It is difficult to trace the origin of Women’s movement in India. Most accounts of the movement start from the nineteenth century. But recently, social historians have discussed its history from the pre-colonial times. They suggest that the evidence of women’s movement first appeared in the Bhakti and Sufi movements of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The important issue for us is to realize that the authority of men necessarily determined the status of women. The oppressive condition of women was reflected in the social practices such as child marriage, polygamy and prohibition of widow remarriage, sati and the purda system. These practices continued till they were challenged by the social reformers of the nineteenth century in form of Social movements.

The factors that provided the required incentive to women’s movements were

  1. The status of women has been the central concern of many reform movements before and after independence. Leaders of the Brahmo Samaj and the Arya Samaj were concerned with issues like sati, remarriage; divorce; female education, purdah system, polygamy and dowry.
  2. Justice Ranade criticized child marriages, polygyny, restrictions on remarriage of widows, and non-access to education.
  3. Raja Ram Mohan Roy played an important role in getting the sati system abolished Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar and Maharishi Karve pleaded for remarriage of widows.
  4. Therefore, most scholars maintain that womens movement in India began as a part of social reform movements. We may say that the process of highlighting women’s issues began in the nineteenth century.
  5. Effect of western education on the male domination on women and on the concept of complementary sex roles.
  6. Leadership provided by educated elite women, interest of male social reformers in changing social practices sanctioned by religion,
  7. Changing socio-religious attitudes and philosophies, and decreasing social hostility and opposition of males to women’s associations engaged in self-help activities.
  8. Benevolent attitude of political national leaders towards fledgling women’s movements and their enthusiastic support to women campaigns.
  9. The declaring of 1975-85 decade as the International Women’s decade also gave impetus to women’s movements for removing the notion of inferiority of women and giving them a sense of identity.
  10. The Central Social Welfare Board (CSWB) established by the Government of India in 1953, also promotes and strengthens voluntary efforts for the welfare of women.
  11. The Ministry of women and child Welfare, Government of India, too gives grants to voluntary organizations for activities like construction/expansion of hostels for working women in cities.

In the early phase of the twentieth century Mahatma Gandhi voiced his concern about the degrading status of women. Gandhiji took interest in collective mobilization of women to fight for political freedom as well as for their social and political rights. It was because of his efforts that a large number of women came out of their homes and joined the freedom struggle. He adopted a revolutionary approach to raise the status of women. Gandhiji argued that women should be freed from social and legal disabilities. He emphasized particularly on the issues of women’s inferior position in matters of guardianship inheritance and marriage.

Women who joined the national movement recognized the importance of self-reliance, swadeshi and women’s education. Such a political consciousness among women expanded the space available to women in public sphere. Some scholars have examined the role of women in political independence movements at micro level i.e., on regional basis. For example, Aparna Basu and Pravin Seth studied it in Gujarat, Raghavendra Rao in Karnataka, and Uma Rao in Uttar Pradesh. According to Govind Kelkar, women’s role in the freedom movement was that of the ‘helpers’ rather than that of comrades.

Ghanshyam Shah has referred to some scholars who have pointed out women’s role in tribal peasant and other movements in Bihar and Maharashtra. For example, Manoshi Mitra and Indra Munshi Saldanha have analyzed women’s militant role in tribal movements when women confronted authorities, wielding traditional weapons and maintaining lines of supplies to the rebels in their hidden places. Sunil Sen, Peter Casters, etc., have analyzed their role in peasants’ movements in Telangana, West Bengal and Maharashtra. Meena Velayudhan has analyzed their role in communist-led movement of coir workers in Kerala. Sen has pointed out women’s participation in struggles launched by trade unions in iron ore mines in Madhya Pradesh.

During freedom struggle several women’s organizations emerged which paved the way for increasing role of women in socio-political activities. The liberal egalitarian ideology under the British Raj created conditions for a social awakening among Indian women. Banga Mahila Samaj and the ladies Theosophical Society functioned at local levels to promote modern ideals for women. Important national organizations were: Bharat Mahila Parishad Bharat Stri Mahamandal and Women’s Indian Association, National Council of Women in India and All India Women’s Conference and Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust. These organizations took up issues like women’s education, abolition of evil social customs i.e., purdah, child marriage, equality and with the support of the Congress party, demanded right of franchise and representation in legislatures. Prominent among these organizations were All India Women’s Association and the Indian Women’s Association. These organizations had branches in different parts of the country. Their activities were centered mainly on issues like women’s education, improvements in health and sanitation, right to suffrage for women and the maternity benefits for women workers. In this manner, these organizations were successful in initiating a discourse on gender equality and women’s rights.

The nationalist phase of women’s movement ended after independence with an assurance to remove all forms of gender inequalities. The task of social reconstruction undertaken subsequently further confirmed the goal. Consequentially, the women’s movements were subdued for almost two decades till 1970s. However, during this period women participated in large numbers in several local level struggles in different parts of the country. The role and participation of women in the Shahada movement in Maharashtra, the anti-price rise movements in Gujarat and Maharashtra, and the Bihar movement led by Jayaprakash Narayan are still fresh in our memory. The twin objectives of struggle and development were adopted by organizations like SEWA-Self Employed Women’s Association who fought against all forms of injustice.

Contemporary Women’s Movement

Contemporary Women’s Movement which started in the seventies and eighties was very different from the earlier movements and is influenced by two factors :

  1. The WMI which emerged in the seventies was greatly influenced by powerful women movement in the USA which ignited a world-wide debate and protest by women for their emancipation and rights. This influenced the women in India, particularly the urban educated elite classes. There was abundant feminist literature available in the universities, colleges and shops. At the same time there was a lot of growth of Indian literature on socio-economic and socio-cultural issues focusing on women. But this was limited to the urban areas.
  2. The Indian movement had basically emerged due to the widespread disillusionment of women at the grassroots level with the process and model of development, which failed to eliminate poverty, discrimination, and injustice to the women. By the 1970s, there was widespread disillusionment among women groups with the process of development and the attitude has gradually started shifting to confrontation.
  3. Four movements played a crucial role in the consolidation of the WMI at the grassroots level.

Shahada Movement :

Shahada is a Bhil adivasi settlement in Maharashtra. Many young Sarvodya workers started the Shramik Sangathan to help the adivasis suffering due to drought and famine. These organizations took a more militant approach, initiated land-grab, demanded minimum wages, and held women shivirs (camps).

  1. Women played active role in mobilizing the masses. As militancy developed in the movement, women issues also began to be raised along with the wider issues. Women applied their consciousness to the question of their oppression on the basis of gender.
  2. The movement shortly led to the anti-alcohol campaign because many men after getting drunk used to beat their wives. Women shivirs were organized to discuss and help each other to eradicate this evil which is one of the main causes of their oppression.
  3. The Shahada movement started as a protest movement against landlords turned into a movement against the sale and consumption of alcohol and attack on wife-beaters. It was an indirect protest against violence in the family which had so far been held as a private matter of the family. Shahada movement in a way challenged some aspects of patriarchy.

Self Employed Women Association

The first attempt to organize a women trade union was made in Ahmadabad by a Gandhian socialist leader, Ella Bhatt, attached to the women wing of Textile Labour Association. She formed the Self Employed Women Association in the year 1972 to organize the women working in various trades in the informal sector. They all suffered due to extremely low wages, poor working conditions lack of training, harassment by the authorities or middlemen and police.

  1. The aim of the SEWA was to improve their working conditions provide technical and economic assistance, help them to sell their products at better prices by collective bargaining and improve their economic status.
  2. The SEWA helped the women to become economically self-sufficient to give them freedom from exploitation by assurance of regular work and access to opportunities for development
  3. Thus the SEWA helped the poor working women to improve their economic status and become self sufficient, because economic dependence is one of the major causes of their exploitation by men.

Anti-Price-Rise Front

The conditions of famine and drought affected the urban areas in Maharashtra, which led to the rising prices and black-marketing. Mrinal Gore of the Socialist Party and Ahilya Rangekar of CPI(M) formed the United Front, AntiPrice-Rise Front, to mobilize the women in the cities against inflation. It became a mass movement demanding price control and proper distribution of essential commodities at the fair prices. The women groups also raided the premises of the black-marketers. It was a mass movement of urban housewives against economic hardships affecting their daily life.

Nav Nirman Samiti

It was initially a student protest against rising prices and political disorder but became a massive movement when middle-class women joined it Women participated in these movements because rise in expenditure of essential commodities had adversely affected them and hoarding and black- marketing had caused a lot of hardships to them. The Anti-Price-Rise Front and Nav Nirman Samiti indirectly helped in crystallizing womens identity as a group.

  1. In Andhra the first feminist group formed the Progressive Organization of Women (POW). This group stressed the existence of gender-based oppression and organized women against it The manifesto of this group emphasized on the concept of equality between men and women in every walk of life. According to them the two primary structures of exploitation are sexual division of labour on the biological basis and the culture which provides justification to such division.
  2. The year 1975 saw a sudden development of the feminist movement It was also declared as the International Women’s Year by the United Nations. The declaration also provided some focus on the various activates. Influenced by the POW, the progressive women in Pune formed the Purogami Stree Sangathan and in Bombay founded Stree MuktiSangathan.
  3. Lai Nishan Party, a splinter group of the CPI, brought out a special issue on women. Socialists organized a conference on devdasis and Muslim women. In Hyderabad radical women students of the POW organized campaign against sexual harassment, dowry and bride-burning. Issues such as dowry, bride-burning, violence, and sexual harassment of the women were debated all over India.
  4. The proclamation of Emergency in 1975 and the suspension of civil liberties led to the suspension of the WMI. But with the coming of Janata Party to power in 1977, the movement was again revived In the later seventies and early eighties the WMI was mainly dominated by urban groups.
  5. By 1980s women groups were active all over India. They organized poster-exhibitions; meetings, study circles and activists’ meetings to debate issues related with women and started campaigns against them. A Forum Against Rape was formed against the Supreme Court’s judgement in the Mathura rape case.
  6. The WMI is also concerned with woman’s control over her body. It debated issues such as women’s health, violence, rape, wife-battering, divorce, right to maintenance, child custody, etc.
  7. They are also concerned not only with the enactment of legislation in favour of women but also with amendments to existing anti-women laws. The WMI is equally concerned about the proper implementation of existing laws concerning women and their rights.
  8. WMI in its current phase is not only concerned with education of the women but is also equally concerned about the right kind of education, textbooks having women content in the proper perspective. Many universities have opened women and development centres, introduced women-oriented courses. Women Development Centres are conducting academic researches on women issues.
  9. The WMI in is now concerned with equality which is genuine. They do not want reservations alone but want proper share in all material resources, means of production, education and role in decision-making process. The progressive WMI is the outcome of changing social economic, and political reality.

The WMI is an ongoing process. It started as a protest against negative attitude towards women and their problems. It moved on to its second phase where they denied biological explanation of existing disparities between the two sexes, then to the third where men and women are equal In the early nineteenth century it started with humanitarian concerns for the suffering of the women, and need for reform. By twentieth century the -emphasis has shifted to stressing women’s right to be treated as useful members of society. By the late twentieth century it has moved to women’s right to self-determination.

Forms of women’s participationin movements :
  1. For social economic and political rights of specific categories of people like tribals, peasants and industrial workers;
  2. For improvements in conditions of work and autonomy to women,
  3. For equal remuneration for work,
  4. In renewal social movements on issues affecting men and children like abortions, adoption of children, sexual exploitation, etc.
It could be said that Indian women’s movements worked for two goals :
  1. liberation or upliftment of women, i.e., reforming social practices so as to enable women to play more important and constructive role in society,
  2. Equal right for men and women, i.e., extension of civil right enjoyed by men in the political economic and familial spheres to women also.

Jana Everett calls the former as ‘corporate feminism’ and the latter as ‘liberal feminism’. The strategies used by women’s bodies were: making demands by organizing public meetings, presenting views to government officials, forming committees to investigate conditions and holding conferences to mobilize women.

It is important to note that in course of the autonomous women’s movements in India, a serious debate cropped up about the idea of feminism. Feminism is a complex set of political ideologies used by the women’s movement to advance the cause of women’s equality. Feminism is also defined as a variety of inter-related frameworks used to observe and analyze the ways in which the social reality of gender inequality is constructed and enforced Given this perspective of feminism, some activists questioned the applicability of the western notion of feminism to the Indian reality. They argued that the nature of male dominance in India is different from that in western society. Therefore, the demands and resistance of women against males are also different.

Madhu Kishwar, activist and the editor of Manushi, has emphasized the need to look into our traditions in this respect She argues that we should try to separate the debate within the cultural traditions, and start using the strengths to transform the traditions. Our cultural tradition have tremendous potential within them to combat reactionary and anti-women ideas, if we can identify their points of strength and use them creatively. Thus, feminism in the Indian context is not merely taken as an issue of theoretical debate for analysis but an approach to bring about social change. We may affirm that women s movements in India have played an important role in bringing and driving the women s issue to the national agenda.

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vijay laxmi

article is excellent


Thanks for wonderful article.