HINDU FEMINIST DISCOURSES (PART-1)
The earliest piece of Indian feminist literature that I encountered dates back to 1882. The published work, titled - Stripurush Tulana (A comparison between women and men), written by Tarabai Shinde in Marathi originally, appeared on a pamphlet as a compilation of erratic, yet complex thoughts. The essay could well be considered the earliest critique of upper-caste patriarchy in colonial India.
The essay hoped to serve as a response to a news story that appeared on the Pune Vaibhav in 1881. Towards the latter half of 1880, a woman named Vijayalakshmi received a visit from a local policeman who allegedly heard whispers that the 24-year old widow, belonging to a Brahmin family, was pregnant. Convinced with the credibility of the rumors, the policeman reported this information to the District Magistrate. A few months went by until an anonymous infant was discovered atop a heap of rubbish in the vicinity. This knowledge reached a local police constable who spared no time in rushing to Vijayalaksmi’s house and charging her with the murder of a child. He took her to the second-class magistrate in Surat, where she confessed to have given birth to a child. Unable to bear the shame of such a ‘sacrilegious’ crime, she resorted to cutting the child’s throat and then disposing of its body with the help of a maid servant. She was then examined by a surgeon and sent home to her village of Olpad in Gujarat. The following month, she stood guilty in her trial and was sentenced to hang.
Professor Rosalind O’Hanlon notes that Vijayalakshmi’s case was not an isolated incident in nineteenth century India, but the manner in which the case was discussed in social circles and the media gave it unique prominence. While the case was merely a reflection of the overarching Brahmin-driven societal sentiment against women at the time, it provided Shinde with all the ammunition she needed to launch a scathing attack on Brahmanical patriarchy.
The premise of Shinde’s argument is that women were made to bear the brunt for the mistakes of men. A common notion at the time was that the female body was home to wicked vices, and this was often used as a justification to scapegoat women as perpetrators of evil. Shinde’s initial argument deals with stridharma and pativrata. Both these ideas form the cornerstones of the much larger patriarchal machine that Brahmanical society operated within. Pativrata literally refers to a married woman’s devotion and loyalty towards her husband. Shinde defines what stridharma meant in practice, in the nineteenth century.
“What does stridharma really mean? It means always obeying orders from your husband and doing everything he wants. He can kick you and swear at you, keep his whores, get drunk, gamble with dice and bawl he’s lost his money, steal, commit murder, be treacherous, slander people, rob peoples’ treasures or squeeze them for bribes. He can do all this, but when he comes home, stridharma means women are meant to think, ‘Oh, Who’s this coming now but our little lord Krishna, who’s just stolen the milkmaids’ curds and milk and tried to blame Chandravali for it.’ And then smile at him and offer their devotion, stand ready at his service as if he was Paramatma himself.”
This passage is of extraordinary importance because it highlights the hypocrisy of the social laws that governed colonial India. The notion that moral codes and laws are applicable to men and women is redundant, because men are seldom held accountable for their actions. Men wield the power to determine which moral codes he wants to abide with. He also has the authority to determine which codes of morality the womenfolk in his house will have to follow. The women in the house have no authority to question the man, because pativrata mandates that wives are to be devoted to their husbands, irrespective of their actions, effectively institutionalising a system of harrowing misogyny and discrimination.
A lot of Shinde’s arguments will not necessarily resonate with modern-day feminists. This is because Shinde does not question conventional gender roles, nor does she denounce the interpretations of religious scriptures that had led to the degradation of womankind. Her primary concerns dealt with the manner in which women were treated and the hypocrisy that guided the actions of men.
Coming back to Vijayalakshmi and the unfortunate circumstances that led to her conviction. Vijayalakshmi claimed that the reason she decided to kill her own child was the inability to bear the shame of having given birth to an illegitimate child. A glimpse into the life of a widow in such a society would perhaps help in a better understanding of the reasoning behind Vijayalakshmi’s decision.
Widowhood has been cruel in Brahmanical societies ever since the laws of Manu took centre-stage. Pandita Ramabai Saraswati, in her groundbreaking book - The High-caste Hindu Woman describes widowhood as the ‘worst and most dreaded period of a high-caste woman’s life’, cursed to live a life of chastity and isolation. It goes without saying that the life of a widow with a male offspring is significantly better than one with a female offspring. The lack of an offspring was perhaps the worst thing imaginable for a woman in colonial India. The cause for the lack of an offspring hardly mattered, because the blame and abuse were nevertheless garnered by women. Widowhood meant a life away from materialistic gains, locked up as a slave of man, awaiting eventual demise. Failure to follow through on these norms would probably be met with brutal repression. Ofcourse, none of these rules are applicable to men, who are free to remarry and continue to heap the burden of an offspring on to the next wife.
Fear of repercussions however, is just one of the reasons that widows refrained from remarriage. One needs to remember that, for centuries together, the lives of women revolved around the men in their lives. Independence of women was a fantasy, because women were deemed incapable of surviving without men. A woman’s route to heaven was dependent on her devotion towards her husband, alive or dead.
“A virtuous wife who remains chaste when her husband has died goes to heaven just like those chaste men, even if she has no sons….. ”. Manu.. V-160.
Surely, one ought to heap praise on the great saints who permitted women to enter the heavenly abode, despite committing the grave sin of failing to produce a male offspring. Nevertheless, the opportunity to reside with the virtuous husband in the heavenly afterlife must surely be incentive enough to choose a life of celibacy. That said, one must not make the mistake of misidentifying great Indian saints as ‘unsympathetic’ to the cause of women. After all, they were kind enough to let wives self-immolate in their husband's pyre, sparing them from a life of misery.
It is an indisputable fact that religious scriptures are often victims of major misinterpretation. Therefore, one is often muddled with the question of who is to blame for the petrifying practices that came to be known as custom. It is also true that a good number of practices that supposedly found their roots in religion, have in reality, little to do with scriptures or religious texts. The reason for this can be primarily attributed to the fact that the number of people in colonial India, who were knowledgeable in Sanskrit was a tiny proportion of the population of the country. Most of the people who were rigid followers of Brahminical customs were seldom aware of the reality of the scriptures. Learning was almost exclusively an upper caste male privilege. So it must not come as a surprise that a majority of the rules created for Hindu society as a whole put the upper caste man on a pedestal.
Vijayalakshmi’s life might have seen better days had she been a recipient of the care and affection of the Phules. Savitribai and her husband, Jyotirao Phule were among the earliest advocates of feminism in colonial India. The Phule couple, along with Sagunabai, another revolutionary feminist, were instrumental in opening the first Indian-run girls school in the country. Within a few years, two more schools were opened, teaching approximately 150 girls. Unlike most schools of the time, the students in the Phule schools were not exclusively Brahmin, nor were there casteist discrepancies in teaching standards. Like so many feminists and educationists of her time, from around the world, Savitribai firmly believed that breaking the chain of social oppression was possible through education. She started the Mahila Seva Mandal to raise awareness about women’s rights, campaigned against child marriage and supported remarriage of women. Among other things, Savitribai even started a Home, where Brahmin widows could deliver their babies anonymously, avoiding much of the stigma that would otherwise seem impossible. The nineteenth century in colonial India caused Hindu women insufferable pain and their entire lives were stained with hegemonic injustice.
Yet, the likes of Tarabai Shinde, Pandita Ramabai Saraswati and Savitribai Phule soldiered on in their pursuit for social justice, in what can only be seen as a silver lining over the dark cloud of Manuwad.
(Authored by Harish Sridharan)