Political Consciousness among Indian Women

A View Over The Ages

Politics was used as a weapon to keep women in the private sphere. Man became the bread winner and the provider of subsistence. Monogamy further consolidated the position of man. He became the father of the children and by that authority subjugated the status of women within family, society and religion. This power structure resulted in the system of patriarchy. Man became the patriarch. Everything came under his control. He reinforced himself particularly through religion, culture, education and law. The woman became a supplement to the personality of the man. It became the pious duty of the traditional institutions of marriage and law to keep women in their place. The whole politics of the man is aimed to maintain his power over the whole universe.

Political awareness is directly related to education and education leads to development. Political awareness is one of the major components in the empowerment of women. Political awareness includes knowledge of the political system - knowledge about the state, legislative assemblies, legislative council, Governor, Loksabha and Rajya Sabha, The President, Parliamentary democracy, party system, ideologies of different political parties, the process of election, the franchise as well as the knowledge of local (urban and rural) self Governments. 

We can assume that illiterate women are swayed by caste, community emotional appeal, money and muscle power; educated women are capable of discerning. They can vote for the right party and person in a given situation. If we want to have political leaders who are sensitive to the problems of women and various gender issues, we must have educated electorate (educated women). The electorate must have a clear comprehension of issues and ideologies. This will help in transforming the society into more humane, just, gender sensitive and developed society.

Education has always been an instrument of enlightenment. 'Sanvanu Kramanika' a text of the Vedic period refers to twenty women rishis. The famous women rishis were Apala, Lopmudra, Visvavara, Sikata, Nivavari and Ghosha. It is worth noting that the Brihadarnyaka Upanishad (iv.4.18) recommends a certain ritual for a house holder for ensuring the birth of a scholarly daughter. The girls belonging to Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya families were entitled to the Yagyopaveet sanskara. They were initiated in Vedic studies.

Female students were divided into two groups - Brahmavadinis and Sadyovahas. The first group comprised of those dedicated to the study of theology and philosophy for all their lives. The second group stopped formal studies after marriage. Women participated in all 'yajanas' and household rituals as equal partners of their husbands.  Gargi, Vachaknavi, Sulbha, Maitreyi and Vadava Prathiteyi are some of the noted women scholars referred in the Upanishads. The Valmiki Ramayana (v.15.48) shows Sita as offering her daily Vedic Sandhya. Female Vedic teachers were called Upadhyayas.

In Bhavabhuti's ‘Uttar Ramcharitam’, Atreyi is shown to have studied Vedanta from Valmiki along with Lava and Kusha. It is depicted that she later went to the hermitage of Agastya Rishi for further studies. In Bhavabhuti's ‘Maltimadhava’, the Buddhist nun Kamandaki studies philosophy and arts along with two male students,  Bhurivasu and Devarata. Some of the Buddhist nuns of ‘Therigatha’ were very scholarly. The Jain text ‘Bhagavatisutra’ refers to a scholarly princess of Kaushambi named Jayanti who became a nun. Some of the famous women poets from the early medieval period were Reva, Roha, Madhavi, Anulaxmi, Panai, Vaddhavahi,Shashiprabha, Sitabhattarika, Devi and Vijayanka. Some noted queens like Nayanika of Satavahana dynasty, Prabharati Gupta of Vakataka, Vij ayabhattarika of Chalukya dynasty and Sugandha and Didda of Kashmir ruled over extensive kingdoms and ran fast and smooth administration.

It is true that during the Sultanate and the Mughal period, the female literate Hindu women group was reduced to a microscopic minority. The worst affected were daughters of the Rajputs, Nairs and Jamindar families. Jain nuns were also affected by this wave of illiteracy. But valor and courage were never solely male bastions. Numerous Rajput queens exhibited exemplary leadership. This tradition continued up to the time of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi in the l8th Century. Rajia Sultana and Chand Bibi also fought bravely and managed their kingdoms. Sher Shah Suri received his primary education from his learned mother. Women's education as well as their status touched its lowest ebb by 1857. This was the period when only courtesans could read and write.

During the early 19th Century, (the Indian Renaissance period) many social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Ishwarchand Vidyasagar, Swami Dayanand Saraswati and Swami Vivekananda raised the issue of women's education. Raja Ram Mohan Roy founded Brahmo Samaj in 1828 and the work was carried out by Rabindranath Tagore and Kesubchandra Sen. In 1867 Kesub Chandra Sen founded Prarthana Samaj in Bombay. Justice M.G. Ranadey, Sir K.G. Bhandarkar and others became its members. Justice Ranadey was one of the founnders of Widow Remarriage Association. Dayanand Saraswati founded Arya Samaj in 1875. His movement became popular in Punjab, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh.

Pandit Ramabai, Maharani Mataji Tapasvani, Dhondo Kesub Kurve Khwaja, Altaf Husain Hazi, Shaikh Mohammad, Abdullah, R. Venkata Ramana Naidu, Kandukuri Viraslingavara Pantalu, Sarla Devi Chaudharani, Swarna Kumari Devi,Ramabai Ranade, Anandi Joshi, Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur and Kamala Devi Chattopadhyaya were some of the outstanding champions of the cause of women's upgradation and education. In the early twentieth century this tradition was carried and continued by Tilak, Gokhale, Gandhi and Nehru.

In the late 19th Century and early 20th Century various women's associations were formed all over the country. Bharat Shree Mahamandal was founded by Sarala Devi Chaudharani in 1910. After the first World War, Women's Indian Association (1917), The National Council of Women in India (1925) and All India Women's Conference (1927) come into being. During the past decades, a new awakening that women can play a more significant role than generally permitted by society has gained tremendous momentum. This change of stance can be traced to social and political events that affected the destinies of many countries. 18th Century onwards, the quest for freedom started. It displaced man as the centre of the universe. The socio-political structures of France and America radically changed due to revolutionary ideas. The philosophy of liberalism in l8th century gradually led Europe to move away from monarchy to more democratic forms of government. The Industrial Revolution resulted in victimization of men, women and children. This kindled a sense of revolt against social injustice. A wave of humanitarianism rose up, expressing itself in a series of reforms to defend the unprotected, the deprived and the oppressed members of society.

Betty Friedan (20th Century) wrote ‘Feminine Mystique’. By early 19th Century, constitutional empowerment was achieved. In her survey, Friedan realized that women were depressed and lonely. The concept of women's equality developed and later expressed itself in the philosophy of feminism. A simple idea that women should be understood through women's perspective gained currency. People started accepting that a woman understands a woman in a better manner.

There is a long tradition of biased philosophy propagated by chauvinistic men that tries to prove that women are not rational agents. At one point Aristotle says, 'The male is by nature superior and the female inferior; the one rules and the other is ruled.’ Hegal believed, 'Women's deficiency in the universal faculty was such as to render women as different from men as plants were different from the animals.' 

The basic aim of feminism at the starting point was to prove, convince and believe that women were also rational beings. Mary Wollstonecraft in her ‘Vindication of the Rights of Women’ attacked Rousseau for proposing different education for girls and boys. The noted liberal philosopher, John Stuart Mill forcefully presented the feminist thought in his article 'On Subjection of Women'. He believed in the principle of perfect equality without giving privilege to either side. 

Later on Karl Marx focused on women’s exploitation. He established that capitalism and patriarchy are similar patterns and go hand in hand. Women can attain free status only by the removal of capitalist system. Engels said that the origin of private property had overthrown the mother's right. Property as an institution defeated the female cause. Jenny Flex advocated for scientific intervention to change the mode of reproduction. She believed that only the changed mode of reproduction could change the status of women. Margaret Benton held the orthodox view that the Industrial Revolution excluded women from the public sphere and confined them to the private sphere. Therefore, the area of their influence decreased. Capitalism neglected the contribution of women within the four walls of the home and devalued their labor. Della Costa took a different line of thought saying that there was no need for women to come to the public sphere as their service to the family has productive value, it should be recognized. She demanded wages for the house wives. Iris Young and Hartmann also advocated eradication of the twin systems of patriarchy and capitalism. The early radical feminists studied power relations in the society. They found patriarchy to be the root cause of women's subjugation. The later radical feminists believed that a woman should enjoy her womanhood. Shulamith Firestone in ‘Dialectic of Sex’ again came to the conclusion that the cause of women's exploitation was their biology. The female anatomy has been constantly under the consideration of the feminist thought. Barbara Barres in ‘The Fourth World Manifesto’ called for universal sisterhood, ‘we identify with our women of all classes and countries all over the world. The female culture is the fourth world.'

This powerful surge of humanism, liberalism and humanitarianism did not leave India untouched. The British rule felicitated the contact of Indians with the outside world. The social change can be perceived in two phases of development - social reform and political independence. 

During the Second World War women's organizations emerged as fully mature entities, able to respond to the most important national and international issues of the day. The hegemony of these organizations was short lived but in the meantime they participated in almost every major committee or planning group to discuss India's future. These organizations took a firm stand on war. They carried out schemes of social welfare like providing relief to the famine-stricken people  of Bengal and other regions of the country. These groups decided not to form a separate party for women. Instead they tried to get a new civil code that would recognize the rights of women. These organizations had positive impact on the lives of the middle class women. They got an opportunity to get first hand exposure to the dynamics of politics. As the early feminist movement in India became more and more centralized in the form of organizations, many women also left the centre stage and went on to work with more marginalized sections. The organization continued to fight for the legal rights of women and franchise.

The goals and activities of organized women are completely attended by politics. Politics is a potent tool to alter the status of women. The issues of education, social reforms and women's rights appeal to only a section of the society. Any movement requires mass support from all classes, communities and ideological groups. At the time of freedom struggle, the national leaders deliberately cultivated linkages with rural women as well as women's organizations. These linkages harnessed and demonstrated mass support for the cause of freedom. Women were amazed to find approval for political participation from men. This changed women's perception regarding themselves. The society also recognized their potential in contributing to overall national development. Participation of women in the national movement shaped the mission of women in this country to a great extent. Their participation legitimized their claim in sharing the responsibility of governance of India.

At the beginning of the 20th century, New Zealand was the only country that had given franchise to women. In India, small provinces had given this right to women. Bombay and Madras were the first provinces to grant the voting right to women. Uttar Pradesh followed in 1923, Punjab and Bengal in 1926 and finally Assam, Central Provinces, Bihar and Orissa in 1930. During the British rule, many acts were passed to remove gender injustice in the Indian society. Bengal Sati Regulation Act came in 1829; Tamil Nadu Sati Regulation Act in 1830 and Child Marriage Restraint Act came in 1929. In 1870, the British passed a law against infanticide. Widow Remarriage Act was passed in 1856.


As India gained independence, many laws aimed at leveling of the genders have been passed. Hindu Marriage Act came in 1955, Special Marriage Act in 1954, Hindu Succession Act in 1956, Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act in 1956, Hindu adoption and Maintenance Act in 1956, Dowry Prohibition Act in 1961 and Maternity Benefit Act in 1961. In l991 Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act was passed which was later amended in 1994 as Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act. The Equal Remuneration Act was passed in 1976. The Family Court Act was passed in 1984. 

After Independence, the Indian constitution was formed with a basic aim of providing equality to all citizens, irrespective of their gender. Some of the important articles ensure gender equality. Article 14 ensures equality before law. The State shall not deny to any person equality before law or equal, protection of laws within the territory of India. Article 15 articulates, 'The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on grounds only of religion, race, caste, sex, place of birth or any of them'... No citizen shall on grounds of birth or any of them, be subjected to any disability, liability, restriction or condition ... Nothing in this article shall prevent the state from making any special provision for women and children.'

Article 16 guarantees equality of opportunity in matters of public employment and in the Directive Principles of the State Policy to be followed by the State. Article 42 has the provision of just and human conditions of work and maternity relief. Article 44 gives the direction for uniform civil code for all citizens.

These articles in the constitution have identified women as 'a weaker section of society'. The women have rightly been perceived as a traditionally marginalized group, which has been denied opportunities over the centuries. The category of women has been considered suitable for special assistance and support for advancement. Most of the women activists and leaders who had participated in the freedom struggle during the first half of the 20th century were pleased with the constitutional provisions and legal reforms. They were poised to become beneficiaries of the constitutional provisions and the laws.  The Government asked prominent women's organizations to assist them in developing five year plans. The attitude of the Indian polity, since then, has been welfare oriented.

The communist women were most vocal in voicing dissent. These fire brand women questioned and criticized constitutional provisions, five year plans, party promises as well as general indifference of the government towards gender issues. Way back in 1954, Vimla Farooqui and her colleagues in the CPI organized a National conference to address women's issues. They also founded National Federation of Indian Women (NFIW).

Despite sporadic criticism, the Government of India's commitment to equality was never seriously challenged until 1974.In 1914, a report on the status of Indian women Towards Equality was published. In 1971, the Ministry of Education and Social Welfare appointed a committee to examine the constitutional, legal and administrative provisions that have a bearing on the social status of women, their education and employment and to assess the impact of these provisions. Dr. Phulrenu Guha, Union Minister for Social Welfare chaired this committee with Dr. Vina Mazumdar as its member. The over all picture of the Indian Women presented in this report ‘Towards Equality’ was sad and depressing. Since them, many studies have attested the plight of Indian women. The main thrust of the report is that millions of Indian women have not benefited from modernity. They remain backward in economic, technological, political and social fields. We realize that this remains true even today for majority of Indian women.

Women vote in approximately the same proportion as men. Analysts agree that most women follow the lead of the male family members. The number of women who vote independently is very less. But it is true that the o% of women interested in political power has risen. However it does not appear that women vote necessarily for women's issues or women candidates.

The number of women elected to assemblies often seems larger than it actually is because of the personalities involved. The first Lok Sabha had just 2% women. But within those 2% was a noted lady Masuma Begum who later became the Minister for Social Welfare and Deputy. A leader of the Congress party, Renuka Ray was another veteran social worker who entered the first house as its member. Dargabai Deshmukh, a well known Gandhian became the chairperson of the Central Social Welfare Board after Independence. Radhabai Subharayan was appointed a delegate to the first Round Table Conference. These women actively participated in politics.

Raj Kumari Amrit Kaur became Union Health Minister in 1947. Renuka Ray was West Bengal's Minister for Relief and Rehabilitation. Sucheta Kriplani was General Secretary of Congress in 1959, Labor Minister in Uttar Pradesh in 1962 and Chief Minister of the United Province from 1963 to 1967. Vijayalaxmi Pandit was appointed U.P.'s Minister for Health and Local Self Government in 1937. After Independence, she became a delegate to the United Nations. In 1947 she was appointed ambassador to the USSR and in 1949 ambassador to the USA. In 1953 she was elected president of the United Nations General Assembly. 

The most important political woman in India has been Mrs. Indira Gandhi (1917-1984). She has been India's only woman Prime Minister and the second in the world to head a state in the 20th Century. Her long tenure in office from 1966 to 1977 and 1980 to 1984 ended with her assassination on 3lst October, 1984. Her one political defeat was in 1977 following her one-sided declaration of an 'Emergency' in the country and suspension of a number of constitutionally guaranteed civil liberties. She constantly denied that she was a feminist. Speaking at a New Delhi College, she said, "I am not a feminist and I do not believe that anybody should get a preferential treatment merely because she happens to be a woman." But at the same time, she referred to women as the biggest oppressed minority in the world. Time and again she reiterated that Indian women were handicapped from birth.

Today, we see many women on the political horizon of India. Ms. Mayavati is the Chief Minister of U.P. Ms. Jayalalitha heads the Tamil Nadu Government, Mrs. Rabri Devi was the Chief Minister of Bihar. Mrs. Sheela Dixit is the Chief Minister of Delhi. Mrs. Sushma Swaraj was a Senior Cabinet Minister in the Central Government; today she is leader of the opposition in Lok Sabha. Mrs. Sonia Gandhi is heading the Congress party. In spite of all this, the women's reservation bill that ensures only 33% of parliamentary and assembly seats to women is not being passed. Women in power certainly need to show a greater concern over issues related to women. Infanticide, feticide, ‘khap’ brutalities, discrimination against women at the work place, education of girls, malnutrition of the girl child and several issues need more sensitivity from our powerful female luminaries.   

Empowerment of women as a concept is based on equal share of women in public life. They must be party to framing laws, policies and education and health plans. Social pressure and perceptions hold women back as their lives, all over the world, are centered on their families. In India, marriage continues to be the ultimate goal of girls. Unless their lives become more comfortable and more empowered within the institution of family, the chances of their reaching out to legal and constitutional provisions will remain negligible. Political power is essential for women. It is necessary for women to assert their identity beyond family or religion. Mere voting right is not sufficient. A woman must be perceived independently. It is only when women command substantial political power that their status will change.


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

Top | Women

Views: 3454      Comments: 2

Comment This topic is of my great interest. It is a burning topic for our country for it has its in Indian history. It shows the author's deep insight in learning.. As the writer has quoted scriptures and historical facts, its effect on readers is deep. The readers are forced to ponder on this problem. I spent 40 years among teenage girls. I have experienced the truth of the matter first hand. The condition of girls and women in villages and lower middle class of cities is not much better than that in the middle ages. I am of the firm opinion that education and economical empowerment to girls will do miracles in this field. Thus with the efforts of men and women both we Indians can again become, "Vishva Guru".

Shailbala Misra
31-Jan-2012 10:28 AM

Comment This is a very well researched and very well written article. It is very informative and useful for those who are fighting for the cause of women's empowerment.

N.C. Misra
30-Jan-2012 00:43 AM

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