Women of India

A former president of the All-India Women’s Conference, DHANVANTHI RAMA RAU is the founder and president of the Family Planning Association of India. She is the wife of Sir Benegal Rama Rau, former Ambassador to the United States from India, and the mother of Santha Rama Ran, author of Home to India and East of Home. Last fall Lady Rama Rau made a cross-country lecture tour of thirty-five American cities speaking on the subject “India’s Social Revolution.”In the article which follows she describes the political and social gains achieved by women in India.



LATE in 1952 an eminent Indian philosopher, speaking to a group of women social workers in Bombay, begged them — half-despairingly — to return to the traditional models of Indian womanhood, to those heroines of the ancient legends, Sita and Savitri, who were shining examples of loyalty, submissiveness, and devotion. Not that they were stupid — Savitri, in fact, demonstrated great wit and wisdom as she outmaneuvered the God of Death and won back her husband — but all their talents were dedicated to the comfort, service, and happiness of their husbands and families. Even today, the traditional blessing to a bride is used at an orthodox Hindu wedding, “Be thou like Sita, be thou like Savitri.”

But this century has brought drastic modifications of the old ideal, and the new Indian woman has a twentieth-century independence, a more forceful voice in public life, and, most iconoclastic of all, the will and equipment of a fighter. Out of the changes in outlook and the work of Indian women have come some of the profoundest upheavals the country has ever known and some of the most controversial problems of Indian society.

Although the story of the Indian women’s movement is a fairly turbulent one, it did not follow the pattern of feminist uprisings in most Western countries— it did not start as a revolt against the denial of women’s rights in social, economic, and political institutions dominated by men. Its main purpose was to effect the social reform that would bring India’s ancient social patterns and traditional customs into conformity with the needs of modern times.

In the early years of this century, as increasing numbers of Indian men were educated in the English-style schools and universities of India (no other education was considered qualification for government jobs, most of the professions, and even some business posts), a breach was formed between the men and their way of life, and the wives in their domestic sphere. Traditionally the cultural life of the Indian home is kept alive by the women and transmitted by them to their children. For the first time in the centuries of India’s growth, this pattern was seriously threatened. The boys were studying the history of England and the works of Shakespeare; many of them (who would never have a chance to travel) knew far more about the flowers, birds, and landscapes of a country they would never see than about their own land. They had no practical use for the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, the great Indian epics, nor for the checkered centuries of Indian history that were crammed into the first ten pages of their history books. At the same time, to keep the girls in the old Indian traditions would be to make their lives yet more remote from those of their men.

At that time some of India’s more progressive men were engaged in the social reform movement which had grown out of the awakening consciousness of the need to relate the general pattern of ancient India to that of modern India. A few Indian women who had managed by their own personalities or by the cooperation of enlightened husbands or fathers to acquire a “Westernized” education wanted to extend that education to larger numbers of women so that they too might take an intelligent and useful part in the new Indian society that was being formed. In this they were led by the great politician and poetess, Sarojini Naidu, and from this group of men and women there eventually arose the nucleus and the support for the Indian women’s movement.

By 1918, when the question of suffrage for India came up, enough Indian women had equipped themselves with the new education and were alert enough to ask for the franchise on equal terms with the men. The Montagu-Chelmsford Committee that had been sent out from England to inquire into whether or not Indians should be allowed to vote at all found itself quite unprepared to deal with the added complication of woman suffrage. The committee members refused to meet any of the women leaders who waited in deputation on them.

Indian women had watched the suffragette campaign in England in the early twentieth century and had sympathized with the demand for equal votes for women, but not with the militant methods that English women had adopted. But if they were not militant, at least they were persistent. The following year they brought up the question again, this time in front of the newly elected legislatures in which there were some Indian representatives. As a result of their persistence, Indian women gained the right to vote within a few months of their men and on the same conditions. Those conditions, however, were so stringent as to be practically prohibitive—a voter had to have a university degree, to pay an income tax, and to pay a property tax. Exceedingly few women qualified. The next step was obvious, and “Education for Women” became the prime call throughout the country — more important than it had ever been before.


DURING the next seven years the response from the women of India was sufficiently large for a few of the most outstanding to call a conference to discuss educational reforms. This was the first All-India gathering of women and from it emerged the All-India Women’s Conference.

In these days of easy travel and relative freedom it is hard to remember the complexity of hindrances, problems, and delays that such women had to overcome. There were no air services in India at that time. Letters from Madras in southern India to Delhi, the capital in the north, took a week or more, and no reply could be expected in less than three weeks. Women had not yet learned to travel long distances alone. Many of them undertook, for the first time, journeys of three and four days to reach the conference. The majority of women belonged to average middle-class families with many responsibilities in their homes and with limited financial resources. The funds of the women’s organizations were small and could not be utilized for the expense of delegates to the conference. To the women themselves it was a major venture to leave their homes and domestic commitments, and many of them were not convinced that the undertaking was useful or that the conference could be successful.

However, when they finally met, in Poona, this group decided in its discussions that before the range of women’s education could be enlarged, two social problems would have to be tackled. The first of these was the system of purdah which removed a girl from school at the age of ten or twelve to spend the rest of her life in seclusion or in the company of the women members of her family. The second was child-marriage. While this custom was not the barbaric thing it had been painted and, in fact, committed a girl to a betrothal that would end in marriage six or seven years later, still it did take her away from her education to live in the home of her husband’s family and learn all the household duties that go to make a good Hindu wife. By challenging both these ancient traditions, Indian women expanded the scope of their work to include social reform as well as education.

At the second meeting of the conference, the earnest intentions and the courage of the leading women were demonstrated in a most spectacular way that was certain to shock orthodox India into the realization that her women were capable of very direct action to achieve their emancipation. Presiding over that meeting was a middle-aged woman, the wife of one of India’s ruling princes, the Begum of Bhopal. She had traveled all over the world with her husband — everywhere, from Buckingham Palace garden parties to Imperial conferences. For sixty years she had worn her bourkha, the long robe that envelops a purdah woman from the top of her head to the ground, leaving only a narrow slit of net or lace across her eyes. After making her presidential speech, still standing on the platform she pulled off her bourkha and threw it aside. She implored all purdah women to do the same thing. She herself never wore a veil again.

Soon afterwards, the women’s movement turned its attention to political activity and the formation of lobbies. In 1928 when the Labor Commission came out from England to report on the conditions of labor in India, the women’s organizations, by now established and recognized, were called in for advice and coöperation. Their first lobbying action was to see that the government implemented the recommendations of the commission regarding women in industry.

That year the Sarda Bill abolishing child-marriage raised one of the most furious controversies in India. It undermined, the conservatives claimed, the whole of Hindu society and the joint family system — an argument they were to use many times as new reforms came up for consideration. Was a father, orthodox Hindus asked, supposed to provide for a girl for seventeen years and give her a dowry as well? How, if she married into a joint family where grandparents, parents, sons, and their wives all lived together in one establishment, would a girl adjust at that late age to her mother-in-law’s ways, and to life in a home that she must forever consider her only one since no return was possible? Much better that she should grow up there from childhood onwards — how else would she learn her work and position?

Orthodoxy, assisted by the British Government in India, defeated the bill the first time. But a year later the women’s organizations had enlisted the help of progressive Indian men in their agitation for the Sarda Bill. Together they managed to have the bill reintroduced and it was carried.

This period, a stormy one in the history of India’s independence, was marked particularly by the extraordinary power and leadership oi Mahatma Gandhi. For the women of India he had a very special message. He appealed to them to join in his passive resistance movement because, he said, the only independence possible and worth while for India was one for which both men and women contributed their work and their lives. His slogan of Satyagraha and ahimsa spoke to them from the essence of Hindu teaching. Nonviolence must be the only method used because all life was sacred. Even the women most caught in Hindu tradition could respond to that appeal. All over the country, women marched in processions, carried banners, shouted slogans, were often beaten by the police, and often went to jail. They joined in Gandhi’s famous protest against the salt tax and followed him in that massive march across India to the seashore. There they demonstrated, by making contraband salt, that they stood with Gandhi in his opposition to the British in India.

This nationalist movement drew to it even those women who were less educated and had kept away from the activities of the All-India ‘Women’s Conference until then. A great psychological change had come over them and a realization that all public affairs were their métier. This belief has remained with them.


THE main activities of the branches of the women’s organizations, however, continued to be maternity welfare, child welfare, literacy classes, adult education, propaganda for social reform, and demands for legal action for such reform. Their members were constantly aware of the conditions in the homes of the poorer sections of India — the poverty, squalor, disease, and worst of all the high mortality of mothers and infants. Inevitably they began to think of means to curb the repeated pregnancies of mothers who wore already ill. and the large families of parents who could not possibly support them.

In 1935 Margaret Sanger visited India and was given a great reception by Indian women. She spoke to crowded audiences in 65 large and small cities in the country and traveled 25,000 miles by train in the months between October and March. Even at that time she realized that she was talking to people who were already converted to her point of view. As a result of her impetus, birth control clinics were opened in several places, and the first informed and scientific work was done on contraception.

One of the many changes that came to India as a result of the outbreak of war was the closing of these clinics. Work was stalled because the import of contraceptives from abroad had ceased. The other projects of the women’s organizations, however, continued and expanded as the women began to turn their attention to a greater extern to the villages of their country from which the thousands of recruits to the army were being drawn.

Indian women’s organizations carried on welfare work in the villages by means of mobile units; vans equipped with a doctor, a nurse, and the necessary medicines and materials toured the remotest parts of the country and brought help to villagers who had never been within a hundred miles of a hospital.

Since World War II, through the immense changes and readjustments that independence and the partition of Pakistan have brought to India, the work that has fallen to the women’s organizations has been particularly heavy. Indian women have contributed their efforts to the rehabilitation of the 8 million refugees that have streamed into India from Pakistan since the partition — one of the largest transfers of population in history. They have helped to establish townships and industrial cooperatives; they have worked to reclaim agricultural land. They have built orphanages and homes for the children lost or abandoned in the rush of refugees across the frontier. For the famine sufferers—whose deplorable condition is the result partly of poor crops and partly of the loss of the “Granary of India,” the vast wheat-growing plains of Pakistan —the women have collected money, organized relief work, arranged and run medical services.

In 1952 the women organized and ran the first International Conference on Planned Parenthood to take place in India, the third ever to be held in the world, which drew 470 delegates from 14 different countries. This was in turn responsible for a great new awareness in the country of the basic problem of population pressure in relation to food resources. India, a notoriously famine-ridden and undernourished country, shows an increase in population of 5 million people a year. Even with the extensive new programs undertaken by the government to increase food production, to farm marginal land and curb soil erosion, the country’s needs can never be met if every ten years there arc another 50 million mouths to feed.

In 1951 the Indian government was the first government in the world to request the World Health Organization to send it a special consultant in family planning. Dr. Abraham Stone of New York came to India, and during his travels through the country and in his contacts with government officials, medical and public health officers, and the public in general, he helped greatly to further interest in the whole subject. In his program he was restricted by the request of the Minister of Health, Rajkumari Amrit Knur, that any experimental studies be limited to an investigation of the feasibility of the “safe peritod” or “rhyhm method” for the control of conception. Accordingly, he helped to develop several centers where the rhythm method of conception control is now being tested under the auspices of the Indian government and the United Nations.

To make the method suitable for the women in the villages, where calendars are unknown, Dr. Stone suggested the use of a necklace of colored beads which would indicate the fertile and the infertile days. This helped to dramatize the problems involved.

The rhythm method has certain social, technical, and economic advantages for India. On the other hand, it also has many disadvantages. In a country where there is as much illiteracy as there is in India, where sex life can hardly be controlled by arithmetical calculations, it is difficult to judge the practicality of this method.

Already, in its first three years of work, the Indian branch of the Planned Parenthood Association has provided information and advice to thousands of desperate people. A typical example of the letters the Association receives runs: “I am a girl of 22 years, I was married when I was 17. Now I have got 4 children. I am so weak 1 cannot even look after them. What may I tell my husband to finish this? He earns Rs. 136 a month [about $30] as a clerk in railways.”One enthusiastic letter of thanks from a woman who had shared the information she received with all the women she knew in her small town read: “We all say you are serving our great republic such as no other women.”

The women of India showed their political awareness and power in India’s first free election, for which they turned out in record numbers to vote with their men—though not necessarily for the same candidates. At the moment, they are conducting a great fight against orthodoxy and conservatism by demanding that the ancient Hindu laws governing marriage, divorce, and inheritance be overhauled and made more equitable. Many thousands of women have now taken jobs of one sort or another, ranging from government service to positions as salesgirls in shops or hostesses on planes. India has women in its foreign service all the way up to the rank of ambassador. There are women in Parliament and in the Cabinet. There are women lobbyists, women on the National Planning Commission, women presidents of colleges. Almost all of them owe their jobs, their power, and their position to the rights that the Indian women’s movement has established for them through twentyfive years of work.