ISSN NO. 2581-9070 ONLINE

Women of Vision and the Question of Empowerment – Dr. Sumita Parmar

Women of Vision and the Question of Empowerment

 Dr. Sumita Parmar

Prof (Retd) Department of English

Former Director

Centre for Women’s Studies

University of Allahabad


Today we will talk about empowerment and about some of our foremothers, extraordinary women visionaries who have contributed to that empowerment.

When we refer to the word “empowerment” what do we really mean? Empowerment is a multi dimensional term and gives itself up to layers of meaning. It lends itself to many interpretations and meanings. Whose and what kind of empowerment? Economic empowerment or social? Political? Emotional? Maybe empowerment vis a vis health? And does empowerment in one area necessarily translate into the other areas as well? India is country where many worlds co-exist simultaneously. The extremely rich and the extremely poor, the highly educated and the illiterate, and empowerment means different things to different people.

If we are to try and make a generic assessment today and ask the question how empowered are we, our response is likely to be a mixed one. A good way to find out is to use a vertical as well as a horizontal yardstick. By vertical I mean comparing our situation with our sisters a 100, or 50 of even 10 years ago. How are our lives different from theirs? Are we really better off than them? If so, how exactly are we better off? To these questions you would answer that there is a world of difference in almost all aspects of our lives in comparison to them. There are many positive changes. Your lives have many more options than your mothers had and hugely more than your grandmothers had. You have access to education. Better health care, even voting rights once you are 18.There are so many other things as well

But the comparison does not end there. We must also make a horizontal comparison and see how we compare with women in other parts of the world. In this horizontal comparison we do not fare well at all. The GDI of the UN reports put us down usually at the bottom or close to the bottom of most indices. Shockingly, instead of improving, the situation has worsened in the last few years and the parameters in terms of health, safety, security – have gone down. The HDI reports states that “despite considerable progress at the policy and legislative levels, women remain significantly less politically, economically and socially empowered than men. For instance, women hold only 11.6 per cent of parliamentary seats, and only 39 per cent of adult women have reached at least a secondary level of education as compared to 64 per cent males. Female participation in the labour market is 27.2 per cent compared to 78.8 for men.” In the Gender Related Development Index (GDI – an index designed to measure gender equality) India’s position is 149 out of 164. Trafficking in women and children prevalent at various levels, local, inter- District, Inter State and cross Border has emerged as one of the most flourishing industry of the underworld in India.

So if we want to improve the situation it is important to see in its reality and come to terms with it

We are far from a gender-just society. We have had a woman president, prime minister, chief ministers. Sucheta Kripalani, a woman, was UP’s first Chief Minister when the new government was made after Independence in the 50s. Today the important portfolio of finance is held by a woman but somehow these have never translated into empowerment in general of women.

The Constitution of India contains several woman specific Articles that guarantee  the Right to Equality, Article 14, & 16, the Right to life  Article 21,  the Right to Equality and equal protection before the law  Article 15 , Maternity Relief, Article 42. A very special Article, Article 15 (3) provides for discrimination in favour of women and Article 51(A) (e)] renounces practices derogatory to the dignity of women. Besides these there are other Laws for women relating to inheritance, crimes against women and several other areas.

Besides these, there are any number of schemes for woman and girls initiated by the Government. In fact in the 1990s alone three big schemes were launched – the Rashtriya Mahila Kosh (RMK) or National Credit Fund for Women in 1993, the Indira Mahila Yojana (IMY) in 1995-96 and the Balika Samriddhi Yojana in 1997. In 1993, the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution of India provided for reservation of seats in the local bodies of Panchayats and Municipalities for women, laying a strong foundation for their participation in decision making at the local levels.

From the sixth Five year Plan onwards there have been specific measure taken targeting women. In 1985 a special Department of women and Child Welfare was set up as part of the HRD Ministry and upgraded to a full ministry in 2006. In 1986 the New Education Policy was formulated giving special emphasis to the education of girls. 1990 saw the birth of the National Commission for women.

On paper, the Indian woman and girl is indeed empowered. Logically, if the many laws and schemes are taken into consideration, the position of women should be very high. But is this so? The declining CSR tells another story. It is baffling to think why this should be so? Why India is considered one of the most unsafe places in the world for women? Why are rape cases increasing and violence against women rising?

Where does the problem lie? The answer is that it lies partly with our social structures and attitudes and partly with us.


To comprehend why things are the way they are, requires us to go back into history, to understand first the context and background .

It takes a long time for any society to unlearn what it has learnt for hundreds of years. And if it is a society that is steeped in tradition, like ours is, it takes even more.  Imagine yourself in the position that your grandparents must have found themselves in at the time of the birth of a new nation -India. In one action all citizens were legally and constitutionally equal. All had the right to vote. The vote of a Brahmin, the vote of a person from an extremely backward group, a scheduled caste person, man and women all had the same constitutional value. ! How did the Brahmin feel? After years of thinking himself superior, suddenly to be told that he was really like everyone else. That must have been traumatic! Or how did the women feel? Who hardly had access to education suddenly to have a voice! What a novel situation and requiring so much getting used to.

Women in India have come to modern education only about 250 years ago whereas man have had access to education since knowledge began to be structured and formalized, even if it was caste confined. The graph for women’s education shows how, though in the early Vedic times, women were educated, their status and consequently their access to education, declined steadily till by the time of 200B.C. Manu declared them unfit for education.

Thus the tradition of the denial of education to women is of long standing. When the Britishers first came to India, the practices, Sati, female infanticide and child marriage were deeply entrenched in the fabric of Indian society. Widows were not permitted to remarry and of course there were no educational institutions for girls. The English who had primarily come for trade did not want to be accused of interference with established social and cultural practices.

It was, in fact the Christian missionaries who were pioneers in the field and who first attempted to educate Indian women. However, they met with too much resistance to be really successful until support came from an unexpected direction. Starting from the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Indian men who had been educated abroad began to feel the need of having educated wives as suitable companions and mothers to their children. Substantial change happened only from the 1840s when the Social Reform Movement took place and made a multipronged attack on the malpractices of sati, (abolished in 1829), female infanticide (in 1870) and child marriage (in 1872),  on the one hand and the encouragement of women’s education  and widow remarriage on the other.

By the end of the 19th century, in the face of stiff opposition, social reformers  tried to provide widows and other needy women with education to make them self reliant and independent. School teaching and nursing were the two areas where the first inroads were made.

It is important to bear in mind the focus of the reform movement. Although it was the desire of its leaders to improve the lot of Indian women and make society a more just place, the emphasis was on making women worthy partners of the growing number of foreign educated Indian men who were assuming the leadership of the country. This was elite who found themselves incompatible with their wives who were generally uneducated. Thus the main aim of the education was not to make women become independent or self sufficient, but rather marital compatibility.

Thus the reform movement did not challenge the existing patriarchal structure of society or question gender relations nor attempt to alter it. Rather they attempted to change the women. Even the women’s organizations that sprung up spoke the language of the men.  The fact was that Indian society found itself at the intersection of two contradicting streams. One was the need to come to terms with western ideas and the other was to cling on to Indian tradition and identity. The challenge was to balance the two – no easy task by any standards. The more conservative sections of society in fact pushed their women into the more traditional roles making them in fact the guardians of the Indian culture and retainers/repositories of cultural identities

However, even though the intentions of the reform movement were not strictly aimed at the true emancipation of women, it did indeed make big contributions to the cause of women by making education accessible to women and legitimizing their place in the public space. Another factor that played a significant role was Gandhi’s stand. The credit for bringing women out of the domestic space and into the public domain goes to him for he insisted that the women of the country were equal stakeholders in the nation and must fight shoulder to shoulder with the men for the independence of the country. He realized the importance of education of women if they were to become nation builders and educate their children correctly.

 An independent India

With the coming of independence, attention shifted in the 1950s to the organization and management of a new country with all its incumbent problems including communal riots on a very large scale. The woman issue took a back seat although there was a growth of many NGOs that worked for the welfare of women.

When the Constitution was passed, Indian women were given legal and constitutional equality with special provisions for women (Article 15-3) Thus women became fully fledged citizens of India, constitutionally at par with the men.

( When one considers how long and hard the struggle to win the right to vote has been for American and European women, Indian women were fortunate to have literally been given these rights on a platter! The campaign for the vote for women was started in the US in the year 1869 and all women were able to vote only in 1920! England granted the right to vote to women only in the year in 1928 and France in 1945.  Women could enter the higher education or study law or medicine only in the late 19th century in some American and European nations)

But in spite of this legal and constitutional equality, on the ground, there was a wide disparity between theory and practice, a disparity that continues to this day.

 The Five Year Plans

A brief look at the Five Year Plans will provide some perspective about how the Woman Question has been handled by various Governments. After we won independence, from 1951 onwards, the Five Year Plans were initiated. For a better understanding and looking at them from a woman’s perspective we can roughly divide them into three phases. The first phase was characterized by a welfare approach. A  Central Social Welfare Board was set up, Mahila Mandals for rural women were made and several health and education related schemes were initiated in which women were the beneficiaries.

In the second phase, covering the sixth to the eighth plan, there was a shifting of emphasis from the welfare to what we can call the development phase. The change in attitude came about with the realization that women ought to be part of, rather than simply the beneficiaries of, the development process.  Development ought to be holistic and result in more control over one’s life. This would mean true empowerment.  Therefore, the Department of Women & Child Development, the National Commission for Women and Women Development Corporation were all created during this time

There was a shift again in the third phase – from the 9th to the 12th plan – when the focus became the empowerment of women. The budget allocations were increased substantially and 30% of the funds were earmarked for women and girls. A Women Scientists Cell was set up at the Department of Science & Technology. Self help groups were encouraged and strategies worked out that would empower women. The UN Millennium Development Goals that were supposed to have been achieved by 2015 and aimed at women’s empowerment, education and gender equality were revisited and efforts made to fulfil them.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s issues like dowry deaths, health issues all came to the forefront .The infamous Mathura Rape case took place in the 70s and women’s protests led to a new custodial law being brought in. It was during this time that

more and more women joined the women’s wings of political parties fighting against more generic issues like the price rise, adulteration etc. The political parties perceived the advantages of the rising female membership for political gains and encouraged the women.

Towards Equality, Report of 1975 .

Then an event of great significance took place in.  This was the coming out of the Towards Equality, Report of 1975.

1975 was declared as the International Women’s Year by the UN. For this the member countries were asked to submit reports on the status of women in their respective countries. The report commissioned by the government was required to be submitted to the UNO as part of an understanding reached between nations to focus on the problems of women. Since India had no ready data available, the government appointed a committee and asked them to submit a report on the status of the women of India.  The secretary of the committee was Veena Mazumdar, and it was chaired by Phulrenu Guha. It was painstakingly prepared by a team of dedicated scholars who travelled the length and breadth of the country interviewing hundreds of men and women from all walks of life. The contents of the report, when it came out, created shock waves in the country, because, contrary to general perception, the condition of women in the country was found to be dismal. This report burst the myth of the existence of gender equality in the country. It proved baseless many of the cozy assumptions that had been made about women in general and exposed the ground realities of the lives of the majority of women n the country. The report focused attention on the fact that despite many progressive social legislations and constitutional guarantees, women’s status had not improved much.

It put the woman question on centre stage and transformed official apathy into action. The positive fallout of the report was that it drew the attention of the government to the situation of women. The recommendations of the Towards Equality Report “A blue print of action points and national plan of action for women (1976”) , in the areas of education, health, family planning and nutrition, employment, social welfare and legal status and provisions were noted by the Government. In fact it was due to this report that a separate chapter on “Women and Development 1980- 85” in the Sixth Five Year Plan was included. The Indian Parliament adopted a National Policy on Education in 1986 which included a chapter on education for women’s equality. It also led to much research and documentation on women and saw the birth of a new discipline – Women’s studies. Women’s Studies looks at knowledge systems from the perspective of a woman and endeavour’s to make her contributions to society visible and more valued. In many ways it leads to the empowerment of girls and women by making them more aware of their worth. The first Women Studies Centres sponsored by the UGC were established in 1986

 The growth of NGOs

The growth of NGOs and autonomous women’s movements emerged during the international women’s decade (1975-85) that worked on a broad spectrum of women-related issues ranging from alcoholism, wife beating and rape to health issues, foeticide and representations in media. Many of these organizations worked separately but parallel to Government agencies. They were able to call the attention of the Government to urgent women’s issues and lobby effectively for positive change. Jagori, Stri Mukti Sangathan and Saheli are some names that come to mind. In contemporary times what we see is more of the collective vision of women leaders and less of individual female leaders

 Women of Vision

Below are four women I have selected. These are women of great personal courage, passion and commitment. They serve as role models, and as sources of inspiration

A visionary is one who not just faces huge odd  to achieve her personal aims for a better society, but also continues to fight  those odds and hostilities for the sake of others so that they  can lead better  and more enlightened lives.

Savitri bai Phule – 1831-1897

Rokeya Begum – 1880-1932

Veena Mazundar – 1927-2013

Ela Bhatt 1933 –

 Savitri bai Phule – 1831-1897 India’s first woman teacher

 In my assessment  foremost among these is Savitribai phule.  Gifted with steel like determination she braved the wrath of the Brahmins who were deadly against her trying to become educated and opening a school to enable others to be educated.

Savitri bai is often referred to as a reformer. Yes she was that too, but primarily she was an educationist and it is as an educationist that I have selected her as a woman visionary.

Born in 1831 in the village of Naigoan, 50 km from Pune, Savtribai belonged to the OBC caste of Mali which is associated with agriculture. She was married at the young age of 10, to Jyotirao Phule who was 13 at the time and was encouraged by him to study and become educated. She played an important role by fighting for the rights of women and against discrimination of the basis of caste and gender. Because the Brahmins forbade education for the lower castes, and most especially for women, Jyotirao and his friends educated her at home after which she enrolled for the teacher’s training programme in Ahmadnagar rum by an American missionary. For some time she taught girls in Maharwada in Pune but soon left. In 1848, husband and wife together founded the first school for girls in Pune. It is an interesting fact that when the couple wanted to open a school no one was willing to rent them the place. It was Usman Sheikh, a Muslim friend of Jyotirao who gave them the use of a house of his. By the end of 1851 they had expanded into three schools. Education was a domain monopolized by the Brahmins and they aggressively opposed the couple. They instigated the Shudras who were made to believe that education was not meant for them and that they were committing a sin by allowing their children to be taught by the Phules. Even Jyoti’s father was brainwashed by the village pandit and turned his son out from his house. It was at this time that Usman, Jyotirao’s friend, came to their rescue.

Savitribai had to face fierce hostility from the Brahmins and often would have dung, stones and mud thrown at her. Records tell us that she carried extra clothes in her bag and would change into them on reaching school. Over a period of time the couple opened eighteen schools where children of all castes could come. They also opened a centre for the victims of rape who could deliver their children in safety.

Savtribai died in 1897, at the age of 66 in the process of trying to save a child infected with bubonic plague and getting infected herself.

The life of this brave and courageous woman is as inspiring as it is incredible. She took on the might of two of patriarchy’s most strong pillars – caste and gender. So committed and passionate was she that she was ready to die for her cause which was educating girls. She was convinced that education brought with it freedom from ignorance and prejudice. She was smart enough to take whatever helps was available – in this case that of the English missionaries who were also trying to encourage education of women. She was a visionary in all senses of the word and is our foremother. It is because she paved the way that education became accessible to women.

Begum Rokeya ( 1880 – 1932), –  Icon of courage and determination

Rokeya Hossain commonly known as Begum Rokeya, was a Bengali feminist thinker, an educator who was a trailblazer for the women’s Liberation Movement in Bengal impacting the lives of thousands of women.

Rokeya was born in 1880 in Pairaband village, Rangpur, in a wealthy family, the daughter of Jahiruddin Muhammad Abu Ali Haidar Saber, a zamindar.  Because of the conservative home environment as a girl she could not go to school. Her elder brother Ibrahim, who had a lot of influence on her life, taught English and Bengali to her and her sister both of whom were very interested to learn the two languages. He taught them secretly only at night so that no one got to know. In 1898 at the age of 18, Rokeya was married to Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hussain, a liberal minded educated man who encouraged his wife to continue learning Bengali and English and to write.

When her husband died, with the money that he left for her, Rokeya opened a school in Bhagalpur in his memory calling it Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School. It shifted later to Calcutta. This was the first school for Muslim girls in the entire region and Rokeya went door to door requesting parents to send their daughters to be educated.

An advocate of women’s rights, she held that the absence of education and the prevalence of the purdah made women into limited beings. To counter this she opened a school catering specially to Bengali Muslim girls. As expected, Rokeya faced a lot of criticism and hostility from the conservative sections of Muslim society. She was undeterred in her efforts and gradually the school became established and flourished. She was the founder of Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islam (Islamic Women’s Association, an organization that discussed and debated issues related to education offered legal and financial aid to widows and   refuge to orphans.

Rokeya believed that too much conservatism became an impediment in the progress of women. She felt that Islamic texts had been misinterpreted by the maulvis to the disadvantage of women and women needed to be aware of these.

She showed how a deep-seated patriarchal mindset in society was able to keep women behind doors and deprived of their rights.

She wrote extensively – essays, poems, short stories and novels. The central theme of her works was that women should become more aware especially of the social customs that bound them. They must raise their voices against injustice. She was the first woman in her society to talk about gender equality. She said, “We [women] constitute one half of the society, and if we are left behind, how can the society progress?”

In 1926 she presided over the Bengal Women’s Education Conference where she stressed the importance of education. She pointed out that a lack of education prevented women from entering public life or become a part of the decision making process.

She continues to be a source of inspiration to women and role model for those who have to face hurdles and hardships in attaining their goals. Her personal qualities of exemplary courage and a passionate commitment to the cause of women’s education make her a visionary leader.

 Vina Majumdar (1927-2013)  Grandmother of Women’s Studies in South Asia’

Vina Majumdar   was greatly instrumental in the establishment of Women’s Studies as a discipline in India. She has been called ‘grandmother of Women’s Studies in South Asia’ as indeed she was. About her, Prof Vibhuti Patel of the SNDT University of Mumbai wrote, “She could galvanize students, teachers, researchers, women’s organizations, trade unionists, bureaucrats, politicians and law makers into action as she was one of the best ‘argumentative Indians’ produced by ‘women’s studies movement’.

Born in the year 1927 in a middle class family of Bengal, Vina Majumdar was the youngest of five children in her family. Her father Prakash Majumdar was an engineer.  Her schooling was done at St. John’s Diocesan Girls’ Higher Secondary School, Kolkata, followed by   Women’s College, Banaras Hindu University, and  Asutosh College, the University of Calcutta.  In 1947 she went to St Hugh’s College, Oxford, where she completed her graduation in 1951.She received her D.Phil. from Oxford University 1962. In 1952, married Shankar Mazumdar in Patna. She taught in Patna and Berhampur universities before joining the UGC as an Education Officer.

She was Member Secretary for the Committee on the Status of Women in India, appointed by the Government of India and it was here that she played a most significant role drafting substantial portions of the report. The report became a turning point both for Women’s Studies and the women’s movement in India. Highlighting the dismal condition of women in India. From 1975 to 80 Vina Mazumdar was the Director, Programme of Women’s Studies, Indian Council of Social Science Research . In her research she drew attention to the contribution of women in the nationalist movement and pointed out that their role has not been either properly analysed or acknowledged. She made a major contribution in the establishment of the Centre for Women and Development Studies (CWDS) and the Indian association of Women’s Studies (IAWS), two of the premier institutions for women’s studies in the country.  She observed that when women academics and women bureaucrats worked together, policies were likely to be most successfully implemented.

She reminded us that the parliamentary mandate to use Women’s Studies as an “instrument for social engineering” through the National Policy on Education 1986 would only be successful when both people and institutions participated widely in it. She was a successful academician, a hardworking scholar and a staunch believer in the fact that education can be and has to be used as an agent of basic change in the status of women.

Ela Bhatt  1933 –  the SEWA woman

Ela Bhatt was born in Ahmedabad in 1933.She spent her childhood in Surat from where she did her early schooling. Her father was a lawyer and her mother actively involved in the women’s movement. So from a young age Ela was used to the idea of working for others. After her graduation she decided to study law. It was while she was still doing her graduation that she offered to help with the 1951 census – the first one in independent India. This work exposed her to the poverty existing in the country and the multifarious ways that women were exploited. She vowed to do something for them. In 1955, after a short stint as a teacher, she joined the Textile Labour Association’s Legal Department. This Association was a result of a strike by the textile workers as far back as 1917.  It became a model for the other trade Unions.

In 1956, she married Ramesh Bhatt, a lecturer in the Gujarat Vidyapath National University. He was a social activist as well and this was a common bond between husband and wife. After working variously as Employment Officer in the Labour Ministry, University Employment and Information Bureau, in 1968 she became head of the TLA’s women’s wing. From there Ela became involved in several projects and held many prestigious positions both at the National and International levels.

While with the TLA she was witness to many women losing their jobs due to the advancement of technology. The challenge before her was how to find gainful employment for these women so that their families could survive. As luck would have it, she got a chance to study for a diploma at the Afro – Asian Institute of Labour and Cooperatives in Tel Aviv, Israel. She put her newly learnt knowledge to good use. She observed that many of the laid off women tried to generate income by selling vegetable, tailoring, and working as hawkers. They were unorganized and unprotected by the State Laws and therefore open to exploitation. She recalled that women in this category did not figure in the census as workers which actually were what they were. These women, some of who was handcart pullers pushing loads of uto700 kilograms persuaded Ela to organize a self help group. After looking into the conditions she was appalled to discover that 97% of the workers lived in the slums, 93% were illiterate and they had at least four children each. The average incomes ranged from 50/- to 355/-many of them were in debt. Bhatt with the support of the TLA President Arvind Buch decided to organize these self employed women and the historic SEWA was born. Its first challenge was to get registered. The Labour Department refused with the argument that since the members did not have an employer there would be no one against whom they could struggle. Ela responded with the answer that a union was not necessarily against an employer but rather for the unity of the  workers. She succeeded in finally getting SEWA registered in 1972 under the Trade Union Act of 1926. Within three years the membership increased to 5258 and to 9000 by the next year.

Differences with the TLA led to SEWA separating and establishing its distinct identity in 1981. From then on SEWA has taken an anti-castist position and welcomes women from all communities including Adivasi women, to become a part of it. It has undertaken various projects for women and has worked for members getting housing loans, health care and legal aid. The problem of the women taking loans from money lenders who would charge exorbitant rates of interests was addressed and led to the foundation of the Women’s Cooperative Bank named the Mahilla SEWASahakari Bank Limited. The bank required a minimum investment of 10 rupees per member which was quickly acquired. It started working with a working capital of Rs. 300,000, which increased to 1,004,932 by February 1976. Most members invested modestly and also got loans thus creating a sense of independence.The bank also gave information and guidance about the efficient use of money. Bhatt did a research study related to the socio economic conditions of self- employed women like those associated with SEWA, making relevant suggestions covering common problems faced by the women such as asset creation, the establishment of childcare centres etc. As a person responsible for providing a semblance of stability and security to thousands of women in the unorganized sector, Ela Bhatt can be called a visionary par excellence.


Coming from different backgrounds, religions, and parts of the country, what the lives of these outstanding women  teach us is that obstacles, criticism, hostility are a inevitable part of any attempt to achieve something great. The important thing is to first be sure of what one wants and why and then stand your ground. As women and girls we have to admit that to a large extent we are responsible for our own exploitation. We do not support each other. How quickly we are read to condemn, make fun of or ostracize other women.  Equally important, we are timid and do not boldly claim our rights. As both Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru pointed out that unless women came forward themselves to improve their situation,no one else would .The most important person to make you empowered is YOU. It is your call. The day you really decide to make yourself strong, no one will be able to stop you.