There was a belief during the International Women’s Year that women in India were joining hands with their counterparts in the West to fight against male dominance and exploitation, which had the support of religion and tradition. In this connection, it should be said that the struggle for the restoration of the status and dignity of women, as enjoyed by them in ancient times, was undertaken by men. In the last century, Mahatma Gandhi was mainly responsible for involving women in India in the national struggle for independence, thereby proving their equal importance in society. However, the name of Mahatma Gandhi is hardly referred to in the cause of women’s liberation, perhaps due to the fact that the Gandhian attitude towards women’s liberation is not properly understood.
Mahatma Gandhi loved the Hindu traditional framework of society in which the man and woman are complementary. He considered the home to be the best place for women in India, whereby he stood for the maintenance of the status quo in the man-woman relationship where the man is the wage-earner and the woman, although economically dependent on him, maintains and looks after the affairs of the home, including bringing up the children. Thus, prima facie, Mahatma Gandhi was a chauvinist who wanted to restrict women to the four walls of their houses. However, his ideas in this regard are clarified in his speech at a meeting of mill workers in Ahmedabad in February 1920. He remarked:
Work is not for women. It is not for women to work in the factories. They have plenty of work in their homes. They should attend to their children. If women go to work, our social life will be ruined and moral standards will decline.
This was in conformity with the particular social structure prevailing in India as he was not unaware of the changing role of women in India in the industrial world. He took up the cause in a highly realistic manner, saying:
“It is libel on all women to call them the weaker sex and that is man’s injustice towards women. If by strength is meant moral power, then the woman is immeasurably man’s superior. Has she not greater intuition, is she not more self-sacrificing, has she not powers of endurance, has she, not greater courage? Without her, the man could not be. If non-violence is the law of our being, the future is with women.”
Mahatma Gandhi, quotes: on women empowerment.
Conscious of the potential of women, Mahatma Gandhi made a commendable contribution in liberating women in India from exploitation by extending their field of activity and involving them in the freedom struggle. His passive resistance especially suited the general ethos in which women in India lived, and thus the Indian woman joined the mainstream of nationalism and began playing a significant role in the Indian struggle for independence.
The independence movement gave a definite impetus towards bringing a change in the attitude towards women in India. In order to extend the movement among the masses, a number of depressed groups, namely, untouchables, peasants, workers and, above all, women, were included in it. The participation of women in the movement was intended partly to mobilise entire families and partly it drew inspiration from the Jaina and Bhakti ethic which stressed the equality of women in India.
It may have also been inspired by the tremendous success attained by women politicians in ex-colonial countries. Mahatma Gandhi realised that by awakening national consciousness among women in India and involving them in the struggle for independence, they would come out of their traditional restricted domestic role. He provided women in India with an opportunity to break from tradition. Consequently, a great number of women in India, rural and urban, literate and illiterate, from all sections of society, joined the freedom struggle. This gave women in India a consciousness of equality with men and brought them to the forefront of thought and action. An overwhelming number of women politicians distinguished themselves in the national struggle for independence.