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Saturday, August 13, 2022

Independence Day women

Three big moments that changed the way India looked at the second sex

Written by Pamelaphilipose |
August 17, 2006 8:41:55 pm

Among the defining images captured by Margaret Bourke-White, intrepid documenter of the sub-continent’s partition and India’s birth, were those of women. Exhausted women holding skeletal babies to their breasts, frail old women carried in slings, sari-clad women keeping brisk pace with Mahatma Gandhi. They flowed facelessly into the great melting pot of a new nation.

India at that stage had very few ideas about how it was to ensure justice and status to a category of citizens that had been invisibilised by its history and society but, fortunately, among these ideas was the concept of a substantive, not just formal, equality between men and women. It is difficult today to imagine where the country would have been today if women had not been guaranteed full and equal rights in the Indian Constitution. We should, of course, be grateful to our founding fathers for this, but we must also not overlook the role of our founding mothers in realising this equality in more concrete terms. Renuka Ray, a Gandhian, a representative of the All India Women’s Conference in the Central Assembly and a Parliamentarian herself, termed them “a band of women members’’ in her reminiscences. She went on to name them: Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Hansa Mehta, Durgabai Deshmukh, Ammu Swaminathan, Sucheta Kriplani and Begum Aizaz Kasul.

This band of women set to work assiduously on reforming Hindu personal laws. By 1956, when the law minister, H.V. Pataskar, finally piloted the Hindu Code Bill into the statute books after years of bitter parliamentary wrangling — there was, at one point, an unprecedented stand-off between President Rajendra Prasad and Prime Minister Nehru over it — it had been considerably watered down. But it represented, nevertheless, a turning point in the way post-Independent India viewed women citizens.

The next decisive development was to come almost two decades later. Late last month, a 95-year-old woman died in an old age home in Kolkata, largely unnoticed and unsung. She was Phulrenu Guha, a minister of state for social welfare in the early ‘70s, who had chaired the Status of Women Committee. The report of this Committee, titled ‘Towards Equality’, was the Indian state’s first attempt to ask itself whether it had been successful in keeping the constitutional pledge of equality to the women of the country. The Committee conducted surveys to assess changes, personally interviewed a vast cross-section of women, invited the views and suggestions of experts, scrutinised infirmities in the law, and identified areas and problems that required further investigation. It even observed, with some degree of acerbity, the attempts of politicians to undo constitutional provisions. For instance, in 1970, the Uttar Pradesh government under Charan Singh had the gumption to shoot off a letter to the Government of India stating that women should not be admitted into the Indian Administrative Service; and that in any case women officers should not be sent to UP!

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If this sounds outrageous today, we have to be grateful for a report like ‘Towards Equality’, which created widespread awareness about the abysmal status of Indian women, called for concerted initiatives to change this reality, and argued for constant vigilance against the dilution of constitutional safeguards and provisions. The Committee perceived women’s equality as a necessity “not merely on the grounds of social justice, but as a basic condition for the social, economic and political development of the nation’’.

The third big moment in this journey was what came to be termed the second wave of women’s activism, which came about in the 1980s. It saw the emergence of autonomous women’s groups all over the country — groups like Delhi’s Saheli, and Bombay’s Forum Against the Oppression of Women. Saheli, which recently celebrated its 25th year of existence, has intervened in a broad gamut of issues that affect women directly: from rape and domestic violence to discriminatory religious personal laws.

Questioning authority and generally acting as trouble-makers, these women discovered, often paid great dividends. It raised public awareness, prodded a sluggish state and helped to critique a cynical criminal justice system. There was, for instance, the famous set of satirical letters penned by Saheli’s members to Rajiv Gandhi, when his government passed the retrogressive Muslim Women’s Bill. One went: “Dear Rajiv, The world has thought of me as the fountainhead of Fundamentalism. I realise in you I have met my Master. Your humble disciple, Ayotullah Khomeini.” It also got the message across to powerful multinational pharmaceuticals that India cannot be the dumping ground for dubious contraceptives which gravely threatened women’s health.


What is distinctive about these groups is that they have fiercely guarded their independence, not just from the state — they do not seek state power — but from political parties and international funding agencies. This provides them with a certain credibility and the ability to get involved in various forms of social action. Lack of an assured financial base and the dependence on volunteers rather than paid employees do, of course, bring with them their own uncertainties, limitations and structural weaknesses. Yet today if the country has come to recognise that women can be murdered for dowry, that there is no such thing as “consensual rape”, that women are often battered even within the walls of a seemingly happy family home, that homophobia is an affront to an aware and modern sensibility, it is in no small measure due to the efforts of these courageous collectives of women based outside the structures of power.

Over the years, India has benefited immeasurably from the convictions and energies of thousands of women who have worked to protect the promise of Article 14 of the Constitution: equality before law. They are, every one of them, Independence Day women.

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First published on: 17-08-2006 at 08:41:55 pm

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