India during the colonial period and after throwing colonial rule away, went through many drastic changes which are overt so far the national movement and the apparent short term goals are concerned, although it is a matter of deep scrutiny whether, parallel to this positively perceived change, the position of woman raised to any good or not. At the backdrop of the independence, there were many compromises that were done implicitly, based on the choices of few. And a matter of fact is that, those compromises were not done in alienation, rather on the cost of the lives of impoverished woman, who against the run of play in the national independence, were further ignored and marginalized from the main stream with certain malice that inherently comes from the traditional notion of religious scriptures, that perpetuates and justifies wrongdoings and gender biases like anything, and in some way or the other, denies the completeness and power of woman, and perceives her as ‘other’ in respect to man.
Before we come to ascribe certain roles with certain gender, one must go deep in analyzing the machinery that propels the bias in the psyche of an individual towards a particular identity, which from very essence, becomes a matter of concern, for the sustenance of society that seconded the slogan of equality.
To understand the various undercurrents that creates the superstructure, which legitimizes violence against woman as a normal act, first we have to look into the situation where women are denied of their true potential, which basically a manifestation of the existing notion, that largely comes from the mythological and so called heavenly ideas, which springs from the root of religious scriptures.
Tarabai Shinde (1850-1910) is one such individual who stands discontented from the narrative that made most of the exploitation possible, and waged her disagreement on the brahamanical patriarchy that in an away, annihilated the rights of woman. She lived in obscurity as a member of the socially elite Marathi (warrior peasant community) caste in a small town called Buldhana in Maharashtra. Despite hailing from an upper caste Hindu family, she waged her war against the social practices that promoted the caste subjugation and discrimination. But, she stands out in the rubric of taking position for the rights of woman, as she is most often denoted with the title of being the first Indian Feminist Critic, who even before the path breaking writers and thinkers of this particular movement, makes herself reachable to the causes that structurally invades into the destruction of the rights of woman and compares the condition in which the constructed binaries of male and female, enjoy and suffer respectively, during the course of life.
Stri Purush Tulana, is one such work of her, where she has compared woman with man, in a non-fiction essay form. She here focuses on how society distinguishes between a man and a woman, how women are associated with some preassumed characteristics and notions, and how society sides with men. Shinde says that women are accused of gossiping, superstition, impudence, duplicity which she examines are more common in men than in women. However, there are certain flaws with her conceptualization of the gender and associated issues, as in the modern feminist lens, few of her arguments may occur problematic and contradictory to certain extent, but when we contextualize her in 1882, she was in a sense, thinking way ahead of her time, by breaking the barrier that keeps woman apart from certain participations, that men do without any obligation. Therefore, by using a series of arguments, she in a way, deconstructs the false construction that from the very base, which nullifies the existence of women as an individual who holds autonomy. It’s almost taken as granted that certain roles are only to be associated with women, and few of the duties that too discriminates women on the basis of their gender.
When first published in 1882, Stri Purush Tulana remained virtually unknown, despite being referenced in Satsar, a journal of the Satyashodhak Samaj (truth finding society) started by Phule. It made its way back into the consciousness of the public after being republished in 1975 by S.G. Malshe. Exploitation, subjugation and suppression of woman is very common in all societies of all ages, rather it is a recurring chain of event that in a negative way, unifies globally. With the coming of various books on the rights of woman, primarily from the west, some of the sections got enlightened and started agitate against what thought was wrong and exploitative. Tarabai shinde, had herself gone through the subjugation, which many of the critic, points out in this essay as an autobiographical element. However, the comparison that she draws between men and women, and in greater course, structurally proves how the subversion of events may change all, but the altered world will not be that cruel, than that of existing patriarchal world is. Tarabai, was an educated woman and thus was privileged in comparison to the majority of the people around her. The awareness of her privilege is clear in this essay and she attributes her rational thought processes to the formal education that she had been privy to. “It may be true that women are a whirlpool of suspicion. But that is because they are uneducated and all kinds of doubts inhabit their minds,” she says. “Women are as stupid as buffaloes in a cow pen! They are ignorant and do not know how to read or to write.” She may appear outrageous to a large number of readers, who lack patience and tolerance, but way she and the stand she is representing, suffered, over a long period of time, it is ought to understood in more subtle way. However, this essay does not confine itself to a mere comparison of gender, but it also serves in the understating of the holistic view that prompted the publication possible. Prior to the essays, many of such, derogatory and oppressive writings were in fashion, as the perpetuation of patriarchal power exercise remained an unaltered phenomenon. One such incident was the publication of Pune vaibhav journal that constantly worked as an anti-reformist force that in a way, gave more license to the ongoing distortion, by maltreating the women subject. In that journal, most of the issues were raised from male centric angle, and in its larger implication, was very influential in legitimizing the ongoing violence on woman. One such incident that got recorded in Pune Vaibhav was of Vijaylakshami, where through the use of extreme orthodoxy, she was accused of either abortion or infanticide. To counter the force that was generated from these hate mongering , Tarabai Shinde, few years later, lashes out on all the stake holders who claim to protect the honor of woman.
Shinde talks of agony that women are unfortunately destined with, and she also in her essay tries to dig out the underlying reasons that inculcate that:
“Let me ask you something, Gods! You are supposed to be omnipotent and freely accessible to all. You are said to be completely impartial. What does that mean? That you have never been known to be partial. But wasn’t it you who created both men and women? Then why did you grant happiness only to men and brand women with nothing but agony? Your will was done! But poor women have had to suffer for it down the ages.” – Excerpt from the Stri Purush Tulana (A Comparison Between Men and Women).
In the beginning of the essay, she directly address to the god that you created man and woman and you are omnipotent and impartial but not impartial with women, you grant happiness to men only and for women agony only. It is belief in Indian society that women are greedy liars, unvirtuous and they always seduce men. Woman is considered and labeled as the symbol of all bad qualities, she asked, “theft, incest, murder, robbery, deception, truth to falsehood and falsehood to truth- do men not do any of these?”
In 19th Indian feminists discussed on the oppression of the female as an obstacle for social and domestic reforms, and the consequent backwardness that follows overall. Tarabai very minutely point out on this issue to know the facts about women in society which evident there in her arguments. Tarabai’s fight was not only against the customs which deprived women of her independence but also against the dominant male who dictated the laws and norms of society based on the benefits for patriarchy. And this patriarchy and the male dominated narrative, that deeply annihilates the individuality of woman are majorly subordinated by the mythological scriptures, of which, Shinde is a great critique. The puranas and epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata are always used to control women. She explained through an anecdote from Ramayana, how the concept of pativrata was utilized for the advantage of men. She passionately fights to end oppression, evil practices imposed on women and to gain privilege and equal rights for women. First time in the colonial history of India, she created awareness among women to raise the question against double standards of men, and the status of women in society and what really she deserved to be.
Not just the religious epics and the surviving texts, Shinde also jibes at the preachers who through malice and prejudice, deeply subjugate the sect, by misquoting and misusing the supreme authority that they possess. She finds her discomfort with religious preachers, whom she sees as one of main reason of female subjugation, as through position they legitimize violence. She is seen outwardly discontented when she makes her stance clear on preachers:
“The preacher tell us from his pulpit that eating aubergines is forbidden in the puranas and one should not eat them. But the moment he is back from his preachings, all that he has said is promptly forgotten and he stuffs himself with a hearty meal of those very vegetables. Obviuously, WHAT HE PREACHES IS ONLY FOR OTHER PEOPLE TO FOLLOW.”
Shinde is overtly seen not to be aligning with the main narrative of patriarchy that lasted during her time, rather she attempts to give a space to herself and to the thinkers of coming generation to take nothing as granted, instead, to analyze and eradicate the follies that not only snatches rights from a section based on the constructed roles, but also in a way, dehumanizes the cause of existence by constant shaming in one way or the other. The subjugation of woman is a central fact of history and it is the main cause of all psychological disorders in society, but having realized its presence and importance, we still lack way behind, in achieving the sought after equality, and eradicating the discriminatory elements from our daily life. What Shinde critiques in the 19th century, is ironically, after, passing of so many decades, still finds an space in public narrative as most of the problems, are yet to be discounted, as it all exists in disguise. Tarabai in the later part of the essay gives the examples of widows in past and how the shastras permit them to have a relation with other man for augment of family. She has presented many points in her book in support of argument how a woman’s life has become meaningless in the male dominated system of patriarchy. The time has now come to change all this. Tarabai suggest that remarriage is better than having illicit relation with other man. One law for man and as per the benefits for patriarchy other for woman, and there is no equality and justice for the half population in society. She demanded in the book that the British government should pass a law allowing widows to remarry. Puranas and manusmruti restricted and controlled woman’s life through orthodox norms and conventions like, a woman must always maintain her virtue and surrender her body to her husband only, even if she is married off to an ugly person or even a leper. Tarabai shows male hypocrisy and diplomacy, if women follow patriarchal conventions then she labeled as ‘goddesses’ and if not then as ‘whore’. There is no place for women as a human being in Indian society. Either she is worshiped or cursed in society.
These are the major discontentment that Tarabai shinde shows towards the existing patriarchal narrative of her time, and it is of no surprise that most of her arguments were, just because of gender, were taken lightly. It is also worth noting that, Shinde wrote this piece well before the path breaking of Simone de Beauvior “The Second Sex”. And, Vidyut Bhagwat points out that ‘appeared almost a century before Simone de Beauvior’s The Second Sex, Tarabai’s forthright polemical style stands in sharp contrast to de Beauvoir’s’. Therefore, Shinde offers a strong resistance and challenges the patriarchal notion, and destroys the several charges leveled against women (especially in vijaylakshami case) to deem them immoral creatures who must be controlled, Tarabai struck one of the earliest notes of revolt, whom many of the literary experts considers as the first female feminist critic of India.