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The Better Half

The recently concluded UN Women's Conference in Beijing has turned the spotlight on women once again. Many radical views have been propounded by "feminists". Many ambitious schemes have been drawn up. Our country too, was represented by a sizable, vocal delegation. But in this age of radical "feminism" we often tend to overlook Gandhiji, who to most of us today, would seem to be a most unlikely champion of the women's cause. However, few of us know that in this matter as in most others, he was far ahead of his time, and if there was anyone who was responsible for drawing women out in such large numbers, to join the freedom movement, it was he. Ela Bhatt, the Magsaysay Award Winnere described how she was inspired by Gandhiji in her work….

Women participated in mass movements led by him in a natural course. And this made a big break through in Indian women's lives. I would say I would not have been what I am today, if Gandhiji had not made this breakthrough. His deep faith in women's shakti (power) came from his experience of his mother and wife. He observed and studied women in his own home because he had respect for them as human beings and he observed them as equal partners in the home and society. He says: "Women is the companion of man gifted with equal mental capabilities. She has the right to participate in the minutest details of the activities of man, and she has the same right of freedom and liberty as he." No wonder, being the super strategist that he was, he sought their participation in the freedom struggle. In fact he had more faith in his women soldiers than his men. The weapons in his struggle being love and non-violence, he considered women to be superior to men, because, as mothers, qualities of love and peace were more ingrained in them. "To call a woman a member of 'the weaker sex' is a libel. In what way is woman the weaker sex I do not know. If the implication is that she lacks the brute instinct of man or does not posses it in the same measure as man, the charge may be admitted.

But then woman becomes as she is the nobler sex. If she is weak in striking, she is strong in suffering. "I have described woman as the embodiment of sacrifice and ahimsa" are his words on the issue. He realized a very strong need for support and participation from women in creating a society based on justice in his struggle.

Gandhiji saw the exploitation of women in and outside their home. I have always been moved by his statement that no one can be exploited without his/her will or participation. I find it Gandhiji's most valid statement He had observed his wife and mother quietly resisting their exploitation at home. He learnt the strategy to rebel against exploitation by the British.

Gujarat is the land of Gandhiji and in the Ahmedabad Textile Labour Union he experimented his principle of trusteeship. He called it a "laboratory of human relations" I worked in this union for seventeen years dealing with women's problems. It is here that I took lessons on trade union work, settling disputes by conciliation and co-operation, the theory that demand must always be minimum and just. Here I learnt the methods of civil disobedience in our struggles and in these struggles, realized women's strength in fighting for justice.

I feel the most relevant and urgent struggle of women today is that of Swadeshi. I am a great believer in self-reliance, particularly self-employment, and therefore, his call for 'Swadeshi' rings bells in my ears. I am of the opinion that in our country, historically and traditionally, self-employment has been the form of work. Indian economy women played a major role. But with the advent of industrialization, the modes of work changed. Women were thrown out from their traditional employment, without providing them suitable alternative means of work. Certainly, Gandhiji thought unemployment to be a women's issue and therefore, symbolically, as well as practically, he introduced charkha as an instrument of the freedom movement. The propagation of khadi was to protect the employment for the poorest women.

Once, Gandhiji's colleague in the Ashram asked him to write a primer for the children of primary schools. This primer or Balpothi is in the form of a mother teaching her son, " Dear son, you should also help in the housework, as your sister does."

The son answers : But she is a girl. I am a boy. A boy plays and studies.

The sister says : How come! I also love to play and study.

Brother : I do not deny that, but dear sister, you have to do housework as well.

Mother : Why should a boy not do housework?

Son : Because the boy has to earn money when he grows up, therefore he must study well.

Mother : You are wrong, my son. Women also make an earning for the family. And, there is a lot to learn in housework - house cleaning, cooking, laundry. By doing housework you will develop various skills of the body and will feel self-reliant.

In good housework you need to use your eyes, hands and brain. Therefore these activities are educative and they build your character. Men and women both need to be educated equally in housework because the home belongs to both.

Gandhiji expounds this theme further. "More often than not a woman's time is taken up, not by the performance of essential domestic duties, but in catering for the egoistic pleasure of her lord and master and for her own vanities. To me this domestic slavery of woman is the symbol of our barbarism. In my opinion the slavery of the kitchen is a remnant of barbarism mainly. It is high time that our womankind was freed from this incubus. Domestic work ought not to take the whole of a woman's time."

He also states : "A daughter's share must be equal to that of a son. The husband's earnings are the joint property of husband and wife as he makes money by her assistance; if only as a cook.

If a husband is unjust to his wife, she has the right to live separately.

Both have equal rights to the children. Each would forfeit these rights after they have grown up, and even before that if he or she is unfit for them.

In short, I admit no distinction between men and women except such as has been made by nature and can be seen with human eyes."

Revolutionary ideas for his time indeed!

Courtesy: Centre for Women's Development Studies, New Delhi and Navajivan Trust, Ahmedabad