Did Women Participate In National Movements?

Posted by Sahil Bansal
April 19, 2017



India’s struggle for independence is of tremendous importance in the history of anti-colonial movements. The most important aspect of this movement for Independence from a historical point of view was that it saw mass participation by Indian women, women who had till then been confined to the domestic sphere. The contribution of women to the Independence movement was significant. They were involved in diverse nationalist activities, both within and outside the home. Within the home they spun and wove khadi, held classes to educate other women and contributed significantly to nationalist literature in the form of articles, poems and propaganda material. Shelter and nursing care were also provided to nationalist leaders who were in hiding from the British authorities. Outside the home Prabhat-feris were organized in which women from all castes and classes would walk to the local temple singing songs to rouse the nationalist and patriotic feelings of the people. In addition they held meetings and demonstrations, took part in satyagraha, picketed toddy and foreign-cloth shops, went to prison and also suffered brutalities at the hands of the British police.[1]


Amongst Indian reformers, Hindu culture by contrast was regarded as superior to Western models. Western ideas consisted of the ideas of liberalism and humanitarianism.  These Western values were seen to form a part of the ‘material’ domain, a domain dominated by Western science, technology and methods of statecraft. Opposed to this domain was the ‘spiritual’ domain, which was seen as representative of the ‘true identity’ of the Indian people. The woman was supposed to be the guardian of the ‘spiritual’ domain. However, the ‘spiritual’ domain had to be made more consistent with the outside world with its new ideas of equality and liberalism, to make it powerful enough to stand against the ideals of the alien rule of the colonisers. Thus the construct of the ‘new woman’ was formulated.[2]


Although the concept of the ‘new woman’ was in the picture but still the concept of the ‘new woman’ just meant to familiarize the women with the notions of cleanliness, education etc and it hardly talked about the empowerment of women of securing them a space to voice out their views in the society. But the male psyche at that time was not ready to undermine the importance of the so called masculine traits as opposed to the feminine traits or to even bring the two at par with each other and hence prevailed the male dominance.   To contain the liberty of the newly liberalised new woman the nationalist male leaders came up with the construct of the ‘common woman’. The ‘common woman’, as opposed to the ‘new woman’, was coarse, promiscuous and vulgar. The common women were the nautch-girls, street-vendors, fisherwomen, ‘washer women’, to cite but a few.[3] The male psyche was maybe feared of the new woman construct that was being adopted by the nationalist leaders hence they were feared that the new women might override the importance of men owing to their achievements in the society and hence to keep a section of women lower to the men the nationalist leaders came up with the notion of common women as opposed to the new women. So that the women as a sex should be embarrassed of their variant called the ‘common women’ and should always submit themselves to the perfectness of the male.


Indians were accused of being the orthodox and hence they came up with the notion of the new woman to express the modernity in the Indian society because women at that time were regarded by the British as the symbols of the social change and this process of modernisation of the women was initiated because British said that the Indians were orthodox and were chained by their superstitions and hence are unfit to rule the owing to their barbaric lifestyle and the British took upon themselves the white man’s burden under which they aimed at civilising Indians by ruling them.[4] Another reason that the British gave to justify their colonial rule on India was that the Indian men were not masculine enough to rule themselves.  Hence to counter this very allegation of the British the Indian men did not want the women through the notion of the new women to be so capable enough that, they secure the freedom of the country without the help of men because that, would be an evidence, that shall reiterate what the British said, “the Indian men are not masculine enough” and a narrative might be woven that at the end it was the women who came to the forefront and secured freedom for the country. The Indian men thought that an emanation of such a narrative might be the reason in future that Indian men might be regarded as the weaker sex. Hence, the redefining of the concept of ‘femininity’ used to be in a constant flux to generate a definition of the femininity that either led to the glorification of masculinity or rendered masculinity as a cause for the glorification of the femininity. The Indian Consent Act 1891, a colonial move towards prohibiting consummation of marriage by Indian men before their wives became twelve years of age, was provided as proof of the ‘depraved nature of Indian gender relations’. It was argued by the legislators that consummation before a designated age was a feature associated with ‘effeminate’ men who lacked the masculine qualities of self-restraint and self-control.[5]


The emergence of Gandhi on the political scene in the 1920s as the nationalist leader had tremendous impact on women. His ideas about women’s roles in the nationalist movement were considered ‘revolutionary’ for that period. Though he believed in gender-specific roles, he was very critical of those roles that cloistered women in ignorance and affected them adversely, like purdah, dowry and the devadasi (temple dancers) tradition. He realized the significant role women could play in the nationalist movement by their active participation. Also, he realized how the construct of the ‘new woman’ had to be modified to bring women out of their homes. He argued that the qualities of self-sacrifice and ‘silent suffering’ were ingrained in Indian women. Thus women were ideally suited to participate in his movement, the core concepts of which are ahimsa (non-violence in thought, action and deed) and satyagraha: ‘If non-violence is the law of our being, the future is with women’.[6]

Gandhiji’s take on the practices like purdah, etc. was that it led to the ignorance of the women and hence blocked the way towards modernization, that shall in-turn would have lead to the modernization of the country. But Gandhi too could be critiqued on the ideas that he possessed regarding the role of the women in the nationalist struggle, although he wanted the modernization of the women but still he wanted to confine them to their gender specific roles in the society. He wanted the women to be modernized so that when these modernized (broken free from these traditions like purdah) women would rear the children, who then shall be brought up in a way that they shall tomorrow come out to be the citizens of India who shall be free from the traditional social beliefs, that worked into the loss of the country, and could steer the country towards development. But Gandhi never talked about lifting up the women from the ensnares of the social evils and injecting these newly liberated women into the nationalist movement as prominent actors at par with the male nationalist leaders who could through their ideals of the ‘new women’ act significantly towards the nationalist movement. Although Gandhi brought the women out of the homely space but still attributed to them the success of certain gender specific roles only like self-sacrifice and silent suffering, spinning and weaving khadi, these were certain functions that the women were already performing within their family spaces under the patriarchal system of the society before being subjected to the notion the ‘new woman’, the difference was just that these contribution of the women came to be counted as a contribution to the nationalist movement after the construct of the ‘new woman’, without particularly bringing any significant change to the type of contribution made by the women. Hence when one follows Gandhian lines of women participation in the nationalist movement the notion of the ‘new woman’ comes under question because the women were never made anew as far as the social setting was concerned but it was just that the women were, after the introduction of ‘new women’, being looked at from a different angle by the national leaders like Gandhi which attributed the importance to the role that the women were already playing since the start within their so called ‘Womanly Duties’.


This image of a woman’s role in the nationalist movements which got built up during the Indian freedom struggle, also gave birth to this  hard and fast rule of the women of the society always acting as the sacrificing figures to bring about the change and men rather always acted in a violent manner to be the change makers. But the story written by Salman Rushdie titled as “The Free Radio” which is set in the era of emergency in India in 1975, in a village that is situated on the outskirts of the Delhi and where the sterilisation of the men are being conducted and every person who underwent this sterilisation process were being given a free radio by the government, makes an effort to interchange these gender roles through the protagonist of the story , Ramani, who although was a male but still sacrificed his masculinity ,as the narrator puts it in the story, by undergoing sterilisation and on the other hand the female counterpart in the story projected as the dominating figure ,who influences the male hero of the story to undergo the process of the sterilisation, which actually is a trait(dominance)  that is associated by the Indian society with the male members of the society, as far as the construction of the Indian society is concerned on the ‘Patriarchal’ template.  The author projects his uneasiness with this change in the gender role as far as the national scenario struggles are concerned through his narrator in the story. The narrator in the story who goes on to question the character of the woman who acquired the male trait of dominance and being influential in the story is actually reiterating the construct of the “common woman”, which was used as a weapon to put a cap on the empowerment of women and used as a necessary tool to tarnish the image of woman in the society by the male nationalist leaders to avoid the ‘femininity’ from being glorified more than ‘masculinity’. It was done by the nationalist male leaders by categorising a certain section of the women as being of the questionable character and not sophisticated enough, the narrator also throughout the story is doing constant exercise of preserving the dominance of the male traits in the story by time and again chiding and lessoning Ramani regarding his decision to undergo sterilisation to get into a marriage alliance with the thief’s widow (as the woman counterpart was addressed in the story by the narrator) because that was actually Ramani who was sacrificing to fit into a family set up and not his woman counterpart and this where the Indian society feels being challenged because such a setup poses a anti-thesis to the male oriented and oppressive patriarchal social setup. But the irony of the story is that the narrator himself goes on to misfit his own traits, Indian society usually attributes the trait of gossiping to the women and also talks of the women are characterised as gab owing to the very low level of enforcement that their opinions find in the society owing to women being placed below men in the social hierarchy, the narrator in the story possesses both of these traits prominently because throughout the story he is in the process of gossiping with the reader about the thief’s widow and all his talks become a gab in the story when all his lessons, that he gave to Ramani, turn out to be futile and he actually went through sterilisation for having a family with the thief’s widow.

So the issues like stereotyping of the women and underestimation of their role in the nationalist movements in a race to glorify the contributions made by men, make people fall into the farce that

“Women had hardly any role to play in the national movements.”

[1] Thapar,Suruchi, “Women as Activists; Women as Symbols: A Study of the Indian Nationalist Movement”.  Feminist Review, No. 44, Nationalisms and National Identities (Summer, 1993), Published by: Palgrave Macmillan Journals, pp.81-96

[2] Chatterjee, Partha (1989) ‘The Nationalist resolution of the women’s question’ in SANGHARI and VAID (1989),pp:23

[3] Thapar,Suruchi, “Women as Activists; Women as Symbols: A Study of the Indian Nationalist Movement”.  Feminist Review, No. 44, Nationalisms and National Identities (Summer, 1993), Published by: Palgrave Macmillan Journals, pp.81-96.

[4] Marshall, The British Discovery of Hinduism.

[5] Sinha, Mrinalini (1987) ‘Colonial policy and the ideology of moral imperialism in late nineteenth century Bengal’ in KIMMEL (1987),pp: 224.226.

[6] Young India, 15.12.21.

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