Cover Story | Women Issue 2023: Pioneers
The First Feminists
Starting in the middle of the 19th century, they laid the foundation from which gender equality would enter the Indian consciousness
03 Mar, 2023
(Left to right from top) Kamini Roy, Savitribai Phule, Ramabai Pandita, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat and Tarabai Shinde (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
IN 1840, THE FIRST FEMINIST IN INDIA WAS married off at the age of either 9 or 10 and her husband was 13. Among the social issues that this couple would go on to fight was also child marriage. Close to two centuries have passed since then and India remains the nation with the largest number of child marriages in the world. It is a decreasing phenomenon but at too slow a pace to be eradicated, despite there being no leader of Indian society who would today support it. That was not so in the middle of the 19th century, and this was not the only issue Savitribai pioneered against ossified mainstream traditions. In one of her letters to Jyotirao, her husband, in 1868, she recounts what she terms a strange incident in the village she was residing in Satara, Maharashtra. A young itinerant Brahmin astrologer and a girl from the Dalit Mahar community had a relationship, leading to pregnancy. By the sixth month, people noticed it and parading both in public, were about to kill them when Savitribai heard about it. The website Sabrang quotes the letter: “I came to know about their murderous plan. I rushed to the spot and scared them away, pointing out the grave consequences of killing the lovers under British law. They changed their mind after listening to me. Sadubhau angrily said that the wily Brahman boy and the untouchable girl should leave the village. Both the victims agreed to this. My intervention saved the couple who gratefully fell at my feet and started crying. Somehow, I consoled and pacified them. Now I am sending both of them to you.”
There are many echoes of that incident today. There is the overwhelming imprint of caste that Indians are still imprisoned by. A marriage between a Brahmin and a Dalit would be still unthinkable in most places even now. There is then the enduring solution of such an unsanctioned relationship by simply killing off the boy and girl involved. We have a new term for it called ‘honour killing’, yet another practice that refuses to give itself up to modernity. Consider however the courage of a woman from the lowest of castes in that time and age to go against a community alone to protect the lives of such a couple.
It was Jyotirao who insisted on her being educated and that led to her becoming a teacher. He bought Savitribai into social reform but, once there, her legacy is in its own right. Her work’s great impact was in the arena of education, especially for women, and it wasn’t easy. In his essay on Savitribai, Hari Narke writes: “Men wanting to play truant would purposely wait in the streets as she went to and from school and pass lewd remarks. They sometimes pelted stones at her and threw cow dung or mud. Savitribai would have to carry two saris when she went to school, changing out of the soiled sari once she reached school, which would again be soiled on her way back, and yet, Savitribai continued her work with determination and without interruption. Since this abuse continued, the institution appointed a guard for her and the girls’ safety. According to the memoirs written by Balwant Sakharam Kolhe, Savitribai would say to those who troubled her, ‘As I do the sacred task of teaching my fellow sisters, the stones or cow dung that you throw seem like flowers to me. May God bless you!’” Prevention of female infanticide, widow remarriages, women’s empowerment would all become mainstream issues but she lit the spark.
If there was anything common to the first feminists of India, it was the belief that the key to empowerment was education and at least that is something finally coming to fruition
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Unlike Savitribai, for Ramabai Pandita, born in 1858, from a Brahmin family and with a father who was a Sanskrit scholar, becoming educated even though unusual, did not need enormous odds to be surmounted. But whatever little advantage life gave her was soon expended when her parents died leaving her to fend for her siblings. She went to a teachers’ training college and for the rest of her life, she too would be a force for women’s education. She became a lecturer but also remained focused on reforming the status of Hindu women. In her introduction to Ramabai’s book The Upper Caste Hindu Woman, Rachel Bodley, writes: “With a view to improve the degraded condition of her countrywomen, she formed in Poona a society of ladies known as the Arya Mahila Somaj, whose object was the promotion of education among native women, and the discouragement of child-marriage. She then went from city to city throughout the Bombay Presidency, establishing branch societies and arousing the people by her eloquent appeals.” Later, Ramabai would go to the US, embrace Christianity, and return again to India to work on education. Bodley, who penned the introduction to the book on the eve of this return, wrote: “Thus the case stands June 1st, 1887. Pundita Ramabai, the high-caste Brahman woman, the courageous daughter of the forest, educated, refined, rejoicing in the liberty of the Gospel, and yet by preference retaining a Hindu’s care as regards a vegetable diet, and the peculiarities of the dress of Hindu widowhood, solemnly consecrated to the work of developing self-help among the women of India, has her school-books nearly ready for the printer, her plans for the organization of a school, such as she describes on page 114, well developed, and two teachers [American ladies, one a graduated kindergartner] secured.” The work that she did continues to the present in the form of the Mukti Mission, founded by her in the 1890s, that still works on empowering women.
The most prescient appeal at the time for women’s rights was made by Tarabai Shinde, in a book written in 1882, whose title went right into the heart of the matter—Stri Purush Tulana (equality between men and women). Coming from a Brahmin family, she was married off as a child too. She became associated with Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule in their social work but it was her pen that left the deepest mark. Stri Purush Tulana, a progenitor of all the arguments that would follow down the decades, laid out why Indian women were not inferior and deserved more. She argued there was nothing inherent that made women the weaker sex. Only social conditioning subjugated them. She pointed out how they were neither intellectually, physically, or emotionally less capable than men, and why traditional roles assigned to them need to change. She exhorted why women need to free themselves, not just for their own deliverance but also for society’s.
FROM THE BEGINNING of the 20th century onwards, we see women’s rights activism becoming intertwined with the freedom movement. Kamini Roy was from this stock. Coming from an upper-class progressive family in Bengal, she was the first Indian woman to get an Honours degree and went on to teach in the same college in Kolkata. Over the decades, she would write about feminist issues, but her activism is also remembered for the agitation for the right of women to vote in the 1920s. As an article in the online webzine Feminism in India remembered her: “In 1921, Roy formed the Bangiya Nari Samaj with Kumudini Mitra and Mrinalini Sen to fight for suffrage and women’s liberation. While the group was comprised of elite educated women, all from a Brahmo [Samaj] background, they ended up disrupting the concept of the home and that distress was in itself a big deal. She then became a member of the Female Labour Investigation Commission from 1922 to 1923 which worked with the government to oversee the conditions of women. It wasn’t till 1926 that Bengali women exercised their right to vote due to the push of organizations like Bangiya Nari Samaj.”
Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born in 1880 in a village in Bengal and it wouldn’t be until she moved to Kolkata after her marriage that both her worldview and education broadened. When her husband passed away, she used the finances he left behind to found a school where Muslim girls could learn. The website of the Sakhawat Memorial Govt Girls’ High School says this about its founder: “Begum Roquiah never got the opportunity to attend school as her father was strictly against the education of girls. However, it was her passion for learning that enabled her to learn Bengali from her elder sister Karimunnessa and English from her elder brother lbrahim Sabera. Her brother had once given her an illustrated English book which ignited her desire for knowledge. Against heavy familial and social odds, she succeeded in becoming an enlightened personality of her age.” She not only became educated but a writer, and it is in her feminist imagination that she is remembered now. In 1905, she wrote a science fiction story called ‘Sultana’s Dream’, in which the world was inverted between the sexes, the women ran society while men were forced to be cooped up inside homes and the result was a perfect state of sorts. She continued to write and also founded the Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islamin which worked to educate Muslim women.
If there was anything common to the first feminists of India, it was the belief that the key to empowerment was education and at least that is something finally coming to fruition. Last year, the Ministry of Education released a report in which the gender parity index (GPI), as per their press release, showed “the representation of females in school education is in line with the representation of girls in the population of corresponding age group. The GPI value at all levels of school education is one or more implying more participation of girls in the school education.” But it is only the necessary condition, the foundation from which other equalities could be demanded and taken, and that end continues to be a long work in progress.
About The Author
Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai
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