A Brief History of Pre-Independence Feminism in India and its Legacy

By- Stuti  Srivastava

India is a country with a rich, diverse history – one that is interpreted differently by different sections of its population. Since the country is home to several communities, there are varied tales to tell and multiple dimensions of each historic event. India’s feminist movement is generally attributed to having started in the late 1970s, but there is a long history, there, of struggle and rebellion at various levels. The very basis of the flourishing feminist movement, today, are the small acts of freedom our foremothers engaged in, to get us where we stand, right now.

The reality that makes the practise of feminism so diverse and personal is its dynamism. This is also because the experience of gender varies from person to person, as various identities we possess clash with each other. The meaning of gender and empowerment changes from time to time, it develops itself and starts to include within itself various details and nuances. The primary feminist movement in India did not recognise words like ‘patriarchy’, ‘misogyny’, ‘gaze’, ‘privilege’, or ‘commoditisation’, but it would be wrong to say there was no women’s movement, then, at all. Any act of resistance is feminism, at whatsoever level, and in any historical analysis, it is important to keep in mind its cultural contexts.

The pre-independence Indian feminist movement can be studied in two parts – focussing on the late 19th century, and then the early 20th century. There is a huge difference we can see in how the two unfolded, one that is also important to aid my previous point about how dynamic feminism is, which is why it is relevant in all forms.

Late 19th Century

Deemed to be the beginning of the fight for women’s rights in India, the late 19th century saw the dawn of a realisation against practices such as Sati or child marriage, and to promote education for women. This was characterised by a certain process of legal and social reform. Colonial Indian aspirations changed the meaning of the family, and in a bid to look like the white Christian families, brown social reformed fashioned a new ideal wife – one that was homely and servile, but still educated.

Most of these reformers were, however, men, and the leadership of the movement was reflected in its essence. Education for women was not supposed to be equivalent to what the men received, for fear that they would resist patriarchal control and try to move out of the private space of the home. The demand for abolition of sati and widow remarriage was also because it was wasteful of women’s reproductive qualities for them to die so young or never marry again.

Most of the reform was also aimed at a specific section of people – upper caste, upper class women. The Widow Remarriage Act, for example, only extended this right to women of the upper castes. Education also, was only accessible to these women. However, it is a false assumption that only men were involved in reform work. While men like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar remained in the light, there were several women who were challenging patriarchal notions in the social milieu. As always, women’s work has been sidelined and invisibilised.

Kamini Roy spearheaded the suffragette movement in India, back in the 1880s, after returning from her studies abroad (she was Britain’s first female honours graduate) and published several feminist writings. It was through her consistent efforts that women finally won partial suffrage in 1925 in Bengal’s Legislative Council elections. Similarly, Muthulakshmi Reddy braved all odds and studied medicine in a men’s college. Herself the daughter of a devadasi, she fought relentlessly against the system.

We find dreams of freedom and liberation in Rasshundari Devi’s autobiography. Devi was a child-bride in Bengal in a zamindar family, who had learned to read and write secretly. In her writing she speaks about the loss of personhood she felt as a woman, especially after her wedding, reduced to the identity of a mother and a wife. She presented the marital home as a prison, and called herself a ‘caged bird’, yearning for freedom.

Women have always desired for freedom, but it is very often that these desires are made invisible, for fear, that more women will rise to it, and what would the world order be, if we all rose together?

It is also important to remember the political context of this period. Fresh out of the First War of Independence, the political mood of the nation was one bursting with nationalist fervour. This was also the time when western ideals were being adopted by the elite upper castes in a quest to match with their colonial masters. Women’s bodies, as markers of nationalism and nationhood, were at the centre of this discourse. Thus, questions rose regarding autonomy for women, but autonomy was only delegated by men, who still had the power, and a ‘liberated’ women was still a patriarchal victim.

Early 20th Century

Early 20th century till the time of independence saw a huge shift in the style and ideology of the feminist movement.  By 1927, three major women’s organisations had been set up – Women’s India Association (WIA), National Council of Women in India (NCWI) and All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). As the anti-colonial movement grew, women started demanding space in political and economic decision making. All of these organisations were formed around certain basic core ideals – that India would not progress as a nation while its women were locked up indoors. As political participation grew, women began to occupy more spaces. There was an increase in the number of women who got a university education, and more and more women were getting employed in the corporate sector.

Women like Annie Besant and Sarojini Naidu became important leaders of the freedom movement, the latter being elected the President of the Congress party, the first woman ever, to be so. The idea of women empowerment presented by these women was still, reformist. The idea was to create a woman who occupied the public space, but only in feminine roles, and the private space still remained a feminised domain. There was a mixture of domesticity and bourgeois respectability that began to be advocated.

Feminism during this period is mostly theorised by their political presence. Several feminist scholars, however, agree that women’s participation in the freedom movement was still male-dictated. The idea was to present the image of a free woman to the world, one who was filled with militant nationalistic feelings, while she still remained confined to the boundaries of the home and family. For many leaders, the role of women was primarily as wives and mothers, and secondarily in the public domain. This idea of sacred motherhood shined in the movement, in the form of the Bharat Mata, who soon became a symbol of the independence struggle. This deification of womanhood (mostly Hindu womanhood) was pioneered by many as a great feminist move, but it only served to caste women into boxes of femininity and caregiving. This idea of motherhood and ‘womanly’ infestations of nationalism have been seen repeatedly in several contexts (Marianne of France, Germania of Germany, and Bharat Mata in India). Women are most often posed as the national symbol, ‘the guardians of continuity and immutability of the nation, the embodiment of its respectability’ which is to be guarded by the male figure. The practice only elicits masculine nationalist feelings, and places women at a disadvantaged position. Women’s bodies become sites of nation-building, and their role in the state is now that of a mother, responsible for bringing nationalist children into the world.

However, these changes were only for the rich, upper caste, Hindu women. As these women championed rights for education and began to work, a different wave of Dalit feminism was building side by side. I find it absolutely necessary to mention the village of Nangeli, where lower caste Ezhava women resisted against the breast tax imposed on them historically by the upper castes.

It is important to remember that much of the feminist discourse in the time came from Dalit voices, when leaders like Ambedkar and Periyar spoke of women’s bodily agency and criticised the institutions of marriage and religion. In 1942, the Dalit Mahila Federation was founded, after Dalit women broke away from the All India Women’s Congress because of differential treatment by upper castes. Sulochanabai, who established the DMF, spoke extensively on women’s education, agency, and advocated the use of birth control, divorce, and period leave for factory workers. Women were also active in working class struggles in the country, participating in, and often organising workers’ strikes.

Despite its plenty flaws, this was a revolutionary time for Indian feminism, as women stepped out of their homes, braving all odds and resisting patriarchal control, participating in the freedom struggle in both militant and pacifist ways, all while creating a historical moment of resistance and the assertion of their rightful autonomy.

India is a country of diverse groups and communities, and the vibrance of India’s feminist movement is a testimony to its diversity. It is feminism at its realest and rawest, seeing women break free from the shackles of patriarchy, all by themselves, paving an easier path for women of the future generations.

The cause of women’s freedom was first championed by men who had imbibed liberal ideas, and furthered also by men, until more recently, the conversation has been captured by more and more non-women and its stakeholders. Women have always struggled against injustice and inequality in different ways, throughout the passage of time. Some say that feminism began with the European suffragettes, but feminism began with time, and though the need for it will still last longer, there will be a day it will complete its mission. The foundation for the movement we are part of today, has been laid by the struggles of women in India, years ago. While the movement was not without flaws, like any other movement isn’t, it was still revolutionary. It made people uncomfortable, and saw humongous opposition to women’s freedom and gender justice, and still flourished.

The legacy of the movement lies in recognising its faults and follies, all while recognising the sheer bravery of our foremothers. We must take lessons of inclusion and intersectionality from the movement, and strive as we go forward, to be aware of our privilege and use it to the benefit of others, and to recognise and make space for marginalised voices. It is also to analyse deeply all the institutions and practises that surround us, and never to stop resisting.

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