4GK005 Campaigning and Citizenship: Women in Britain and its Empire from 1800 to 1950
Women in India
BackgroundBefore the British arrived in India, villages owned land communally and paid percentage of their produce to ruler. British introduced landlordism in some areas and individual peasant proprietorship in others. British raised taxes annually irrespective of quality of harvest.
1770s 10 million people died in Bengal famine.
1854 - 1901 29 million Indians starved to death
1857-8 Indian Mutiny - against background of peasant rebellions, Indian troops in British army refused to use new breech loading rifle because cartridges greased with animal fat and tips of cartridges had to be bitten off before insertion - imprisoned and then released by force - Indian troops took over Delhi, Lucknow and Cawnpore - one of leaders was 23 year old woman, Laxmi Bai, who died in battle - massacre of British at Cawnpore led to indiscriminate killing by British forces.
IntroductionBoth feminism and nationalism in India emerged from the social reform movement of the C19th.
The social reform movement originated within the Indian intelligentsia and spread to sections of the middle classes.
It appeared first in Bengal - Ram Mohan Roy founded Atmiya Sabha in Bengal in 1815.
1828 Brahmo Samaj also formed in Bengal
It was partly inspired by Hindu revivalism and partly by liberal ideas.
Talwar (1990) points out that the movement for the uplift of women initiated by men in the early C19th – e.g. Raja Ram Mohun Roy – and included education, widow remarriage, abolition of purdah, and agitation against child marriage.
'As an Indian bourgeois society developed under western domination, this class sought to reform itself, initiating campaigns against caste, polytheism, idolatry, animism, purdah, child marriage, sati and more, seeing them as elements of a pre-modern or primitive identity' (Kumar 1993).
Women's EducationForeign missionaries had promoted schooling for girls (and Christianity) from the early part of the century - Kumar says mainly attended by girls from poor families.
Indigenous campaigns did not start till mid 19th century. Non-Orthodox Hindus and members of the reform movement Brahmo Samaj opened own schools as alternative to mission schools.
Chatterjee (1990) says that in Bengal there were 95 schools with attendance of 2,500 in 1863 and 2238 schools & 80,000 in 1890.
The development of vernacular literature (i.e.in local languages) in Bengal accompanied growth of girl’s education.
1870 Teacher training college for women set up.
By 1882, 2,700 schools and colleges for girls and women in India with 127,000 students.
1880s - Women also beginning to graduate from universities.
Acquiring an education presented to m/c girls as a personal challenge. Schools became places where they could be autonomous subjects. They could also feel superior to previous generation, Western women and lower class women.
Still met some resistance from more orthodox Hindus.
Education for Muslim girls came later.
Kumar (1993) says that around 1900 new emphasis on education for women - not just to make them better housewives and mothers but to help them educate their children and so contribute to nation-building.
Education viewed as a 'means to enhance the social presence of Indian women and enable them to adapt to a changing external situation' (Thapar 1993: 83).
'When Gandhiji assumed India's leadership the average life span of an Indian woman was only 27 years. Babies and the pregnant women ran a high risk of dying young. Child marriage was very common and widows were in very large number. Only 2% of the women had any kind of education and women did not have an identity of their own. In North India, they practiced the Purda (veil) system. Women could not go out of the house unless accompanied by men and the face covered with cloth. The fortunate ones who could go to school had to commute in covered carts (tangas)'.
Marriage1829 Sati Abolition Act - abolished the practice of some widows burning themselves on their husband's funeral pyre - was not a widespread practice - seen by some m/c Indian reformers and many British administrators as primitive practice. (See R Kumar, A History of Doing, 1993)
'The reform of Hinduism became a vital issue is the Indians were to counter the attacks and criticisms of the British, and, ultimately if they were to resist British domination' (Liddle and Joshi 1986: 82).
1856 Hindu Widows Remarriage Act - high caste Hindus practised child marriage and prohibited remarriage of widows - lower caste Hindus did neither - lifting of ban on former affected property rights of latter group (See R Kumar, A History of Doing, 1993)
'Few women of the upper castes availed themselves to their new right to remarry, while those widows who, in the exercise of their customary rights, remarried independently of the Act, found themselves now subject to the forfeiture clause of Section 2, regardless of their Customary Law which permitted a widow to remarry and certainly in many, if not most, cases permitted her also to retain property inheritied from her first husband' (Carroll 1989: 25).
1872 Marriage Act - minimum age 14 for women and 18 for men - passed as a result of campaigning by reform movement.
Child marriage raised the most controversy – Indian feminists and reformers, European missionaries and British press all campaigned for reform.
Cornelia Sorabji (1866-1954) wrote on child marriage after she returned to India to practice law in 1894
According to Kumar (1993), the All India Women’s Conference divided on whether to campaign for Harbilas Sarda’s bill against child marriage – would raise age of marriage for girls from 10 to 12. Preferred Hari Singh Gour’s Bill of 1924 which proposed minimum age of 14.
1927 Katherine Mayo, an American journalist published Mother India – defined India as backward & needing imperial rule because of social evils – wrote in lurid & graphic way.
Liddle & Joshi (1986) quote a 1927 issue of the London journal New Statesman and Nation which said that Mother India revealed ‘the filthy personal habits of even the most highly educated classes in India – which, like the degradation of Hindu women, are unequalled even among the most primitive African or Australian savages'. It Went on to say ‘Katherine Mayo makes the claims for Swaraj (self rule) seem nonsense and the will to grant it almost a crime.’
Sinha (2000b) argues that publication of Mother India helped revitalize Indian nationalism and increase influence of liberal feminism within it.
Up to this date, prevailing gender ideology in Indian nationalism was that women represented the inner or spiritual sphere of the nation which was superior to the West.
1929 Child Marriage Restraint Act passed. Minimum age of marriage for 18 for women and 21 for men.
1930 Dr. B. R. Ambedkar in the Presidential Address to the All-India Depressed Classes Congress said
Factory Acts1881 Indian Factories Act child defined as under 12 – could not work until aged 7, limited to 9 hour day & given 4 days holiday a month – criticised as insufficient to protect children and no protection for women.
1891 Indian factories (Amendment) Act – applied to anyone under 14, minimum age for work now 9, 7-hour day (women 11) – women and children limited to working between 5am and 8pm.
1908 Indian Factory Commission Report said ‘On the woman rests the main responsibility of producing a healthy race.’ (Kumar 1993, p. 50)
From early C20th concern on part of government and loyalist groups about infant welfare & reducing high rate of infant mortality – antenatal care & supervision of pregnancy developed.
In 1920s, also agitation from women's associations for maternity benefits – provincial governments did so in the 1930s. But also period when women being laid off from mills & mines – Kumar (1993) says women were a reserve army.
British Feminists and Indian WomenFor the majority of British feminists in the second half of the C19th and in the early C20th. Indian women were objects of pity & philanthropy and a point of comparison.
Burton (1990) explains that
‘While Victorian sexual ideology cast woman as the weaker sex, it endowed her at the same time with unquestionable moral superiority, rooted in the ostensible feminine virtues of nurturing, childcare, and purity.’ (p. 296)
Victorian feminists used this ideology as justification for their involvement in certain public activities (as earlier generation of women campaigners against the slave trade and slavery itself had done) – but could not be redeemers unless they had helpless and unfortunate people to rescue.
In the later part of the C19th, many British feminists shared prevailing views of British/White superiority. In response to critics who accused them of undermining the future of the ‘race’ by neglecting children’s health and education in their desire for a public role, they claimed that women deserved equal rights because they had equal responsibility for the future of the nation – they were ‘mothers of the race’.
Burton says that sense of female superiority and white superiority helped many Victorian feminists to claim the ‘Anglo-Saxon woman’ as the most evolved female type – many assumed a hierarchy of civilization according to perceived status of women within that culture – even if British women not fully emancipated, much nearer emancipation (and deserving of it?) than Indian women.
So Indian women had to be constructed as helpless, passive and degraded and the barbarism of Indian men blamed for this.
The Englishwoman’s Review, which was published in Britain between 1866 & 1905, printed many articles on Indian women, exhorting British women to uplift their ‘Eastern sisters’.
Many of the feminists who wrote about and campaigned for education & health care for Indian women had never visited India or met any Indian women
Eleanor Rathbone, leader of National Union of Societies for Equal Citizenship (successor to NUWSS), was important figure in post-wW1 British feminism.
1929, Eleanor Rathbone called a conference in response to Katherine Mayo’s book.
Eleanor Rathbone also supported British government's 1935 proposals (see above), even though Indian feminists opposed.
Chronology of Nationalist Movement and Women's Roles within it
1885-19131885 Indian National Congress formed.
1886 Swarna Kumari Devi started the Ladies Association.
1887 National Social Conference formed in parallel with Indian National Congress - merged into it in 1917.
In 1888 and again in 1892, Congress resolved to co-operate with English ‘well-wishers’ for the abolition of laws regulating prostitution, according to Kumar (1993)
1889 10 women delegates present at Indian National Congress meeting but women not allowed to speak or vote until 1890.
Kumar (1993) says that women more visible in the public sphere in the 1890s – in literary clubs, as preachers in Arya Samaj & Brahmo Samaj, as newly qualified doctors & as novelists.
1890 1600 ‘Hindu ladies’ sent petition to Queen Victoria asking for legislative reform on question of child marriage.
1891 age of consent for girls raised from 10 to 12.
1892 Pandita Ramabai started Sharda Sadan in 1892 to provide employment & education for women.
1902 Ramabai Ranade started Hindu Ladies Social & Literary Club
1904 National Social Conference set up a ladies section which attracted hundreds of women to its annual meetings.
1905 Curzon partitioned Bengal – appeared to be partly to split Hindu and Muslim areas.
1914-19191914 Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) returned to India - supported home rule and became leader of the Indian National Congress.
1916 Annie Besant set up Home Rule League - subsequently interned by the British.
1916 All-India Muslim Women's Conference formed.
Voted in favour of the abolition of polygamy.
1917 Sarojini Naidu & Annie Besant lobbied British Government for women to be represented in the new legislatures being planned for India.
Argued for self rule, compulsory free education for boys and girls, training for women teachers, medical college for women, improved health care facilities for women & children to reduce mortality rates which were increasing.
Annie Besant became President of Calcutta Congress, December 1917.
Said 'The strength of the Home Rule movement was rendered tenfold greater by the adhesion to it of a large number of women who brought to its help the uncalculating heroism, the endurance, the self-sacrifice, of the feminine nature'. Quoted in Kumar, 1993, p. 55.
1917 Women's Indian Association (WIA) set up by 2 non-Indian women, Dorothy Graham Jinarajadassa & Margaret Cousins
Dumasia, member of Provincial Assembly said ‘It is gratifying to find that in a country where man are accused of treating women as chattels the political progress of women has been more rapid than in England'. Quoted in Liddle & Joshi (1986)
1919 Rowlatt Acts gave colonial authorities emergency powers to deal with revolutionaries - e.g. could detain those in possession of 'seditious literature' without trial.
1920s1920 Gandhi proclaimed an organized campaign of non-cooperation with the British - women actively recruited to the campaign.
Sarojini Naidu & others formed Rashtreeya Stree Sabha, devoted soley to nationalist activism – helped distribute khadi & ran classes for Harijans ('untouchables').
Nationalists resigned from public office, boycotted law courts and government schools. Satyagraha spread through India, gaining millions of followers.
Non-co-operation developed into civil disobedience e.g. sit down protests that blocked streets, nonpayment of taxes.
At the 1921 Congress, there were 144 women delegates.
‘Thus, by the 1920s, two quite different rationales for women’s rights were being expressed: the one that women’s rights should be recognized because of women’s socially useful role as mothers; the other that women, having the same needs, desires and capacities as men, were entitled to the same rights.’ (Kumar 1993, p. 66)
‘The 1920s also saw a shift in consciousness of and about working class women. Where formerly attempts to work amongst them were rare and strictly reformist, now reformist activities were expanded in both scope and scale: while within workers’ movements women began to be seen as a special category with distinct rights and a distinct role.’ (Kumar 1993, p. 66)
1920 Communist Party of India formed by M. N. Roy and others.
1922 The journal Chand set up – had even broader perspective than Stree Darpan or Gribalakshmi – in first year brought out 3 special issues on widow, education & child marriage – covered issues of health in each issue.
1925 Sarojini Naidu became the first Indian woman to be President of the Indian National Congress.
"Their concerns were 'women's issues' but these could not be separated from a concern with freedom from foreign dominance and exploitation' (Forbes 1982: p. 529).
1929 Lahore Congress demanded total independence
1930s1930 Gandhi gave 11 point ultimatum to Lord Irwin including release of political prisoners, textile protection, abolition of the salt tax & the government monopoly of salt making.
March 1930 Salt March to Dandi
Campaign against British government's monopoly of the production and sale of salt appealed to Indians from all regions, ethnic groups and classes - salt was a basic commodity and essential to life.
Gandhi did not include women in the first Salt March - believed that British would be reluctant to use force against women and so Indian men could be accused of cowardice if women were included in the march.
Nationalist women protested at their exclusion - included subsequently.
Thousands of women joined the salt satyagraha, manufacturing & selling salt illegally. This was the first time the mass of Indian women got involved in the nationalist movement.
British government imprisoned over eighty thousand people including Gandhi, as a result of the illegal production of salt. 17,000 of those imprisoned were women, including Sarojini Naidu.
More details on Salt March to Dandi http://www.ppu.org.uk/learn/infodocs/people/pst_gandhi.html (accessed 14 December 2015).
The Congress-led nationalist movement took part in Widespread civil disobedience.
By the 1930s, police used violent tactics against processions of women as much as against men.
9 months imprisonment not unusual for selling khadi.
1930-31 20,000 women satyagrahis arrested & imprisoned
1931 Indian National Congress committed itself to the political equality of women.
In 1932-33, Congress issued calls to court arrest. In campaigning & in prison nationalist women met others from different class & caste backgrounds.
1934 AIWC demanded Hindu Code which reformed marriage, divorce and inheritance.
1935 Government of India Act enfranchised 10% of men and 0.06% of women - also proposed that wives and widows of propertied men should be able to vote and that seats should be reserved for women along communal lines.
Indian women rejected both proposals.
'The universalist logic of liberal feminism thus reinforced nationalist objections against the political constitution that the imperial state offered India. When organized women in India, therefore, rejected the advice of the dominant wing of the British women's organization to accept the communal franchise for women, they did so less to assert cultural difference than to affirm the liberal feminist ideals of the underlying sisterhood of women' (Sinha 2000b).
There were other nationalist groups who did not follow the non-violent strategy - e.g. Subhas Chandra Bose advocated armed struggle and set up the Rani Jhansi Regiment as the women's wing of the Indian National Army.
Many women participated in the armed struggle of Bengal.
In late 1930s Gandhi became committed to the aim of complete independence for India
1940s1941 Government committee on women's legal rights set up - AIWC had been campaigning for this for many years - but this clashed with the boycott.
‘By the 1940s there was a sense of seeing independence on the horizon, and the women’s movement was absorbed into the struggle for independence in such a way that the issue of women’s emancipation was felt to have been resolved.’ (Kumar 1993 pp. 93-94)
1943 Legislative Assembly commissioned a draft Hindu code – gave widow same share of husband’s property as son (daughter got half share), banned polygamy, legalised inter-caste marriage & legalised divorce under certain circumstances – opposed by many.
‘The social composition of the women’s movement meant that they could not articulate the particular oppressions of women of the lower castes and class, nor could they recognise that some aspects of their own oppression were not universal. On the question of divorce, for instance, the opposition’s argument could have been undermined had the women opened the discussion to a wider audience, since large numbers of the lower castes had neither religious objection nor customary prohibition against divorce.’ (Liddle & Joshi 1986: p. 39)
Europeans retreating from Burma, Malaya & Singapore commandeered all transport & left Indian migrants to walk.
Arun Asaf Ali played a leading role in the Quit India Movement. She edited Inqulab a monthly journal of the Indian National Congress.
"When the entire Congress leadership was put in jail in 1942, women leaders like Aruna Asaf Ali and Sucheta Kripalani emerged with Achyut Patwardhan and Ram Manohar Lohia and others to lead the underground resistance. Usha Mehta ran the Congress radio. Congress socialists, Forward Bloc members, and other armed resistance factions were active in this period, working through underground cells in Mumbai, Pune, Satara, Baroda, and other parts of Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, UP, Bihar and Delhi."
Vilasini Devi Shenai argued against putting nationalism first.
1944 British government agreed to Indian independence on condition that the two contending nationalist groups, the Muslim League and the Congress party, should resolve their differences.
'Gandhi's insistence on non-violence as a revolutionary weapon contributed to creating favourable conditions for mass participation of people, especially women. ... women's traditional qualities, such as their lesser capacity for organised violence, were not downgraded but were held up as models of superior courage'(Kishwar 1986: 52).
'Associations like Womens' Indian Association, the National Council of Women in India and the All India Womens' Conference campaigned for suffrage, marriage reform, participation in municipal and legislative politics. The language of reform did not directly challenge the public/private divide, nor did it unambiguously speak about equality. Public activism of a few, however, strained against the domestic confines of most' (Sarkar 1997).
'There has been considerable debate about whether the militant political activism that the Gandhian Congress offered to women empowered them in the long run. Gandhi himself espoused the ideology of separate spheres for men and women, although he was critical of specific abuses like women's seclusion. The urgent pressures of anticolonial protest made it difficult, in any case, to focus adequately on an agenda of social reform. In practice, however, Gandhi opened up forms of political activism to all women. During the Civil Disobedience movement, peasant women became `dictators' of underground Congress units at village level while Marwari women from deeply conservative families joined street demonstrations, picketed-shops and courted arrest. The principle of non-violence saw to it that women's political activism would not appear as too radically transgressive an act' (Sarkar 1997).
'But there is a way in which women, and women's bodies, become central to the process of nation-making. Normally relegated to the margins, at times of nationalist struggle women come to symbolize the honour and virtue of the nation. They become the icons, the mother-figures for whom men are willing to lay down their lives. It is on this notion of womanhood that the cultural identity of the community and the nation is staked'.
'Such a mass participation under Gandiji's leadership gave women a sense of equality with men, an equality which was unheard of in the traditon-bound Indian society'(Menon 1975).
'Gandhi wanted women to act as moral guardians of socieity, as social workers and do-gooders, without competing with men in the sphere of power and politics'(Kishwar 1986: 60).
'The benefits to women of participation in the nationalist movement ....were always limited by their responsibilities for 'women's work' in the home' (Thapar 1993: 88).
'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' (Liddle and Joshi 1986: 35).
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Carroll, L. (1989) 'Law, Custom and Statutory Social Reform: the Hindu Widows' Remarriage Act of 1856' in J. Krishnamurty (ed.) Women in Colonial India: Essays on Survival, Work and the State.
Chakravartty, R. (1980) Communists in Indian Women's Movement, New Delhi: People's Publishing House.
Chatterjee, P. (1990) 'The Nationalist Resolution of the Women's Question' in K. Sangari and S. Vaid (eds) Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, New Brunswick: Rutger University Press.
Forbes, G. (1982) 'Caged Tigers: First Wave Feminists in India' in Women's Studies International Forum, 5(6).
Jayawardena, K. (1995) The White Woman's Other Burden: Western Women and South Asia during British Colonial Rule, New York & London: Routledge.
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Liddle, J. and Joshi, R. (1986) Daughters of Independence. Gender, Caste and Class in India, London: Zed Books.
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Sarkar, T. (1997) Women in South Asia: the Raj and After. History Today September.
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Sinha, M. (2000b) 'Refashioning Mother India: Feminism and Nationalism in Late-Colonial India', Feminist Studies, 26(3).
Talwar. V. B. (1990) ‘Feminist Consciousness in Women’s Journals in Hindi 1910-20’, in K. Sangari and S. Vaid (eds) Recasting Women: Essays in Indian Colonial History, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Thapar, S. (1993) 'Women as Activists, Women as Symbols: A study of the Indian Nationalist Movement' in Feminist Review 44.