What was Mahatma Gandhi’s attitude towards women, within the larger framework of India’s struggle for freedom and against the backdrop of patriarchy women were trapped in?

With Gandhi, for the first time, a distinct approach to the role of women in society began to make itself felt. The leadership realised that women were “condemned to slavery”. Thus, the leadership sought to liberalise the family so that women’s activities in the public domain could expand “within politically acceptable limits”.

But politically acceptable to whom? The leaders themselves, who were men? It is clear that the motives for bringing women out to participate in the public sphere were largely in the interests of men and were also determined and decided by men. So, what kind of “liberation” was this from “domestic slavery”?

Women were urged to give up purdah, and to liberate themselves from their family-centred roles, to participate in the country’s struggle for freedom. Gandhi viewed women’s oppression as historic and nearly universal. He lamented women’s non-participation in social and political affairs, their sexual subjugation to their role as “man’s plaything”, their lack of autonomy in the use of their bodies, and their backward consciousness which made them accept their low social position.

But he also believed that women had the courage, endurance and moral strength to deal with these oppressions. In his view, these qualities made women “natural leaders”. He wanted to feminise politics because women had the potential to deal a blow to the established socio-political power structure, and they could be the vanguards of “a non-violent struggle for a just and non-exploitative socio-political order.”

Although this seemed a radical stance, the kernel of women’s oppression – the sexual division of labour resulting in the subordination of the woman in the structure of material production – was neither questioned nor altered.

It is interesting to note the views of the same Gandhi when he speaks of the education of women: “In framing any scheme of women’s education, this cardinal truth must be constantly kept in mind: man is supreme in the outward activities of a married world, and therefore, it is in the fitness of things that he should have a greater knowledge thereof. On the other hand, home life is entirely the sphere of women, and therefore, in domestic affairs, in the upbringing of children and in their education, women ought to have more knowledge.”

This shows that Gandhi reinforced the sexual division of labour which has led, according to Karl Marx, to inequality between the sexes. Instead of decrying it, Gandhi supported the division.

In the first non-cooperation movement, women were called on to participate within the limits of their social conditions. Gandhi placed emphasis on spinning because it could be carried out within the home. Women were encouraged to tear down the veil, come out to attend street meetings and join processions.

A thousand women marched in a procession in Bombay to oppose the visit of the Prince of Wales in November 1921. At the Bardoli Satyagraha in 1928, women were not seen at first. Yet from April on, they outnumbered men in political gatherings and even held their own separate meetings.

The year 1930 began with a pledge for Independence. In March Gandhi announced he would launch a civil disobedience movement by breaking the Salt Law. His plan was to walk from Sabarmati Ashram to Dandi, a deserted village on the sea coast 200 miles away to make salt on the beach there. He did not include women in the first batch of 79 fellow marchers, refusing their request to take four or five women with him. But as Gandhi walked towards Dandi women were everywhere to be seen, on their way to greet him and to hear him speak.

At Abhrama on April 10, 1930, there were 2000 women in an audience of 5000. It is reported that 560 women received him when he arrived at Dandi. But some women refused to be restrained in this manner. Khurshedbehn Naoroji and Mridula Sarabhai jumped into the struggle despite strict orders not to do so. Both were arrested in Ahmedabad. That city witnessed a grand procession of khadi-clad women on April 23, stretching to half a mile, and managed by saffron-saree clad volunteers of the Videshi Kapade Bahiskar Samiti.

On June 1, eleven women took part in the Wadala Raid organised by the Bombay Provincial Congress Committee, in which Lilawati Munshi took an active part. All of them arrested and detained in the Salt Prevention Office at Wadala.

Men were not opposed to Gandhi drawing their women out onto the streets to participate in the nationalist movement because Gandhi did not challenge the established patriarchal order. He did not disturb the status quo of the conventional Indian family. He held not that woman was inferior to man, but that her role was different. Political participation was not to be had at the cost of domestic duties. Service to her husband, her family and her country was a woman’s primary duty.

Gandhi advised women who wished to dedicate themselves completely to the cause of freedom to remain unmarried. Dr Susheela Nayar and Ushabehn Thakkar are examples of this Gandhian rule. For couples who were similarly dedicated, he advised celibacy and no children. Acharya J.B. Kripalani and his wife Sucheta followed this. The power equation within the home remained undisturbed.

Gandhi spoke of Sita as the ideal wife. His aim was to use the traditional roles of the Indian woman and extend them to the wider political sphere. The logic was simple if not simplistic. She was used to making sacrifices for her husband, her children, her family; she was now asked to sacrifice for her country’s freedom.

According to Gandhi, because relationships between the sexes were not unlike those between other groups unequal in power, the liberation of women was inextricably tied to India’s liberation, the removal of untouchability and the amelioration of the economic condition of the masses. He deplored the fact that those who belonged to women’s organisations were out of touch with their rural sisters. He preferred them to spend more time to find out about the lives of women in villages.

Gandhi criticised women leaders for “foolishly” thinking that any law or code could solve the problems of rural women. Many elite women seemed to agree. Yet, they continued to work for the reform of the legal system. They were neither foolish nor selfish. They did not agree with Gandhi about the direction of social change. They aimed at gaining legal measures to grant women some degree of equality.

Measures were designed to equalise women’s right to divorce, systematise marriage, give protection in the case of desertion, grant them guardianship over their children, and make it possible for women to obtain a share in the family property. Though the gains were less than originally hoped for, it was a victory in terms of the organisation and systematisation of the law.

Gandhi needed women to convert the campaign into a mass movement. But he liked to be in control of the women’s actions and got angry when they stepped out of line. One must grant Gandhi his skill in holding women’s discontents within the overall nationalist cause. He effectively mediated these discontents so that they remained targeted exclusively at imperialism.

He did this not only with the masses of women who came out onto the streets to campaign but also with the mass of peasants and working class men whose caste and class grievances he kept in check.

Gandhi recognised the power of the women and the lower castes and contained it for the cause of Independence, uniting the nation behind the freedom struggle at the expense of injustices within caste, class and gender relations.

(Cover Photograph: Gandhi with women supporters of East End London)