India's Women Who Stand With Mahatma Gandhi banner

May 25, 1930

India's Women Who Stand With Mahatma Gandhi

Ed. note: There are several references in this article to the "purdah," the Islamic tradition that women must keep all parts of their body covered in public, except their eyes. Today, many Muslim women only cover their heads.

"Water and women, those," said an experienced British official to me one evening at dinner, "are the two major factors on which India's future hinges. Water, you've seen Punjab, we are trying to handle. Women, we can't reach. I don't know that we've tried very seriously, though we come up against the power of the zenana (women's quarters) every day!"

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This official was an exception: very few realize the immense importance of women in the scheme of things Indian. Or the strength of their influence. The Western mind is apt to be biased by the inferior civil status of the Hindu, or by entirely false statements concerning the religions position of the Moslem woman. Moreover, very few Europeans are ever allowed into the intimacy of an Indian home, so that it is not possible for them to form any accurate judgment on the subject.

But when Mr. Gandhi appeals to the women of India you may be sure that he knows the strength of this hidden influence. When he asks women to picket liquor shops he knows that he makes a direct appeal with which hardly a woman in India will refuse to sympathize, because alcohol is as deadly to the Indian as opium to the Westerner, and the women of India have come to associate drinking with the West, while fearing and loathing its effects on their men.

Among Gandhi's immediate followers, his "inner circle," as he calls them, have always been a certain number of women. There is Miss Pettit, for instance, daughter of a well-known and very rich Parsi family of Bombay, who left her home for Gandhi's ashram, and usually goes about with him. Otherwise, she is not conspicuous. There is, too, the famous Miss Slade -- "Mirabai." "Mirabai" was the name of Shri Krishma's most ardent devotee who, refusing food or drink, spent all her time in his temple at the foot of his statue, until she died, literally of love. Miss Slade's ardent devotion to Mr. Gandhi has won her this name.

Miss Slade, who is the daughter of Admiral Sir Edmund Slade, is one of those women who seek in India a spiritual satisfaction they have not been able to find in the West. For such Europeans Mr. Gandhi is an ideal figure, because he responds exactly to what the West thinks an Indian mystic ought to be, and is perfectly comprehensible in the light of his master, Tolstoy. When Miss Slade wrote to Gandhi, asking permission to join him, he put her through a year's probation, after which, on her arrival, he obliged her to undergo the severest discipline, doing a good deal of the ashram's dirty work. When it was suggested that Miss Slade was a very handsome woman to have in the ashram, he made her shave her head and put on the garb of a poor peasant.

Because she is a clever linguist, Miss Slade is invaluable to Gandhi as his secretary, and has charge of his foreign correspondence. She is also invaluable as, so to speak, a "trophy of war," demonstrating Gandhi's influence over the West. But no one can hear Miss Slade's deep and rather beautiful voice, explaining that Gandhi "is the second Christ, to whose birthplace one day the whole world will come in pilgrimage," without realizing that she is a fanatic, whose judgment is clouded by her emotions.

Mrs. Sarojini Naidu, who has taken Gandhi's place as leader of the salt tax campaign, is an entirely different type. Ex-president of the Congress party, she has never been one of the ashram devotees. Her association with Mr. Gandhi has been that of fellow-member in the Congress party, and co-leaders in its work. No one can imagine Mrs. Naidu's sense of humor allowing her to worship Mr. Gandhi except as a political pose.

In her younger days Sarojini, who was then Miss Chattopaddhya, gave promise of being a brilliant poet. Like Tagore, she has been deeply influenced by her Western education; in fact, she used English because she knew no Indian language sufficiently to allow of writing in it. Some time after her marriage to Major Naidu, who is medical officer in the State of Hyderobad, she heard the call of nationalism and abandoned her home and three young children to respond to it.

Politically speaking, Mrs. Naidu is immensely clever. Eloquent, witty, magnetic, she understands every platform trick and can hold a meeting from start to finish. So charming is she personally that British and Indians both say: "Sarojini can talk to you, and you know perfectly that she is lying like -- well -- but you can't help listening and liking her."

Today, however, she pulls very little weight in the Congress party. She was not among those who favored the present campaign though once it was decided upon, she rallied loyalty to it. While her brother, Virandranath Chattopaddhya, has always been a bitter extremist, so bitter that he worked for Germany during the war, and has steadily been associated with men like M. N. Roy of the Third International, Sarojini herself has been much more moderate. Working almost entirely with men, she has little or no influence among Indian women, who cannot forgive her what they consider her desertion of her family. One feels very sad about Sarojini Naidu, the politician who should have been a poet!

Kamaladevi Chattopaddhya, who has just been jailed for six months, is less well known in the West, but she bids fair to become a powerful figure in India. Her youth was marred by a tragic child marriage. Widowed very young, she defied all Hinduism by remarrying, her second husband being Harendranath Chattopaddhya, Mrs. Naidu's gifted younger brother. For some time Kamaladevi devoted herself to assisting her husband in an attempted revival of Indian dramatic art. For the first three years of the All India Women's Conference on Educational Reform she was its organizing secretary, traveling from end to end of India to carry on propaganda work. It was really Kamaladevi's influence that cause the All India Conference to decide upon including social as well as educational reform in its program, though it all but split in two over this decision.

Quiet, reserved, rarely making speeches, her eyes always melancholy, Kamaladevi is a strange figure. In her youth she was very beautiful, as Southern Indian women often are. Her spirit is that of a revolutionary fanatic. "If man's attitude toward woman is to be changed," she wrote once to a friend, "the initiative must come from the woman. We should not think any more in terms of reform, but in terms of revolution. ... Woman as to become mentally independent more than economically. .. Woman must learn to revolt, rebel and fight, and if need be break up the home, and turn herself out for a principle. All this means nothing but a huge, big revolution. ... I have been noting with pleasure how eagerly these [ideas] are being absorbed. So let us live, work and die for the revolution!"

With this Kamaladevi is possessed of ruthless ambition. It is not surprising that the British, sensing in this ardent spirit another Kollontai, or a Mme. Lenin, should prefer her in jail.

What does Mrs. Gandhi think and feel about all this? That is one of India's enigmas. Faithful, silent, almost colorless, she is the perfect husband-worshiping Hindu wife. Where Gandhi goes she goes, watching her husband's health, especially his food since Gandhi has a weak stomach, but saying nothing. Among Indian women she excites sympathy. When Gandhi publicly reproved her, in the columns of Young India, for holding back or mixing up some three or four rupees of the ashram's communal finances the reaction among Indian women was not, as in the West: "How noble of Gandhi! What honesty!" but -- "How disgusting! Has he no respect for his wife's izzat (prestige or honor)? Anyhow, where is his balance sheet for the two crores he collected in his last campaign?"

Interesting, and even spectacular, as these figures may be, however, they are not the real leaders of Indian womanhood. Contrary to the general impression among European women, who only see their Indian sisters on formal occasions when etiquette demands a great deal of reserve and even silence, Indian women are by no means mere submissive playthings. The traditional structure of social life in India obliges them to live, to some extent, in a world apart from men. But though strange men can on no account penetrate the zenana (women's apartments), the house is usually so arranged that the women can observe and hear almost anything that takes place in the mardana (apartment in which men are received) without being seen themselves.

Obliged to find most of their companionship among their own sex, they have developed a real freemasonry of sex, so that in certain parts of India there even exists a woman's language which men are not supposed to use or understand. Because the power of women in India is based first and foremost upon the conception of her as a mother, and her enormous and lasting influence upon her sons, who defer to her up to the day of her death, it follows that in most households the older women hold the reins, failing an unusually strong personality among the younger ones. Even then, outward deference must be shown to the older.

When this is understood, it can easily be seen that Indian women form in many ways a republic of their own, accustomed to following their own leaders, obeying their own traditions, and thinking their own thoughts. I have heard more than one riser of a State say: "I would very much like to bring my wife out of purdah, but my mother simply will not allow it." Obviously, the outsider has difficulty in finding out what is really going on among them, they do not give their confidence readily. Many a well-meaning European woman has never known that her pet project fell flat simply because she came up against some prejudice, or failed to enlist the cooperation of the right woman among the Indians.

Leadership among Indian women very often runs in families. Thus the Tyabji family, to which Abbas Tyabji, Gandhi's imprisoned lieutenant, belongs, has for more than half a century set the pace in Western India. Mrs. Shafi Tyabji, Bombay's first woman magistrate, is far more essential to any committee in Bombay dealing with women's questions than Mrs. Naidu. Mrs. Fais Tyabji was for many years unquestioned leader of the women of Karachi, and organized in that city the first club designed to bring Indian and European women together. Her niece, Mrs. Haflin Tyabji is the first woman magistrate appointed in Karachi, and the only woman on the local and district school boards. Another niece, Mrs. Camar Tyabji, is one of the originators of the East and West movement in Bombay. A cousin, Mrs. Hamid Ali, is president of the most important woman's organization in India, the All India Conference for Educational Reform. In Bihar another relative, Mrs. Masbur ul Haque, was, until the recent death of her husband, the most prominent figure among the women.

The women of the Tyabji family were the first Moslems in India to break purdah. But they got away with it because they made it very clear to other women that their purpose was not to go about freely for the sake of pleasure, but to enable them to undertake public work, such as hospitals, schools, child welfare, etc., which are recognized as peculiarly in the sphere of women. Reassured and convinced, other women are following their example in rapidly increasing numbers.

Another woman who wields a great deal of influence is Dr. Alice Pennell. She is the younger of the Sorabji sisters, a Parsi family who daughters have achieved distinction as pioneers in feminism. Cornelia Sorabji, her sister, was the first woman to be admitted to the English bar, and for many years was the only woman to hold an important position in the government of India, as head of the Indian equivalent of the Court of Wards.

After taking her medical degree Dr. Pennell married an English missionary, the famous "Border Pennell," and herself became a power among the wild tribesmen on the frontier. Absolutely fearless, she thinks nothing of taking an old Ford and proceeding, absolutely alone, into Afghanistan or up through the wilds of Persia. Equally, she is capable of defying the Government of India, if need be, in order to help one of her own sex, and because of this is realized she is the friend and confidante of women from all over India.

In their own States and when they choose, in British India, the princesses have a great deal of power. A Maharani can and usually does hold her own durbars, for women only, on state occasions. Just as officials and nobles are obliged to do homage to the ruler, her husband or her son, so their wives must pay their respects and nazar (a small tribute in cash or some equivalent) to her.

The late Dowager Begam of Bhopal was one of the most important leaders of women in the whole of India. This was as much due to her intelligence and personality as to her position. Autocratic, even to harshness at times, she was also immensely kind hearted, and interested herself personally in everything concerning women. Nor did she fail to express her opinions freely. I remember seeing her presiding over a conference of women in British India. Among the resolutions scheduled for discussion was one calling for dancing as part of the curriculum in girls' schools. As a good Moslem, the Dowager Begam immediately objected. The resolution was twisted so as to cut out the offending word. But, without ill-timed facetiousness, the speaker insisted upon spelling it, with a sidelong glance at her Highness in the chair. It took fully three hours to calm down the infuriated Princess.

Herself adhering, even during her trip to London, to strict purdah, the Dowager Begam, just before she died, allowed her daughter-in-law, the present Begam, to dine at Viceregal Lodge out of purdah, saying, "Myself, I do not care for these ideas. But times are moving, and one must allow young people to move with them."

The State of Travancore, one of the most important in the South, is matriarchal in the sense that inheritance is through women, not men. Thus, not the Maharajah's own son, but his sister's issue succeeds him on the throne. The Princesses of Travancore are thus very influential, and the present Maharani is no exception to the rule. Young, simple in dress and manner, but highly educated, she not only leads in her own State, but in All India movements. Female education has been brought to such a pitch in Travancore that quite recently women graduates of universities held a meeting there to discuss the question of unemployment in their ranks.

In the United Provinces, the little Dowager Rani of Mandi is a prominent and interesting personality. Exiled from her own State on a charge of complicity in the Harding bomb plot, when she was a girl widow of 15 or 16 years, the bitterness of her experience turned her into an active feminist. Self-educated, she has worked for years in Lucknow among the women, and is now an acknowledged leader in India. Her daughter-in-law, the present Rani of Mandi, is also actively associated with educational and social movements among the women, especially in the Punjab. Young and beautiful, she is chairman of the women's committee against child marriage and, three years ago, led a deputation to the Viceroy asking for immediate action on the subject.

The Maharani of Baroda, the Rani of Sangli, Mrs. Brij Lal Nehru of the United Provinces, Mrs. Rama Rau of Delhi, are all among the women who count in India. But they are none of them in politics. Their influence is keeping women out of politics. They feel, with other thoughtful Indian women, that the important task at the moment is to preserve unity among themselves with a view to presenting to any government a sufficiently strong front to enable them to obtain what they want in the way of education and social welfare. The force of this position lies not only in its theoretical excellence, but in the fact that it is so completely in line with Indian tradition and custom.

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