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Author: Sitwat Mirza
University: Kings College London

Recent feminist studies have focused on deconstructing the Indian nationalist discourse, to get a sense of where the ‘women question’ fits in to the socio-political framework of the late nineteenth and twentieth century. One example of this is Anushman Mondal’s study on Gandhi’s ideology of women.

Current scholarly work has also shifted from examining the role of upper-class elite women in the Indian nationalist movement, to the role of middle class and rural women. For instance, Suruchi Thapar-Björkert’s analysis of a series of interviews she carried out, illuminates the ways in which mothers and housewives of a variety of religious, class and caste backgrounds, participated in nationalist activities.


This essay will examine the relationship between nationalist conceptions of women, and the ways in which women themselves participated in the Indian nationalist movement from the late nineteenth century to partition. The first section will examine how elite women placed themselves within the nationalist-feminist discourse.

The second section will analyse the connection between Ghandi’s ideology, the Muslim League’s perception of women, and the role that lower and middle-classed women played in nationalist politics. Overall, this essay will argue that women’s political activity served to legitimise the Indian nationalist movement. Involvement in the nationalist movement achieved little for feminist organisations themselves, as the nature of these activities largely remained domestic. Hence, Indian women came to symbolise the idealised nationalist woman; a mother and goddess who took pride in desh seva (nation’s service).


The ‘women question’ was central in shaping the nationalist discourse and ideas of civilisation, in the late nineteenth and twentieth century. Essentially, Indian nationalist thinkers saw the West as superior in the outside ‘material’ world, and the East as superior in the ‘spiritual’ domain of the home.

Partha Chatterjee evaluates these idioms of bahir (outside) and ghar (the home) to conclude that women were seen as protectors of the ghar and Indian religious customs and values. Much of this nationalist theory was rooted in religious revivalism; Sarkar analyses the use of Hindu goddesses Kali and Durga by politicians to evoke a sense of patriotism amongst the Hindu female population.

Nationalists also sought to ‘civilise’ and ‘improve’ the position of women. For instance, there was a desire to educate women but not in the English language; she should learn to read and write in her vernacular language.

Through this propaganda, politicians were able to successfully incorporate feminist concerns of gender inequality in to the nationalist agenda, enabling them to gain popular female support and legitimise their campaigns. In reality, this idealised conception of women as mothers of the future independent nation, stopped short of allowing women to transgress the domestic sphere.

It is also important to gain an insight into how elite educated women responded to the nationalist representations of women, to understand the relationship between the two. In Shobna Nijhawan’s analysis of early twentieth century women’s periodicals like the Stri Darpan, she argues that Indian women wrote literature that drew on Orientalist theories.

For instance, James Mill’s claim that the low position of women in society showed that Western civilisation was superior to its Indian counterpart, was echoed throughout the works of Ramchandra. Ramchandra refers to a Vedic past, to project a golden age in which the status of Indian women was high in terms of ‘religious activity…motherhood, faithfulness, learning and heroism’.

These were only some ways in which women acted in line with nationalist representations of them. The views of elite women like Sarojini Naidu somewhat diverged from the nationalist idealisation of women; she argued that civilisation needed to be embraced by both Indian men and women.

Moreover, the Tamil women’s Self Respect Movement advocated a complete break with traditional patriarchal institutions of marriage and chastity. Such organisations challenged the nationalist framework-that looked to re-work the existing gender hierarchy- and called in to question the relationship between the nationalist project and the plight of women.

David Willmer’s study is focused on the role that Muslim elite women played in this discourse. For instance, Mumtaz Shah Nawaz’s novel, The Heart Divided illustrates the way in which elite Muslim women conceptualised the Pakistan movement as a solution to the many social problems that they experienced in colonial India.

The novel has a nationalist outlook as it presents Pakistan as the moral state in which Islam would be reformed and would expand the horizons for women like Sughra- the character in the novel- to engage in political activity at the level of their male counterparts. What this implies is that elite women played a key role in promoting their own feminist agenda on nationalist politics; they sought to actively challenge gender roles.

Yet, these theories were largely confined to the negligible proportion of elite female readership and was unable to reach the masses. It was their wider message of preparing women to become active citizens for the future nation, which came through via their involvement in the Indian nationalist movement.

Gandhi’s ideology on sexuality and gender also played a large part in shaping women’s role in the nationalist movement. According to Anshuman Mondal, Gandhi considered sexual desire to be a force that prevented one from building shakti (strength). In this context, Gandhi saw women as ‘renunciators’ who were able to lead a non-violent and a peaceful campaign against colonialism by performing symbolic political activities.

Furthermore, Lyn Norvell points out that Gandhi ‘denounced [the custom of sati] as blind egoism by man and the dowry as reducing women to the position of mere cattle and property to be bought and sold’. Apart from this, Gandhi was popular amongst the masses for his real ‘concern for the poor…love for humanity, and respect for basic values’.

Overall, Ghandian theory-based on the passivity, non-aggressive and loving character of the female- was rooted in a response to the growing communalism and Hindu nationalist militancy in the 1930s. Its main cause lay in gathering support for a fight against colonialism rather than tackling women’s issues specifically, and thus put forward non-violence as its main method of protest.

From Geraldine Forbes analysis, it is clear that Indian women from different regions adopted Gandhi’s ideology of satyagraha in different ways. For instance, in Bombay, Sarojini Naidu founded the Rashtriya Stree Sangha (RSS), which took an active part in picketing shops, wearing swadeshi fabric like khaddar, and boycotting salt taxes in the civil disobedience movement of 1930.

Comparatively, in Calcutta, although uniformed Bengali female students were initially recruited as part of Subhas Chandra Bose’s Mahila Rashtriya Sangha (MRS), they soon joined revolutionary organisations. Some young women like Bina Das- who was taken for shooting Governor Jackson- were arrested, whilst others secretly made explosives, spread propaganda and acted as comrades.

Such examples are useful to historians when used in conjunction with oral histories, that give a voice those women absent from these narratives. Thapar-Bjokert’s interview of Ganga Devi reveals that she had been involved in distributing khadi chadars, literature and food to men, as well as holding secret meetings at her home when her husband was away.

What can be seen is that women of all classes actively sought ways to break free of gender hierarchies. In an attempt to make their presence heard, young Indian women sought revolutionary methods that lay outside the capacity of the nationalist agenda. Thus, as argued by Sarkar, there was a considerable ‘gap between political practice and its imaginative representation’.

Of course, the nationalist discourse was not one that was exclusive to Hindu nationalist politics. David Willmer argues that the Pakistan Movement drew on existing social problems like the discourse on purdah (the veil) as a way of incorporating women in to the nationalist movement and gaining wider support from educated elite Muslim women.

During the time of the Khilafat movement, the imposition of stricter Islamic law on women in Punjab, meant that those Muslim women who addressed all-male gatherings, had to remain veiled. Thus, the process of integrating women in to Muslim nationalist politics stopped short of allowing women to transcend the private sphere.

As mentioned earlier, it is oral histories that give a better insight in to subaltern studies. Thapar-Bjokert stresses that the difficulties she faced in engaging with interviewees to obtain a true account of their narrative, which further illuminates how silenced women’s voices were in society at the time. This reveals that the majority of women in lower and middle-class Muslim households, played a secretive role in the Indian nationalist movement which was largely confined to the domestic sphere.

Additionally, Willmer argues that politics provided a new arena to raise social issues concerning the progress of women. For instance, Maulvi Muhammed Farooq openly disapproved of purdah as a restriction to women’s progression in society, in the League’s 1938 all- India session.

Yet again, however, nationalism represented itself as a unifying force in the 1940 Lahore Session. Jinnah advocated that ‘…if political consciousness is awakened amongst out women… your children will not have much to worry about…’. From this analysis, it can be gleaned that nationalists looked to address social contentions by providing all Muslims with the promised homeland of Pakistan.

Furthermore, the reference to children in Jinnah’s address shows how similar Hindu and Muslim nationalist conceptions of women were; they were symbolised as the hope for a new future. Overall, this case study illuminates well how nationalists were able to use propaganda to appeal to women.

It is true that debates over purdah were opened up in this political context, and thus, gender roles were brought in to question more openly. However, ultimately, women’s role remained marginalised due to increased efforts to restrict their political activities to the domestic sphere.

This essay has attempted to show that there was a dichotomy between feminist concerns and the nationalist cause to gather widespread support for the fight against colonialism. Hence, although Hindu nationalists like the Congress party and Gandhi presented their agenda as one which promised to resolve social problems of child-marriage, sati, dowry and high illiteracy, the integration of women into politics just showed the problems that came with the overlapping of lines between the public and private sphere.

Even the Muslim League presented Pakistan as a moral homeland which promised freedom and emancipation for women. With this, the issue of gendered hierarchies became an even more pressing issue. Overall, the role of women in the Indian nationalist movement remained symbolic in that it espoused ideas of motherhood and prosperity for the nation, and reduced the ‘women question’ to a political tool used for the purpose of raising a nationalist consciousness.

Looking forward, scholars should re-direct their attention to writing social histories which place the feminist concerns of Indian women at the centre, rather than viewing them in relation to the political discourse of the Indian nationalist movement.

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