What is the role of women and women’s organisations in Indian Society? Read here to know about the history of women’s organizations and movements in India.
Historically women all around the world have faced a similar set of issues during different periods like- Inferior status in society, Lack of education, Early marriage, being Forced out of public life, Poor conditions of widows.
The 19th and 20th centuries witnessed mass movements and protests by women all over the world for their rights. The adult suffrage movements in western for voting rights gave tremendous strength to women fighting all over the world.
In India, the fight for the betterment of women’s condition in society was started by men social reformers in the early 19th century. Later on, women themselves started forming organizations and at local and later national levels also. Most of these organizations worked to end social evils against women but the years around the independence saw the demand for political rights and reform of personal laws as well.
The post-independent world saw women standing together against rigid societal norms and patriarchy, taking up issues like violence against women, gender equality, gender justice, etc.
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History of the role of women in Indian Society
The status and role of women in India have seen drastic changes over the past millennia. In ancient times, Indian women’s role was confined to the house and their families. In the Medieval period, the status of women was declined considerably. And in modern times, women started fighting for their rights and equality.
Women in pre-historic times:
During the period of Indus valley civilization, the status of women was equal in honour. The worship of the mother goddess demonstrates that they were respected in the form of a mother.
During Rig Vedic period, women had superior status and they got more liberty and equality. The position of wife was a privileged one in the household and women had enhanced status in performing religious rites.
In the terms of education, both boys and girls were given equal opportunities. After observing Upanayana Samskar, girls were permitted to spend their life in Gurukul. The education of girls was considered an important qualification for marriage.
During the age of Upanishads also women had a superior role in society and widows had freedom of remarriage as well. The presence of women teachers, many of whom possessed the highest spiritual knowledge was also a feature of this period.
The later years saw a decline in the role and status of women in public life. Early marriage started hindering education and women slowly started diminishing from away from political and educational spheres.
The Maurya and later, the Gupta period saw the practice of Sati increasing, and women’s lives were dictated by the men in her life. The upper-class women were much more confined to their homes and were not allowed to be out in public life.
Women in the medieval period:
This period saw many social evils like female infanticide, sati, child marriages, the Purdah system, and widow’s condition were more miserable. The inflexibility of the caste system deprived of them the right to freedom and social movement. She was forced to lead a life away from society as well as family. The inhuman practise of Sati had become forced and predominant.
Women in Modern India
The modern period saw the start of the fight by women to gain their position and stature back slowly. Many movements and organisations came up led by both men and women for the upliftment of women in society.
Early Women’s organizations by social reformers:
The early Indian society was plagued by various social evils against women such as Sati, polygamy, poor conditions of widows, child marriage, female infanticide, etc.
- Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) was one of the earliest social reformers to focus and work on issues of women. He condemned sati pratha, polygamy, and spoke in favour of property rights for women.
- Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar is well known for his efforts for widow remarriage. He and Rani Roshmoni’s efforts helped in the passing of the Widows’ remarriage act in 1856, which was drafted by Dalhousie and passed by Canning.
- Keshab Chandra Sen of Brahmo Samaj also worked for the upliftment of widows, held educational programs, and started a women’s journal. Similar work was done by the Prarthana Samaj in Gujarat and Maharashtra.
- Jyotirao Phule and Savitribai Phule worked immensely for educating girls and established girls’ schools for the same.
- M.G Ranade, Narayan Ganesh Chandavarkar, and R.G Bhandarkar in Pune started organizations for ending child marriage, to encourage widow remarriage and women’s education.
This male-guided organization and reform efforts were not truly liberating in many areas. The earlier reformers wanted women to be educated but did not want them to step out of their homes into public life.
The Age of Consent act. 1891: The cases of death of 11-year-old Phulmoni Dasi due to marital rape (1887) and child-bride Rukmabai led to the enactment of the age of consent act. This act raised the age of consent for sexual intercourse for all girls, married or unmarried, from ten to twelve years in all jurisdictions, its violation subject to criminal prosecution as rape.
- Though this act was supported by reformers like Behramji Malabari and women’s social organizations, national leaders like Tilak and revivalist groups were vocal against it. They were against the interference of the British in the social customs and believed that educated women are turning their backs on societal and cultural norms.
Women’s organizations by women:
- The Ladies Society in Calcutta (1882) was started by Swarnakumari Devi (sister of Rabindranath Tagore), for educating and imparting livelihood skills to widows. She was also the editor of the women’s journal Bharati making her the first Indian woman editor.
- Arya Mahila samaj was started by Ramabai Saraswati in Pune to provide education to women and to discourage and fight against the practice of child marriage. She later opened Sharada Sadan in Mumbai in 1889 for the education of child widows.
- In 1905, Bharat Mahila Parishad, the women’s wing of the National conference (part of Indian National Congress) was inaugurated to work for the betterment of social conditions of women. It focused on child marriage, the condition of widows, dowry, and other evil customs.
- The Stri Zarthosti Mandal (Parsi Women’s Circle) was the Parsee community’s major organization for women’s social work, which emerged from plague relief work done by the family of Naoroji Patuck. The organization expanded its agenda to include medical care, education and successfully sought funding from the wealthy Parsi philanthropist Sir Ratan Tata.
- Many such associations were formed in Calcutta, Bombay, and Madras by small urban educated families.
National women’s organizations
In 1910, Bharat Stree Mahamandal was formed by Sarala Devi Chaudharani (Daughter of Swarnakumari Devi) to bring together women of all castes and creeds together. They targeted the purdah system to liberate women to openly work in public life. They opened many other branches all over the country to promote female education.
The three major national women’s organizations which thus trace their origin to the decade between 1917-1927 were:
- The Women’s Indian Association (WIA)
- The National Council of Women in India (NCWI)
- The All India Women’s Conference (AIWC)
The WIA was founded by Irish woman, Margaret E. Cousins on 8 May 1917 in Adyar, Madras with a secular agenda for women of all creeds, classes, and castes. Annie Besant became the first President of WIA later on. The other founding women included S. Ambujammal, Dr. Muthulaksmi Reddy, Mangalammal Sadasivier, Saralabai Naik, Herabai Tata, Dr. Poonen Lukhose, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya, Begam Hasrat Mohani, and Dhanavanti Rama Rao.
The NCWI was formally formed in 1925, with the efforts of Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras’s dedicated and influential women who had contributed commendably to the war efforts. It came to be accepted as the national branch of the International Council of Women.
AIWC was an organization dedicated to the upliftment and betterment of women and children. The first President of the AIWC, the Maharani Chimanbai Gaekwad of Baroda, underlined the need for a special type of education for women, compatible with their nature. Margaret Cousins was the Secretary. Renowned women like Sarojini Naidu, Kamla Devi Chattopadhyay, Renuka Roy, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Rameshwari Nehru, Begum Hamid Ali, Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy, etc. were in the leadership of this organization.
The result of these organizations was that the Montague-Chelmsford Reform Act of 1919 gave women the right to vote in elections to all state legislatures but not to the Council of State for Governor-General.
- The princely state of Travancore-Cochin was the first to give voting rights to women in 1920.
- In 1921, Madras and Bombay Province granted the Right to vote to wealthy and educated women, under the same terms as men.
- In 1925, in Punjab, the Sikhs granted women equal voting rights irrespective of their educational qualifications or being wealthy or poor. Bengal legislation also passed a similar resolution.
- With the demand of women, in 1926 women were given the right to membership of provincial legislatures. This was of course to be achieved only through government nomination.
- In 1926, Kamala Devi Chattopadhyay stood for madras legislative council elections from Mangalore but was defeated. The madras government later nominated Dr. Muthulakshmi Reddy to the legislative council.
- Sarda act of 1929 raised the marriage age for both girls and boys to 14 and 18 respectively.
- By 1932, however, the AIWC had become involved with women’s political rights and all questions which affected women and children as well as with social problems such as untouchability.
- In the Government of India Act 1935, the British Raj set up a system of separate electorates and separate seats for women. Most women’s leaders opposed it and demanded adult franchises.
Women in the national and labour movements:
Swadeshi movement after the Bengal partition of 1905 and the Home rule movement saw the participation of women in limited numbers. They also attended sessions of INC during this time.
The really large number of women participation was seen in the Non-cooperation movement launched by Gandhiji in 1920 where women played a vital role in organizing processions, picketing shops selling foreign clothes and liquor, and even went to jail.
The peasant women wholeheartedly participated in Borsad and Bardoli Satyagraha.
The women from all walks of life took part in Salt Satyagraha, Civil Disobedience Movement, and Quit India Movement. Many of these women faced lathi charges and went to jail also.
There were women involved in the revolutionary and extremist activities also:
- Kalpana Dutta, Chittagong, Bengal, was part of the Chittagong armory raid
- Nonibala Devi was associated with the jugantar party and was arrested for transporting weapons.
- Preetilata Waddedar was also a Chittagong revolutionary.
- Captain Laxmi Sehgal was a commander of the ‘Rani of Jhansi regiment’ in the Indian National Army (INA) under Subhash Chandra Bose.
- Women also actively took part in labour and trade unions, since they also were part of the workforce later on-
- Anusuya Sarabai led the Ahmedabad textile workers to strike in 1917 and started Ahmedabad textile mill workers union, the Majdoor Mahajan in 1920.
- Maniben Kara was a socialite leader of railway workers; Ushabai Dange and Paravai bose were communist leaders of textile leaders.
SEWA (self-employed women’s association) was formed in 1972 by Ela Bhat in Ahmedabad. It aimed to improve the condition of poor women who worked in an unorganized sector by providing training and technical aides.
The women’s movement in pre-independent India has been called the first wave of feminism. In this phase, women blamed tradition and social structure for their suffering and sought redress through education and legal change.
The women organizations had brought women’s issues to the forefront. These organizations helped women to come out from domestic boundaries, assemble, and fight for their cause. This prepared the base of women’s active participation in the struggle for freedom also.