ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Researching Gandhi’s Ideas on Women

Engaging with Feminist Theories Then and Now

This paper uses this author’s earlier paper from 1988 on M K Gandhi’s ideas on women in order to reinterpret it in terms of contemporary feminist perspectives. It lays bare the theories and methodologies used in the earlier paper and suggests that such reflexive interventions are necessary when assessing the thoughts and practices of figures such as Gandhi, whose ideas have been given new meanings in and through contemporary commentaries. It argues that Gandhi’s perspective on women needs to be situated within his project of structuring a new modernity for the emerging and evolving Indian nation, and should be perceived through the lens of hegemonic masculinity.

This is a revised version of the Avabai Wadia Memorial Lecture, delivered on 15 February 2018 at the SNDT Women’s University, Juhu Campus. The author is grateful to Putul Sathe of SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai, for the invitation. She also thanks the participants in this lecture: Douglas Haynes, Geraldine Forbes, Gopal Guru, Kanchana Mahadevan, Mangesh Kulkarni, Putul Sathe, Raewyn Connell, and Rohini Sahni for their comments on various drafts of this paper. The author is grateful to Mangesh Kulkarni for introducing her to new material on masculinity studies in India, and to Douglas Haynes for sharing his forthcoming article on Gandhi.

In 1988, I had written a paper on M K Gandhi’s ideas on women (Patel 1988). It had argued against the contemporary perception among some scholars in women’s studies. I had suggested that Gandhi was not a feminist, as argued by women’s studies scholars then, but that his ideas promoted the “separate sphere” doctrine prevalent then in India and the world. This paper revisits the arguments presented in the 1988 paper, in order to delineate the manner in which Gandhi’s ­ideas on women were formulated in juxtaposition to the then (evolving) perspective on the history of the woman’s question in India. I describe the research that organised my analysis, in order to highlight how all knowledge remains moored in personal, social, and professional–intellectual locations. I also ­argue that such a reflexive stance is needed to comprehend the figure of Gandhi, who has come to be deified in many ways since his death in 1948.

Gandhi was an iconic figure of the 20th century, and his wide range of perceptions regarding the human condition continues to evoke debates and discussions among political commentators, scholars, and ordinary citizens. His ideas and practices have found resonance in signs and symbols, in popular culture and in informal and formal learning of the history of India. Over the decades, these ideas and practices have been given new meanings, appropriated and reappropriated by all kinds of individuals, such that today it is difficult to sometimes comprehend the original meanings and the contexts that have organised those ideas, and juxtapose them with new con­notations provided by contemporary interlocutors. Given the contemporary embeddedness of Gandhi’s ideas in nationalist and post-independence politics, commentaries, and scholarship, I lay bare the theories, methodology and methods that I have used to make an assessment of Gandhian views on the woman’s question.

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Updated On : 7th Feb, 2021
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