Practice Question: Write Short note on: Stage of the Women’s movement in India. (10 Marks).

Approach: Introduction; Discuss about women’s movement from colonial time to present period including examples for such movements, Try to outline the evolution of the movement; Conclusion.


Society has been patriarchal for most part of recorded history. It is difficult to talk about the position and status of women, with all women being categorised as uniform. There has been infinite variation on the status of women depending on the culture, class, caste, family structure and property rights. Even while womenhave right to kinship systems, the entire mechanisms of marriage, descent, residence and inheritance are rarely organised in such a way as to guarantee women access to resources or to allow them to secure access for other women. In fact under patriarchal order kinship, conjugal and familial systems tend to construct women in such a way that they hardly live as independent beings and they are seen only in relation to men, thus depriving women of their selfhood
and agency.

The advent of the Europeans into India did not change the situation of women. Like other Western powers, the primary objective of the British in the earlier days was trade. Later when they were faced with the administration of newly conquered areas, they thought it safe not only to keep the existing social structure intact but also to induct its religious pundits (Brahmins) to interpret its rules when necessary.

The introduction of English education first started to train Indians for jobs under British administration. This created upper class elites who began to doubt the rationale of many of the existing practices in their society. The establishmentand expansion of the British rule also encouraged British missionaries to enter their colonies and start schools, orphanages and destitute homes especially forwidows. They stood against sati, child marriage, purdah and polygamy. The new Indian elite exposed to European liberalism of the 18rh century through Western education, felt the urgency for reform of their own society. This produced tangible results in the subsequent periods.


Social Reform Movements
The women’s movements began as a social reform movement in the 19th century.The reform movements were not homogeneous and varied a lot in terms of the ideas and changes that was to be fostered. They did however share a common concern for rooting out the social evils, partly in response to charges of barbarity from the colonial ruler.

The cultural defense resulted in a paradoxical situation. Spurred by new European ideas of rationalism and progress, the reformers tried to create a new society, modern yet rooted in Indian tradition. They began a critical appraisal of Indian society in an attempt to create a new ethos devoid of all overt social aberrations like polytheism, polygamy, casteism, sati, child marriage, illiteracy etc. all of which they believed were impediments to progress of women.

In spite of its limitations, it cannot be denied that the social reform movement did help in removing prejudices against women’s education and provided a spacefor women in the public realm. The reformers took up issues, such as, sati, female infanticide, polygamy, child marriage, purdah, absence of education among women etc. There were two groups of social reformers, 1) Liberal Reformers and 2) The Revivalists. Both the groups undoubtedly recognised the oppressive social institutions’ customs of India.

While arguing in favour of equal rights for women appealed to logic, reason, history, the principal of individual freedom and the requirements of social programme, social reformers such as Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Keshab Chandra Sen, Iswarachandra Vidya Sagar, Kandukuri Veeresalingam Panthulu, M. G. Ranade, Karve, Swami Vivekanantia, Swami Dayanand Saraswathi and others provided leadership to the women’s movement by frankly acknowledging the degraded position of Indian women.

Nationalist Movement
The expansion of women’s education and their admission to educationalinstitutions had produced a sizable number of English educated middle class women by the late 19th century- and they made their presence felt in political activities. The characteristics of the second phase of women’s movement i.e. the national movement are: for the first time many women belonging to the middle class, started taking part in the political activities. Till 1919, the national movement was limited to the urban upper class and it was later with Gandhi’s entrance into the national movement, participation of the masses began to take place. In this phase, political developments and women’s participation in the National movement went hand in hand.

Pandita Rama Bai’s Sharda Sadan (1892) in Poona, Shri Mahipatram Rupram Anathashram in Ahmedabad (1892), Shri Zorastrian Mandal in Bombay (1903), Maternity and Child Welfare League in Baroda (1914) , Bhagini Samaj in Poona (1916) all were established and worked with the particular objective of improving women’s lives. These regional organisations were followed by national organisations like Women’s Indian Association (1917) and The National Council of Women in India (1920). All India Women’s Conference (1926) went on to organise 12 women’s conferences till 1937 and Federation of University Women in India (1920) stimulated the interests of women in civic and public life and concentrated on the removal of disabilities of women and promoted social, civil, moral and educational welfare of women and children.

Post-Independent India
According to Vina Mazumdar , after Indian independence, ‘for all practical purposes, the women’s question disappeared from the public arena for over twenty years’. However, from the mid 1960s onwards, we see the birth of new socio-political movements as poverty and unemployment were widespread and people grew disillusioned with government development policies, the prevalent economic rights, land rights and the price rise. India saw a series of struggles and peasant movements in the early 1970s such as the anti-price-rise agitation in Bombay and Gujarat between 1972 and 1975 and the Chipko Movement which began in 1973. Of particular importance to the women’s movement were the agitations such as the Shahada agitation and the subsequent formation of the Shramik Sangatana in the 1970s of the Bhil (tribal) landless labourers against the exploitative landlords which was triggered off after the rape of two Bhil women.

Around the country, in the early 1980s, women’s groups were formed in protest against the rising incidence of dowry deaths and other forms of violence against women. Some like Saheli, which was formed in 1981, were formed by women who had been involved with Left parties and socialist formations and who had experienced marginalization within those groups which also lacked focus on women’s issues .

Other issues which saw national-level collaborations were the issue of Sati following Roop Kanwar’s immolation in 1987, the Muslim Women’s Bill in 1986, alcoholism, wife-beating, sexual harassment, etc. Women’s organisations also got very involved in environment crises such as the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1985. At this time, analysis of women’s oppression took on a caste and class perspective. Some of these ‘autonomous’ organisations aimed not only at creating awareness on the issues, but also to provide women with alternate support structures. Legal aid, counselling, short-stay homes were part of the work of some of these women’s organisations.

Despite the current fragmentation, women’s groups have come together with one concerted voice on certain issues such as violence, health, employment conditions including wages, legal rights and law reform. The issues today are sexual harassment at the work place, the violence of development, caste and communal violence, lobbying for increased political participation of women in the highest levels of decision-making, etc. The list will go on as long as there is a women’s movement. Indu Agnihotri and Vina Mazumdar (1995) have illustrated how the women’s movement has not been static but has been compelled to respond to changing political, social, economic and other national realities and not exclusively influenced by women-specific issues and problems.

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