A FEMINIST CRITIQUE OF GANDHI'S HIND SWARAJ
Updated: Feb 2
Gandhi is heralded for his principles of passive resistance and non-violence which have inspired freedom struggles against imperialism. While there is an overwhelming appreciation for his non-violent strategies, his beliefs on feminism and gender roles have engendered countless debates and discussions on the philosophy of ‘swaraj’. Hind Swaraj, a book by Gandhi, is a discourse between the reader and the editor on the idea of ‘swaraj’. In the book, Gandhi, the editor, attempts to convince the reader to denounce Western ideas of civilisation and instead, adopt ‘swaraj’ and passive resistance. However, the book also raises pertinent questions about women’s location in ‘swaraj’. Since Gandhian philosophy is for the whole of humankind, it is interesting to note the subtle yet obvious gender stereotypes and prejudices in Gandhi’s philosophy as discussed in Hind Swaraj. This paper argues that Gandhi’s idea of ‘swaraj’ in Hind Swaraj is parochial and rigid in its understanding of gender roles and feminism. The society envisaged by Gandhi in the book leaves no room for accommodating transformative ideas of gender and sex. Firstly, the sexist terminologies used by Gandhi denies any possibility of challenging gender stereotypes in ‘swaraj’. Secondly, rejection of all Western principles closes any avenue for debates on the adoption of non-conformist values of Western ideas of feminism and gender. Thirdly, Gandhi’s notions of passive resistance are filled with discontinuities which make it more challenging for women than men to adopt passive resistance.
The terminology used by Gandhi in Hind Swaraj to compare women with defunct and plagued institutions suggests that the idea of ‘swaraj’ reinforces stereotypical and misogynistic ideas of womanhood and femininity. Gandhi compares the British Parliament to a “sterile woman” (Gandhi 29). The comparison is drawn to emphasise the ineffectiveness of the Parliament which has not done “a single good thing” (Gandhi 29). He implies that because a sterile woman cannot reproduce, she is as incapable as a dysfunctional Parliament. This abhorrent analogy divulges Gandhi’s Puritanic ideas on womanhood. By reducing women’s identity to their child-bearing capacity, Gandhi does not signal the creation of a ‘swaraj’ which provides a liberal, unprejudiced space where women could step out of their traditional roles as mothers and wives to experiment with their identity or sexuality. Moreover, Gandhi postulates that if lawyers considered their profession as “degrading as prostitution”, they would abandon it (Gandhi 51). Today, many liberal feminists may consider prostitution as degrading, but they still respect women’s decision to pursue this as a profession (Robinson 28). Besides, many women voluntarily choose prostitution among other alternatives because it offers higher pay and better working hours in developed nations (Robinson 28). Prostitutes are often discriminated against and marginalised in society due to the nature of their work. The stigma attached to their work hinders any healthy discussion on their reintegration into society. When Gandhi encourages his readers to see prostitution as “degrading”, he attaches a pejorative connotation to it without any further dialogue on the subject. This not only reinforces the stigma attached to prostitutes but also closes any possibility of a discussion on perceiving sex work as normal work in ‘swaraj’.
When Gandhi dismisses Western civilisation in its entirety for its innumerable structural and political flaws, he also dismisses liberal ideas of feminism which originated in it. He writes, “If India copies England, it is my firm conviction that she will be ruined” (Gandhi 31). Throughout the book, he gives numerous instances to endorse his claim. However, he makes no exception for reflecting on the ways in which adopting Western ideas of gender equality could emancipate Indian women from exploitative customary traditions like child marriage and sati. The suffrage movement has its provenance in the Western world. It was the result of the British suffragette that the Age of Consent Bill was passed in India, even if it did very little to protect bodily autonomy of young Indian girls (Chitnis and Wright 1328). While Victorian ideas of feminism were ladled with imperialist motives, they were still more progressive and less draconian than Indian customary laws (Chitnis and Wright 1319). Over the years, many western feminists have challenged the traditional ideas of gender. Awareness regarding the rights of gender minorities gained momentum for the first time in the West. These values have kindled inspiration and awareness in Eastern cultures too. However, the idea of ‘swaraj’ conceived by Gandhi in his book is inflexible to accommodate the evolving ideas of gender and sex. He writes, “The tendency of the Indian civilization is to elevate the moral being…” (Gandhi 56). However, by calling women “the queens of households” (Gandhi 34), he also demarcates the arena for men and women within which they can be elevated. Men and women are conditioned by society to believe in certain ideas.
Even if Indian women decide to follow traditional gender roles, they should at least be educated about Western ideas of feminism to make an informed decision.
Although Gandhi acknowledges the existence of draconian crimes against women in the Indian society, he does not demonstrate how his idea of ‘swaraj’ could address and uproot such deeply embedded discriminatory traditions against women in rural India.
Lastly, Gandhi fails to address the specific problems of gender-based violence in his discourse on passive resistance. He advocates passive resistance as an ideal philosophy of life. Firstly, Gandhi argues that abandoning brute force and embracing passive resistance is the most peaceful way of leading life. There is no greater force than “soul force” which requires “sacrifice of self” (Gandhi 69). Leading a life of passive resistance means adopting chastity, poverty, truth and fearlessness (Gandhi 74). But one wonders how these principles have played out in the context of gender. For years, women have been the victims of violence, abuse, rape and humiliation not just in the Indian society but across the world. Most women feel helpless in the face of violence.
Usually, the perpetrators are men who use religion and are forced to justify their treatment of women whereas women are coerced into submitting to men’s will. However, throughout history, women’s helplessness and “sacrifice of self” (Gandhi 69) have failed to bring any structural or attitudinal change in the society. More importantly, the philosophy of passive resistance makes one ponder whether women even have the agency required to decide their lives to adopt passive resistance. A passive resister must avoid any kind of sexual indulgence to become chaste (Gandhi 74). Chastity, in that sense, becomes a prerequisite for passive resistance. However, Gandhi assumes that men and women have the same bodily autonomy over their bodies. How can women, who are at constant risk of getting raped and assaulted, observe “perfect chastity”? What if they have to employ brute force to preserve their chastity? Would a woman lose her chastity if she gets raped or assaulted against her will? Would abortion make a woman unchastised? These gender-specific problems faced by women make it difficult for them to adopt passive resistance. Gandhi’s reticence on these questions raises serious concerns about the location of women in ‘swaraj’.
The contemporary world is hanging precariously on hinges of sanity. Even though women have greater rights and more opportunities today, numerous global crises are compelling people to look towards history for inspiration to battle violence, disease and discontent. Mahatma Gandhi’s noble preaching on love, selflessness and non-violence in Hind Swaraj create a tempting picture of a seemingly egalitarian society. However, a closer reading of the book divulges the conventional stereotypes associated with women’s bodies. Hind Swaraj overlooks the positive influence of Western feminist values over the entire world, including India. And passive resistance remains an inadequate tool for women to fight age-old oppressions. Hence, looking at Gandhian philosophy in Hind Swaraj through a critical lens gives insights into how the idea of ‘swaraj’ could be reformed to create a level playing field for everyone.
Chitnis, Varsha and Danaya Wright. “The Legacy of Colonialism: Law and Women’s Rights in India.” 64 Wash. & Lee L. Rev. 1315, 2007, pp. 1316-1348.
Gandhi, Mohandas. Hind Swaraj Or Indian Home Rule. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2009.
Robinson, Cynthia. “Feminist Theory and Prostitution.” Counterpoints, vol. 302, 2007, pp. 21–36.
Cover Image: EPW
About the author: Paritoshika Singh is a first-year student pursuing BA LL.B (Hons.) at Jindal Global Law School. She is interested to explore International Human Rights Law and Criminal Law at JGLS.