Indian freedom struggle was not only a political agitation for freedom but also an inclusive movement that included various sections of the society. The process of inclusion only intensified with the multidimensional role of women with renewed vigour after the arrival of Mahatma Gandhi.
Role of Women in Indian Freedom Struggle –
- Earliest examples – Right from the revolt of 1857 there was the participation of women in the Indian freedom struggle. Leaders like Rani Laxmi Bai and Begum Hazrat Mahal played an active role to oppose British rule in their area.
- Inspirational courage and valour –Likes of Bhikaji Cama who unfurled the Indian flag at Stuttgart and Communist leaders like Bina Das and ChattriSangh who tried an assassination attempt on Governor of Bengal were an inspiration for all Indians.
- Reformist and constructivist role – As women’s education spread, there was a small yet active women’s movement working inside the national movement. Congress leaders like Sarojini Naidu and Annie Besant gave them the leadership. Participation of women deepened the meaning of freedom by demanding political rights for women, which were majorly neglected. Various women organizations like Madras Women Indian Association and All India Women’s Conference in 1927 raised voice for voting rights.
Influence of Mahatma Gandhi on Women’s Participation – Gandhiji worked upon at the levels of ideas, techniques as well as programmes.
- The idea of sisterhood – He described women as the embodiment of sacrifice, humility and knowledge. (Young India 1921). He made the gender issue neutral by emphasizing role models like Sita and Draupadi (who were portrayed as role models of empowered women, albeit in the cloak of traditionalism). He thus emphasised on sisterhood ideal and made the political role of women more acceptable to male counterparts as well as themselves.
- Erasing public vs private spheres – He provided prabhatpheris, picketing liquor shops, prohibition, flag satyagrahas as well as constructive works like charkha spinning, which facilitated the participation of women. He also took the freedom struggle to the daily activities and impressed upon the people to carry the spirit of nationalism in their routines – thus inspiring them. All these ensured that women could participate from wherever they were in whatever capacity they could.
- Programmes and methods – Gandhiji emphasized upon values of non-violence and satyagraha. Adherence to non-violence led to an increase in participation of women, which was visible during the Civil Disobedience Movement (From 1930 to 1934). As even men who were reluctant to allow women to participate owing to violence now readily promoted their participation. Gandhiji made women realize their potential of strength and sacrifice, which made women most trusted satyagrahis. It was Sarojini Naidu who took up leadership role during salt satyagraha after the arrest of Gandhi. (Dharasana Satyagraha)
Gandhiji’s mass based struggle drew many women towards Indian freedom struggle changed in the nature of participation from supportive to equal participation. Thus participation of women made Indian Freedom Struggle a true mass-based struggle which not only led to political independence but a great stride towards the emancipation of women and other weaker sections of society.