Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Pandita Ramabai

The concept of feminism is a hot cake in the contemporary world. It appears as if everyone has suddenly realized how imperative it is for women to have equal status as men. The so-called superior men are full of sympathy and remorse over what has happened in the past and are ready to correct their mistakes. So they have taken to various means of communication to create awareness among their fellow homosapiens. Women in large nos. have also been included in this correct-the-wrongful campaign. Amidst all this dreary process, they keep yelling that we are empowering women. But has something changed. Ask anyone and I am indisputably sure that the answer will not be in affirmative. The cataloging of women as ‘the weaker sex’ has been so deeply embedded in our society (when I say society, it is not just Indian society, but the world over) that instead of loosening it keeps on strengthening with each new day. To address this one cause, feminism as an ideology came into being. Feminist ideology basically has two aspects:  1) private is political, 2) the intrinsic traits of women like full of empathy, cooperative, caring etc. have not been eulogized. They make a clear distinction between the characteristics of men and women. However, this is where I disagree with them because generalizing the characteristics is not correct. There are many men who share some of the characteristics which feminists have already reserved for women and vice-versa. Even after many disagreements with them, I am undeniably sensitive to their cause.
It is believed that the concept of feminism like various other concepts has been imported from the west. Everyone only remember the contribution of western feminists or thinkers. Here they often tend to forget the strong headed and determined Indian woman who championed this cause at a time when the females were treated as merely an object for sexual gratification and a machine for producing sons. It needed a lot of courage will power to stand against an extremely conservative society where supremacy of men was considered natural. Pandita ramabai was an ordinary woman who adopted extraordinary ways to awaken the society from its slumber. The renowned nationalist and respected freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak once said “ a man who finds his cow wandering about and puts a rope around her neck and brings her home is not liable to a law suit. The Hindu religion considers a woman to be on par with property and cattle”. There is no doubt in the fact that everyone shared his views. Since the inception of a girl’s life, she was taught that she was inferior vis-à-vis her brothers. Her life was confined to the insides of the house, whereas her brothers were encouraged to go out. When she attained puberty she was married, mostly to men much older to her where she again had to remain meek and gentle and serve her husband with all her strength. She was then widowed at an early age. The life for widow was more painful and suffocating. And this is how her life ended.
Such wide differences between the genders were prevalent and one who did not abide by it (very rare) was ostracized from the society. Here it is required to differentiate between gender and sex which is usually taken to be synonymous. Sex is a biological identity whereas gender is a social identity. Stereotypes and prejudices about gender are created in ignorant societies. Simon de Beauvoir rightly said “one is not born, but becomes woman”. In the 19th century colonized India, this was the condition of half of the population. It may sound strange but the fact was none of the women protested. In fact they considered it their “saubhagya”(good destiny) to cater to everyone’s need and provide selfless service to different people at various stages of her life. The brahmanical system had manipulated shastras and other ancient texts in such a way that women and lower castes were to be controlled by upper castes men throughout their life without uttering a word. However, ramabai was a non-conformist. Her upbringing can be attributed for such an outlook. Her father was keenly interested in teaching Sanskrit texts to women. For this defying act he was boycotted from the society. A major part of Ramabai’s life was spent wandering here and there. After the subsequent death of her parents and siblings, she came to Calcutta. This city was going through its phase of renaissance and had become a hub of intellectuals and reformers. After they got to know that she is educated they welcomed her with open arms because they had found a living embodiment of ‘their’ perception of Indian womanhood whom they could present as an example in the society.
It was in Calcutta that she read the ancient texts and became aware of various obligations put on women. This triggered her to take one of the most audacious and challenging step of marrying a man from shudra caste. This earned extreme criticism. After an early widowhood she came back to Maharashtra, the home of her ancestors. Post-widowhood women were expected to live a secluded life. But, non-conformist as she was, she became more involved in public activities. She began setting up Arya Mahila Sabhas, a forum for women to meet and discuss various issues. During this time she appeared before the Hunter commission debating the issue of women’s education. Perhaps she was the first woman to advocate education for women so fiercely. It is to her credit that British formed a curriculum for both men and women in India. She believed that chief needs of high caste Hindu women were self reliance, education and native women teachers. In 1887 she wrote her most famous work, the high-caste Hindu women where she discussed at length about the plight of Indian women. In her later years she got converted to Christianity as her views could not find solace in Hinduism. This again earned criticism with people questioning her character and calling her anti-national. However very early she had a tiff with church authorities when they tried to dictate certain conditions to her. A woman with her “own strong mind” was rare those days.
She established sharda sadan (widow’s home) and mukti sadan in 1899 and 1897 respectively despite various condemnations. It is sad how liberal reformers like Ranade, Karve and others shared the same perspective as conservative women. Though they supported education for women, they wanted her to be controlled by a father, a husband and a son at various stages of her life. The manusmriti completely dictated the social codes and practices. Gradually she realized that the condition of women was to remain pathetic if they remained subservient to men either British or Indian. She advocated that empowerment of women was very much related to nation-building. She linked colonization of India to subjugation of women which is definitely true.
Nine decades after her death we still seem to be struggling with the same set of issues. D K Karve said at her centenary in 1958 that it is our own fault that this great women like Dr. Ambedkar was lost to the Hindu religion.  Whenever we begin talking about Indian women we start giving age old examples of Gargi and Maitreyi or we start eulogizing Sita and Savitri who are considered the epitome of womanhood. Why is Draupadi absent from this ideal women category? To quote Dr. Lohia, it is draupadi who should be an ideal for Indian women, a woman who could raise her voice against the injustice being done to her. Ramabai joined this female bandwagon much late, but she is not much talked about. Even GOOGLE which has tons of information on any topic in this universe does not include her in the list of Indian feminists or a feminist thinker. Why? Probably because she does not fit into the category of an ideal woman which the patriarchal system approves of and will ever be able to.
India has moved a long distance from her time. There has been a whole lot of new things like widow remarriage, prohibition of child marriage, abolition of sati, right to inheritance of property and most importantly right to education for all. Women now work, go out and are trying to be independent. But the process of oppression has not stopped. Now-a-days women are exploited in the name of empowerment. Evils like dowry which is a blot on our society continues. Educated and civilized strata of the society engage into this without any qualms. The Indian constitution guarantees the right to inheritance of property by women but how many women actually exercise this right. The concept of men as insider and woman as outsider who will go to some other place post-marriage is still considered very much appropriate.

Feminism is not about women hating men. It is about the anti-female psychological setup which needs to be attacked. 33 per cent reservation for women in parliament won’t empower them, giving them equal opportunity since birth will. This fight can only be won psychologically when people break the shackles of their prejudiced mindset.  Referring to western thinkers is not required to shape our ideas. Pandita Ramabai has long ago preached about the pre-requisites of a harmonious and equal society. Even if we are able to accomplish an ounce of what she wanted, it will be a real tribute to what this phenomenal woman stood for. This is what our country needs right NOW.

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