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Gender equality, the freedom struggle way (.hindu )

The movement empowered the women, but also feminised the men

In this time of toxic masculinity, we must recognise and learn from the successes of the past. Mahatma Gandhi consciously feminised India’s freedom struggle to win against the brute masculinity of British power.

He saw his mother Putlibai and his wife Kasturba (in picture) use peaceful resistance against patriarchy at home. His mother would fast to put moral pressure on his father, and his wife would refuse any act that he asked her to do if she did not agree with it. He personally experienced the power that resists rather than destroys. He incorporated this knowledge into a political tool, satyagraha, that combined civil disobedience with constructive action. Not only was each activity in civil disobedience possible for women to do, because it was non-violent, but each act of constructive action was especially suited to women.

The Champaran trigger


When on the famous day of April 16, 1917, Gandhiji was asked by the British sub-divisional magistrate to leave the district of Champaran, and cease recording the plight of indigo farmers, he refused and wrote two letters. In the first, he asked a friend for volunteers, especially educated women volunteers, for the constructive action of running schools and ashrams where girls would be educated and hierarchies of caste, class and gender would be overcome. Everyone would spin, weave, stitch and wash clothes, grow and cook food, and clean and maintain hygiene.

In the second letter, he stated his own civil disobedience: he would not leave Champaran without recording the plight of the farmers. By April 17, thousands of people were standing outside the court, watching Gandhiji say he was willing to pay the price for disobeying the law by answering a higher law: the voice of conscience. By November, he had opened three girls’ schools and ashrams in Champaran.

With the sustained help of these ashrams, an increasing number of volunteers completed and submitted a report on the pitiable condition of Indigo farmers to the British, who were forced to withdraw the unjust laws and offer some redress. Frailty became a strength in India’s freedom struggle. Women began to see the impact of their constructive action. Emboldened with their success in the running of ashrams and schools, women during the freedom struggle began to participate in protest politics. They began to organise public meetings, unionise mill workers, picket liquor shops, boycott foreign goods and court arrest.Each call for a negative action was matched by a call for a positive action making politics a spiritual force for women. Satyagraha swept aside old taboos and customs. Organising public meetings meant stepping out of the boundaries of home, unionising mill workers meant overcoming the purdah, boycotting foreign-made cloth meant spinning your own, going to jail and running ashrams meant overcoming caste restrictions.

Even the poorest and uneducated of women could spin yarn at home. Millions of volunteers, especially women who could not leave home, could participate. The independence struggle entered every household.

India’s national movement included an unprecedented number of women and ended up creating an unmatched number of women leaders. Eventually, these actions changed the women, but also feminised the men, who too learned to cook, clean, wash, spin, weave and stitch. This role reversal embodied the possibility of women doing men’s work and men doing women’s work; a shared humanity that replaced the gendered polarisation of the dominant and the dominated.

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