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Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

MILLENNIUM : January 23, 2000


The search for Akasha

Urvashi Butalia

The author is a writer and publisher of Kali For Women.

At a meeting of the Egyptian National Congress at Brussels in 1910, Bhikaji Cama, one of India's early nationalists, said: "I see here the representatives of only half the population of Egypt. May I ask where is the other half? Sons of Egypt, where are the daughters of Egypt? Where are your mothers and sisters? Your wives and daughters?"

In the winter of 1925 an American journalist, Katherine Mayo, spent three short months in India. At the end of her stay she wrote a scathing critique of India and the position of its women in her bestselling book, Mother India, using the argument that until such time as the situation of Indian women remained what it was, Indian men were not fit to take over the reins of government.

Bhikaji Cama and Katherine Mayo could not have been more different - the one a fierce nationalist and the other a propagandist and apologist for empire. Yet, in their own way, each pointed to concerns that had been central to the history of the subcontinent for hundreds of years and were to remain so for many more years to come.

Nor were they alone in this. By the time Bhikaji Cama spoke in Brussels, several of her sisters had already blazed important trails. They had been active in nationalist demonstrations, suffrage was squarely on their agenda. Women like Pandita Ramabai and Tarabai Shinde from Maharashtra were well known for their outspoken views on questions of women's oppression, a subject on which they wrote with passion and fervour. Indeed, it was this kind of initiative on the part of women that was to mark the 20th century as different from the 19th when women's issues had been raised largely by men (although women like Ramabai straddled both centuries). It was this too that led people to speak of the 20th century as the age of women, a time when their rights and wrongs, their wishes and desires, continued to be the subject of fierce and heated debate.

But while the history of women in our century - and the one before this - is relatively easy to trace, it is when we start to go further back that we realise how shadowy their presences are in the majority of historical accounts. In India, the 19th century was marked by movements for social reform, led largely by men, but focussing, more often than not, on questions relating to women. A trading relationship with Britain had changed into one of domination and rule. A new and expanded infrastructure needed to be put in place, and industry and capital began to mark inroads into India. The middle class of traders, landlords and others that this encounter engendered, gradually began to "reform" itself, to fashion a new self-identity. Focussing on cultural and religious practices that were said to be "obscurantist", practices such as child marriage, widow immolation, polygamy were sought to be banned; education for women now became desirable so that women could make better wives and companions, new laws were put in place. As always, the status of women became the barometer of civilisation.

The entry of capital, however, also had important implications for women and it followed a pattern which is also too familiar today. Increasingly, it was female labour that began to be drawn upon, and this, in turn, led to a consciousness among women, not only of their identity as workers, but also of an awareness of their class. While the early protests of women workers had been against European malpractices, now they began to address and confront their Indian employers as well. With this, the focus of the reform process also began to shift, from that of middle class and elite women to drawing in women of other classes as well.

Education too had largely been limited to this class of women. Once its character changed from being religion-based to being more secular, this process generated the first women doctors and lawyers to come out of India. Despite this, much of it remained limited to fashioning women into good wives and companions for their men. But as this was not everyone's cup of tea and while a few groups of men supported women's education, most (both men and women) were opposed to it. It was believed that an educated woman would become a widow, a fate almost worse than death. In Barasat in West Bengal, when the first girls school was set up in the mid 19th century, people dug a ditch around it to prevent young girls from going there!

Kamal Sahai

No matter what the limitations of such an education, women themselves had begun to see the opportunities that lay hidden within it. Sometimes, the impulse to education came because a woman (or girl) wanted a better relationship with her spouse. Such a woman was Kashibai Kanitkar from Maharashtra who educated herself in secret despite heavy odds. Not surprisingly, her husband had little sympathy with these attempts, saying disparagingly that it was impossible for a "stone" to learn anything. Kashibai, however, was determined and she went on to become a well-known writer and intellectual in Maharashtra and ultimately she left her husband far behind. But there were also instances where education became a way of countering oppressive ideology (in this case Brahminical patriarchy) as was the case with a 16-year-old low caste girl, Muktabai in Maharashtra, who wrote:

O learned pandits wind up the selfish
Prattle of your hollow wisdom and
Listen to what I have to say . . .

It was education, too, that led women to form their own organisations among the earliest of which were the Mahila Atmaraksha Samiti and the All India Women's Conference. Like their sisters today, the early feminists were a peripatetic lot. They travelled to and fro: Bhikaji Cama, Anandibai Joshi, Pandita Ramabai to Europe and America. Sister Nivedita (Margaret Noble), Annie Besant, Margaret Cousins to India where they stayed and became part of political movements at the time. Their writings and speeches inspired other women across the globe: thus articles by Jiu Jin of China were translated into Tamil, Agnes Smedley was better known in India, China and Japan than in her home country, America. And perhaps the best testimony to the early globalising of women's movements is provided by the Dutch feminist Kartini, who said of Pandita Ramabai: "I was still going to school when I heard of this courageous Indian woman for the first time. I remember it so well, I was very young, a child of eleven or ten when, glowing with enthusiasm, I read of her in the paper. I trembled with excitement, not alone for the white woman is it possible to attain an independent position: the brown Indian too can make herself free. For days I thought of her and I have never been able to forget her. See what one good example can do! It spreads its influence so far."

If education and capital had drawn the early feminists into the public sphere, the development of the nationalist struggle was to place them squarely at its centre. Among the hundreds of thousands the nationalist struggle drew into its fold, women were very much in the forefront - so much that when Gandhi did not want women to join the Salt March, they forced their entry into it and it took them only a short while to make the campaign theirs, for after all, they were the ones who knew all about the uses of this essential commodity.

By contrast to the 19th and 20th, the earlier centuries had not seen such a wealth of activity on the women's front. The three major religions that came, or took birth in India - Islam, Christianity and Sikhism - and that formed part of the subcontinent's history for much of the millennium, had little to say about women. Nonetheless, the ideas of egalitarianism and the lack of hierachy implied, particularly in Islam and Sikhism where everyone was theoretically equal before the almighty, were to have important consequences for women who realised, in time, the revolutionary potential of the idea of equality and made it their own.

Indeed, Islam is too often maligned as being the religion that pushed women into the background in India, but we forget that by the time our millennium had turned the corner, Brahminical patriarchy was well and truly entrenched in India and many of the anti-woman practices for which Islam is blamed, were already in existence. The battle with the two great faiths of the earlier millennium had been won, and both Buddhism and Jainism, as well as many of the early Dravidian religions, were on the wane. We forget too, that one of the earliest Islamic rulers in India took the unusual step of naming his daughter - who went onto become Sultan Razia and to rule for four years before she was dethroned by men who could not accept her power - as his successor. Significantly, the opposition to Razia's rule was of a political nature - no one at the time took the view that the Islamic religion did not allow women to rule.

In an indirect way, Christianity too touched on women's lives in fundamental ways, for with the impulse to spread Christianity came another revolutionary development - the arrival and spread of the printing machine in India. Conceived as a necessary step to wider dissemination of the word of Christ, the printed book dealt an oblique, though effective blow to the edifice of caste. For now, given literacy and education, it became possible for anyone to read the word of God.

D.V. Jainer/Telepress Features

As printing spread, the nature of knowledge and information being disseminated also changed. No longer was it limited to the word of God, it couldn't be. Different subjects began to be taken up and the growth of a reading public was particularly important for women and indeed for very many other marginalised people who used it to create their own body of knowledge. For women, printing opened doors which had hitherto remained closed and gave them access to the public sphere which they had traditionally been denied. Thus one of the first women to take advantage of the spread of the printed word was Rashsundari Debi, a housewife from Bengal, who taught herself to read, in secret. The driving forces of Rashsundari's ambition was one particular book, Chaitanya Bhagbat, and she went on later to write her own book, Amar Jiban or the story of her life, which was probably one of the first (if not the first) autobiography to be published in Bengal.

Education was a much later development, however. Already, in the first few centuries of this millennium, women had begun to make their voices heard in the "other" - one might almost say, to use present-day feminist terminology - "alternative" religious movement of the time, the Bhakti movement, which lasted well into the 20th century. Begun in the southern region, this movement moved from Maharashtra towards Bengal and Orissa. Although Meera is its best known women exponent, there were others who also enriched its history.

Women saints in the Vaishnavite and Lingayat movements which followed the Bhakti movement were often low caste, untouchable women, and the subjects they addressed in their poems or vacanas were those that would still be considered taboo today. In their overall approach, these movements presented major challenges to Bahminism, and within them, the voices and actions of women challenged the very basis of Brahminical patriarchy. A strong sense of sexuality, for example, formed part of the songs of many such women who gave up the pleasures of everyday life to become wandering ascetics in search of their god. In one of her vacanas, one of the best known of the women saints says:

In our embrace
The bones should rattle
In a welding, the welding mark
Even should disappear
The knife should enter totally
When the arrow enters, even
The fathers should not be seen.

As we stand at the beginning of the millennium and look back upon the history of women, there are a number of figures who rise up from its pages: Meerabai, Akka Mahadevi, Andal, Lal Ded, Razia Sultan, Mumtaz Mahal, Noor Jodha Bai (the Rajput princes who married Akbar), and later figures such as Tarabai Shinde, Ramabai, Anandibai Joshi, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Sarojini Naidu, Mutthulakshmy Reddy and many, many more. And behind these well known names stand several others, whose histories we have only just begun to discover. We see, too, the forces and conjuntures that have, for several centuries, continued to shape the lives of women: religions and faiths such as the bhakti movement, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism, Hinduism and movement for reform within these; political developments such as invasion and conquest, the movement for social reform, the entry of capital, the colonial project, the making of the nation state and most lately, the entry of the so-called free market, to name only a few. Throughout, women have resisted, fought to assert their identities, subverted oppressive agendas and tried to retain their autonomy and independence.

Perhaps more than anything else, it is our own century, the last of the millennium, that symbolises this. Paradoxically, while colonialism was instrumental in making for women's entry into the public sphere, it was in independent India that the first few decades saw almost a kind of retreat. Independence had been won, the expectation was that many of its promises vis-a-vis women would be fulfilled and it was only when the realisation began to sink in that the reality was somewhat different, that a new activism was born among women.

Dilip Sinha

The first protests of what is known as the current phase of the women's movement focussed on the rights of peasant women, against rises in prices, against violence against women. The early Seventies brought campaigns to protect the environment, for changes in the law, for better health facilities for women. Today, the agenda has broadened considerably to include political participation, literacy, issues of food security, the increasing situation of ethnic, religious, and sectarian conflict.

There is much that has changed, and much that remains the same. Thousands of years ago, in 800 BC, legend has it that Gargi, a woman philosopher led a philosophical tournament in the court of the Hindu king Janaka. She challenged a newly-arrived competitor, Yajnavalkya, a man. She is reported to have said: "Just as an expert archer attacks his enemy with piercing arrows, held at hand, so I assail you with two test questions. Answer them if you can." Defeated by the questions, Yajnavalkya took recourse to the same answer men have used thousands of years since he told Gargi to simply shut up.

Thousands of years later, the number of challenges thrown up by women to men who have for long held the reins of power, has multiplied many times over. There is no longer one Gargi, standing alone in an assembly of men and posing two questions. Instead, Gargi's descendants run into thousands, they have thousands of questions, and they no longer stand alone. Nor are they longer willing to be shut up. Thousands of years ago it is said that Mara, the devil (and a man) came upon a bhikshuni deep in meditation. He scoffed. What does she think she is doing, he asked. All she needs is two fingers of meditation for that is what is needed for her work in the kitchen. The bhikshuni was unmoved for she knew that what she was looking for was not two or more fingers worth of peace, but for akasha, as she said. The sky. Her words carry a prophesy for women in the next century and into the next millennium. They will reach for the sky and claim it as theirs.


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