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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 20, New Delhi, May 1, 2021

Revisiting the writings of Dr B.R. Ambedkar through the feminist discourse | Arpita Giri

Saturday 1 May 2021

by Arpita Giri*

Despite the phenomenal impact it had in transforming the lives of women and his contribution to the contemporary feminist movement, Dr Ambedkar’s thoughts remain marginalized and unacknowledged in the feminist discourse. As a visionary of social justice, and believer in an egalitarian society, Dr Ambedkar was a firm believer in women’s social, political and economic equality. His writings, speeches and work, by identifying the interlinkages between caste and gender discrimination, provide a theoretical framework to understand caste-based violence against women. The present paper is an attempt to view Dr Ambedkar’s work from a feminist perspective and understand his contribution to the discourse. The feminist movement has for large part ignored voices of marginalized groups and portrayed them as part of the common mainstream without providing adequate space for their varied challenges. In the contemporary period, caste-based violence against women is on the rise and many academicians and social groups are working to unveil the layers of discrimination faced by women due to their caste-based identity. In such a scenario, the ideas of Dr Ambedkar are very much relevant and need to be emphasised as one of the prominent and nuanced argument highlighting the plight of women facing multiple oppressions of caste, class and gender.

Feminist Movement in India: Emergence of Caste Question

In India, the earliest debate on women’s rights and status was initiated during the Social Reform Movement of the nineteenth century. Among the first few social reformers was Raja Ram Mohan Roy, who founded the ‘Brahmo Samaj’. He led an extensive campaign against the Sati (the practice whereby a widow threw herself on to her husband’s funeral pyre) which eventually led to the ban of practice in 1829. Ishwar Chand Vidyasagar made a significant contribution to the education of girls and fought against the attitude of orthodoxy towards widow remarriage and child marriage. Swami Dayanand Saraswati founded ‘Arya Samaj’ which worked on areas such as women’s education, widow remarriage and other issues related to women’s rights in society. The goal of social reformers in that period was to rid society of the conservative practices of the Hindu religion. They worked for the betterment of the Hindu Religion by promoting education for women and widow remarriage; and for the abolition of child marriage, purdah (veil system) and Sati. The aim was to make them good mother and housewife. There was no attempt to raise their consciousness and involve them in the outside tasks. Early efforts for women’s empowerment was focused on upper-caste and middle-class women which left a large number of poor and lower caste women from its ambit.

In the later period, Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Tarabai Shinde and Pundita Ramabai Sarasvati added the issue of lower caste people and social injustices against them to the ongoing reform efforts in Hindu society. Jyotiba Phule, a prominent social reformer from Mali (gardener) community, worked extensively in Maharashtra. He had himself faced caste-based discrimination. He along with his wife Savitribai Phule and others formed ‘Satyashodhak Samaj’ (Society of seekers of truth) which worked for the rights of peasants and those from lower castes. In his book, Gulamgiri, he compared caste discrimination with slavery in the Americas and hoped that caste discrimination will end like slavery. His ideas were very progressive for his time. He taught his wife and later on started schools for Shudra (untouchable) women and women from other lower castes.

Pundita Ramabai Sarasvati was one of the prominent women reformers of the nineteenth century, who challenged the patriarchy within Hinduism. She was a Sanskrit scholar who later converted to Christianity. In her book, The High Caste Hindu Women, which is seen as one of the first attempt to challenge the core ideals of Hinduism, she writes,

Those who diligently and impartially read Sanscrit literature in the original, cannot fail to recognize that the law-giver Manu as one of those hundreds who have done their best to make woman a hateful being in the world’s eye. To employ her in housekeeping and kindred occupations is thought to be the only means of keeping her out of mischief, the blessed enjoyment of literature culture being denied her. She is forbidden to read the sacred scriptures, she has no right to pronounce a single syllable out of them. To appease her uncultivated, low kind of desire by giving her ornaments to adorn her person, and by giving her dainty food together with an occasional bow which costs nothing, are the highest honours to which a Hindu woman is entitled. She, the loving mother of the nation, the devoted wife, the tender sister, and affectionate daughter is never fit for independence, and is “as impure as falsehood itself”. She is never to be trusted; matters of importance are never to be committed to her. [1]

She further writes,

I can say honestly and truthfully, that I have never read any sacred book in Sanscrit literature without meeting this kind of hateful sentiment about women. [2]

Tarabai Shinde was an associate of Jyotiba Phule and Savitribai Phule. Her published work, Stri Purush Tulna (A comparison of Men and Women), in Marathi is considered a landmark critique of patriarchy. She writes,

What is stri (woman) dharma? Endless devotions to a single husband, behaving according to his whims. even if he bears her, curse her, keeps a prostitute, drinks, robs the treasury, takes bribes when he return home she should worship him as a God as if Krishna Maharaj himself had come from stealing the milk of Gavalis (dairywoman). There are a million reasons for breaking pativrata (virtuous wife). [3]

She further attacked Gods and Rishis in a satirical manner,

Not even with five husbands didn’t Draupadi have to worry about Kama Maharaj’s intentions? What about Satyavati and Kunti? One agreed to the whims of a Rishi in order to remove the bad odour from her body, the other obeyed a mantra! What wonderful Gods! What Wonderful Rishis! [4]

The foundations of Hindu Society with social inequality and idolized character of women were criticized by the social reformers much before Dr Ambedkar’s criticism of the Caste system. But over the period, this movement got subsumed within the larger nationalist movement which was preceded by the onset of Hindu Nationalism. Hindu Nationalists worked on the principle of propagating ideas of Vedas, Upanishads etc. to portray the cultural heritage and building national character. The Women movement of that period focused largely on political rights and social injustice and was kept on the backburner.

During the national movement, all major ideas and movements came together under the larger banner of the Indian National Congress (INC) to press for freedom. The major focus was on attaining freedom from British Rule and it was envisaged that larger good needs to be given primary attention. Women movement during the national movement came under the banner of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC), which was established in 1927. The top leadership of AIWC was in the hands of the upper-class women belonging to the families of Princely States. Prominent women leaders from INC like Sarojini Naidu, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Aruna Asaf Ali, Hansa Mehta, Rameshwari Nehru, and Muthulakshmi Reddy were also in its leadership from the start which resulted in dichotomy within the leadership of AIWC. One section, mainly from the upper classes, wanted the organization segregated from politics and confined to issues of social reforms through resolution and memoranda only. The other section was of the view that women need to be made conscious of the importance of movement for independence and actively drawn in the fight against British imperialism. They believed women emancipation, social or economic, could be achieved with national independence along with the struggle for social justice. [5]

The dichotomy meant that for the larger part of the freedom movement the focus remained away from working on caste and gender interlinkage. The period after independence saw the focus on women issues like dowry, widow remarriage, working condition for women, and the social status of women. But, till the 1990s and later period, the issues of social exclusion and caste discrimination within the society and its impact on the condition of women was ignored. Uma Chakravarti states in this regard, “Caste hierarchy and gender hierarchy are the organising principles of the Brahmanical social order and despite their close interconnections neither scholars of the caste system nor feminist scholars have attempted to analyse the relationship between the two” [6]. It was in this framework that the ideas of Dr Ambedkar on caste and gender and criticism of Hindu religious text become relevant. He not only challenged the Hindu religion but also worked on bringing the alternate religious idea of Buddhism to the mainstream discussion.

Dr Ambedkar’s idea of Caste and Gender

There was an idea of the intersection of caste and gender all along as discussed above. But, Dr Ambedkar used his academic acumen to bring out the linkage between caste structure and gender oppression in a systematic manner while catering to the understanding of the general masses. His location was very important in getting across the message of the hierarchical and oppressive nature of the caste system in India. He made pointed responses to the problems linked to the issue. His ideas were based on criticism of the Hindu caste system and were inspired by Buddhist philosophy and the principle of social justice, equality and fraternity.

In his paper on “Caste in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development”, published in the backdrop of an Anthropological Seminar at Columbia University, Dr Ambedkar presented a different narrative towards understanding the caste system in India. For him, caste was not something whose understanding can be confined to general features of an isolated group. It is something that has to be understood in a holistic manner taking into consideration social, political and economic structures at different levels. Caste was largely seen as a group of people brought together by their common occupation, which was later sustained through the mechanism of heredity, having distinct traditions for celebrations particularly marriage and food habits.

The idea of Dr Ambedkar was influenced by the definition of caste given by Dr S.V. Ketkar, a Sociologist and a Historian from Maharashtra, who had done extensive work on Caste in India. Dr Ketkar defines Caste as a social group having two characteristics — (a) membership is confined to those who are born of members and includes all persons so born; (b) members are forbidden by inexorable social law to marry outside the group. [7] This definition was accepted by Dr Ambedkar to large extent. For him, this was the only definition that understood Caste in System of Castes, while others only focused on specific characteristics. But he further analyzed this definition to conclude that both the characteristics - prohibition of intermarriage and membership by Autogeny - are the same in a way. He states that if intermarriage is prohibited, the membership will automatically be limited to those born within the group.

Dr Ambedkar states that Caste in India means an artificial chopping off of the population into fixed and definite units each one prevented from fusing into another through the custom of endogamy. Thus, for Dr Ambedkar, endogamy or absence or prohibition of intermarriage is the essence of the caste system. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, endogamy is the preferred or prescribed practice of marrying within the defined kin group, be it clan, lineage, village or social class. [8] From the feminist point of view, here it is important to understand the link he established between endogamy and women’s subjugation. Endogamy has been recognized as an essential characteristic of the Caste System in India. One of the most renowned Sociologists of India, M.S. Ghurey, in his writings also refers to ‘restriction on marriage’ as one of six characteristics of the caste system in India. [9] In other words caste system in India is dependent on the prevention and prohibition of intermarriages between different caste groups.

According to Dr Ambedkar, maintaining endogamy is primary for maintaining the sanctity of the caste. To do this the caste group maintains strict restriction on marriage outside the caste. The problem is faced in form of managing the marriageable units of both sexes within the caste. Left to nature or in a perfect scenario, the balance of units will be maintained if a couple dies simultaneously, which is quite rare. Thus, the imbalance is created with the death of one of them. In case of the death of the husband, there is the problem of a surplus wife. This is taken care of by disposing of the woman as she may end up destroying the sanctity of the caste group. On the other hand, if a woman dies, there is the problem of a surplus husband. In this case, the caste group is sympathetic to the husband. The contrast in both cases lies in the status of men and women in society. While surplus women are needed to be disposed of in the form of Sati or enforced widowhood, the surplus husband has a much more sympathetic consideration in form of marriage to a child within the caste or celibacy if he opts for that.

The above examination of the system of endogamy and how it maintains the caste system by Dr Ambedkar challenges the narrative of the understanding of Caste Structure in India. It clearly emphasizes that men are the dominant actor in society and the formation of the caste system is based on violence and subjugation of women. The exploitative dimension of endogamy is one in which women is the only sufferer in form of Sati, enforced widowhood or Child Marriage. This also questions the prevalent understanding of the social reformers who were focused on getting rid of social evils without going into underlying causes.

Dr Ambedkar went on to discuss the reason behind the downfall of women in Hindu society in his later essay “The Rise and Fall of Hindu Women: Who was responsible for it?”. He presented contrasting pictures of Hinduism and Buddhism and portrayed that the status of women under Buddhism was better. Under Hinduism, women were denied all access to knowledge. This was traced by him to Manusmriti which denies women the right to learn Vedas, thereby denying them equal status even in death where sanskaras (last rites) are done without chanting of Vedas in case of women. Manusmriti was in line with earlier Brahmanical texts which also denied access to knowledge for women. This was done without any reason and thus a primary reason for the downfall of Hindu women. In contrast, he cites that Buddha allowed women access to Parivraja (wandering ascetic) whereby they got access to knowledge and could experience spiritual enlightenment. Thus, Buddha brought women out of enslavement and changed their lives. Manusmriti states that,

Her father protects her in childhood, her husband protects her in youth, and her sons protect her in old age; a woman is never fit for independence. [10]

This has been criticized by Dr Ambedkar as women have been denied independence throughout her life. Adding to this, women are expected to worship their husband even if he is “destitute or virtuous or seeking pleasure elsewhere, or devoid of good qualities” [11]. Dr Ambedkar cites that there has been evidence of women having a higher status in the pre-Manu period where women were the free and equal partner of man and had the right to education, divorce, remarriage and economic freedom. The instances of public discourse between Janaka and Sulabha,Yajnavalkya and Maitrei,Yajnavalkya and Gargi, and Sankaracharya and Vidyadhari show that Indian women in the pre-Manu period were learned and educated. He saw emancipation for women in Buddhist values, which promote equality, self-respect and education. He believed that Buddha treated women with respect and love, and never tried to degrade them like Manu. He taught women Buddha Dharma and religious philosophy. Buddhism for him was something in which every man and woman is free. They are above any supra-natural agency or the medium of priest or rituals. There is no concept of inequality between man and woman.

This was followed by Dr Ambedkar’s “The Riddles of Rama and Krishna”, which is an attack on Hindu mythological characters. There is gender centrality in his criticism. According to him, the Indian mythological characters are largely androcentric. These texts glorify men and their deeds whereas women are shown as dependent, weak and mischievous who are unfit for independence. They also place the burden on women to constantly prove themselves to be pious, virtuous, ideal and chaste, and also describe punishment if they fail to fulfil their obligation. Dr Ambedkar’s one of the challenges to Hinduism is his explanation for why violence against women in Brahmanical patriarchy is inherited in nature. He views Rama as not an ideal husband. For him, he was cruel and someone who abandoned his wife to fulfil his Kshatriya (military or ruling class) dharma. In the same way, he criticized Lord Krishna as someone who is polygamous, having eight principal wives won in war or carried away from swayamvara (practice in which a girl of marriageable age chose a husband from a group of suitors) weddings and consorts inherited from the harem of a defeated king.

Dr Ambedkar as a mobilizer against social injustice inspired thousands of men and women to fight for their rights and achieve a society based on the principle of equality, justice and fraternity. This paved way for the rise of Dalit Feminism in the longer run. Dr Ambedkar encouraged the participation of women in the movement alongside men. Dr Ambedkar’s speeches and thoughts have made a great impact on Dalit women. In one of his speeches, he stated that,

In real sense, the question of abolition of Untouchability is not that of men but of you, women. You gave birth to us men. You know how other people treat us - even inferior than animals. Sometimes, they don’t even bear our shadow. Other people get respected positions in courts and offices. But we, born from your womb, cannot get even job of Police Constable. What will you answer if you are asked why did you give us birth? What is the difference between children born to kayastha and other “Touchable” women sitting right here, and children like us born to you? You must realize that whatever sanctity Brahmin women have, you have it too; whatever character they have, you have too. In fact the courage and daring that you possess is lacking among Brahmin women. Why should your child be deprived of even Human Rights? If this is so, why then the child born to Brahmin women is universally acceptable, while a child born to you faces insults everywhere?

If you think about this, either you will have to stop producing offspring, or you will have to get rid of the stigma that has been put on them because of you. You have to do one of the two. Take oath that you will not live under this stigma. As men are determined about emancipation, you should do the same.

You should educate your daughter as well. Knowledge and education are not only for men only. It is necessary for women too. If you wish to reform your next generation, you must give education to girls as well. [12]

Conclusion

The role of Dr Ambedkar cannot be confined to any single dimension. He not only gave an academic dimension to the interlinkage between Caste and Gender but also paved way for the rise of Dalit Feminism in the longer run. In his works, he showed how within the Hindu religion women have been systematically given secondary status. He strongly criticized the religious texts and mythological characters for their treatment of women. In this, his strongest criticism was for Manusmriti which does not allow independence to women throughout her life, denies her access to knowledge and presents the idea of ideal women which she needs to follow throughout her life. His criticism of the Hindu religion and listing of instances of better treatment of women under Buddhism posed a challenge to the Hindu society to change from within. Till then focus within Hindu society was largely confined to getting rid of conservative evil practices without focusing on core issues.

Dr Ambedkar was a mass mobiliser and his calls brought out a large number of Dalit women to the fore. In all his campaigns, he called and gave equal status to women. Adding to this his fiery speeches did wonder to the confidence of Dalit women who came out in large numbers to listen to him. In later years, this mobilization has emerged as a strong political force in defence of reservation and against practices like untouchability, social discrimination. Dr Ambedkar’s ideas were revolutionary for his period and were thus criticized by religious groups. But in the longer run, most of his work and ideas has been widely accepted and forced the changes within the framework.

(Author: Arpita Giri is a Ph.D. in International Studies from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi)


[1Sarasvati, Pandita Ramabai (1888), The High Caste Hindu Woman, Philadelphia: The Jas B. Rodgers Printing Co., p55-56.

[2Ibid p56.

[3Shinde, Tarabai (2004), Stri-Purush Tulna, New Delhi: Navayan.

[4Ibid.

[5Farooqui, Vimla (1996), A Short History of Women’s Movement in India, New Delhi: People’s Publishing House.

[6Chakrvarti, Uma (1993), “Conceptualizing Brahmanical Patriachy in Early India: Gender, Caste, Class and State” Economic and Political Weekly, 28(14): 579-85.

[7Rege, Sharmila (2013), Against the Madness of Manu: B.R Ambedkar’s Writings on Brahmanical Patriarchy, New Delhi: Navayana, p82.

[8Ibid p84.

[9Ghurey, G.S. (1979), Caste and Race in India, Bombay: Popular Prakashan.

[10The Laws of Manu (2000), (Translated by Doniger, Wendy and Smith, Brian K.), London: Penguin Books.

[11Ibid.

[12Ambedkar, Dr B.R. (1928), Bahishkrit Bharat (3 February 1928).

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