Woman: Her Exploitation and Rebellion

Suman Oak

In this world many things seem to happen randomly. Even life on earth, they say, has come about accidentally; but not woman’s enslavement. The inferior status to which woman is reduced has not come to pass naturally; it has been wrought by man though he prefers to believe otherwise. At the dawn of human history when the ability to give birth to a human child was valued man tended to respect woman, like mother earth for her power of procreation till man’s role in that process was comprehended. As the nomadic tribes gradually settled as primitive but somewhat stable cattle raising agricultural society, more children meant more work and combat force. A woman who produced more children was respected more; a childless one was despised. Man’s superior physical strength and possessive instinct, his urge to ascertain that the children under his roof are his own, enslaved women and used them as machines of procreation. Woman’s ‘mother instinct’ made her comply with man’s wish.

As more stability brought a reservoir of agricultural products, the concepts of ownership and inheritance of land, paternity, patriarchal households and man’s superiority over woman evolved. Religion, an institution made by ‘men’ was and is of much help in subjugating women. Many in India believe that the pristine Vedic Religion honoured woman like a goddess but under the influence of other religions and culture enslaved her later, giving examples of Gargi and Maitreyee to support their pet belief. But the fact is that throughout the history of human civilization man has exploited and enslaved woman.

To demonstrate this, we shall examine three episodes; one from the Vedic period, another from 19th century India under British rule and a third from 20th century India during the freedom struggle and after achieving independence. They illustrate not only how woman has been exploited throughout history but also how bravely she has been fighting against it.

Madhavi: a machine that produced world conquerors

Madhavi was the daughter of the great king Yayati. This story from Mahabharat although not very popular does tell us what the men of those days thought about their women and how they treated them. A princess like Madhavi was no exception. The story goes like this:

The sage Vishwamitra who was born a Kshatreeya was elevated to the status of a Brahmin by Dharma (the deity of religiosity) and became a Brahmarshi. He was so pleased with his new status that he released Galav another young sage attending on him from his tutelage. But Galav did not want to leave Vishwamitra without paying him Guru Dakshina. The Guru wanted to free his disciple without Dakshina but Galav insisted on knowing what his Guru wanted in return for the tutoring. Exasperated Vishwamitra asked Galav to get him 800 snow-white horses with black ears.

Galav got himself into a fix with no clue as to how to obtain those many horses of the rarest variety. Galav consulted his friend Garud and both approached king Yayati who was a friend of Garud. Yayati himself at that time was in rather strained circumstances. But in order not to disappoint his friend Garud and refuse Galav what he asked for, Yayati offered him his lovely daughter Madhavi for whose hand gods, men and daemons all vied with each other. The king told Galav that he can offer her to a rich king and demand those peculiar horses as bride-price. Any king would accept Madhavi for a wife, he added, as she was blessed with the ability to produce brave sons capable of conquering the world.

The obedient daughter followed Galav who approached the richest king of the day, Haryashcha of Ayodhya. Galav offered him Madhavi in exchange of 800 snow-white horses with black ears. Even this rich king had only 200 such horses and offered to have Madhavi for his wife only till she bore him a son. Madhavi was duly returned to Galav after she delivered one brave son. The 200 horses had to be kept with the king for a while till Galav could arrange for the rest of them. Next Galav approached Divodas the king of Kashi. He too enjoyed this lovely princess, begot a son and returned Madhavi to Galav along with 200 snow-white horses with black ears. To get the remaining number of horses, Galav took Madhavi to Ushinar, the King of Bhoj. This king was childless and declared that he was marrying Madhavi not for lust but only to get a son. All the same he took Madhavi to many beautiful sights and thoroughly enjoyed her. He too could give Galav only 200 horses and had to return Madhavi to Galav.

Finally Galav returned to his Guru Vishwamitra with Madhavi and those 600 horses and told him that he could get a son from Madhavi in lieu of the remaining 200 horses. Vishwamitra told Galav that instead of taking Madhavi to these other kings he should have brought the lovely princess to him in the first place, who could then have four sons of his own from her instead of the horses! Vishwamitra got his share of pleasure and a brave son and returned Madhavi to Galav who in turn returned her to her father Yayati.

Yayati then took Madhavi to the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna and arranged a ‘Swayamwar’ ceremony for her to choose her husband. In the ceremony many expectant kings and princes were introduced to her one after another. Madhavi refused them all and went away from the madding crowd to the forest and became a Sanyasini. Later Madhavi and her four sons rescued Yayati who was thrown down from Swarga i.e. heaven for his impertinent behavior. But Madhavi and her four sons on the strength of their own Punya i.e. merit of good deeds bounced him back into heaven.

The story, although a myth, does give us an idea as to how women were treated in that so called glorious ancient past. An innocent young girl and a princess at that, was used like some commodity. She was sexually exploited by four men giving a dam to her feelings. She was put to work like a machine producing brave sons (no daughters). Seeta had to undergo a fire ordeal to prove her chastity. But in order to make use of the fecundity of this young princess the patriarchal society decided that she became a virgin after every delivery and immaculate enough to be married to another man. At last she was allowed to decide her future through the Swayamwar when she chose to become a Sanyasini renouncing all the joys of life to escape the menace of the society. Lastly, even after all these ordeals she, along with her four sons is shown to squander all their Punya on hurling an impudent father back into heaven.

Pandita Ramabai: 19th Century’s Rebellious Woman

Such a male dominated society as described in the above story thrived and flourished for a long time without any noticeable women’s rebellion during the middle ages. A few examples like Ahilyabai Holkar or Rani Lakshmibai of Zashi come to our mind; but theirs were political struggles and no rebellion against the male domination and women’s exploitation in the society. Women remained illiterate and quietly suffered their lot within the four walls blaming their ‘Praktan’ (their own fate decided by their deeds in the earlier births).

In the 19th century, however, a few men like Raja Rammohan Rai took up women’s cause. Against this background stands out a brave woman distinctly, dedicated to her mission of emancipating Indian women and inspiring them to overthrow male domination. Analyzing why India could be enslaved she says, ‘why we Indians become so listless, weak and submissive? We claim our ancestors were so dazzling, brave, dutiful and stoic. Why, then, the progeny of such illustrious ancestors should reach this despicable state of slavery? The plain answer is that the innocent women of India are made to live in ignorance and slavery and have become listless. Most Indian men think that the women should be totally ignorant because if they acquire knowledge they will hamper our unrestrained freedom and belittle our dignity. So they give religious mandate that will serve their purpose of enslaving women by depriving them of the right to study scriptures and forcing them to accept total mastery of their husbands -the only way open to them to achieve liberation. Our scriptures are full of animus towards women and use such epithets as villainous, scheming, foolhardy, etc. and ban women from participating in any good social activity. They think that, this serves their (man’s) purpose but they are, on the contrary, ruining themselves along with their women. How can their decimated, ignorant, listless women produce a progeny worthy of their illustrious ancestors? Can the fallow land where only grass grows give sweet mangoes?’

This brave woman of the 19th century who pinpoints the root cause of our slavery is none other than Pandita Ramabai Saraswati. Born to a Hindu Brahmin priest on 23rd April 1858, Ramabai astounded the learned Pandits of Calcutta (now Kolkata) by her learned talks in fluent Sanskrit. They felicitated her when she was hardly 21 years old. In their citation they mentioned, ‘you are the very goddess of learning, Saraswati incarnated come to this earth.’ Thus Ramabai became Pandita Ramabai Saraswati.

Ramabai’s father was a courageous Hindu Pandit who defied the then prevalent religious ban on educating women depriving them of the right to study Sanskrit language and religious scriptures. He taught his wife and children, especially Ramabai who was extraordinarily intelligent.  He was boycotted by the community for this affront and had to lead the life of a hermit, crisscrossing the whole country with his wife and children, living in temples and earning livelihood through preaching and sermons.

Ramabai was very unfortunate and lost her father, mother and her sister Krishnabai, one after another and by 1874 was left with only one younger brother Shrinivas. Even he died in 1880 in Calcutta. Ramabai then married a Bengali pleader, Bipin Bihari Medhavi who too passed away in 1882 leaving behind the young Ramabai, hardly 24 years old with a daughter. While in this dire state, she was invited by Justice Ranade to Pune. There she established the “Arya Mahila Samaj” at Pune and other places in Maharashtra. She also published a book, ‘Stree Dharmaneeti’ which earned her enough money to go to England with her daughter. There she worked as a professor of Sanskrit. In the Oriental Conference held in Berlin in 1883, she astonished the participants including Prof. Max Muller with her erudite scholarship.

While in Europe, Pandita Ramabai and her daughter embraced Christianity and became strong believers. In 1888, she went to America, studied preprimary education, gave a number of lectures and also published her book, ‘Uchchavarneeya Hindu Stree’ (the Elite Hindu Woman) which she dedicated to Dr. Anandibai Joshi, who encouraged by her husband, studied medicine in America in those days, so adverse to women who dared to study.

In 1889 she returned to India and worked for emancipation of India’s women. The condition of the innocent child widows disturbed her and woman’s education became her life’s mission. ‘Sharadashram’, the institution she founded had only two women to start with. One of them was Anandibai who was to marry Maharshi Karve later. (Maharshi Karve was later decorated with the highest honour of Bharat Ratna.) Pandita Ramabai also founded ‘Mukti Mission’ and a school for blind girls. Her daughter Manorama was a great help to her in all her endaevours. Ramabai lost even this one thread of hope on 24th July 1921 but her immense faith in god and her mission did not diminish.

Ramabai, in addition to Sanskrit and English, had studied and mastered Greek and Hebrew and a number of Indian languages-Knnada, Tulu, Gujarati, Bengali and Hindi. The huge library at Mukti Mission is a testimony to her vast reading. She translated the bible into Marathi from the original Greek and Hebrew versions. The British Government decorated her with a Gold Medal- ‘Kaiser –I- Hind’ in 1919. Her real rebellious nature came to the fore during the bitter debate on the ‘bill of consent’. The most formidable orthodox opponent of it was Lokamanya Tilak, who considered the bill to be an assault on Hindutwa and Hindu Religious traditions. Even the moderate Justice Ranade was inclined to agree with this view. Pandita Ramabai alone vehemently maintained that the minimum age of marriage for a girl should be 16 years.

It was Mahatma Gandhi who recognized that the exploitative relation between women and men is closely connected with sexuality. He wanted both men and women to enter into the political and social reconstruction of the nation forgetting the gender difference. Many women responded to Gandhiji’s call and entered the civil disobedience and non-cooperation movements proving that they too cherish freedom and are certainly worthy of it. But by then, unfortunately Ramabai, the brave undaunted daughter of India had passed away on 8th April 1922.

20th Century Indian Woman: when a few can begin to side with her

Jamuna was born on 13th of March 1909 to Mathuradas Gokuldas, a wealthy Bhatia Merchant Prince of Bombay. Jamuna had six brothers and no sister. She grew in a cosmopolitan atmosphere and escaped the taboos and inhibitions that were imposed upon girls of those days. She had no formal education but learned English and Music under a private Parsee tutor. At the age of 13, Jamuna was married to Shantikumar, the only son of Narottam Morarjee, another wealthy merchant of Bombay. She now became Sumati Morarjee and the lady of the house as her mother-in-law had passed away earlier. Sumati Morarjee later became famous as the head of the ‘Scindia Shipping’ company.

Sumati’s father-in-law very quickly recognized her talent and encouraged her to participate not only in social but also in his own business activities. She groomed well and was quite ready, at the age of 20, to take over from her father in law in 1929. Early in 1919 Narottam had ventured into national shipping and set up the Scindia Steam Navigation Company when British Ships were in trade giving him a stiff competition and a great resistance to using Indian made bottoms. Sumati and her husband both were partners in the company; but Sumati, in addition was partner in the managing agency also. After Narottam’s death, the couple had to take charge of the company but the main task fell on Sumati’s shoulders and she started attending to every day affairs of the company.

Running an Indian Shipping Company and also advocating government support to private sector shipping of Indian nationals was a very bold anti-British stand. Gandhiji who was close to this family appreciated her nationalist stand. Sumati was not only adept at running a company efficiently but was also an active supporter of the underground nationalist organization of Achyut Patwardhan, Aruna Asafali and Jayprakash Narayan. She herself had to go underground for a while and stay away from Scindia. Gandhiji warned her about these activities and told her that the prestige of the philosophy of non-violence should not be diminished.  Although Sumati was very close to Gandhiji, she was not in awe of him.

By 1946, she again took charge as a director in the Scindia Board. Shipping is a hazardous industry and shipping lines cannot afford to be narrowly national as they have to depend upon foreign ports, cargo and other services. These are formidable factors that compel many to go international. But for Sumati Scidia was a mission. According to her, with a long coastline, large seaborne trade, a significant sea faring population and obvious maritime interests, India has an important maritime personality. It was during Sumati’s time in 1940s that the Hindusthan Shipyard at Vishakhapatnam was set up by the Scindia for the construction of Cargo ships. Its first ship S S Jala Usha was launched in 1948. Later the Government took over the shipyard and also many other private docks.

The two decades 1949-1969 were called Sumati’s decades. The growth in tonnage showed a big jump from 169,000 to 400,000. Narottam and Sumati had struggled long to free Indian shipping from British control. Theirs was a National Enterprise and not just a commercial one. They were proud of it because it induced our people to travel abroad, see other lands and meet foreigners who in turn could come to India and meet Indian people. It was hard for them to come to terms with government takeover of this private enterprise and yet they were the first, in 1957, to give up the managing agency system.

By now, government of India with their policy of central planning and widening public sector, was directly undertaking commercial activity which the business houses were naturally opposed to. Sumati, however, took a very mature stand and decided not to adopt a confrontational approach, because, she thought, after all the Government’s objective too was the same as hers, i.e. National Development.

Scindia had established INSOA- the Indian National Steamship Owners’ Association long back in 1930. Sumati was elected its president in 1956, 57, 58 and again in 1965 because of her deep understanding of commercial issues, style of presenting them and capacity to organize support. INSOA forced the British to take note of India’s aspirations and got support and preference from the post independence government too. However, when the wealth tax bill was introduced, she had to lead a delegation of INSOA to oppose it. She argued that the tax would harm the industries’ ability to compete internationally, i.e. asking for a level playing field in the modern parlance and did succeed against governments’ efforts to raise resources. Similarly she attacked the proposed Merchant Shipping Bill allowing anyone even a non-Indian to own and register a ship in India as an Indian Ship. She pointed out the dangers involved in this policy and the Swadeshi Sentiment helped her win this time too.

Sumati’s work style was very orderly and well organized; she never kept any correspondence pending. Despite heavy demands of her profession, she meticulously fulfilled her household responsibilities and social obligations. She contributed articles and radio talks of shipping related subjects. Being interested and also knowledgeable in arts and crafts she wrote on Indian textiles and Indian arts and had a large collection of artifacts, fine china and paintings from all over the world. She seems to have developed the techniques of time management and stress management maintaining a beaming cheerful face, well before these concepts caught the imagination of management Gurus. She had a place for everything in her brain, put everything in its place and could retrieve it effortlessly as soon as required.

All these achievements were made possible because of the encouragement of her father, her father in law and Gandhiji.  She has set up a new role model for women to show the world what a woman without any formal education can achieve when a few men are on her side. (Ref. ‘Swadeshi Shipping’ from “A Business of Her Own” by Anuradha K, Rajivan.  Indian Woman Today )

Indian women now are trying to make progress in their own lives as well as that of the whole country. Wherever they have an opportunity to study, they seem to do much better than the men. Like Sumati, although not as efficiently as she did, they try to fulfill their responsibilities on all fronts and tide over difficult times courageously. They have shown that they are equal to men, if not superior, in all walks of life. Kiran Bedi, Vandana Shiva, Kalpana Chawala, Mahadevi Verma, Sindhutai Sakpal, P.T.Usha, Saniya Mirza, Siena Nehwal…. the list can be extended ad infinitum. Even the women from middle class and poor families are making their mark on the social screen. But only a few men, liberal at heart, who accept gender equality, actively promote women’s emancipation from the wretched social conditions and blind faith in which they are still mired. The rest of the men feel hurt when women prove to be their equals. The result is eve teasing, assaults on women, rapes, honour killing, driving women to commit suicide, harassment in the family and physical, economic, sexual, psychological exploitation. These crimes are so rampant that women are scared of their own success and freedom which becomes the cause for their victimization. The educational, social, political, administrative, economic, law enforcement and legal systems are all made and administered by men and will not be able to do justice to women till an overall reform along with a change in the mind set of both men and women is brought about.