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Monday, Nov 18, 2019

Fighting for those on margins in both genders

Enacting the Women’s Reservation Bill would be the next step in translating the Mahatma’s vision on gender into reality

analysis Updated: Mar 08, 2019 09:29 IST
Rajeev Gowda
Rajeev Gowda
Mahatma Gandhi understood that undoing years of subversion would not be possible without building women’s self-confidence.
Mahatma Gandhi understood that undoing years of subversion would not be possible without building women’s self-confidence.(Burhaan Kinu/HT PHOTO)
         

The global women’s rights movement has seen a phenomenal push with the advent of social media. Women worldwide have stepped forward to call out harassment, reclaim their spaces, and demand more seats at the decision-making table. But it has taken enormous efforts by various social and political reformers, in the form of three different waves of feminism, to get here.

This International Women’s Day coincides with the 150th birth anniversary year of Mahatma Gandhi. This provides us an opportunity to reflect on the Mahatma’s role in promoting gender equality in India. Certainly his opinions on the subject were layered, complex, and sometimes contradictory. Nonetheless, if we contextualise his views in the socioeconomic environment that he lived in, his contribution to advancing gender rights stands out.

Gandhi’s context, in the last century, was one in which child marriage, dowry and purdah were widely prevalent in society. Indian women had an average lifespan of just 27 years. Only 2% of women had basic education. It was in such an environment that Gandhiji set forth to redefine the role of women in society. He called out regressive practices towards women that were justified in the name of tradition saying, “It is good to swim in the waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicide.”

For Gandhi, men and women were on a par with each other. “I make no distinction between a man and woman. Woman should feel as independent as man. Bravery is not a man’s monopoly.” He was deeply hurt by the usage of the term weaker sex for women, and chastised men for it. He wrote, “Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none to me, is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity, the female sex as the weaker sex.”

Gandhi understood that undoing years of oppression would not be possible without building women’s self-confidence. He considered education as the only route through which it would be possible. “I’m uncompromising in the matter of women’s rights. In my opinion, she should labour under no legal disability not suffered by man. I should treat the daughters and sons on a footing of perfect equality. As woman begin to realise their strength, as they must in proportion to the education they receive, they will naturally resent the glaring inequalities to which they are subjected.”

Globally, women are fighting for more political representation today. There is a gradual rise in the number of women running for office in different countries. Gandhi encouraged women to participate in politics. During the freedom struggle, women held political rallies, spun khadi, and picketed foreign shops.

The popular notion that women leaders empower more women’s voices was originally espoused by Gandhi. Advocating the cause of women workers, he had said, “Women workers should enrol women as voters, impart practical education, teach them independent thinking, release them from the chains of caste, so as to bring about a change in them which would compel men to realise a woman’s strength and give her places of honour.” Enacting the Women’s Reservation Bill would be the next step in translating the Mahatma’s vision into reality.

The women’s movement today is not just fighting for women alone but also for the rights of the marginalised, including men. Gandhi words — “I advise women to resort to civil rebellion against all undesirable and unworthy restrictions” — ring true in this era of fourth wave feminism. The Mahatma strongly believed in the immense potential of women to effect change through rebellion. It’s time for us to show through our actions that we believe this too.

Rajeev Gowda is member of Parliament and chairman of the AICC research department

The views expressed are personal