over as the champion of the downtrodden and the discriminated, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’s
catholic understanding of the marginalized status of Indian women makes him a
feminist who initiated several
reformatory actions to improve the demeaning status of Indian Women. He
stands tall among all the national leaders who had egalitarian views about
women because unlike many of them, he not merely nurtured emancipatory thoughts
about women but very vociferously and strategically put them into action. After
having realized that the ideology of Manusmriti had consolidated the systems of
caste and patriarchy in India, on 25th December 1927, during Mahad
Satyagraha in the presence of thousands of people, Dr. Ambedkar burnt
Manusmriti. This historic incident can be considered a milestone not just in
the negation of caste based discriminatory practices but also of Indian women’s
struggles for equality. In fact, Babasaheb’s act of tendering his resignation
as the Law minister upon the failure to get the Hindu Code Bill passed in April
1947 itself testifies his honest concern and efforts towards the upliftment of Indian
women. His philosophy has inspired the women of India to forge a new identity.
His words and deeds have inspired thousands of women, and will continue to do
so, in their struggle against injustice and inequality. Therefore any understanding
of women’s problems or formulation of a pro-women political agenda in the
Indian scenario warrants an in depth study of Ambedkar’s analysis of the issues
of class, caste and gender. Hence this paper is an attempt to understand the
roots of oppression of Indian Women as analysed by Dr. Ambedkar and compile the
reforms that Babasaheb Ambedkar spearheaded which affected the lives of women,
the underlying visionary impetus for the same and the impact of all his
endeavours on the lived realities of Indian women.
“I measure the progress of a community
by the degree of progress which women have achieved”
– Dr. B.R.
Babasaheb Ambedkar in his attempts to understand the vicious nexus between the
discriminatory practices and the deeply entrenched roots of caste system in India
saw that like the shudras, women too were victims of the oppressive,
caste-based and rigid hierarchical social structures. He realised that
socio-cultural forces had artificially constructed unequal gender relations
that were based on Manusmriti, one of the foundational scriptures of Hindu religion.
Echoing Simone De Beauvoir’s declaration that “Women are made, they are not
born”, Ambedkar also raised the question, “Why Manu degraded her (woman)?” In
his The Riddle of the Woman, The Woman And the Counter Revolution, The Rise and
Fall of Hindu Women, Castes in India: Their Mechanism Genesis and Development
and through the issues of his journals Mooknayak (1920) and Bahishkrit Bharat
(1927), Ambedkar tries to show how the gender relations and differences are
constructed by Hindu Brahminical order, which conditions women to conform to a
stereotypical feminine behavior, requiring them to be passive and submissive,
suited only to a life of domestic and family responsibilities.
Analysis of the Roots of Oppression of Indian Women
In his ‘Women and Counter Revolution’ and ‘The
Riddle of Women’ Dr. Ambedkar portrays the way in which Manu conceived women.
He pointed out that the laws of Manu on the status of women have played a very
important role in moulding the Hindu attitude and perspective, which in general
is also the Indian perspective towards women. This attitude is perpetuated and
maintained through Hindu personal laws based on shastras, caste and endogamy, which
forms the basis of Indian patriarchy. Among the shastras, Manusmriti is a major
source which legitimizes the denial of freedom, self respect, right to
education, property, divorce etc., to women by attributing a very lofty ideal
of self- abnegation and sacrifice to them, which has rendered them passive
victims from generations. Dr. Babasaheb has observed in Manusmriti that the
killing of a woman is equated to the drinking of liquor making it a minor
offence. It was likewise equated with killing of Shudra, making the lives of
women and Shudra’s inconsequential. Manu even advises a man not to sit in a
lonely place with his own sister, daughter or even mother, as there might be
chances of their corrupting influences on him. Some of the other precepts of Manu
for women are:
Day and night women must be kept in dependence
by the males (of their families), and, if they attach themselves to sexual
enjoyments, they must be kept under the control of men.
It is a must that father protects her in
childhood, her husband protects her in youth, and her sons protect her in old
age; a woman is never fit for independence.
Nothing must be done independently by a girl, by
a young woman, or even by an aged one, even in her own house.
In the matters of property, a wife was degraded
by Manu just as a slave.
He forbade women the study of Vedas, and
performing Sanskaras uttering the Veda mantras.
All these laws have pushed women to
abject condition of passivity and at the mercy of men for their smallest needs.
comparison with these stultifying restrictions that were enforced by Manu, Dr. Ambedkar
cites evidences of higher status accorded to women in the pre-Manu days. The
examples of the stories of public disputation between Janaka and Sulabha,
Yajnavalkya and Maitrei, Yajnavalkya and Gargi which testify that Indian women
in the pre-Manu period had opportunities of learning and education, she was
free and accepted as an equal partner of man. From in depth studies, he was
convinced that it was Manu and such other misogynistic shastras and scriptures that
were responsible for the oppressive lives led by women. Also it is the same
sense of inequality that is ingrained in society which is responsible for caste
based discrimination that has caused the discriminative practices against women.
Babasaheb Ambedkar’s Contribution
in Women Empowerment
Ambedkar found women’s emancipation in Buddhist values, which promotes
equality, self-respect and education as the teachings of Buddha reveal that women
ought to be treated with respect and love and not to be degraded as evinced
from Manu’s preachings. Ambedkar cites women like Vishakha, Amrapali, Gautami,
Rani Mallika, who approached Buddha and received his religious philosophy and
learning. As highlighted by Dr. Ambedkar, the feminist scholars also realized
the importance of caste in contemporary India. After the Women Reservation Bill
debate, they agree that one cannot analyze Indian society without taking note
of caste. Also, although patriarchy is pervasive in India, it varies in degree
depending on the religion, region, caste, community and social group,
maintained and perpetuated through endogamy, and laws entrenched in religions. In
the contemporary situation, debate on the abolition of triple talaq authorized
especially by the religious sanctions and other similar issues warrant
feminists to work for the emancipation of women based on the ground realities
as experienced by all sections of oppressed and discriminated women, within the
framework of the Indian context. Since Ambedkar himself had experienced victimisation
of caste based oppression and discrimination in all its intensity, his analysis
of women’s oppression and equal rights assume more validity than anybody else’s
theory based on mere observation.
by the renowned social reformer Jyotirao Phule, the founder of Satya Shodhak
Samaj, who started a school for untouchables as early as 1848 and a school for
girls in Pune, Dr. Ambedkar realized early in life the importance of educating
women. When he was in Colombia University, he wrote to a friend: “We shall see
better days soon and our progress will be greatly accelerated if male education
is pursued side by side with female education”. (Mathew, 1991:74). In fact he
perceived education as a catalyst for a movement for self-respect and self
help. Also in 1922-23, doing his post-doctoral research at the University of
Bonn in Germany he was exposed to the Western perception on feminist issues
like emphasis on their right to education, equal treatment with men, right to
property and involvement in the political process. After returning to India he
devoted his life fully to work for the oppressed classes including women. He
was firmly committed to the ideals of equality, liberty and fraternity.
launched his movements from 1920 onwards in which women actively participated
and acquired the confidence to voice their issues on various platforms. In
1924, Bahishkrit Hitakarni Sabha was formed to work for the socio-political
equality of depressed people and promoting their economic interests. Women
started participating in satyagrahas and also launched women’s associations for
untouchable women for spreading education and awareness among them. In the
Mahad Satyagraha for temple entry in 1927, even caste Hindus participated.
Shandabai Shinde was one such participant. In the Satyagraha it was decided to
burn the Manusmriti, which humiliated women, and shudras. In the demonstration
after the bonfire of the Manusmriti more than fifty women participated.
Ambedkar addressed the meeting thereafter and advised women to change their
style of wearing saree, wear lightweight ornaments, not to eat meat of dead
animals. In January 1928, a women’s association was founded in Bombay with
Ramabai, Ambedkar’s wife, as its president. Along with the Depressed Classes
Conference in Nagpur in 1930, women also had their separate conference. In the
Kalaram Temple Entry Satyagraha at Nasik in 1930 five hundred women
participated and many of them were arrested along with men and ill treated in
jails. To face tortures along with their men, women also organized their Samata
Sainik Dal. When Ambedkar returned to India after attending the round table
conference in 1932, hundreds of women were present for the committee meetings.
At various places depressed classes women’s conferences were held and they
began to present their demands assertively. The encouragement of Ambedkar
empowered women to speak out boldly their feelings. As Radhabai Vadale said in
a press conference in 1931, “We should get the right to enter the Hindu
temples, to fill water at their water resources. We call these social rights.
We should also get the political right to rule, sitting near the seat of the
Viceroy. We don’t care even if we are given a severe sentence. We will fill all
the jails in the country. Why should we be scared of lathi-charge or firing? On
the battlefield does a warrior care for his life? It is better to die a hundred
times than live a life full of humiliation. We will sacrifice our lives but we
will win our rights.” The credit of shaking women from being non-entities to develop
intense feelings of self-respect and firm determination among women goes to Dr.
awakened women’s activism can be seen in the participation of 25,000 women in
the ‘All India Dalit Mahila conference’ on 20th July 1942 and in All India
Untouchable Women’s Conference was held in Mumbai on 6th January 1945. (Limaye,1999:57-61).
Further running newspapers, women’s hostels, boarding schools participating in
Sathyagrahas were some of the activities of women for acquiring the personality
development to secure efficient administrative and leadership capacity as men
have. Gaining inspiration and encouragement from Ambedkar, many women wrote on
topics like Planning, Buddhist philosophy and such other topics. Women also
wrote plays, autobiographies, and participated in Satyagrahas. Tulsabai Bansode
started a newspaper ‘Chokhamela’. This showed how Ambedkar created awareness
among poor, illiterate women and inspired them to fight against the unjust
social practices like child marriages and devadasi system.
-women Policy Changes brought about by Dr. Ambedkar
Being India’s first Law minister and
chairman of drafting Committee of the Constituent Assembly, Dr. Ambedkar
thought it appropriate, rather his duty, to free women from the age old
thralldom by reforming the Hindu social laws created by Manu. He, therefore,
took initiative to draft and introduce the Hindu Code Bill in the Constituent
Assembly. Dr. Ambedkar tried an adequate inclusion of women’s rights in the
political vocabulary and constitution of India. His contribution is great in
the field of women’s empowerment as he was one amongst very few persons who tried
to change women’s status via Law. A few of the changes affected by him are his
introduction of Dearness Allowance, Women Labour welfare fund, ESI, Provident fund Act, Women Labour Protection
Act, Maternity Benifit for women Labour
bill, Divorce Act, Right over parental
Property, Leave Benefit to Piece Workers, Revision of Scale of Pay for
Employees, Restoration of Ban on Women Working
Underground in Mines, No marriage before age of 18 years, Maintenance allowance
from husband on getting legally separation, Widow can adopt a child, Mother can
change guardian of minor by will, Equal
pay for equal work irrespective of the sex and many others.
The above changes have been constitutionalised in the following articles:
Article14 – Equal rights and opportunities in political, economic and social
15 prohibits discrimination on the ground of sex.
3. Article 15(3) enables affirmative
discrimination in favour of women.
4. Article 39 –
Equal means of livelihood and equal pay for equal work.
42 – Human conditions of work and maternity relief.
51 (A) (C) – Fundamental duties to renounce practices, derogatory to the
dignity of women.
7. Article 46 – The state to promote
with special care, the educational and economic interests of weaker section of
people and to protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation.
8. Article 47 – The state to raise the
level of nutrition and standard of living of its people and the improvement of
public health and so on.
9. Article 243D
(3), 243T (3) & 243R (4) provides for allocation of seats in the Panchayati
Dr. Ambedkar’s defense for women as
the Law Minister of free India appeared in the form of the Hindu Code Bill in
Parliament on 11th April 1947, the Bill could not withstand the opposition from
the Hindu orthodoxy. The Hindu
Code Bill, the most formidable legislative measure of modern India,
sought among other reforms, to put an end to a variety of marriage systems
prevailing in India and legalise only monogamous marriages. . In reality, the Bill was
a threat to patriarchy on which traditional family structure, was bounded and
that was the major reason behind the opposition. The Bill sought to abolish
polygamy among the Hindus it proposed the right to property and the right to
divorce for women. The Bill tried to codify the Hindu Laws which were in a scattered
form. He proposed to reform these laws on seven different matters, viz., i)the
right to property of a deceased Hindu dying inestate to both male and female,
ii)the order of succession among different heirs to the property of a deceased
dying inestate, iii)the law of maintenance, iv)marriage, v)divorce,
vi)adoption, and vii)minority guardianship. Despite the very moderate nature of
Bill, Dr. Ambedkar could not get it passed due to is opposition by many
members. This hurt him and in protest against the failure of the Bill,
Dr. Ambedkar resigned his seat in the cabinet. But, his efforts did not
entirely go waste. Later, the original Bill was split into four different Bills
with slight changes. Those were passed as the Hindu Marriage Act, 1955; The
Hindu Succession Act, 1956; the Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act, 1956; and
the Hindu Adoption and Maintenance Act
Lord Casey said, Dr. Ambedkar stands as the “fountainhead of wisdom and
knowledge” in modern India. Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in his explanation of his
resignation states: “The Hindu Code
was the greatest social reform measure ever undertaken by the Legislature in
this country. No law passed by the Indian Legislature in the past or likely to
be passed in the future can be compared to it in point of its significance. To
leave inequality between class and class, between sex and sex which is the soul
of Hindu Society untouched and to go on passing legislation relating to
economic problems is to make a farce of our Constitution and to build a palace
on a dung heap. This is the significance I attached to the Hindu Code.”This statement of his is prophetic when we
have become mute witnesses to the innumerable atrocities on women today, which
proves the depth and sensitivity of his understanding of Indian women’s
problems and the visionary approach to solve them permanently. His saying “Unity is meaningless without the
accompaniment of women. Education is fruitless without educated women, and
agitation is incomplete without the strength of women” makes him the most
committed champion of women’s rights. Jai Bhim.
Ambedkar, B.R. “Women and Counter
Revolution”, “Riddles of Hindu Women” in Dr. Baba Saheb Ambedkar: Writings and Speeches,
Vol.3, Department of Education, Government of Maharashtra, 1987.
Usha K. B.”Dr. B. R. Ambedkar -the champion of women’s
Limaye, Champa: Women: Power and
Progress, B. R. Publishing Corporation, New Delhi, 1999.
Ambedkar : Reform or Revolution, Segment Books, New Delhi, 1991.
Dalit Vision Blog on the cause of untouchables of
India, Wednesday, February 20, 2013.Dr.
Ambedkar and Women Empowerment accessed on 15th Oct. 2016