B R Ambedkar and Women Empowerment

  • IASbaba
  • December 8, 2022
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  • In Madness of Manu, feminist sociologist Sharmila Rege argues that mainstream feminism falls short in understanding the difference between the lives of Phule (Mali caste) and Ambedkar (Mahar caste) as members of OBC and Dalit communities.
  • The entitlements, access to resources and spaces, poverty and humiliation are distinct for those who are destined to live outside of village boundaries and treated as beasts of burden.
  • So, Ambedkar’s role in the anti-caste struggle and women’s empowerment must be closely studied.

Meaning of feminism:

  • ‘Feminism’ is a wide range of political movements, ideologies and social movements that share a common goal to define, establish, and achieve political, economic, personal and social equality of sexes.
  • The underline premise of feminism is to seek women’s  equality and  justice  in  every sphere of life and create opportunities for women to have the same access to the resources that are otherwise freely available to men.
  • A Vindication of the  Rights of Women (1792)  can be said  to be the precursor  for such suffragette movements.

Feminist movements in India:

  • Shaheen Bagh and anti-CAA protests (December 2019-March 2020)
  • It was led almost entirely by women and became a platform for Muslim women, one of the most marginalised sections of the population, to come out of their homes and shackles and voice their protests.
  • Chipko Movement (March 1974)
  • A group of 28 women, led by Gaura Devi in Uttarakhand’s Garhwal region clung to trees to prevent them from being felled.
  • The movement followed the Gandhian Satyagraha style of non-violent protests and became a benchmark for several future environmental movements.
  • Narmada Bachao Andolan (1985)
  • It was focused on the displacement of 250,000 people due to construction of a multi-crore project involving dams over the Narmada River.
  • The Narmada Bachao Andolan has won the Right Livelihood Award in 1991 and enjoys the support of the international community.

Role of Ramabai Amedkar:

  • Ramabai Ambedkar is referred to as “Ramai” – Rama plus “aai” (mother in Marathi) with Ambedkar as Baba — father.
  • She is the representative of the tough mother that working-class families know.
  • When Ambedkar went away to Columbia, in his absence, his wife ran the household, took wage jobs, and faced starvation at times.
  • What she performed was not merely a wifely duty, but it was her contribution to her community and a partnership in social change.

Challenges faced by females:

  • Dalit women’s autobiographies show how illiteracy, poverty, fights, squalor were relentless in the basti, and women suffered cruelty and degradation.
  • Mukta Sarvagod’s book Mitali Kavade (Closed Doors) narrates how teenage daughters-in-law were starved, beaten and worked to death.
  • Superstition was rampant: Women be accused of being possessed by spirits and young girls would be dedicated to temples, where they would become prostitutes.
  • Kumud Pawade in her Antasphot (Inner Blast) writes how the “pativrata” models of Sita and Savitri had a deep impact on women, who fasted for violent philandering drunkard husbands.
  • Even when Dalit women acquire political power, as when they are elected as sarpanches, there is often no protection against the social power that sanctions violence and discrimination against them.
  • The discrimination faced by Dalit women at the cost of the Brahmanical obsession with “purity and pollution” has had a detrimental effect on all the dimensions of development.
  • The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women has noted that Dalit women face targeted violence, even rape and murder, by the state actors and powerful members of the dominant castes used to inflict political lessons and crush dissent within the community

Ambedkar – As a feminist:

  • Baby Kamble in Jine Amuche (Our Lives) writes that the message of Buddha filled with compassion came through Baba and the situation changed in a generation.
  • Ambedkar told the women: “Men and women are partners in a marriage, treat your husband with equality, send your children to school, wear clean clothes.”
  • In We Too Made History (Urmila Pawar and Meenakshi Moon), an old activist Gitabai Pawar remembers a meeting in 1942 where she met Babasaheb Ambedkar.
  • They cried with him and carried home his message: “Always be like this, confident. Educate your daughters
  • It is easy to imagine why they identified him as Baba, a father figure rather than as a political personality.
  • He discussed several problems of Indian women and sought for their solutions in Bombay Legislative Council, in the Viceroy’s Assembly as the chairman of the Drafting Committee and also in the Parliament as the first Law Minister of Independent India.
  • In the Mahad Satyagraha for temple entry in 1927, even caste Hindues participated. Shandabai Shinde was one such participant.
  • In the Satyagraha it was decided to burn the Manusmriti, which humiliated women, and shudras.
  • In a speech in 1936, to communities of Joginis and Devadasis — who typically belonged to the Dalit community — Ambedkar urged these women to fight the regressive religious practice of offering pubescent girls to gods in temples and become “sexually available for community members

As a policy-maker:

  • The Hindu Code Bill
  • It revolutionised the Hindu domestic sphere by offering women the right to marry by choice and across caste boundaries, give them the right to divorce, and the right to inherit property.
  • The Bill became the law in a piecemeal, diluted avatar, in the form of the Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act etc.
  • He resigned when the Bill was stalled by the upper caste orthodoxy.
  • His influence also led to the passage of various other pro-women acts like The Equal Remuneration Act, 1976, and The Dowry Prohibition Act of 1961, legally entitling women to equal wages and criminalising dowry, respectively.

As an Activist of women’s rights:

  • Ambedkar felt women, once they become agents of their own fate, will dismantle the caste patriarchy.
  • He wrote extensively on women’s oppression and set up newspapers like ‘Mook Nayak’ and ‘Bahishkrit Bharat’ with sections that exclusively covered women-centric issues.
  • Ambedkar pushed for family planning measures for women, and ensured the enactment of universal adult franchise, thereby legalising voting rights for women and several other minorities and marginalised people.
  • Ambedkar’s contribution to women’s emancipation is reflected in his In his criticism of texts like Manusmriti.

Way forward:

  • Today, when a Dalit woman rape survivor seeks justice in the court against upper caste rapists, when a woman in a joint family demands her share of land, or when a lower caste woman becomes a sarpanch, chief minister or President, Ambedkar’s legacy comes alive.
  • Ambedkar’s legacy lives in his aim to ensure that women have agency and control over material resources and access to education.
  • Only when we acknowledge Babasaheb’s feminist perspective in its true essence can we rightfully offer tribute to him as a visionary for Indian women and their rights.


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