Friday, October 5, 2012

Women's Lives

Women living in our society have to bear the patriarchal pressure of being good and virtuous women who live within the boxes earmarked for them. The stereotypes to which Indian women have to conform are clearly spelt out from an early age. Mothers, Grandmothers and other adult female relatives have the job of teaching young girls to live according to roles mapped out by their caste and religious backgrounds.

But women have not always conformed to these codes or led their lives in strict accordance to such social laws. They have broken and challenged patriarchy in myriad ways. Some have paid a bitter price for such  resistance. Others have emerged victorious in defining their lives and living it according to a feminist value system.

We have had innumerable foremothers who forged brave new paths for us to walk on. 

Most of the things that we women take for granted today were not accessible to women just some decades back. Education, jobs, right to vote, political participation and so many things were just impossible to even dream about. Marriage before she reached a double-digit age was the norm for the majority of women. She had to bear children and do the housework from a very young age. Widows were ill-treated by family members themselves but had to live with and depend on them for survival. It was unthinkable for them to re-marry or go out and earn. Concepts like chastity, sati defined a good woman. Prostitution, Devadasi, Dayan etc were concepts created for women who defied the patriarchal order of endogamous marriage that was meant to propogate the caste system.

Women could not study according to Manu Shastras of Sanatan Dharma. Neither could people belonging to non-brahmin castes and those outside the chatur-varna system. Just imagine, Savitribai Phule started the first school for women in India on 1st May 1847 i.e., just about 160 years back. Her life was one of struggle, hope and courage. She was physically attacked by orthodox brahmin men with brickbats, rotten tomatoes, eggs and cowdung on her way to school many times, as they felt that she had broken the religious codes!

Now we take education for granted. It is as if this has been the tradition all along. Let us remember that this was not so! Many of the rights that we have today are the results of struggles of a life-time by many generations of women. Let's salute these women and look back on their lives. We need to know more about their lives, dreams, hopes and struggles, so that we can understand how precious these rights and benefits that we casually take for granted are.


Two books that I read recently are about such inspiring and courageous women who tried to change the world and make it a better place. 

'The Prisons We Broke' by Baby Kamble (Publisher - Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd) is the English translation of her Marathi autobiography 'Jina Amucha'.  Writing about the lives of Mahars of Maharashtra, Baby Kamble remembers how the Mahar society was before Babasaheb Ambedkar arrived on the Dalit horizon. Beautifully written, full of liveliness and verve, sans self-pity, it tells the tale of not just her own life, but that of her community. Please read this excellent review at 


Breaking Barriers by Parvati Menon  (Publisher - Leftword) is another stimulating read about twelve politically conscious women who challenged the exploitative social order and broke many barriers in building up a women's organization viz., AIDWA. 

This book contains short biographies of these twelve women leaders who have been long associated with CPM like Ahilya Rangnekar, Ila Bhattacharya, Kanak Mukherjee, Lakshmi Sahgal, Mallu Swarajyam, Mangaleswari Deb Burma, Manjari Gupta, Moturu Udayam, Pankaj Acharya, Pappa Umanath, Suseela Gopalan and Vimal Ranadive. 

These biographies could have become more meaningful and realistic if these women could have had the space to talk about the political line taken by the CPM from 1990s onwards viz., the age of globalization and struggles like Singur and Nandigram and their identification or discomfort with it. 

But still, the early history of the undivided Communist Party of India is worth reading and learning from. Most of these women were part of the freedom movement and hence their experiences are rich. They give us a glimpse of the social milieu prevailing in 1940s and 50s. 

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