Voices Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - 05:30
The News Minute | April 15, 2015 | 12.20 pm IST “Give education to your children. Instill ambition in them… Don’t be in a hurry to marry: marriage is a liability. You should not impose it on your children unless financially they are able to meet the liabilities arising from them. Above all, let each girl who marries stand up to her husband, claim to be her husband’s friend and equal, and refuse to be his slave.” These ideas are rather common today, but this statement was in fact made in the mid-20th century, and here’s an introduction to the nearly unknown feminist who made these remarks. Most Indians and even the world at large know B R Ambedkar as a shining example of how an untouchable became the principal force behind the Indian Constitution. But you could live your whole life in India being a feminist scholar, and not have an inkling of his views on women. One of Ambedkar’s greatest gifts to the Indian intellectual tradition is his feminism, kept alive by Phule-Ambedkarites and gayan parties and recently comprehensively explained by academician Sharmila Rege’s in her book Against the Madness of Manu. Do a basic Google search with the words “Ambedkar and women” and results are abysmal. Rege’s book is a primer, explaining Ambedkar’s feminist thought by quoting from several essays and speeches. Rege says that Indian feminisms today are stuck between the binaries of Brahminical patriarchy and Dalit patriarchy, of choosing between gender and community/caste, as opposed to Ambedkar’s understanding of the question of gender in terms of a “graded / Brahminical patriarchy”. Drawing from various writings of Ambedkar, Rege says that the challenge for Dalit and non-Dalit feminisms today, is to “reclaim Ambedkar’s theoretical legacy that viewed caste and gender as entangled, but never just easily equated...” She explains three broad feminist arguments that emerge from Ambedkar’s thought: the essence of caste as endogamous, “the graded character of gendered violence” as a means of organizing the caste system in writings of Manu and lastly, his radicalism as evidenced by the Hindu Code bill. The roots of gender inequality in caste Ambedkar’s research into the origins of not just caste, but the caste system as a whole, as also Buddhism, led him to possibly be the first feminist historian of India, Rege says. Ambedkar rejected the two prevailing positions that caste originated in either race or in divinity, and instead theorized that endogamy – the absence of inter-marriage – was the essence of the caste system. He backed this conclusion with a comparison of American society, where endogamy within race did not lead to the creation of a caste system. In an essay titled Revolution and Counter Revolution in India, he carries out a comparative study of Buddhist and Brahminical texts and looks at the status of women during both periods, Rege writes, and found that women enjoyed more freedom when Buddhist thought was predominant. Historical evidence shows a Buddhist predominance, which was later supplanted by Brahminism. He wrote The Rise and Fall of the Hindu Woman as a response to an essay published in Eve’s Weekly, that held Buddha responsible of the fall of the status of women compared to their “golden position” during a glorious Vedic past. In this essay, Ambedkar dispels the notion that Buddha was a misogynist, a notion that persists to this day. He relies on Buddhist literature in Chinese to point out that in some instances the idea that Buddha was misogynist was the result of attributing statements to the Buddha at a later date. The text in which Buddha is quoted as having forbidden interaction with women was distorted by monks who transcribed the text at a later period. Presenting textual evidence, Ambedkar argues that the monks had possibly attributed to the teacher (Buddha) something that they themselves held important. Ambedkar also says that the Buddhist monasteries were open to all women – married, unmarried, widowed and even to prostitutes. He also compares this with the laws laid down by Manu, who said that women were inherently immoral, disloyal and impure and used this argument to deny them all freedom, Rege says. As for Buddha’s subordination of the nuns’ monasteries to the monks’ monasteries, Ambedkar says it was a practical solution to a problem: the monks were already familiar with an institutional set up as opposed to the nuns who had to be taught anew. The Hindu Code Bill When the Hindu Code Bill was presented to Parliament, Rege described what happened: “For one, the President threatened to stall the Bill’s passage into law. Hindu sadhus laid siege to Parliament. Business houses and land owners warned a withdrawal of support in imminent elections.” All this, for a law that would give women the right to property and to divorce, and for men and women to marry outside the caste they were born into – arguments that many today, have voiced support for. Ambedkar went to great lengths to show Parliament that the bill would not prevent anyone from marrying within their castes and that the justification of the grant of property to women, of the removal of polygamy were already available within traditional law treatises that Hindus held in regard. And yet, he was shouted down. Finally, when the bill had not been passed for several years, Ambedkar resigned in protest, citing the non-passing of the bill as one of the main reasons. Explaining his disappointment, Ambedkar said: “To leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex which is the soul of Hindu society untouched and to go on passing legislation relating to economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace on a dung heap. This is the significance I attached to the Hindu Code.” Many scholars in the country, including feminists and historians agree that Ambedkar’s feminist historical writing and the bulk of his work have been ignored by the mainstream academia. One cannot help but wonder how India’s intellectual landscape would have looked like, had Ambedkar not been ignored for so long. The title of this essay has been borrowed from the title of a song referenced in Against the Madness of Manu. This is a Marathi song, one of countless songs which have been created in the Phule-Ambedkarite gayan parties which kept Ambedkar's ideas alive and built on them and through which Rege, a non-Dalit feminist, was introduced to Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, the intellectual and feminist.