. They still struggle for 33 per cent reservation in the legislative bodies, so that they could participate in the decision-making of the country. Gandhi is trapped in a status of self-contradiction between his liberal feminist assertions, his unrestricted concern for women and his belief in their role in politics and in society.

--Gandhi devoted himself to the case of women. He liberated himself from all sexual desires and hence situated himself above the feminist narrowness and became a universal women rights revolutionist.


According to the young generation of Indians of both sexes some ideals of Gandhi were acceptable while others were still too ideal. Yet all the issues that he raised were relevant to today's ailments and achievements of women. The Mahatma Gandhi as a peaceful revolutionist and a nonviolent freedom fighter had worked for the liberation of the suppressed particularly women--as much as for the emancipation of the Indian nation. He undoubtedly contributed to the awakening of women to their rights, dignity and self-respect. He taught the generations that although men should help in the cause of women, women will have to determine their own fates. He genuinely sympathized with women, but did not want them to be irresponsible, pleasure-loving beings.

Gandhi saw that the low status of women was the result of prejudgments arid hostile traditions, which were centuries old (Thakkar 2002). In order to make women interested in the larger problems of life and society they should be equipped with knowledge and education. For him education was promptly needed to awaken the consciousness of women about their recessive condition.

Gandhi did not stop at opposing the practices which were harmful to women but also powerfully advocated in favor of various rights of women. He believed that the birth of girls should be rejoiced equally as that of boys. He stressed that men and women were equal, in property as well as all rights. He believed that married women should be co-sharers in their husband's power and privileges in spite of the law being against them as the wife is a companion with same freedom which the husband sees for himself. She should have the right to participate in the details of life of men. Moreover, Gandhi did not advise a woman to be an ideal wife or ideal mother. Deviating from the traditional framework, he wanted all women to be sisters, as he believed in the greatness of a sister over a wife. He was not against economic independence of women, although he wanted women to take up some work so as to supplement the earning of the family like spinning. He wanted women to have voting right and equal political status as men. He called upon them to join Indian National Congress and participate in the freedom struggle, and they were at the forefront of his constructive program, as a result of which many associations for women were established.

Jaitly argued that while in some spheres women have accepted Gandhi's words about shedding their role as slaves and facing patriarchal challenges, women have largely slipped away from the paths of political action that Gandhi had opened out for them during the freedom movement. Rural women do not even have an effective political leadership risen from amongst them to give courage to others; moreover emancipated urban women are not able to provide the kind of sustained leadership rural women need largely because of class and caste differences.

On paper, India is ahead in policies and legislation favoring women. It adopted universal franchise before many other nations. Yet men in the political structure refuse to acknowledge the relationships between social justice and gender justice while women outside the political system are unable to effectively implement and integrate these two most powerful national and international agendas (Jaitly 2001).

Saxena opined that Gandhi's socio-political philosophy is feminist, which addressed gender equity, constructed on patriarchal values. It had a contradiction in them and Gandhi however based the edifice of his philosophy on this contradiction (Saxena 2001).

The only factor that would enable women to improve themselves then and in future, as Gandhi believed, would be in the determination and strength of the women themselves. He maintained for himself the status of a father for the nation a sister for all women and a mother for all women.

Note on contributor

Mona AbuBaker is a an assistant professor of Indian Studies at Khartoum University Afro-Asian Institute


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(1) maha-means great, mighty, large, eminent; atma means: 1. soul, spirit; the self, the individual; the mind, the heart; 2. the ultimate being. Mahatma means the high-souled, of noble nature; a noble or venerable man.

(2) Young India' was a weekly journal published in English by Gandhi in the period from 1919 to 1932.

(3) "Harijan' is a weekly newspaper published in English by Gandhi in the period from 19331948. The term Harijan--which means "People of God" was also Gandhi's term for the untouchable caste in India.
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Title Annotation:Mahatma Gandhi
Author:AbuBaker, Mona Mahmoud
Publication:Ahfad Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Dec 1, 2014
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