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Constructing ‘Indian Women’ – An Example Of Brahmanical Patriarchy


Towards A Non-Brahmin Millennium, a book by V. Geetha and S. Rajadurai, in its introduction depicts how the non-Brahmin Dravidian movement in Tamil Nadu in early 20th century was denounced by Brahmanic patriarchs of the Home Rule Movement who are also seen as “the freedom fighters” of India.

When the non-Brahmin manifesto was released for public debate and scrutiny in December 1916, Annie Besant, editor of New India (NI) and patron saint of the Home Rule Movement, denounced its contents and stated intentions in strident terms. She characterised the manifesto as “mischievous and unpatriotic” and claimed it had been authored by “short-sighted narrow-minded” people whose chief objective was to “denounce the work of the National Congress and the Home Rule Movement.” Her close associate in the Home Rule Movement and a prominent Madras notable, C.P. Ramaswamy Iyer, was also inclined to dismiss the non-Brahmin manifesto as unworthy of serious political consideration. We see here how the Brahmins could not be called an enemy of democracy nor could the caste system be termed inherently inegalitarian. For argued Ramaswamy Iyer, the caste order in its constitutive phase was founded on principles of comradeship and Brahmins had never quite forgotten that this comradeship was the “fundamental basis of the caste system.”

How could women not be targeted who were a part of the Dravidian movement? So, according to an “Indian lady”, reformers wanted Indian women to be a “good superwoman” excelling in every field like a professional. She is actually going to be professionally a housewife. A few “lower castes” who tried to use Sanskritisation for their upward mobility had to face the Varnashrama Dharma – “Brahmins are only born and not made”. Hence, from these few examples, we now have some idea of how Brahmanical patriarchy was ingrained in the process of making independent India.

Here is where Maitrayee Chaudhuri’s “Gender in the Making of the Indian Nation State” is helpful in understanding the construction of the category “Indian women”, the cultural emblem of India. The critical concern here is – who are these Indian women? Of course, they are exclusively Hindu, brahmin, upper/middle-class, married, ‘fertile’, able-bodied “women. Chaudhuri brings out how women have been addressed both in the making and running of the Indian nation state. Both the national movement (first) and the Indian state (later) imagined the role of women.

These are: First – women as agents and recipients of development. Second – women’s equal participation as equal citizens of the state; and third – women as “emblems of national culture”. These factors of the national movement were germane to the making of the nation. Hence, it can be seen how women were and still are politically used first “for the nation” and later reduced to recipients of male-centered development. They are supposed to be domesticated, traditional home-makers, submissive and sacrificing. It was seen how women who were earlier co-partners in the freedom struggle, were after independence, confined to the private space as domesticated beings (though these women largely were from upper castes).

The need for a historical past is an extricable part of the modern nationalist consciousness which has to summon a legacy stretching to an ancient, time-immemorial past. Therefore, the story of the Indian woman can begin with her status in the Vedic period.

India entered modernity and capitalism through colonialism. The Indian nation states are modern and hence, women’s question has to be understood as part of the modern democratic project. Modernity with the corollary processes of capitalism, recast women as creatures of domesticity where being a housewife was and is a full time and “natural vacation!”. The 19th century idea was that the status of nation ought to be gauged by the status of women. Since Indian women lived in pitiable conditions, Indian men felt berated by this inability to attain heights.

In the recasting, we had the construction of middle-class domesticity, much on the lines of Victorian England, that defined the normative Indian woman as gentle, refined and skilled in running a ‘home’ with the simultaneous assertion of ancient Hindu past and culture virtues (what typical middle-class non-Dalit women are). But the intensification of the national movement gave rise to new ideas of development, equality, socialism, etc. Women were now into political action. This altered their ‘traditional’ role and at the same time, the issue of cultural pride for a colonised society continued to be of great importance. It was in this complex crucible of colonial encounter where lay the seeds of women as markers of culture, or women as dependent housewives or independent workers.

During this period, efforts were made by various sections of society to uplift the status of women. However, they were rejected by the state. E.g. Ambedkar’s Hindu Code Bill was seen as a clear threat to the caste system in India as it promoted inter-caste marriages which would have resulted in breaking down of the hierarchical caste system; the Women’s Role in Planned Economy report, which aimed at property rights for women and the rights of women as housewives and many more radical recommendations. These efforts were in relation to women as an “individual” with which the Indian state always had an uneasy relationship. Both of these were against the Brahmanical values of endogamy and women as ‘homemakers’.

Thus, if one looks at it critically, it can be understood how this was not just public patriarchy, but public Brahmanical patriarchy, for whom, the idea of Indian women is non inclusive of Dalit, poor, women of minority religious groups, women who wear “western clothes”. The idealised picture of “Bharat Mata” wearing a saffron/white saree itself is faulty and does not represent the Indian women in reality and reinforces patriarchy. Hence, homogenising Indian women obscures the differences that exists within women in India due to which not just the identity of the privileged Brahmin Hindu women dominates over the rest but it also excludes and marginalises them at various levels in various spheres of society. It is essential to deconstruct this idea of Indian women which does not represents all women in India.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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