Mahatma Gandhi’s Views on Women and Social Change

by Sita Kapadia

M. K. Gandhi and wife, Kasturba, 1902; courtesy

Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy to the world is immeasurable; his life and work have left an impact on every aspect of life in India; he has addressed many personal, social and political issues; his collected works number more than one hundred volumes. From these I have gleaned only a few thoughts about women and social change.

In 1940, reviewing his twenty-five years of work in India concerning women’s role in society, he says, “My contribution to the great problem lies in my presenting for acceptance truth and ahimsa (nonviolence) in every walk of life, whether for individuals or nations. I have hugged the hope that in this woman will be the unquestioned leader and, having thus found her place in human evolution, will shed her inferiority complex … Woman is the incarnation of ahimsa. Ahimsa means infinite love, which again means infinite capacity for suffering. And who but woman, the mother of man, shows this capacity in the largest measure? … Let her translate that love to the whole of humanity … And she will occupy her proud position by the side of man … She can become the leader in satyagraha.”

What is significant here is his image of woman and his hope for her, so radically different from that of any earlier reformer. He was not the first to address women’s issues in India; the great Indian cultural renaissance, as also the ferment of political agitations for freedom, had already reached a high peak in the late nineteenth century. Before the advent of Gandhi on the scene, the attitude to women, though sympathetic, was patronising; leaders and social reform groups thought in language that made women look helpless. They wanted to protect, uplift and bring relief to women. No doubt there was value in all of it. Yet, with Gandhi a new, unique element emerged. Woman to him was neither man’s plaything, nor his competitor, struggling to be like him.

What she needed most was education, the recognition of her birthright to be free and equal, to steer her own destiny side by side with man. “Therefore,” he argues, “ultimately, woman will have to determine with authority what she needs. My own opinion is that, just as fundamentally men and women are one, their problem must be one in essence. The soul in both is the same. The two live the same life; have the same feelings. Each is a complement of the other. The one cannot live without the other’s active help … But somehow or other man has dominated woman from ages past, and so woman has developed an inferiority complex. She has believed in the truth of man’s interested teaching that she is inferior to him. But the seers among men have recognised her equal status.”

It is noteworthy that present day conferences on women’s issues insist similarly on women’s own leadership, initiative, and self-help. For instance, Ela Bhatt, General Secretary of SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association) and winner of the prestigious Magsaysay Award for her work with women in India, speaks up against the still persistent attitude of superiority among men. [See the interview with her posted here.] Social workers around the world encounter the same attitude.

Gandhi was no advocate of blind adherence to tradition; its strong current could help us swim far, or sink us; for him the deciding question was whether it would take us closer to God (Truth), selfless service and love of all human beings. As he declared to a tradition-bound India: “I do not subscribe to the superstition that everything is good because it is ancient. I do not believe either that anything is good because it is Indian … Any tradition, however ancient, if inconsistent with morality, is fit to be banished from the land. Untouchability may be considered an ancient tradition, the institution of child widowhood and child marriage may be considered to be an ancient tradition. And likewise many an ancient horrible belief and superstitious practice. I would sweep them out of existence if I had the power.”

And what do ancient books say about women? “Her father protects her in her childhood, her husband protects her in youth, and her sons protect her in old age; a woman is never fit for independence…” Gandhi saw how wrong that was, how unjust, how harmful to all; he spoke strongly against child-marriages, the isolation and subjugation of widows, the cruel domination of men over women, and women’s own subservient mentality. In his pamphlet “Ethical Religion” he says, “True morality consists, not in following the beaten track, but in finding out the true path for ourselves and in fearlessly following it.”

Gandhi’s life-long “experiments with truth” served that very purpose. And when he felt sure he knew the way of truth, he not only followed it fearlessly, but also led others, millions of men, women and even children. The title of his personal life he aptly called, The Story of My Experiments with Truth: An Autobiography. For him God was Truth, but whereas the definition of God, he said, was difficult to grasp, the definition of truth every person could find in his or her own conscience. Even from his childhood he was such an extraordinary lover of truth, that he tried to understand and verify the truth of any new thought he came across, and every personal experience.

Among youthful experiments with truth, the most pertinent in relation to women was his relationship with his wife, Kasturba. They were both born in 1869, and married very young in 1882, when she was thirteen and he was but twelve years old. Having read that a wife must always be subjugated to her husband’s will, he took on the role of a domineering husband, and a boy husband at that! Little was he prepared to face the challenges posed by his strong and spirited wife, who stood up to him for her rights with dignity and self-possession, which, in the early years he construed as stubbornness, and later extolled as moral courage. Through several experiences with his wife during his formative years, when he had tried to force her obedience, first in his native Kathiawar, where, in 1898 he had insisted she not stir out of the house without his permission, and in South Africa, where he had wanted her to clean with a smile the chamber pot of a low-born clerk, he evolved his ideas on women, and the relationship between men and women. She had cried out, as he pulled her by her hand and tried to push her out the gate of their home in Durban, “Have you no sense of shame? Must you so far forget yourself?” That was enough for the sincerest of all votaries of truth; he thought a great deal, constantly, all his life. He never forgave himself for causing Kasturba to suffer pain.

Imagine his own pain and regret in his words, “Of all the evils for which man has made himself responsible, none is so degrading, so shocking or so brutal as his abuse of the better half of humanity – to me, the female sex, not the weaker sex. It is the nobler of the two, for it is even today the embodiment of sacrifice, silent suffering, humility, faith and knowledge.”

These qualities he valued highly as indispensable for resistance through satyagraha, whether in the home or in society. Ancient models of womanhood – Sita, Savitri, Damayanti, Draupadi – he praised for their moral strength; they were not passive, weak women. Passive resistance, he explained, was not the right translation of satyagraha, which means, “soul force” or “truth force”, the power of enlightened nonviolence, neither passive nor timid. The first line of a favourite Gujarati hymn at the Gandhi ashrams was: Harino maarug chhe shooraano, nahi kaayarnu kaam jone. (The way of The Lord is for the brave, not for the faint of heart, you see.)

In South Africa, Indian women led by Kasturba, offered nonviolent civil resistance (satyagraha) and went to prison when the Government of South Africa was about to pass a law making all Hindu, Moslem and Zoroastrian marriages illegal, all wives married by those rites concubines, all their children illegitimate, with neither status nor property rights. The women’s courage was amazing and inspiring to men. Their success proved the power of soul-force.

“My wife” said Gandhi, “made the orbit [for] all women. In her I studied all women. I came in contact with many European women in South Africa, and I knew practically every Indian woman there. I worked with them. I tried to show them they were not slaves either of their husbands or parents, not only in the political field but in the domestic as well. But the trouble was that some could not resist their husbands. The remedy is in the hands of women themselves. The struggle is difficult for them, and I do not blame them. I blame the men. Men have legislated against them. Man has regarded woman as his tool. She has learnt to be his tool and in the end found it easy and pleasurable to be such, because when one drags another in his fall the descent is easy.” These words were spoken to Dr. Margaret Sanger in 1936 in connection with birth control methods; Gandhi believed men and women should practice restraint and have sex only for progeny. Whereas such an austere ideal of celibate life is impossible for all but a few, the words might well apply to the general scheme of things between men and women.

He spoke of Kasturba as “above” himself, and it is to her moral strength and example that he says he owed his most unique and potent idea in personal growth as well as in activist politics. He acknowledges, “I learned the lesson of non-violence from my wife, when I tried to bend her to my will. Her determined resistance to my will on the one hand, and her quiet submission to the suffering of my stupidity involved on the other, ultimately made me ashamed of myself and cured me of my stupidity in thinking that I was born to rule her.”

When he returned to India to join Indian politics in 1915, after monumental work in South Africa, he realised he had very little knowledge of India outside his native province. He saw from his travels across the subcontinent that the real India lived in her 500,000 villages, not her elitist urban centres. Apart from the poverty he witnessed, he was deeply agonised by two oppressions in Indian life – the oppression of people of low birth, referred to as the untouchable, and the oppression of women. Both these he observed to be the power politics of the higher castes, and of men already comfortably elevated in patriarchy. Such injustice was easy to perpetrate when it was presented to the populace as sanctioned, nay ordained, by ancient scriptures. The “wounded civilisation,” Naipaul wrote about in 1977, was even more so when Gandhi embarked upon a national reconstruction program in every area of social concern. Again and again he proclaimed his conviction that India had to free her own fettered poor people, untouchable, and women, before she could meaningfully win freedom from her foreign oppressor. As Naipaul wrote, “The oppressive custom of dowry too came under fire from Gandhi. He preferred girls to remain unmarried all their lives than to be humiliated and dishonoured by marrying men who demanded dowry… He found dowry marriages ‘heartless.’”

Gandhi wished for mutual consent, mutual love, and mutual respect between husband and wife. He said, “Marriage must cease to be a matter of arrangement made by parents for money. The system is intimately connected with caste. So long as the choice is limited to a few hundred young men or young women of a particular caste, the system will persist, no matter what is said against it. The girls or boys or their parents will have to break the bonds of caste if the evil is to be eradicated.”

Injustice, like exploitation, has to be resisted wherever it is found, not only in the political field. For the fight against foreign domination, women by the thousands rallied to Gandhi’s call for civil disobedience. Women set aside their traditional roles, they came out of seclusion; they cast off their purdah. They entered the public domain along with men, and offered satyagraha; they remained undaunted by police beatings and extreme hardships in prison. Even illiterate tribal women from the woods joined the freedom movement. That is the truth-force Gandhi urged in private matters as well. In fact, that is where he wanted it to begin. “The first condition of non-violence is justice all round in every department of life. Perhaps it is too much to expect of human nature. I do not, however, think so.” In Harijan, October 3, 1936, we find the reason for his faith, “I have not the shadow of a doubt that any man or woman can achieve what I have, if he or she will make the same effort, and have the same hope and faith.”

Further, ends and means must be deemed convertible. He says, “Ahimsa is the means. Truth is the end… If we take care of the means, we are bound to reach the end sooner or later. When once we have grasped this point final victory is beyond question. Whatever difficulties we encounter, whatever apparent reverses we sustain, we may not give up the quest for Truth which alone is, being God.” So he wrote from Yeravda prison in 1935, when freedom was nowhere in sight. Nonviolence to him was the greatest power. “It is,” he said, “mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man. Destruction is not the law of the humans… Every murder or other injury, no matter for what cause, committed or inflicted on another is a crime against humanity.”

An-eye-for-an-eye attitude would not do, even if the opponent were to act with such excessive greed and anger as to torture, beat or burn a satyagrahi to death. Says Gandhi, “In the application of satyagraha, I found in the earliest stages that pursuit of truth did not admit of violence being inflicted on one’s opponent but that he must be weaned from error by patience and sympathy. For what appears to be truth to the one may appear to be error to another. And patience means self-suffering. So the doctrine came to mean vindication of truth, not by infliction of suffering on the opponent, but on one’s self.”

It was Kasturba who had shown him the power of sacrifice by her readiness to die for justice and for her religious beliefs; she acted with courage at all times and with hatred toward none. He, the supreme master of the symbolic motif, made her the model for other women to emulate. And they did by the hundreds, dropping the veil like her, picketing like her, going to prison like her, resisting every injustice like her, and like her, being their own self-respecting person. He was very pleased that his confidence in women was borne out by their work in the freedom movement. Again and again he spoke of women’s power to move by suffering, where the law may be a mere “palliative”, occasionally correcting without permanently curing.

Speaking from experience, he wrote, “Nobody has probably drawn up more petitions or espoused more forlorn causes than I and I have come to this fundamental conclusion that if you want something really important to be done you must not only satisfy the reason, you must move the heart also. The appeal of reason is more to the head, but the penetration of the heart comes from suffering.”

What Gandhi had in mind was not pitiful, helpless suffering, but deliberate, purposeful suffering, patient, visible suffering, the twin of which is sacrifice and the end of which may be death before victory. It had to be enlightened, not abject. Sacrifice, like purity may not be enforced; it must evolve from within by individual effort. When all these conditions prevail, these words of Gandhi will come to pass, “I am firmly of the opinion that India’s salvation depends on the sacrifice and enlightenment of her women.”

Any tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, the Great Soul, would be an empty one, if we take no cue for our own guidance from his words and from his life; for him ideas and ideals had no value if they were not translated into action. He saw men and women as equals, complementing each other. And he saw himself not as a visionary, but as a practical idealist. If then, men and women work together selflessly and sincerely as equals with a faith like Gandhi’s, they may indeed realise Ram Rajya, the perfect state. Traditionally, woman has been called abala. In Sanskrit and many other Indian languages bala means strength. Abala means one without strength. If by strength we do not mean brutish strength, but strength of character, steadfastness, endurance, she should be called sabala, strong. His message almost six decades ago at the All India Women’s Conference on December 23, 1936 was, “When woman, whom we call abala becomes sabala, all those who are helpless will become powerful.”

Such empowering, he was convinced, may not be bestowed upon them by legislation or assistance offered by men, or even some more fortunate women who think of them as weak; they must gather strength to stand up on their own. Of course, they may be educated in Gandhi’s way, the way of non-violence, which is truth. They may then follow the teaching of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita, “Lift the self, by the self.” Then shall the meek inherit the earth. Then shall India deserve the wisdom of the ancient Upanishads, which she has taken as her national motto, “Satyameva jayate”, “Truth alone wins!”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Sita Kapadia is director of the Self-Enhancement Learning Forum in Houston, Texas, and emeritus Professor of English at the City University of New York (CUNY). Article is courtesy

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi