Even in the historical records that survive from several centuries ago in India, we can find evidence of women’s aspiration and assertion for equality and rights. In the ‘Therigatha’ songs composed by the Buddhist nuns of 6th century BC, we hear Sumangalamata seeking to be free “from kitchen drudgery/Free from the harsh grip of hunger,/And from empty cooking pots,/Free too from that unscrupulous man,/The weaver of sunshades”; and Mutta similarly aspiring for freedom “From mortar, pestle and my twisted lord.”

1857 – India’s First War of Independence

In India’s first war of Independence against British colonialism in 1857, it was not only queens like Rani Lakshmibai and Begum Hazrat Mahal who emerged as fighters and leaders. Dalit women like Jhalkari Bai and courtesans like Azizan Bai were among the women who flung themselves into the struggle for freedom. In the process all those fighters from diverse backgrounds also challenged many of the feudal shackles that bound women.

Challenging Obscurantism, Demanding Education

In the 19th century many social reformers as well as ordinary women offered a spirited challenge to the practice of sati and child marriage, and campaigned for widow remarriage and women’s education.

One such woman was Rakhmabai, a woman from the carpenter caste who was married when she was 13 years old - but refused to honour this child marriage once she became an adult. She became the rallying point for social reformers, and earned the attack of the orthodox sections of society. In an editorial in the Kesari dated 21 March 1887, freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak attacked Rakhmabai, writing “Today thousands of men are living happily with their underage wives. When that is the case, is it not an affront when a woman dazzled by the flame of knowledge demands in court that she be granted a divorce now that her husband is no longer good enough for her?” Rakhmabai refused to buckle even in the face of such a virulent backlash from powerful and respected figures. Even when she lost her case in Court, she declared she would rather go to jail than join her husband. She went on to become one of India’s first women doctors. Kolkata’s Kadambini Gangopadhyaya also had to overcome tremendous patriarchal opposition in becoming a medical doctor in the 1880s and getting an additional degree from England.

In the mid-19th century, Dalit writer and activist Savitribai Phule pioneered education for women, defying the feudal forces who would molest and abuse her and throw filth at her.

Along with her husband Jotiba Phule, Savitribai also challenged the abhorrent and discriminatory social customs to which upper caste Hindu widows were subject.

In the 19th century, Pandita Ramabai was another woman who promoted schooling for women and advocated admission of women to medical colleges. Anandibai Joshi was among the first Indian women to qualify as a doctor, and Kashibai Kanitkar was Maharashtra’s earliest woman novelist. One can imagine the kind of social hostility they faced and overcame by the fact that when Anandibai and Kashibai (both friends) first stepped out in public wearing shoes and carrying umbrellas, they were stoned in the streets! When Tarabai Shinde wrote ‘Stri Purush Tulana’ in 1882, challenging the inequality between women and men, even some social reformers attacked her. Only Dalit social reformer Jyotiba Phule defended the work. In the 1890s, groups of Brahmo Samaj women conducted a public campaign against the purdah on the streets of Kolkata.

The Tamil poet and freedom fighter Subramanya Bharati (Bharatiyar) (1882-1921), writing in the early twentieth century, wrote many powerful and popular songs on the theme of women’s liberation and against casteism. In one song he wrote, “Those who thought that it was a sin for women to/touch books are dead; the incredible men who/wanted to lock the women inside their homes now/hang their heads in shame.”

E V Ramaswamy ‘Periyar,’ architect of the Self Respect Movement in Tamil Nadu, went far beyond the social reform agenda of widow remarriage or women’s education; instead he sought to get rid at the patriarchal social structure itself. On social issues he was influenced by Marxist ideas, writing in his journal ‘Revolution’ in 1934, “It is wrong to say that women have entered into labour in modern days. They are labouring from the very inception of human beings. In fact they became 'workers' even before man become so.” Instead of education intended to train women to be accomplished housewives, he advocated education that would fit them for employment. Critiquing the institutions of patriarchal marriage and family he launched a scathing attack on the notions of the patriarchal notions of the ‘pativrata’ woman and chastity, as well as on patriarchal rituals. The Self Respect movement had many illustrious women leaders – like Dr. Mutthulakshmi Reddy and Ramamirtham Ammaiyar who campaigned for the end to the devadasi system. A devadasi of the early 20th century, Ramamirtham broke with the devadasi system to take up the fight for women's rights.

Women in the Freedom Struggle

During the freedom struggle, masses of women were at the forefront – braving brutal repression and jail as they participated enthusiastically in the salt satyagraha and non-cooperation movements. Meanwhile, women in the communist-led trade union movement organised all-woman pickets at gates of cotton textile mills during the 1928-29 general strike.

Women Revolutionaries

In the early twentieth century, many women joined revolutionary groups which sought to overthrow British rule. Among them was Anuja Sen, killed in an attempt to bomb the car of the Commissioner of Police.

Ambika Chakravarty and Kalpana Dutta were transported for life for their role in the Chittagong Armoury Raids.
Shanti Ghosh and Suniti Chaudhary were sentenced to life imprisonment for killing a British magistrate notorious for harassing Indian women.

Bina Das was a member of a women students’ society and tried to shoot the Governor of Bengal.

Preetilata Wadedar was killed in an armed raid on a prominent club.

Durga Bhabhi, a member of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association was a comrade of Bhagat Singh’s who helped him to escape from Lahore.

Rani Gaidinliu led tribals of Manipur district and North Cachar Hills in the anti-colonial struggle. Forced to retreat into the jungles, she led a gang of rebels to evade the British troops for several months before being jailed in 1932 at the age of 16. She was released in 1947.

Among the mass organizations most active in mobilizing women in anti-colonial struggles were those affiliated to the Communist Party. Mahila Amaraksha Samitis (Women’s Self Defence Committees) formed by the Communist Party played a leading role in mobilizing women to protest against hunger, famine and long ration queues, and to demand release of nationalist political prisoners, especially in the wake of the arrest of leaders following the Quit India Call of 1942. Thousands of women would demonstrate demanding ‘Free political prisoners, free the country!’ and demanding food grains. As prices of food and essentials rose and Bengal came under famine, these committees were especially active in launching an intense struggle – that succeeded in forcing the government of the day to introduce a rationing system in Bengal. Declared illegal in 1948, these organizations faced severe repression. Latika Sen, one of the founding members of the Mahila Atmaraksha Samiti, two nurses named Pratibha and Geeta and a housewife named Amiya were killed in police firing on a peaceful demonstration demanding release of arrested activists in Kolkata in April 1949.

The Mahila Atmaraksha Samitis also played a leading role in organising mass signature campaigns and public demonstrations in support of the Hindu Code Bill which sought to introduce pro-women changes in Hindu civil laws regarding marriage, inheritance etc. Powerful political forces – including the RSS and some leading Congressmen like Rajendra Prasad and Sardar Patel – were whipping up feudal reaction against such pro-women changes. In the face of a vicious often communal and anti-woman rumour-mongering by such reactionary forces, women activists mobilized mass demonstrations in support of the Bill. The first Government of independent India led by Nehru came under pressure of the reactionary forces and stalled the Bill till 1955-56. Eventually the Bill was truncated, diluted and passed as four different Acts, although the author of the Constitution, Dr. B R Ambedkar, resigned from the Congress in Cabinet in protest.

Women in Peasants and Workers’ Struggles

In 1946, women mill workers played a very active and militant role in the Coimbatore mill strike, facing brutal police repression. In the same year, women workers played a similar role in the jute workers struggle in Kolkata against a Bill that proposed to retrench thousands of women workers in the name of regulating work hours. In 1947, women workers of the Dhanraj cotton mill in Mumbai waged a brave battle against mass lay-offs of women, facing severe police violence.

Women were at the forefront of the tebhaga movement in Bengal in 1946, when peasants and sharecroppers demanded two-thirds of the crop they harvested. Among the peasants killed in police firing were women like Kaushalya, Kamrani and Jasoda, and women of the Hajong tribe like Rashmoni, Shankhmoni, Revathi and others. Ahalya and three other peasant women succumbed to police firing while leading a procession in Chandanpiri village of Kakdwip in 1948.

In the Tanka movement that preceded the tebhaga movement in Mymensingh district, two young Muslim peasant women are remembered for confronting armed police with axes in their hands.

In the Communist-led Telangana movement, women fought shoulder to shoulder with militant peasant men against the razakars (private militia of feudal rulers) and the Indian Army.

The women in the Communist movement were pioneering in the way they took up issues like domestic violence, women’s rights to income earned by their own labour etc, in the course of the tebhaga, Telangana, and kisan sabha movements.

Remembering Rashmoni

(Excerpts from a poem written by Sameer Roy, 1968 (during the Naxalbari movement) in memory of Rashmoni, a woman of the Hajong tribe, who was killed in the police repression on the Tebhaga movement in 1946–47.)

Comrade, how old are we

Why not take a stock.

My mother, sitting by the wretched flicker of a fire,

Counts the age of Heeren, Nripen, Shyamal and Sameer—

Why do not you bother a little and count.

Rasmoni of Hajong died with an ill fate—

Other than the National Library and the hills of Hajong,

There is no picture of hers in Bengal.

...Why not recite her name to Shantilata, Jiad’s wife

...Why not now with Rasmoni’s name covertly in our

Let us slip into a village a few miles away.

...Shantilata, Jiad’s wife Fatema—

Could be more incisive than the bow.

Comrade, let us from the old history book

Tear Rasmoni’s picture

And march ahead, more surreptitiously than darkness.

The Naxalbari Upsurge and Women

On 25 May 1967 in Naxalbari village of Darjeeling district, 8 women were killed in a militant struggle against a repressive landlord. Their martyrdom marked the beginning of the militant peasant uprising called the Naxalbari movement, which led to the birth of the CPI(ML), the revolutionary current in India’s communist movement. The uprising spread like a prairie fire to Srikakulam in Andhra Pradesh, where women like Panchadri Nirmala were martyred in heroic struggles alongside other male comrades.

The women martyrs of Naxalbari

The 8 women martyred along with a man (Com. Khar Singh Mallick) and two children on 25 May 1967 at Bengai Jote, Naxalbari:

1. Com. Dhaneswari Devi

2. Com. Sorubala Barman

3. Com. Sonamoti Singha

4. Com. Simashwari Mallick

5. Com. Nayaneswari Mallick

6. Com. Samashwari Saibani

7. Com. Gaudrau Saibani

8. Com. Phulmoti Singha

Excerpts from a people’s song in memory of the Naxalbari women martyrs

Terai is wailing

My heart grieves with her,

Flaming fields of Naxalbari are crying out

For her seven slain daughters.

The Women’s Movement in the 1980s and 90s

The 1980s and 90s witnessed many powerful chapters in the women’s movement – anti-arrack movements in Himachal Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Uttarakhand; against price rise; national campaigns against rape, especially custodial rape and state repression that forced the government to introduce some changes in rape laws; struggles against dowry and dowry burning that led to the enactment of an anti-dowry law; against sati (following the Roop Kanwar sati case of 1989) leading to the enactment of a law for prevention and against glorification of sati; to protect the environment (Chipko movement in Uttarakhand for example). The women’s movement was always very active in confronting communalism. Be it in Surat in 1992 or Gujarat in 2002, women have always been the worst victims of communal violence. The women’s movement faced a major challenge when, in the wake of the Shah Bano verdict where the Supreme Court ruled in favour of a divorced Muslim woman’s right to maintenance, the Rajiv Gandhi Government introduced a Bill to exclude Muslim women from the purview of the right to maintenance. This move was a political game to offset the same Congress Government’s pandering to communal forces in the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’ agitation launched by the Sangh Parivar and BJP. While firmly defending Muslim women’s rights, the women’s movement also waged a powerful battle against communal violence.

Women in the Revolutionary Movement since the 1970s

The Naxalbari movement was brutally suppressed in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the place of its birth, but its spirit refused to be killed. It surfaced again in the revolutionary struggles in Bhojpur and other central Bihar districts. Here, among the first issues that the CPI(ML) movement took up were the question of women’s rights and dignity and the end to oppressive feudal practices like the doli pratha which meant sexual exploitation of women of the agrarian poor families. Bhojpur still warmly recalls and salutes women fighters like Sheela and Lahari, who were killed by police bullets.

Women of Kaithar Kalan

-- Gorakh Pandey

...Oppression was rising

The poor were organizing themselves

A wave of revolt was building

One day, in the midst of all this

The women of Kaithar Kalan

Took on the police

Which had come to raid the village for Naxalites

Oh! What have things come to? How could this happen?
So simple, like cattle,

So helpless

How could they snatch the rifles

And chase away the police?

This is revolt!

Ram ram, this is the terrible kaliyuga

Women and battle?

In that country where in the crowded assembly

Draupadi’s clothes were stripped

And all the great warriors remained silent –

In that very country,

Such an audacious challenge to men’s glory?

... anyway,
This tiny little Mahabharata

That was just fought at Kaithar Kalan

In which

Shoulder to shoulder with poor men

Fought the women of Kaithar Kalan

Let them remember

Who seek to change the course of history

And they too

Who seek to turn it back...

Gorakh Pandey’spoem Kaithar Kalan ki Auratein (Women of Kaithar Kalan) movingly recounts an episode that marked the awakening of women in central Bihar in the 80s against feudal oppression and police repression, where women snatched the rifles from police during a raid for ‘Naxalites’, and beat back a police force.

Women’s organisations affiliated to the revolutionary movement were active in many states under different banners, such as the Janvadi Mahila Manch and Pragatisheel Mahila Manch in Bihar, Pragatisheel Mahila Sanghatan in UP, Democratic Women’s Front in Tamil Nadu, and Pragatisheel Mahila Samiti in West Bengal. These groups worked independently and also took a lead in establishing links of solidarity with other trends in the women’s movement. In 1986, the Pragatisheel Mahila Samiti hosted a National Women’s Conference with the participation of a range of autonomous groups from various parts of the country. The Janvadi Mahila Manch and Pragatisheel Mahila Manch along with the Indian People’s Front played the main role in organizing the Nari Mukti Sangharsh Sammelan (Conference for Women’s Liberation Struggles) in Patna in 1988. The Sadou Asom Nari Santha in Assam, formed in 1990, played a leading role in the struggle against state repression, especially rape and murder of women by security forces, also forming the 'Anti Repression Joint Women Action Committee' comprising of different tribal women organisations of the Karbi, Missing, Bodo, Tiwa, Deouri and Sonowal communities. The Karbi Nimso Chingthur Asong (KNCA) was formed in 1986, and played a leading role in the struggle for autonomous statehood for Karbi Anglong and against state repression. In August 1992, at the height of the communal campaign that culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December 1992, these groups organized a two-day national Women’s Convention against right-wing reactionary forces at Patna. These women’s groups in many states united to form the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA) in 1994.

This revolutionary women’s movement was at the forefront of the struggle against forces of feudal reaction like the Ranveer Sena, a private landlords’ militia that terrorised the rural poor to deter their political assertion under revolutionary left banners and perpetrated massacres such as those at Bathani Tola (1996) and Laxmanpur-Bathe (1998), in which hundreds of rural poor were massacred, a large number of whom were women and children. Earlier in the early 1990s, following the election of the first CPI(ML) MP Comrade Rameshwar Prasad from Bhojpur, feudal forces took ‘revenge’ by raping women at Danwar-Bihta during the Holi festival. Revolutionary women’s groups held a road blockade and organized other powerful protests against that incident.

In 2003 Manju Devi (President of the Jehanabad unit of AIPWA and member of the CPI(ML) district committee and also an activist of the All India Agricultural Labourers’ Association) was killed by the Ranveer Sena. She had led several struggles, especially against brutalities on women and men from the rural poor classes by the Ranveer Sena. Her martyrdom was followed fierce struggles for punishment to her killers; and villager erected a memorial to her that was defended in the face of several attempts by feudal forces to defile and destroy it.