The History and Emergence of Feminism in India

Feminism has had a long and complex history in India. Here, we are going to discuss two important timelines in the history of India, that is, the Bhakti Movement, and the Colonial Rule.

The Bhakti movement in India was prevalent from the 7th to the 12th century AD. The saints of this movement professed equality and sought religious reforms in every stratum of the society. This movement sought to include all men and women, regardless of caste, class and religious beliefs in the ultimate path to salvation by devotion. This movement is known for saints like Kabirdas, Tulsidas, Guru Nanak, Ramanand, Ramanuja, etc.

However, the men in the Bhakti Movement continued to stick to prejudices regarding women and called them as hindrances to the path of salvation. In his verses and dohas, Kabir equated kamini(women) and kanak(gold and possession) to poisonous fruits which will surely lead to death.

The women of the Bhakti Movement challenged the Brahmanical patriarchal norms of the society. They challenged and publicly protested against the god-like status of their husbands. They demanded freedom from all kinds of relationships and responsibilities imposed on them by external forces. They gave up family and motherhood. For them, God was their friend, lover, husband and consort. They gave their soul to the worship of the lord and wrote poems and songs about their oppression and expressed their desire for liberty.

Some of the most prominent figures of the Bhakti Movement who can be considered as the early figures of feminism in India are Mirabai, Andal, Akka Mhadevi, Lal Ded, Janabai and others.

Mirabai is one of the most prominent figures of the Bhakti Movement, who lived from 1498 to 1546. Her songs are sung till date. Mirabai was born in an upper class, Rajput family in Kurkhi, Rajasthan. She is known as the incarnation of Radha. For her, lord Krishna was her husband. She refused to worship Ma Durga, dressed like widowed women, and sang and danced, sung publicly in the worship of her Girdhar Gopal (Lord Krishna). This made her the target for torture by her in laws. When her husband passed away, she refused to perform sati. According to her, her soul and heart belonged only to lord Krishna, and that lord Krishna was her husband. Her late husband’s family tried to kill her, but she miraculously survived each time. She sacrificed her traditional life of a Rajput princess and spent her entire life in the worship of Krishna.

Like Mirabai, almost every other female Bhakti saint left behind their traditional lives, protested against and defied the conforming norms of an ideal woman, who must suppress her desires, and freedom for the sake of her family. An exception here is Sant Soyarabai of Pandharpur. Unlike others, she did not worship a single god, neither did she denounce societal norms and customs like marriage. Instead, she used to write about family, daily existence, and routine life, and wrote about finding freedom and liberation amidst all of them. Her writings, called abhangas, spoke about real life situations and things she had to struggle with as a Dalit of the Mahar caste – poverty and discrimination. She also described how the social construct of caste and the evils of poverty made divinity inaccessible to saints like her.

During the Bhakti period, women from different walks of their lives dared to break the shackles of traditions and customs that bound them and expressed their desire for equality, freedom, for a life of their own. Similar are the ideals of feminism- desire for liberation, freedom from confinement imposed by societal norms, and equal status for women in the society. Thus, we can say that feminism was deep rooted in the Bhakti Movement, but was not identified as such.

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However, the term “feminism” entered the Indian vocabulary only in the 20th century. The 19th century was the period of social reform. Reformers like Raja Ram Mohun Roy, Ishwarchand Vidyasagr fought against social evils like sati, child marriage, female infanticide and worked for female education, and elimination of these vices. The British too pointed out at these practices as regressive. By the end of the 19th century, people were petitioning the British to bring changes in the existing laws for women, such as raising the age of marriage and making female infanticide, child marriage illegal. But things were not easy, because, on the other hand, the Nationalist Movement in India demanded for the British colonizers to leave the nation.

There was emphasis on the need to have cultural symbols for the nation, instead of trying to bring immediate reforms. Thus, women were used as the symbol of integrity for the nation. They were projected as the bearers of the Indian culture, not subjected to oppression by the colonial rule. The nation was referred to as Bharat Mata, as a motherly figure, who stood bravely against external forces.

Nationalists praised customs like child marriages, and other traditions that violated the fundamental rights of women. They called them “wonderful Indian customs”. On the other hand, women continued to protest against these customs. Eventually, nationalists accused these women of being anti national and following Western ideals, and according to them, an ideal Indian woman should not be influenced by Western customs. As a result, feminists were called anti-national.

With time, the image of feminists, and the objective of feminism got clear to people, and has, to a great extent, yielded success in India.




About the Author

kshama Misra

Int. M.Tech @ NIT Rourkela.

8 Posts | 3,791 Views

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