- Culture & Society
The Women's Movement in India
10 Mar 2022
International Women’s Day is celebrated around the world on March 8th, drawing public attention to the global struggle for women’s rights and gender equality. Accordingly, this special date revolves around the living conditions of women not only in Germany and Europe, but all over the world. Nevertheless, in Germany International Women’s Day is often associated exclusively with the women’s rights movement in North America and Europe, which emerged in the mid-19th century and gained further importance over the course of the 20th century. Even though the influence of this movement extends beyond the Global North, activists in many other parts of the world have also joined hands to stand up for women’s rights.
India, too, can look back on a long tradition of peaceful protest and mobilisation for women’s rights. In a first phase from the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century, several reform movements emerged with the aim of outlawing the practice of burning widows, banning child marriages and enabling widows to remarry. Another central concern for the first Indian women’s rights activists was the right to education for women and girls. In 1848, Savitribai Phule and her husband Jyotiba Phule founded the first girls' school entirely run by Indians. To this day, Savitribai continues to inspire many young activists to advocate for educational equity. One of the pioneers of Indian feminism was the Bengali poet and social worker Kamini Roy, who staunchly campaigned for women’s suffrage. Not least thanks to the tireless activism of Roy and her fellow campaigners, women in the Bengal region were allowed to vote for the first time as early as 1926.
After World War I, India’s feminist movement was heavily influenced by the growing resistance to British colonial rule. Mahatma Gandhi explicitly included women in the non-violent struggle for India’s independence. But above all, the lawyer and social reformer Bhimrao Ambedkar has been lauded as an advocate of the rights of Indian women. Ambedkar, who chaired the Indian Constitutional Committee, campaigned primarily for equal rights for women who belonged to particularly disadvantaged castes. Bhimrao’s wife, Ramabai Ambedkar, was one of the most important sources of inspiration for his philosophical work. In recent years, Ramabai’s contribution to the Indian constitution as well as to strengthening the rights of Dalits has received greater public recognition in India. Since 2018, a life-size statue of Ramabai even adorns a central square in the Indian city of Pune.
After Indian independence, more women succeeded in occupying top positions in Indian politics and society. From 1966 onwards, Indira Gandhi was India’s first and only woman prime minister and thus one of the first female heads of government of any country. In recent years, Mamata Banerjee, who has been the head of government of the state of West Bengal since 2011, has emerged as an influential female politician. In the business world, on the other hand, especially women from the Indian diaspora have been highly successful in their professional careers. A prominent example is Revathi Advaithi, who currently serves as the CEO of Flex Ltd., one of the world’s leading electronics manufacturers with 200,000 employees.
In recent decades, the feminist movement in India has continued to grow and has been able to mobilise a growing number of supporters, owing to the spread of social media as well as a sharp increase in the level of education. Especially since the beginning of the 2000s, protests with thousands of participants have been organised in many Indian cities to oppose violence against women and demonstrate for the right to self-determination. Not only did these protests raise public awareness of women’s rights, they also exerted pressure on the Indian government to enact new laws against domestic violence and harassment at the workplace.
The media organisation "Feminism in India" offers a good overview on the current topics and activities of feminist groups in India on their website. You can also find many more details about the history of the Indian women’s movement on this page.
If you have any further questions about the feminist movement in India or concerning the international women’s movement in general, please write to us in the comments or to [email protected].
Written by: Ferdinand Schlechta
Cover Photo: Unsplash - Wandering Indian
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