Pandita Ramabai

Pandita Ramabai: First Indian Female Feminist

June 10, 2022

Feminism In The Indian Context

The feminist stream of social and political thought is concerned with the issues of feminism.

Feminism refers to a social movement which aims to remove discrimination against women in terms of their rights, opportunities for self-development and sharing of political power.

In the history of modern Indian thought, concern with the plight of women and the demand for their emancipation has come to the fore since the advent of the Indian Renaissance.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy stood against the practice of Sati, an example of blatant injustice against women that prevailed in orthodox Hindu society.

He also campaigned against malpractices like child marriage, disfigurement of widows and restrictions on their remarriage. Due to his unceasing efforts, Sati was banned in 1829 by the British.

Then Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar continued the Reform Movement that Raja Ram Mohan Roy started, and he was instrumental in enacting the widow remarriage act of 1856.

Swami Dayanand Saraswati also preached for women's equality and made a strong case for removing the restrictions on women from reading the Vedas.

Mahatma Jyotiba Phule is widely known for is efforts to promote women's education apart from preventing female infanticide.

Swami Vivekanand was particularly concerned about the degradation of women in India. He championed the cause of women's education as he believed that it was the women who shaped the next generation and thereby determined the nation's destiny.

Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation, incessantly worked for the regeneration of women and encouraged their extensive participation in public life.

All these efforts bore fruit undoubtedly, but it became more realistic with the inclusion of women raising their voices for their cause.

Pandita Ramabai was the only woman who distinguished herself as an independent feminist thinker and a women's rights activist.

In contrast, other women feminists worked in collaboration with male social workers and protagonists of women's emancipation.

Missionary With A Mind

Pandita Ramabai was born in an intellectual Hindu Brahmin family but showed signs of a rightful rebellion since childhood.

Against common practise, she learnt Sanskrit and read the Dharmashastras, later writing its critique.

The titles 'Pandita' and 'Saraswati' were conferred on her by the residents of Calcutta in recognition of her intellectual attainments.

She was also introduced to the realm of social reforms pioneered by the Brahmo Samaj. She chose to marry Bipin Behari Das Medhavi, a lawyer from the Shudra class of Maharashtra.

She gave birth to a daughter Manorama but unfortunately became a widow after a few months. She managed to go to England for higher study on a scholarship, where she came in contact with Christian missionaries and was impressed by their progressive outlook.

She decided to convert to Christianity with her young daughter. On return to India, she was actively engaged in social work, particularly rehabilitating Hindu widows of the high caste, as their condition was particularly deplorable, without focusing on religious conversions.

Pandita Ramabai received financial assistance from Christian missionaries who were mainly interested in converting Indians to Christianity.

In this process, she became a target of criticism from Hindu Brahmins and Christian missionaries.

When enraged Christian missionaries questioned her on her disinterest in conversions, she boldly replied, "I am, it is true, a member of the church of Christ, but I am not bound to accept every word that falls from the lips of priests or bishops…... I have just with great efforts freed myself from the yoke of the Indian priestly tribe, so I am not at present willing to place myself under another similar yoke."

In 1889 Ramabai established her Mukti mission, a refuge for young widows maltreated by their families near Pune.

The Mukti mission is still active and provides shelter, education, vocational training and medical services for needy people like widows, orphans and the blind.

She made a plea before the Hunter Commission for facilities to train women to become teachers and doctors and serve other women.

In 1919 she was awarded the Kaisar-e-hind award for social work, and in 1989 the Government of India issued a commemorative stamp in her honour.

Breaking The Idols Of Patriarchy

Ramabai's analysis of patriarchy is characterised by the focus on various aspects of the subordination of women in Hindu society, particularly among brahmins.

She found ample instances confirming this subordination in Hindu sacred books, like the statement "A woman is incapable of independence." in Manusmriti.

She found that the structure of Brahmin patriarchy, as created in the first millennium BC was more or less intact in her times, that is, the late 19th century.

She was also exposed to the modern outlook through visits to England and America and her English education.

Although patriarchy is a universal phenomenon, the condition of Indian women was worse compared to Western women.

That was all the more reason to launch a feminist Movement in India to undertake solid social work for the emancipation and rehabilitation of the oppressed and helpless women.

The Arya Mahila Samaj, founded by Pandita Ramabai in 1881, repudiated the idea of reconstruction of the Aryan Vedic past to establish a just social order.

It was the first autonomous organisation designed to secure the emancipation of women from the oppressive conditions of Brahmanical patriarchy.

Uma Chakravarthy said it was "regarded as an institution set up to do away with the domination of men as it was believed that the Pandita only exhorted women to free themselves from the tyranny of men."

Although Pandit Ramabai is regarded as the first Indian feminist rebel, her main contribution lies in drawing and implementing a constructive program for educating, awakening and empowering women so that they become independent and restore their self-confidence in a world dominated by men.

ALSO READ | MN Roy: Communist Who Became A Scientific Humanist

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