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Why is Gandhi relevant to the problem of violence against Indian women?

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By Judith M. Brown


The global media has, in recent months, brought to the attention of a world audience the prevalence of violence against women in India. The horrific rape of a woman student, returning home after watching an early evening showing of The Life of Pi, in Delhi in December 2012, and the subsequent trial and conviction of her drunken and violent attackers, has led to considerable comment about violence against women. It ranges from low level harassment on public transport, to rape within and outside marriage, to the murder of brides whose families fail to provide enough dowry, and the abortion of female foetuses. As a result India has an abnormal and skewed sex ratio, demonstrating what Amartya Sen famously called the scandal of India’s millions of “missing women”. A few figures say more than words.

The worst areas for women’s survival are in the north and west of the country. In Punjab there were, in 2011, 893 women to every 1,000 men; in Haryana the female figure was 877 and in Delhi 866

In 2011 24,000 rape cases were reported (over 17% of these in Delhi) and this is just the tip of the iceberg as so many do not get reported

The news service, TrustLaw, ranks India as the worst G20 country in which to be a woman

Why should we think Gandhi, revered as the Father of the Indian nation, had anything relevant to say about this? He is generally thought of as India’s leading nationalist leader in the struggle for independence against the British raj in India in the early 20th century; or as a prophet of non-violence and pioneer of non-violent resistance in the modern world. But this is to underestimate the range of his thinking about India and what sort of nation and country it might become.

Protests in Bangalore following the rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi, December 2012. Photo by Jim Ankan Deka. [CC-BY-SA 3.0]
For Gandhi, independence (swaraj or self rule) was far more than political independence. It required a radical transformation of Indian social and economic relations — to correct the ills and errors he felt had developed in India under imperial rule. So much of his speaking and writing and his practical work was focussed on these moral “ills”, particularly enmity between people of different religious groups, the treatment of those at the base of Indian society, the appalling depth of poverty for so many, and of course the treatment of women. He was a staunch supporter of women’s health and education, of women’s rights as citizens, and of women’s significant role in the public sphere, particularly in the work of building a new nation. He paid particular attention to the issues surrounding the very early age of marriage, and particularly the plight of child widows who had been married to much older men for reasons of caste. Recognising the violence women faced outside the home he also argued for a profound change in male attitudes — that men should consider all women as if they were their mothers or daughters. As he wrote in 1940, “Woman is described as man’s better half. As long as she does not have the same rights in law as man, so long as the birth of a girl does not receive the same welcome as that of a boy, so long we should know that India is suffering from partial paralysis. Suppression of women is a denial of ahimsa [non-violence].”

Of course he was not alone in recognising these problems. From the early 19th century many brave male and female social reformers argued for better treatment of women, for the possibility of widow re-marriage, for the raising of the age of consent and of marriage, and for the education to university level of girls. The result of these multiple campaigns by men and women has been major changes in Indian law. But law on paper and law on the ground are very different. As Gandhi recognised, the absolute fundamental for any serious social change is a change of heart, or perception, of attitudes: in this case it is the need for the change the attitudes of so many men, who see women and girls as disposable items, objects of casual pleasure, not to say second class citizens. Of course this is not to deny that they are many millions of loving, sensitive men in India who treat their female relatives and women in the public sphere with great care and respect. Many of them came out on to the streets to protest at the Delhi rape and engaged in public dialogue on this and wider associated issues.

Gandhi’s Essential Writings, published in 2008, was a new edition of an earlier collection of Gandhi’s writings. Much of the thinking behind the new selections was the need to show how broad Gandhi’s thinking was, and how very practical and even earthy issues were central to his work for swaraj. Part III, ‘Transforming societies’ and Part IV, ‘India under British rule: making a new nation’ gather evidence of his thinking and work on these matters.

It is time to return to Gandhi to gain a perspective on problems which are old and yet contemporary.

The Rev. Prof. Judith M. Brown was the Beit Professor of Commonwealth History at the University of Oxford from 1990-2011, when she retired from teaching. She is the editor of the Oxford World’s Classics edition of Gandhi’s Essential Writings.

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Image Credit: Protests in Bangalore following the rape and murder of a young woman in Delhi, December 2012. Photo by Jim Ankan Deka. [CC-BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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