In his speeches in the 1920s, the social reformer had made strong statements about how marriage as an institution enslaved a woman, the unequal concept of ‘chastity’, and why a woman should be financially independent.

A collage of Periyar with a woman's silhouette on his right
Voices Gender rights Saturday, September 17, 2022 - 18:00

There was a man, who was enraged by how society treated its women, way back in the early 1920s. He had strong views about how marriage as an institution enslaved a woman, robbing her of a life of her choice. He firmly believed that the underlying philosophy of our marriage system is solely to turn women into slaves. He relentlessly fought for the rights of women, starting from her right to choose a partner to own property, leaving no stone unturned. And that was why Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy began to be referred to as ‘Periyar’ (‘respected one’ or ‘elder’ in Tamil) by the women leaders of his time, a title that has stuck to him since. 

With his thought processes way ahead of the time he lived in, Periyar was a controversial figure in Tamil society. He, however, was least bothered. At one point, he had gone a step ahead to say that if a woman felt her body was viewed as nothing but a reproductive machine, impeding her freedom, she should get rid of her uterus. This opinion of Periyar’s had led to tremendous outrage at the time, with many questioning him how there would be future generations if women do not give birth. But Periyar was a man of reason, and he rationally put forth two views in response. One is that if a woman is not independent enough to take care of her child, she will have to constantly look for someone’s support, which will not help her attain freedom. The second, and the most important reason, is that it was vital to ensure the rights and freedom of the living, before bringing in the next generation.

He also questioned the very concept of ‘chastity’, which is only enforced upon women, and never on the men. “If there should be true freedom for women, then there should be equal justice for both men and women. Chastity should be made common to both men and women,” he had said. In a society that still gives a free pass to a man just because of his gender, even if he is a rapist, Periyar had advocated equal justice for men and women in his speeches in the 1920s. Fast forward to a century later, how much has changed? 

Even today, when a woman says that she is almost 30 and unmarried, she gets a variety of reactions, ranging from an awkward smile to a worried glance towards her parents. “Don’t say this and that and push your prospects away. You should get married before your youthful look is lost. After that, no one will marry you,” people would say. These unwarranted concerns are arising from a mind systematically conditioned by patriarchy, rooted in the belief that a woman should get married before she is 30, so that she looks young and appealing to the groom and his family. 

Society gets even more offended if the woman’s decision to delay her marriage arises from a need to prioritise her career. It is least bothered about her dreams, struggles, wishes or other expectations from life. In society’s eyes, there is no better purpose to her life than to get married as soon as possible, and start producing children.

If you talk to most married women, they would lament about the kind of life that they wanted to lead but couldn’t, as they were forced to give up on all hopes and dreams to take care of their husband, his parents and their children. Some of them are stuck in an abusive marriage, many of them simply in an unhappy one. But for society, what matters is that she is leading a ‘respectable life’. Naturally, a divorce remains out of the question.

But Periyar had insisted that a woman should always have the option to come out of an unhappy marriage. It may be noted that while saying so, he was not necessarily talking about a woman’s freedom to leave abusive marriages, which is slightly more acceptable in today’s world. Periyar’s point was that women should also be able to leave a marriage simply because she was unhappy — a nuance that comes as a surprise from a man who said this almost a century ago. “The social atrocities, which insist that a woman should live with a man, even when he doesn’t have love and compassion, really suppress true love that springs from the heart and makes it perish,” he had said.

One may wonder if, by saying so, Periyar is glorifying the idea of ‘true love’. On the contrary, in the chapter ‘Love’ (Kaadhal) in the book Why has Woman Become a Slave? (Pen Yen Adimaiyanal?), a compilation of his speeches on women’s rights, it can be seen that Periyar had a starkly progressive view on the concept of love. “The lovers’ mutual state of mind, status, outlook, mental maturity and aim may be different when they fall in love, but these may change in due course. In such situations, should they compromise and continue their love, immersing themselves in sorrow and dejection,” he had asked. It is 2022, and we still see popular culture lean towards the narrative that a man or woman should stay in a relationship regardless of how they are treated in it, because that is what ‘true love’ is — a notion that Periyar had looked down upon, even back in the 1920s.

The society is changing today, gradually as it may be, to the way Periyar had advocated. At least a small section of the population has now come to accept the ideas of divorce and remarriage. It is always easy to preach, and very difficult to practice what you preach. But Periyar was a man who walked the talk. He did so for his younger sister’s daughter, who had lost her husband at the age of 10. He fought the objections of his parents and relatives to get her remarried.

Periyar had also arrived at a conclusion as to why women are unable to come out of society’s enslavement, identifying financial independence as the key to their freedom. He said, “Of all the reasons, not having the right to property is, in my opinion, the most important reason for the enslavement of women.” He strongly believed that education is the only way to empower women. Even today, education is the sole weapon that has helped a plethora of women succeed in life, take bold decisions to stay single or marry late, leave an unhappy marriage or never have a child. At least a section of women are finally choosing their careers over marriage and children, and at least a few men are trying to understand and support them. 

In his foreword to the book Pen Yen Adimaiyanal?, he says, “I hope that this book shall be useful to the people of all religions, all countries, and all societies. Not only womenfolk, but all, including those gentlemen who are compassionate towards women and who treat women equally, should also read this book.” And that is exactly what I wish for — for people of all ages, across all societies, to read the book, and at least have a healthy conversation about it.

Periyar was a visionary, a man way ahead of his times, and the change in the scene that we witness today is a testament to that, regardless of whether they recognise his contributions or not. The journey might be slow, long and hard, but someday, women will be free from the shackles of enslavement, making his words come true.

All of Periyar E.V.R’s quotes have been taken or paraphrased from the book ‘Why has Woman Become a Slave?’, translated by Dr K M Ramathal and published by Thamizhmann Pathipagam.

A Kuyil Mozhi is a law graduate from the School of Excellence in Law at the Tamil Nadu Dr. Ambedkar Law University. Coming from a family that has been following Periyar’s principles for three generations now, she was introduced to the revolutionary social reformer and his ideologies when she was a kid, and hasn’t turned back since.

 
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