Dialogue  January-March, 2010, Volume 11 No. 3

Gandhi on Women’s Role


What is Woman’s Role?

With certain omissions I quote below the following from a highly educated sister:

“You have shown the world, through ahimsa and satyagraha, the dignity of the soul. These two words are the only solution to the problem of how to overcome man’s baser nature.

Education through crafts is not a great idea, but the only right way of teaching, if we want our children to have self-reliance. It is you who have said it, and solved in one sentence the whole vast educational problem. The details could be worked out according to circumstances and experience.

I beg you to solve the problem of us, the women. Rajaji says that there is no women’s problem. Perhaps not in the political sense. Perhaps it could be made by legislation not to matter in the professional sense, that is, all professions could be made equally open to men and women. But these things would not alter the fact that we are women and as such, of a different quality from men. We need an additional set of principles besides ahimsa and satyagraha to overcome our baser qualities. A woman’s spirit like a man’s strives to attain better things. But just as there is need for ahimsa and brahmacharya for a man to get rid of his aggressive spirit, lust, brutish instincts of inflicting pain etc., so there is for woman need of certain principles that would enable her to get rid of her baser qualities, which are different from men and commonly said to belong by nature to her. The natural qualities of her sex, the upbringing meted out to her because of her sex, and her environment which is created because of her sex, all are against her. And in her work these things, namely her nature, upbringing and surrounding always get in the way and hinder her and give occasion for the hackneyed phrase, ‘she is only a woman, after all’.

This is what I mean by sex hanging round one’s neck. And I think that, if we only possess the correct solution, the correct method of improving ourselves, we could make our natural qualities, such as sympathy and tenderness, a help instead of a hindrance. The improvement, just as your solution in the case of men and children, must come from within us.

I said nature, upbringing and environment. I will give an example to make myself clearer.

Women by nature are intended to be soft, tender, sympathetic, to mother children. These things influence her to a great extent unconsciously. So when it comes to doing things, she becomes too emotional. When moving with men, she commits blunders. She is soft-hearted when she should not be so. She is temperamental, easily gets vain and generally acts in a silly way.

When I came to see you, although I had desired the meeting very much and spent the previous night sleepless thinking over it, when in your presence I was asked to sit down, I went and sat behind the broad back of Shri Desai, I could not hear and I prevented myself from seeing you! What a silly thing to do! Further, I found I could not explain myself, could not articulate. This I attribute to my being saddled with an emotional nature which gets out of control easily. Of course suitable training would have cured that particular fault, but I dare say, I would commit some other equally silly act.

A friend of mine showed me the answers she has written to a questionnaire sent by the National Planning sub-committee for women’s role. The questions, as you no doubt know, are numbered, and are something like this: To what extent, in your part of the country, is woman entitled to hold, acquire, inherit, sell or dispose of property in her own right? What provision has been made, or facilities available, for the appropriate education and training of women for the several kinds of work and employment that women of different capacities may need to engage in? She has not replied to the questions, but has written, ‘We cannot say with an ounce of truth that women were not getting any education as such in the good old ancient days’, and, ‘in the Vedic period the wife, on her marriage, was at once given an honoured position in the house and she was mistress in her husband’s home’, etc., and has quoted Manu. I asked her what necessity there was to write about ancient customs when the questionnaire was about present-day ones. She murmured something about thinking that a reply in the form of an essay would be nice, and brightened up saying Mrs. Some-one-else’s reply was worse than hers. I think this mistake of my friend is due to lack of proper training, which was denied to her because she is a woman. Even a clerk would know that when one is asked a question one should not write an essay on a different matter in reply.

I do not think, I need go on quoting example and explaining myself. You, with your vast experience of women of all kinds, would know whether I am right in saying that women lack the vital principle that would set them right.

Your advice to me was to read Harijan. I do so eagerly. But so far I have not come across, well, the advice for the inner spirit. Spinning and fighting for the national freedom are only some aspects of the training. They do not seem to contain the whole solution. For I have been women who do spin and do try to work out the Congress ideals and still commit blunders which are attributed to the fact of their being women.

I do not want woman to become like man. But just as you have taught men ahimsa for their baser nature, do teach us the thing that would remove our sillier qualities. Tell us please, how to make the best use of our qualities, how to turn our disadvantages into advantage.

This, the burden of my sex, is with me always. Every time I have someone say, ‘she is a woman, after all,’ in a sneering way, my soul winces, if that is, a soul is capable of wincing. A man to whom I talked of these things laughed at me and said, ‘Did you see that child at our friend’s house? He was playing at trains, and chugchugged along until he came against a pillar. Instead of going round it he just tried to push it aside with his shoulders thinking, in his childish mind that he could remove it. You remind me of him. What you say is a psychological thing. You make me laugh in your attempt to understand and solve it.’ ”

I had flattered myself that my contribution to the woman’s cause definitely began with the discovery of satyagraha. But the writer of the letter is of opinion that the fair sex requires treatment different from men. If it is so, I do not think any man will find the correct solution. No matter how much he tries, he must fail because nature has made him different from woman. Only the toad under the harrow knows where it pinches him. Therefore ultimately woman will have to determine with authority what she needs. My own opinion is that, just as fundamentally man and woman are one, their problem must be one in essence. The soul in both is the same. The two live the same life, have the same feelings. Each is a complement of the other. The one cannot live without the other’s active help.

But somehow or other man has dominated woman from ages past, and so woman has developed an inferiority complex. She has believed in the truth of man’s interested teaching that she is inferior to him. But the seers among men have recognized her equal status.

Nevertheless there is no doubt that at some point there is bifurcation. Whilst both are fundamentally one, it is also equally true that in the form there is a vital difference between the two. Hence the vocations of the two must also be different. The duty of motherhood, which the vast majority of women will always undertake, require qualities which man need not possess. She is passive, he is active. She is essentially mistress of the house. He is the bread-winner, she is the keeper and distributor of the bread. She is the caretaker in every sense of the term. The art of bringing up the infants of the race is her special and sole prerogative. Without her care the race must become extinct.

In my opinion it is degrading both for man and woman that women should be called upon or induced to forsake the hearth and shoulder the rifle for the protection of that hearth. It is a reversion to barbarity and the beginning of the end. In trying to ride the horse that man rides, she brings herself and him down. The sin will be on man’s head for tempting or compelling his companion to desert her special calling. There is as much bravery in keeping one’s home in good order and condition as there is in defending it against attack from without.

As I have watched millions of peasants in their natural surroundings and as I watch them daily in little Segaon, the natural division of spheres of work has forced itself on my attention. There are no women blacksmiths and carpenters. But men and women work on the fields, the heaviest work being done by the males. The women keep and manage the homes. They supplement the meagre resources of the family, but man remains the main bread-winner.

The division of the spheres of work being recognized, the general qualities and culture required are practically the same for both the sexes.

My contribution to the great problem lies in my presenting for acceptance truth and ahimsa in every walk of life, whether for individuals or nations. I have hugged the hope that in this woman will be the unquestioned leader and, having thus found her place in human evolution, will shed her inferiority complex. If she is able to do this successfully, she must resolutely refuse to believe in the modern teaching that everything is determined and regulated by the sex impulse. I fear I have put the proposition rather clumsily. But I hope my meaning is clear. I do not know that the millions of men who are taking an active part in the war are obsessed by the sex spectre. Nor are the peasants working together in their fields worried or dominated by it. This is not to say or suggest that they are free from the instinct implanted in man and woman. But it most certainly does not dominate their lives as it seems to dominate the lives of those who are saturated with the modern sex literature. Neither man nor woman has time for such things when he or she is faced with the hard fact of living life in its grim reality.

I have suggested in these columns that woman is the incarnation of ahimsa. Ahimsa means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering. Who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure? She shows it as she carries the infant and feeds it during nine months and derives joy in the suffering involved. What can beat the suffering caused by the pangs of labour? But she forgets them in the joy of creation. Who again suffers daily so that her babe may wax from day to day? Let her transfer that love to the whole of humanity, let her forget she ever was or can be the object of man’s lust. And she will occupy her proud position by the side of man as his mother, maker and silent leader. It is given to her to teach the art of peace to the warring world thirsting for that nectar. She can become the leader in satyagraha which does not require the learning that books give but does require the stout heart that comes from suffering and faith.

My good nurse in the Sassoon Hospital, Poona, as I was lying on a sick bed years ago, told me the story of a woman who refused to take chloroform because she would not risk the life of the babe she was carrying. She had to undergo a painful operation. The only anaesthetic she had was her love for the babe, to save whom no suffering was too great. Let not women, who can count many such heroines among them, ever despise their sex or deplore that they were not born men. The contemplation of that heroine often makes me envy woman the status that is hers, if she only knew. There is as much reason for man to wish that he was born a woman as for woman to do otherwise. But the wish is fruitless. Let us be happy in the state to which we are born and do the duty for which nature has destined us. (Segaon, February 12, 1940;      Harijan, 24-2-1940; Complete Works of Mahatma Gandhi, Vol.LXXI, pp. 206-209)


The Choice of Mates and Social Interference

Referring to a case of suicide, Gandhiji wrote:

In my opinion such marriages as are interdicted in a particular society cannot be recognized all at once or at the will of the individual. Nor has society or relatives of parties concerned any right to impose their will upon and forcibly curtail the liberty of action of the young people who may want to contract such marriages. In the instance cited by the correspondent both the parties had fully attained maturity. They could well think for themselves. No one had a right forcibly to prevent them from marrying each other if they wanted to. Society could at the most refuse to recognize the marriage, but it was the height of tyranny to drive them to suicide.

Marriage taboos are not universal and are largely based on social usage. The usage varies from province to province and as between different divisions. This does not mean that the youth may ride rough-shod over all established social customs and inhibitions. Before they decide to do so, they must convert public opinion to their side. In the meantime, the individuals concerned ought patiently to bide their time, or if they cannot do that calmly and quietly to face the consequences of social ostracism. At the same time it is equally the duty of society not to take up a heartless, step-motherly attitude towards those who might disregard or break the established conventions. In the instance described by my correspondent the guilt of driving the young couple to suicide certainly rests on the shoulders of society if the version that is before me is correct. – (Harijan, 29-5-37. 125).

Q. You advocate inter-caste marriages. Do you also favour marriages between Indians professing different religions? Should they declare themselves as belonging to no denomination, or can they continue their old religious practices and yet intermarry? If so, what form should the marriage ceremony take? Is it to be a purely civil function or a religious function?

Do you consider religion to be exclusively a personal matter?

A. Though Gandhiji admitted that he had not always held the view, he had come to the conclusion long ago that an inter -religious marriage was a welcome event whenever it took place. His stipulation was that such connection was not a product of lust. In his opinion it was no marriage. It was illicit intercourse. Marriage in his estimation was a sacred institution. Hence there must be mutual friendship, either party having equal respect for the religion of the other. There was no question in this of conversion. Hence the marriage ceremony would be performed by the priests belonging to either faith. This happy event could take place when the communities shed mutual enmity and had regard for the religions of the world. –Harijan, 16-3-47, 63.

Q. You say that you are in favour of inter religious marriages, but at the same time you say that each party should retain his or her own religion and, therefore, you said, you tolerated even civil marriages. Are there any instances of parties belonging to different religions keeping up their own religions to the end of their lives? And is not the institution of civil marriage a negation of religion and does it not tend towards laxity of religion?

A. Gandhiji said that the questions were appropriate. He had no instances in mind where the parties had clung to their respective faiths up to death, because these friends whom he knew had not yet died. He had, however, under his observation men and women professing different religions and each clinging to his or her own faith without abatement. But he would go so far as to say that they need not wait for the discovery of past instances. They should create new ones so that timid ones may shed their timidity.

As to civil marriages, he did not believe in them, but he welcomed the institution of civil marriage as a much needed reform for the sake of reform. –Harijan, 16-3-47, 67.

Dialogue (A quarterly journal of Astha Bharati)

                                               Astha Bharati