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Was Mahatma Gandhi a feminist?

Oct 02, 2009

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was one of the few in his generation who recognised the central role of women in society. Yet, he was no feminist. Kamayani Bali-Mahabal, explores the many facets of the Father of the Nation.

Gandhi perceived women as playing a distinct but nevertheless a complementary role to men. While he argued against stereotyping them as weak and inferior, and while he condemned child marriage, dowry and the observance of purdah (seclusion), he also believed that women were duty-bound to serve their husbands, families and country – in that order.

Mumbai-based Tushar Gandhi, the great-grandson of the Father of the Nation, puts it this way: "I would say that Bapu was a champion of gender equality. But the moral strength that he imputes to women has an almost inborn, genetic complexion to it, which bears little or no relation to the exploitation, humiliation and hardship that has been women's lot, historically speaking. Bapu remained fixed on the symbolism of the Mother. His was a passive picture of womanhood, of a person who undoubtedly possessed freedom but functioned within narrow parametres and defined boundaries."

Views on sexuality

As for sexual relations between men and women, Gandhiji was orthodox in his beliefs, according to Tushar.

"A strong believer in monogamy, sex to him was only meant to be an act for procreation. Early in his married life he had trouble in accepting his own sexuality and this seems to have determined his general view of sex," he observes.

In fact, when Margaret Sanger, the ardent advocate of contraceptive rights for women, met Gandhiji when she was touring India in the Thirties, he is quoted as having told her, "It becomes a lustful thing when you take love for your own satisfaction. It is just the same with food. If food is taken only for pleasure it is lust. You do not take chocolate for the sake of your physical need. You take it for pleasure and then ask the doctor for an antidote. Perhaps you tell the doctor that whiskey befogs your brain and he gives you an antidote. Would it not be better not to take the chocolate or whisky?"

Sanger went back from her meeting with Gandhiji, a disappointed woman.

"Terming sex a carnal desire of man, Gandhi apparently did not think of women's own sexual desires other than their desire for motherhood," observes Sonal Shukla, Director, Vacha Women's Resource Centre, Mumbai.

She adds, "Perhaps this was because he regarded the sexual act as an imposition on women. He actually supported women taking the satyagraha (truthful insistence) strategy into their bedrooms in order to resist intercourse.

It is not surprising, therefore, that celibacy was one of the 11 vows that Gandhiji's staunch followers were required to observe. Many inmates of his ashram – his chosen ones – would end up breaking this vow and would have to own up to this when their wives became pregnant. They then had to pledge to be celibates all over again!"

Daniel Mazgaonkar, 75, an activist associated with the Land-Gift Mission initiated by Vinoba Bhave, a disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, does not believe that Gandhiji was against the reproductive rights of women.

A benevolent patriarch

"He believed in stree-purush sahajeevan (man-woman togetherness). Bapu himself evolved from a stereotypical Indian man to a benevolent patriarch to being a gender sensitive social activist. He was surrounded by strong, articulate and gifted women who continuously challenged him."

Gandhiji is believed to have made no compromises when it came to his wife. For instance, while he had no objection in Kasturba taking a lead against child marriage, he was strongly opposed to any attempt to make her the president of the All India Women's Conference, observing with cruel candour that as an unlettered women she was being nominated to the post not because of her individual capability but because she was married to M.K. Gandhi.

But Mazgaonkar believes that Gandhiji's relationship with Kasturba got transformed over time.

"From being an authoritarian husband, he became a true friend to Kasturba," he says.

Incidentally, Mazgaonkar still remembers his meeting with Bapu at Mumbai's Juhu Chowpatty. He was all of eight, but he recalls the words Gandhiji pronounced on that occasion, Mere liye gareeb ka ek rupaiya, ameeron ke ek lakh se kahin zyada payar hai (I value a single rupee of a poor person more than a lakh of rupees from a rich person).

Believing in mutual respect

According to Mazgaonkar, Gandhiji believed that society could only progress when there was a mutually respectful partnership between men and women and he definitely discouraged the practice of making women subservient to men.

During the worst of the communal riots in Noakhali and west Punjab, Gandhiji made it a point to depute women as peacemakers. He sent Jayaprakash Narayan's wife to run a refugee camp in Noakhali and he despatched Mridula Sarabhai to administer a refugee camp in West Pakistan after telling her to be prepared to die rather than allow any of her wards, whether male or female, to suffer any atrocity.

Ammu Abraham, well-known feminist and women's activist, while acknowledging that Gandhiji did not sufficiently highlight the issue of gender injustice, is full of admiration for his vision and commitment to a pluralistic India.

Gandhi a feminist?

Says Abraham, "His advocacy of non-violence has impacted the world. One can subject such historical personages to critical evaluation. After all, they too were products of their times and a deeper perspective on patriarchy was yet to emerge in that era. So was Gandhi a feminist? I do not think so. But one does not reject all past figures because they were not feminists, surely. Feminism is also a historical and evolving ideology."

But Abraham still finds it difficult to accept Gandhiji's early treatment of his wife, Kasturba. "I was shocked by the story about him having been violent towards Kasturba, allegedly because of her refusal to clean out the toilet of a Dalit. That Gandhiji should have flung his wife out on the road for this is a real sticking-point for me even today."

The fact is that the Gandhian legacy vis-à-vis women is a mixed one. Here was a figure, who recognised and publicly spoke about the strength and contribution of women.

Yet, when he crowned the Indian woman as the incarnation of ahimsa (non-violence) and lauded her incredible power to endure, as her greatest strength, he ended up glorifying the self-effacing, long-suffering Indian woman, who was herself the pitiful product of a deeply patriarchal culture.

The views expressed here are those of author's.

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