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Agarkar’s views on women

Gopal Ganesh Agarkar was a 19th century intellectual, thinker who was passionately engaged with the task of a bringing about a complete transformation in his society. Scholar well versed in history and religious treatises, and a reformer with a keen insight in the reality around, he was charged with the dream of creating a noble and just society. His ideology of transformation was comprehensive and touched upon various social, political and economic aspects of reorganization of the society. As an activist in the women’s movement, I find it an exhilarating experience to engage with his radical thinking on women, which he propounded almost a hundred years ago. I find in him a kindred spirit, a great affinity with the way we think about women. At the same time, I feel a little sad as an activist to see the terribly slow pace of the way our society has changed over the time. The frames of reference have changed, consequently some specific details of our demands have also undergone changes, but there hardly seems to be much change in the conservative and orthodox mindset of our society.

Values like equality, consensus, freedom and justice were foundational to Agarkar’s ideas of transformation. They were what he preached in public and practiced in his personal life. For the purpose of this paper, however, I will draw on his writing in his newspaper Sudharak (Reformer) for delineating the various aspects of his thinking about women.

He started the weekly Sudharak in 1888 with the support of Honorable Gopal Krishna Gokhale. Before he launched a publicity campaign for this weekly, he had brought out a pamphlet for the readers in Maharashtra in which he had proclaimed –

We have planned to reserve some space in our proposed weekly for the expression of what educated women feel on women’s issues so that our other readers will also get an opportunity to read them.

I was absolutely overwhelmed to see that in the very first pamphlet that sought to declare the aims and objectives, the nature and scope of the proposed journal, he had publicly declared that he would keep a space reserved for women writers. This clearly indicated that irrespective of whether women had a special place in the society or not, they certainly occupied a central place in Agarkar’s thinking about family and society as he visualized them.

Agarkar was greatly influenced by his readings from the western culture. He did not believe that all old was gold and hence worth preserving. At the same time, he did not treat all the news things in the western thought as gold either. In his article ‘The Purpose behind Sudhrak’, he writes,

It is an established belief that men have the duty to acquire knowledge, and women have to nurture the offspring; that men are owners and women their servants; that freedom is for men and slavery for women; that women have no other way of life but marriage, and no world except their home; that widowhood is their greatest vrata (vow) and acquisition of knowledge their greatest vice. If such religious and social values prevail in the thinking of men who are considered great, what use is their greatness?

One can see clearly reflected in this initial statement how the woman question was central to the new and dynamic approach that Sudharak was evolving in order to awaken the people.

Agarkar’s thinking about social transformation was comprehensive. He began his analysis of the society with the scrutiny of the institution of family. He said –

Families are the chief constituent elements of society and women and men form the chief constituents of family. That is why any analysis of the family institution must begin with the scrutiny of the relationship between men and women.

Any attempt, then, to explore his gender ideology has to begin with his analysis of family in general and of the institution of marriage in particular, since family as an institution comes into existence with marriage. What were Agarkar’s views on marriage?

Agarkar defined any marriage that was arranged by others or by the elderly people as child marriage. What, according to him, was not ‘swayamwar’ was child marriage. That is, any marriage that did not leave the choice of the partner to the man or woman was nothing but child marriage for him. He witnessed around him a society in which parents married off very young girls to old men under the pressure of custom or tradition and for fear of inviting public censure if a girl was married off after puberty! (Such a girl would be ridiculed as ‘ghodnavari’, that is, a girl as old as a horse!) That is why he insisted that the girls should be enabled to exercise choice in the matters of marriage, that the age of marriage should be 16, certainly not less than 14. He opposed the dictate of custom which prohibited education for women and prescribed that they should be married off even before they attained puberty. Contrary to the established orthodox views, he strongly believed that girls must be educated, that girls and boys should be given the same education, together under the same roof, without separating them. He went on to say –

How can a girl go to high school or college if she is burdened with such things as pregnancy, child birth and rearing of children right from the age of 13 or 14?

Girls should be spared such unnecessary trouble and they should be allowed to remain unmarried till they finish their education. If they are married, their husbands and parents-in-law must leave them alone as if they were unmarried.

He was such a great believer in women’s education that he did not mind it at all if education changed the traditional division of labour between men and women. ‘What is wrong if men washed women’s clothes or looked after children?’ he asked. He openly declared that it was men who were responsible for the present division of labour. They had done it entirely to suit their own convenience and that is why it was so unequal. He firmly believed that women’s education would benefit not just the woman but the entire family. Besides, in case a woman lost her husband and became a widow, education would help her to be self-reliant. She would not feel compelled to commit ‘sati’ for fear of being dependent on the others; for fear of humiliation and degradation that she would undergo as a widow. He was also in favour of giving women higher education. That is why he strongly recommended to Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad that primary education should be made compulsory for all girls.

Agarkar did not hesitate in addressing the issues of divorce and widowhood in his analysis of marriage. He agreed that the right to divorce should be available to both men and women.

Interestingly, when he argued that a woman could file a case in the court of law saying ‘I do not accept this marriage into which I was forced by my parents when I was too young to understand’, one hears an echo of Dr. Rakhmabai who had dared to say ‘NO’ to such a marriage with similar words. On the one hand, Agarkar established the ‘Balvvah Nishedhak Mandali’ (Group of people against child marriages) and on the other, argued in favour of the right to divorce. That he had dared to do so a hundred years ago in an extremely orthodox society stands testimony to his rational thinking and tremendous self-confidence. He was able to subject the family institution to such a keen scrutiny because he believed that family was a major constituent in the composition of the society. That is why when he saw widows being forced by custom into a life of imprisonment and isolation, he vehemently asked,

Oh you Bharatiya Arya men, you are famous all over (the world) for your kind hearted treatment of your family members; then why are you so harsh and callous towards the helpless and orphaned widow?

Agarkar certainly considered marriage as an important institution but it did not stop him from launching scathing attacks on the institution when he dealt with the various forms of violence women and especially widows and child widows had to suffer in marriage. In several essays, such as ‘Priyaradhan’ (Courtship) or ‘Vallabhopasana’ (worship of the husband), he lashed out at the lustful husbands who as a matter of right tortured the bodies of their young wives immediately after they began menstruation. His heart bled for these young girls, helpless victims of their husbands’ shameless lust. The age of consent bill caused a huge controversy, virtually started a verbal war between the orthodox and the reformers. The conservative orthodox Brahmins objected to the bill saying that the British government was interfering with their religious matters. Agarkar answered this objection in his inimical, scathingly ironic style:

(What rights are they talking about?) The right to deface a woman! The right to wipe the kumkum off the forehead of one’s own daughter!

The freedom to push the wife of one’s son in front of the barber! The people who create a furor over such rights and such freedom do not understand even the meaning or the use of such words.

Furious at the child marriages, he asked –

You cowardly Hindus with your so-called status! Where was your religious pride when the Portuguese tortured you in their attempts to convert you to Christianity in the Konkan region? And you dare to use religion as a weapon against the kind and obliging British government when it tells you politely not to torture your own young girls? You dare to declare that your religion has given you the right to rip off the bodies of young virgins simply because you want to satisfy your lust?”

During the nineteenth century, it was a common custom to marry off young girls to elderly men. Many young girls would be widowed even before they understood the meaning of marriage. Then they would suffer the indignity of having their heads shaved off. They had to mutely suffer humiliation and degradation all their life. Agarkar caustically criticized the unequal treatment of men and women –

If it is possible to assuage the natural desires of the body with such cruel practice, then we might as well saw off the legs of young widows so that they will not approach other men; pluck out their eyes so that they will not look at other men; saw off their arms so that they will not be able to do any foul deed; or better still, if we can regularly feed them opium, or revive the custom of sati, there will be no chance of them committing any immoral act.

Agarkar has written several essays about the plight of widows which reflect his indignation at the inhuman treatment meted out to them. It also reveals his fearless and scathingly sardonic criticism of the society. Dr. Lohiya is considered to be the first one to raise the issue of male chastity but Agarkar had raised the issue much before Dr. Lohiya. He said:

The effects of immorality in woman might be disastrous but at the same time it must be remembered that man has to become immoral if woman becomes so. If men decide not to be morally corrupt, it will be impossible for women to corrupt them. It is really difficult understand why your custodians of morality hold only women responsible for immorality and punish them when both men and women are equally involved in an immoral act.

Agarkar had given a great deal of thought to women’s feelings and emotions, their intellectual development and progress as well as institutions like marriage which affected their lives. At the same time, he had also done considerable thinking regarding their clothing, embellishments and ornaments. He had collected information about women’s clothing from all over the world before he ventured into writing about it. It is amazing that hundred years ago, he had come up with a radical proposal that instead of wrapping sari pallu over their bust, women should wear a half jacket with pockets, preferably embroidered, matching the sari in colour. This proposal was based on the principles of efficiency, convenience and aesthetics. And even here he did not lose sight of the widow –

Our widows are not allowed to wear blouses. Naturally the sari does not have the support of a blouse. The moment the pallu moves a little, their bare backs get exposed. The eyes of our orthodox immediately see them and censure them for such exposure. But they never see the tonsured heads of the widows. We don’t know whether we are ever going to be strong enough to prohibit the iron comb of the barber from approaching the widow’s head. But if they are allowed at least to wear blouses in the meanwhile, even that will save them from certain humiliation.

Agarkar believed that women must have dignity as an individual but he knew that they were victimized and suppressed under varied forms of inequality and injustice in the society.

He raised his voice continuously against the plight of women. The events taking place in the society around provided him with ample opportunity to air his views on women’s issues.

One such event was the general strike of barbers organized by Savitribai Phule; the barbers had refused to shave off widows’ heads. Agarkar wrote –

Even the lower caste shudras are now empathizing with the Brahmin women in their plight. They are willing to improve the status of their Brahmin sisters even at the cost of their livelihood. These are things happening before our very eyes. How wonderful it will be if the barbers plot such things as suggested by the Dinbandhu!

Another instance of a similar kind occurred when Pandita Ramabai was to give a public lecture in Hirabag. The Brahmins from Pune made terribly indecent remarks against her and behaved in an extremely obnoxious manner at that time. Agarkar launched a scathing attack on these orthodox Brahmins:

This great woman scholar travels to Pune from a very long distance of some 60 or 70 kms. to tell us about the achievements of women from diverse countries. But it is indeed a matter of shame that people in Pune do not possess even a modicum of decency to pay attention to what she has to say. Otherwise, of course, the Pune people are so humble and moral! This, sadly, is the situation in a city that is said to be shining with the light of knowledge! 

Thus, Agarkar insisted on justice and equality between men and women. Without using terms like ‘democracy within the family’, he insisted on bringing it about. That is why he insisted –

If we want to do away with the slavery imposed on us from outside, we must do away with the slavery that we have created in our own homes.

This commitment to democracy led him to advocate freedom of choice and encourage debate in the society. ‘Why are you so afraid of dissent?’ he would ask people. Constantly bringing new issues on the anvil, he provoked people to think and engage with issues plaguing the society. This great man had a tremendous warmth and affection for fellow human beings and society. The way he lived his life reflects the scintillating richness of his humane approach to issues and his sincere commitment to the principles of equality and justice.

I was touched to the core when I came across his Open letter to the Maharashtrian’. This brave soldier had written this letter at the time of the controversy caused by the bill of age of consent. In fact, there was a journalistic war between Agarkar and Tilak on the issue and in his newspaper Kesari, Tilak had accused Agarkar of deliberately exploiting the issue as an ‘invaluable opportunity to give vent to his own personal grievances under the guise of holding a public debate on a popular subject’! It is heartrending to see how Agarkar had tried to awaken the conscience of the people and to convince them of his honesty and sincerity. He had to quote instances from his personal life of his selflessness, moral integrity and spirit of renunciation to prove his point. The open letter consisted of many examples of the humiliation and suffering he had to undergo because of his principled commitment to certain values. At one point he burst out –

Because he has committed the terrible sin of fearlessly exposing the faults and fissures in the established religious principle and practice in the society, this writer and his poor innocent wife have to constantly endure the ceaseless abuses and vitriolic attacks from all those newspapers and the self-proclaimed patriots and protectors of religious faith…..

Towards the end of this public letter, Agarkar appealed to people to trust him. They might consider him crazy but ultimately, he was trying to do all this for the sake of their own benefit and welfare.

There are many crusaders we see in the social and political struggles going around us. But rarely do we find a person who acknowledges the contribution of his wife who has to endure the travails and tribulations simply because she happens to be his companion. There is a rare consistency in Agarkar’s philosophy of life and the way he lived his own life. The Agarkar who promised to reserve a special place for women writers in his Sudharak, the Agarkar who constantly focused on women’s issues in his struggle for social transformation and the Agarkar who treated his wife as an equal partner in his own personal life was a man of integrity who considered values like freedom, equality and justice as foundational to all human endeavor. He practiced what he preached. That is why his views on women have a rare value and they are singularly important.


Vidya Bal

Translated by : Maya Pandit

(Original Marathi article was published in Miloon Saryajani, July 2003. English translation was published in Miloon Saryajani, March 2014.)