Who Campaigned for Women’s Reforms in 19th Century India?

Victoria Memoria Kolkata

The phrase ‘Indian reformers of 19th century’ is synonymous with figures like, Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1883), Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891), Swami Dayanand Saraswati (1824-1883) and Swami Vivekananda (1863-1902), in the educational curriculum in India, whether one is preparing for school examinations or for civil service examinations.

A collage of prominent social reformers of 19th century India: Raja RamMohun Roy, Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda

Our curriculum, history and information available on the internet sees these men as major figures who fought for the rights of women against severe resistance from the society. However, few of us have ever questioned where these men came from, what was their economic, social and educational background and how closely they knew the women they were campaigning for.

Sumit and Tanika Sarkar, in their book Women and Social Reform in Modern India, argue that many of the men listed above and those who have come to occupy a position of respect in our history with regard to women’s reforms, came from upper class, upper caste, Hindu families with privileged education. In Sarkar’s words “women’s reforms in India were fuelled by “a new colonial education…new religious movements…[and]…a pool of human greatness” (1). Indeed, there is no denying that these men were extremely instrumental in bringing in massive reforms like–abolishing Sati, encouraging widow remarriage, campaigning against child marriage, supporting women’s education and land rights–in 19th century India.

A picture of an upper class Bengali woman.

Nevertheless, based on the few of their stories, novels and pamphlets I have read, and based on television and film adaptations of their works, I have certainly discerned a focus on middle or upper class households of Bengal in their works.

Does this mean men from other religions, classes and sections of society did not participate in the reform movements in 19th century India? What about female social reformers and muslim reformers? Sumit and Tanika Sarkar assert that it is important to include demographic factors of reformers into the discussion on women’s reforms (2). Why? It is because segregation and class difference in society then was extremely humongous which in turn influenced the course of reform movements in the society.

Picture of a lower caste woman.

While the privileged men mentioned above could sense the difficulties faced by women, they nevertheless, interpreted them from the point of view of men belonging to privileged classes. For example, education was indeed an important right for a woman but maybe for a woman of a lower class, the disgusting and menial tasks she was subjected to perform by the society were of greater concern than education.

Moreover, as Sarkar points out, not only were these men making a case from a privileged perspective they were also making a case for women from the point of view of men. Living in a patriarchal household, the women faced various levels of intimidation and female politics within their own families. This in turn would have varied based upon the religion, class, caste and economic background of a woman. For example, Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar wrote from the perspective of a man arguing in favour of women’s reform, whereas, Pandita Ramabai had a completely different perspective on these reforms on the basis of her experience as a woman striving for education and rights for women in India. 

Furthermore, most of the widely known reformers in 19th century India, be it men or women like Anne Besant were associated with Bengal. It is factually correct to say that Bengal was the birthplace of the women’s reform movement in India, however, the movement did spread all throughout India. Like social media is vital in spreading ideas and beliefs in our society today, Sarkar argues, newspapers, periodicals and books, that is a boom in the print culture, played an important role in spreading views that emerged in metropolitan cities to small towns, villages, other regions, and served as a medium for reformers to engage and communicate with each other (2). This forces us to acknowledge that the reformers were not working in isolation in a particular region of India but rather in tandem with their milieu all across India.

A very important part of this milieu were the British officers and the British judiciary. Many Indians believe that it was only because of the help of the British officers that practices like Sati came to be banned in India. According to them, had the British judiciary not supported Indian reformers such an action for women may not have been possible. However, in order to contest this opinion, Sarkar points out that Literature on women’s social reforms lays very little importance on the role of the judiciary in India at that time (3).

A British soldier watches as Sati is being committed.

Sarkar digs deep into judicial literature to show that reformers had to rely on “ancient scriptures” rather than logic and humanity to argue their case against practices like Sati before the British judiciary (4). Through the evidence provided by Sarkar it is clear that those who hold an opinion in favour of the British are not aware that the British policy was designed in such a way that it interfered little with evil traditions followed by the indigenous communities, as a bargain to retain absolute power and authority over them.

Thus, while the colonial judiciary was concerned with keeping the British in power, the reformers, the nationalists, the liberals and even the revivalists trying to restore orthodox Hinduism in India, were campaigning for women’s reforms that sought to give women rights in the public space. The irony of the situation was that most women weren’t a part of the public space. Years of patriarchy had created a skewed sense of equality that reserved the world for the man and the home for the woman (Sarkar 6).

Ultimately, it fell upon women to cross this boundary of exclusivity created for them through their own efforts. This became possible as they were “[e]ducated at home by fathers or husbands…[B]enefitting from the growth of print culture and vernacular prose that made writing easier for them, they published their views on women’s entitlements, or the lack thereof, often with remarkable criticality” (Sarkar 5). Writing served as a medium through which their voices were starting to be heard, their voices were gaining importance and value, which in turn boosted their confidence in their abilities. Gradually their voices attained such strength and power that by the end of 19th century women from every caste, class and religion went on to become active participants in the freedom struggle of India.

Works Cited
-Sarkar, Sumit, Tanika Sarkar, editor. Women and Social Reform in Modern India: A Reader. Vol. 1. Permanent Black, 2007.


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