Patriarchy is so deeply entrenched in India that women, especially in rural areas, are still dependent on and subservient to men. This might be the 21st century, but women’s rights continue to be violated. And feminism? It’s considered the bastion of man-hating, angry women.
However, American writer Jessa Crispin has an interesting take on what feminism means. She describes feminism as strides for womankind made by a “small number of radical, heavily invested women who did the hard work of dragging women’s position forward, usually through shocking acts and words”.
India too, has her share of strong women who have flown the flag of feminism throughout history. This Women’s Day, we look at five great feminists who have led by example.
Often credited as being India’s first feminist, Savitribai Phule was married off at nine to a 12-year-old Jyotiba Phule. Coming from what was then referred to as the shudhra caste, and being a woman, she was not expected to receive an education. However, Savitribai learnt to read and write with the help of her husband, who supported her in all her endeavours until the end. Once educated herself, Savitribai opened the first school for women in Bhidewada, Pune, in 1848, when she was 17, and became the first female teacher in the country. Savitribai was also a staunch supporter of inter-caste equality, so her schools were open to women of all castes and religions. Over the course of her lifetime, she opened 18 schools in India. In 2014, Pune University changed its name to Savitribai Phule Pune University to pay homage to her work. Savitribai was also a champion of young widows, especially those who were raped and impregnated and left to fend for themselves. This January, Google celebrated her 186th birth anniversary with one of its iconic doodles.
Mahatma Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba was as enlightened as her husband. Fiercely independent and having her own voice, Kasturba did not shying away from criticising her husband when she felt it was due. Ba (as she was affectionately known) was a woman who refused to let her actions be dictated by the men in her life. This is a fact Gandhi mentioned in his autobiography. “She was very obstinate. Despite all my pressure she would do as she wished. This led to short or long periods of estrangement between us. But as my public life expanded, my wife bloomed forth and deliberately lost herself in my work. If anything, she stood above me. But for her unfailing co-operation I might have been in the abyss. She helped me to keep wide awake and true to my vows. She stood by me in all my political fights and never hesitated to take the plunge.” Today, some of the greatest girls’ schools and colleges, as well as women’s empowerment NGOs, are named after this strong woman.
India’s first female prime, Indira Gandhi, was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru and a strong woman in her own right. Though she never termed herself a feminist, she was an avid campaigner of women’s rights. In a 1980 speech, she said, “To be liberated, a woman must feel free to be herself, not in rivalry to man but in the context of her own capacity and her personality. We need women to be more interested, more alive and more active not because they are women but because they do comprise half the human race. Whether they like it or not, they cannot escape their responsibility nor should they be denied its benefits. Indian women are traditionally conservative but they also have the genius of synthesis, to adapt and to absorb. That is what gives them resilience to face suffering and to meet upheavals with a degree of calm, to change constantly and yet remain changeless, which is the quality of India herself.”
The fact that she was the chief minister of Tamil Nadu for more than 14 years, right up until her death last year, is evidence enough of the power, respect and love Jayalalithaa commanded from Tamilians. Charges of corruption notwithstanding, even her harshest critics will agree that she has done a lot for women in the state. Some of her most successful initiatives were: a) increasing maternity leave for women government employees from six to nine months in early 2016; b) offering women check-ups that include Pap smears and digital mammogram, tests for Vitamin D levels, bone density, and parathyroid hormone levels under the Amma Master Health Check-up Plan for Women; c) managing to maintain one the lowest crime rates against women in the country.
Eminent author and winner of the Man Booker Prize for her novel, The God of Small Things, Roy is a living beacon for young feminists. Fiercely opinionated, the writer expressed her annoyance with “cool, young women,” who say they aren’t feminists, in an interview with Elle magazine. “I mean, do they know what battles were fought? Every freedom we have today, we have because of feminists. Many women have fought and paid a huge price for where we are today! It didn’t all come to us only because of our own inherent talent or brilliance. Even the simple fact that women have the vote, who fought for that? The suffragettes. No freedom has come without a huge battle. If you’re not a feminist, go back to into your veil, sit in the kitchen and take instructions. You don’t want to do that? Thank the feminists.”
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Cover Image courtesy: Shutterstock.com; Images via Wikipedia Commons, YouTube screengrab, Google