Feminism in Pre - independence India ​


Feminism in pre-independence: Image courtesy of Keystone/Getty

Kamala, a member of a women’s rights activists’ group had just returned home. After a demanding yet purposeful day spent on campaigning against sexual harassment in the workplace. She finds herself questioning her space in the fourth wave of the feminist movement. Steering through the landscape of the movements that emerged within the feminist sphere in the Independent India, she tries to imagines colonial India under Bristish rule, when the concepts of modernism, individual rights & equality had just started to emerge. From fighting to open up opportunities for women to making workplaces safer, Kamala went on a journey to understand the time in the struggle which has made today possible for her, to become a part of a movement with shifting paradigms.   

Late 19th Century 

The beginning of the fight for women’s rights in India started when the light was shed and awareness against practices such as Sati, child marriage, focus on reducing illiteracy and legal arbitration in the matters of property right & controlling age of consent were made.   

The nation was out from the first war of independence and the high spirit of nationalism could be felt all around. On one hand the country saw the entry of western ideals, which elite upper classes were adopting to tone with their colonial rulers. And on the other, the idea of strengthening their identity distinct from the same rulers was also present.   

In between this paradoxical situation, a new Indian society was in the making. With Britishers intervening in the matters of Indian culture & society. The reformers began to critically evaluate the social practices which acted as obstacles in the progress of women. Influenced by the first wave of feminist movement in the west, the reformers in India, mostly men started to question the matters of education and abolishing of Sati and Window Re marriage. The reforms were majorly aimed at upper caste and upper caste women. And Indian culture being cruel became the basis of an argument used by the British to create a way to bring about Victorian modernism in Indian society which was still rooted in tradition.  

Raja Ram Mohan Roy, a modest leader from 19th century Bengal campaigned for women’s rights and used his influence to get Sati Pratha abolished. A student of Hindu Philosophy, he argued that sati was not supported by shastras and called widowhood glorious.  The Pratha and the texts were interpreted differently by both sides. The Hindu conservatives argued about its relevance in the Indian customs and Roy referred to the scripts to provide evidence on its wrongful interpretation after the Sati Regulation Act was passed in December, 1829. Understanding how sati affected women got side-lined during the interpretations of texts by both sides.   

Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, 1856 was another important social reform legislation after the abolition of sati. Ishwar Chandra Vidya Sagar, an Indian educator, father of Bengali prose and a campaigner for women’s rights proposed and pushed the act. Being an advocate of women’s right to education, in the years of 1851 and 1855, he along with other reformers opened several schools for women across Bengal. The act encouraged widow remarriage, allowed inter faith marriages and prohibited polygamy.   

While the western progressivism being imparted among the Elite took time to get converted into the awareness and resistance against the status of women. The eighteenth-century

highlighted disappointment from the regularity of gender injustices and absence of any active resistance against the same made the movement slow as compared to the revolt in the west.  

But women did try to assert their position through the Bhakti Movement. Which originated from south India in the 7th century, and challenged a more individualistic path regardless of one’s age or gender was another movement that supported the idea of complete surrender to the god among neglected classes. The participation of women was restricted in the public sphere and devotion to the god was a way to go against the male – dominated world. The movement led them to embrace devotion, with passion and alter the concepts of religions, community & relationships. The movement taking its inspiration from religion, supported the idea of a classless and a more equal society. A society without the dominance of Brahmanical patriarchy Men and women began interpreting bhakti subjectivity and led on to live their life as they wished devoid of any conventional rules guiding them.  

Kamini Roy, Britain’s first female honours graduate was seen super heading the women’s suffrage movement in India.  The movement which fought for women’s political liberty under British rule.  Constantly raising her voice against the injustices and using poetry as a medium to express. In one of her poems, she writes,  


As the Days Pass 

As the days pass, darkness overwhelms me 

I see not the divine light; hear not that oracle 

Childhood fancies, dreams I think countless 

All those yearn to believe as truth… 

Of my present condition, like many others 

I too move, meet chores: Oh! What feat 

I hoped, how noble could I do but 

Awakened to fetters in my hand cruel 

Inability ceases this life 

Unceasingly overpower, not a drop of strength 

To combat, bewail in vain 

In my heart hopelessness resides 

In the anterior depressing signs rubbed 

Stopped flowing tears, sigh, lament 

Laugh when the world laughs, but impossible 

This constant self-oblivion, what arcane warmth 

Keeps me awaken, underneath the oceans’ waves 

As hot current within the secret chambers