women with attitude

When 11 young women took on Gandhi about a woman's right to dress as she chooses

'The modern girl dresses not to protect herself from wind, rain and sun but to attract attention,' Gandhi wrote.

While working in the archives of the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, I came across a fascinating letter to MK Gandhi sent by 11 young women of Calcutta. The letter was undated, but it appeared to have been written in January, 1939. It was addressed to “Most revered Mahatmaji”, and was signed individually by the 11 women, all Hindus by their names. The letter was written in protest against an essay written by Gandhi for his journal, Harijan. Gandhi’s article, said these women, was “not very inspiring”, since it seemed to “put the whole slur upon the injured female who suffers most due to the malevolent social custom”.

The letter (to whose arguments I shall presently return) intrigued me, so I set off to locate the original article by Gandhi that had so offended the young women of Bengal. Entitled “Students’ Shame”, it was published in Harijan’s issue dated December 31, 1938. Here Gandhi responded to a letter written to him by a college girl in the Punjab, complaining about the teasing and harassment she and her companions experienced at the hands of prowling young men. “First of all,” this young lady asked Gandhi, “tell me how, in the circumstances mentioned above, can girls apply the principle of ahimsa and save themselves. Secondly, what is the remedy for curing youth of the abominable habit of insulting womenfolk?”

Replying in the pages of Harijan, Gandhi recognised that such molestation by men was a “growing evil” in India. He recommended that “all such cases should be published in the newspapers. Names of the offenders should be published when they are traced.” For “there is nothing like public opinion for castigating public misconduct.” Indeed, he argued, “crime and vice generally require darkness for prowling. They disappear when light plays upon them.”

While urging victims to name and shame those who harassed them, Gandhi also asked well-behaved men to chastise the deviants among their own flock. Young men, he said, should “as a class, be jealous of their reputation and deal with every case of impropriety occurring among their mates”. Gandhi also accepted the need for young women themselves to “learn the art of ordinary self-defence and protect themselves from indecent behaviour of unchivalrous youth”.

Gratuitous attack

In between acknowledging the problem and offering solutions, Gandhi spoilt his case by launching an unprovoked attack on the dress code of the modern woman. For all the evil that males did, he remarked, “I have a fear that the modern girl loves to be Juliet to half a dozen Romeos. She loves adventure. My correspondent seems to represent the unusual type. The modern girl dresses not to protect herself from wind, rain and sun but to attract attention. She improves upon nature by painting herself and looking extraordinary. The non-violent way is not for such girls.”

It was to this gratuitous advice, this patriarchal preconception of how women must dress, that the young women of Bengal responded. “Some may find modern girls’ dresses and deportments a bit different than they wish them to be,” said these women to Gandhi, “but to brand them as exhibitionistic generally is a positive insult to her sex as a whole. Strength of character and chaste behaviour are necessary not only for modern girls but for men as well. There may be a few girls playing Juliets to a dozen Romeos. But such cases presuppose the existence of half a dozen Romeos, moving around the streets in quest of a Juliet, thereby pointing out where the proper correction lies.”

These 11 young women of Calcutta spiritedly defended the woman’s right to dress as she chose. And they excoriated men for their voyeurism and their predatory instincts. They told Gandhi that his own unfortunate remarks “once again holds brief for that worn-out and un-becoming saying - ‘woman is the gate of Hell’. And naturally clouds of doubt gather over the much-vaunted progress that man has made since the birth of that saying. A Gokhale, a Tilak, a Deshbandhu [C.R. Das] would have surely hesitated to come out with such an ungenerous statement as you have done. Woman has been called a boa-constrictor, but that is in a different land and by a different man. What befits a Bernard Shaw with his hands touching the ground and legs kicking the air does not befit a Mahatma.”

This passionate, intensely felt letter send to Gandhi by these 11 young women of Bengal ended thus: “Lastly, from the foregoing remarks, it should never be concluded that modern girls have no respect for you. They hold you in as much respect as every mother’s son does. To be hated or pitied is what they resent most. They are ready to amend their ways if they are really guilty. Their guilt, if any, must be conclusively proved before they are anathematised. In this respect they would neither desire to take shelter under the covering of ‘ladies, please’ nor they would silently stand and allow the judge to condemn them in his own way. Truth must be faced, the modern girl or Juliet as you have called her, has courage enough to face it.”

Gandhi, ever ready to debate, printed large chunks of this letter in Harijan before setting out to respond to it. (He did, however, leave out the references to Gokhale, Bernard Shaw et al., as well as the even more telling sentence pointing out that to dress differently was not necessarily to be exhibitionist.) Having presented the arguments of his critics, he then, as was his wont, set out to respond. His tone was notably defensive; “my correspondents do not perhaps know,” he remarked, “that I began service of India’s women in South Africa more than forty years ago when perhaps none of them were born.” He continued, “I hold myself to be incapable of writing anything derogatory to womanhood.” His original article, he explained, “was written to expose students’ shame, not to advertise the frailties of girls. But in giving the diagnosis of the disease, I was bound, if I was to prescribe the right remedy, to mention all the factors which induced the disease.”

In conclusion, Gandhi invited his correspondents “to initiate a crusade against the rude behavior of students. God helps only those who help themselves. The girls must learn the art of protecting themselves against the ruffianly behaviour of man.”

Another heated debate

At this time, the first months of 1939, Gandhi was also engaged in a debate with a single Bengali male. This was Subhas Bose. That argument was about political questions, about who would control the Congress Party. Defying Gandhi, Bose stood for a second term as Congress president, and won. However, after Gandhi’s acolytes, Vallabhbhai Patel and Govind Ballabh Pant, made it impossible for Bose to function effectively as president, he resigned.

The quarrel between Gandhi and Bose is extremely well known, and has featured in biographies of both men as well as many other works of history. On the other hand, this debate, occurring more or less at the same time, between Gandhi and 11 young women of Bengal is now more or less forgotten. That is a shame, for it flagged some vital issues that (sadly, even tragically) retain their relevance. Even now, in 2017, it is not uncommon for Indian patriarchs – Hindu, Muslim and Sikh – to demand that young women dress in particular ways, and to blame the woman when incidents of sexual harassment occur. Such is the situation in 2017; in 1939, of course, patriarchal mores were even more deeply entrenched. In confronting the greatest living Indian, in taking on and exposing a Mahatma’s prejudices, those 11 young women of Bengal displayed an admirable independence of mind. And they were right too.

Postscript: I drafted this column in the last week of 2016. Early in the New Year, after the molestation of women in Bengaluru’s MG Road area sparked widespread outrage, Karnataka’s home minister claimed that the “Western dress” worn by the women was part of the problem. He had, to quote those brave Bengali ladies of 1939, thus “put the whole slur upon the injured female who suffers most due to the malevolent social custom”. The home minister got roasted in social media and the press, but at the time of writing has not retracted or apologized for his statement. Eighty-eight years after Gandhi suggested that women were partly to blame for the injuries they suffer, Indian men are still abusing and molesting women, and Indian politicians are still apologizing for or defending them. The only (scarcely consolatory) difference is this: at least Gandhi recognised the problem, while the language he used was far less crude than that of the patriarchal politicians of today.

This article first appeared on The Telegraph.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

How sustainable farming practices can secure India's food for the future

India is home to 15% of the world’s undernourished population.

Food security is a pressing problem in India and in the world. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO), it is estimated that over 190 million people go hungry every day in the country.

Evidence for India’s food challenge can be found in the fact that the yield per hectare of rice, one of India’s principal crops, is 2177 kgs per hectare, lagging behind countries such as China and Brazil that have yield rates of 4263 kgs/hectare and 3265 kgs/hectare respectively. The cereal yield per hectare in the country is also 2,981 kgs per hectare, lagging far behind countries such as China, Japan and the US.

The slow growth of agricultural production in India can be attributed to an inefficient rural transport system, lack of awareness about the treatment of crops, limited access to modern farming technology and the shrinking agricultural land due to urbanization. Add to that, an irregular monsoon and the fact that 63% of agricultural land is dependent on rainfall further increase the difficulties we face.

Despite these odds, there is huge potential for India to increase its agricultural productivity to meet the food requirements of its growing population.

The good news is that experience in India and other countries shows that the adoption of sustainable farming practices can increase both productivity and reduce ecological harm.

Sustainable agriculture techniques enable higher resource efficiency – they help produce greater agricultural output while using lesser land, water and energy, ensuring profitability for the farmer. These essentially include methods that, among other things, protect and enhance the crops and the soil, improve water absorption and use efficient seed treatments. While Indian farmers have traditionally followed these principles, new technology now makes them more effective.

For example, for soil enhancement, certified biodegradable mulch films are now available. A mulch film is a layer of protective material applied to soil to conserve moisture and fertility. Most mulch films used in agriculture today are made of polyethylene (PE), which has the unwanted overhead of disposal. It is a labour intensive and time-consuming process to remove the PE mulch film after usage. If not done, it affects soil quality and hence, crop yield. An independently certified biodegradable mulch film, on the other hand, is directly absorbed by the microorganisms in the soil. It conserves the soil properties, eliminates soil contamination, and saves the labor cost that comes with PE mulch films.

The other perpetual challenge for India’s farms is the availability of water. Many food crops like rice and sugarcane have a high-water requirement. In a country like India, where majority of the agricultural land is rain-fed, low rainfall years can wreak havoc for crops and cause a slew of other problems - a surge in crop prices and a reduction in access to essential food items. Again, Indian farmers have long experience in water conservation that can now be enhanced through technology.

Seeds can now be treated with enhancements that help them improve their root systems. This leads to more efficient water absorption.

In addition to soil and water management, the third big factor, better seed treatment, can also significantly improve crop health and boost productivity. These solutions include application of fungicides and insecticides that protect the seed from unwanted fungi and parasites that can damage crops or hinder growth, and increase productivity.

While sustainable agriculture through soil, water and seed management can increase crop yields, an efficient warehousing and distribution system is also necessary to ensure that the output reaches the consumers. According to a study by CIPHET, Indian government’s harvest-research body, up to 67 million tons of food get wasted every year — a quantity equivalent to that consumed by the entire state of Bihar in a year. Perishables, such as fruits and vegetables, end up rotting in store houses or during transportation due to pests, erratic weather and the lack of modern storage facilities. In fact, simply bringing down food wastage and increasing the efficiency in distribution alone can significantly help improve food security. Innovations such as special tarpaulins, that keep perishables cool during transit, and more efficient insulation solutions can reduce rotting and reduce energy usage in cold storage.

Thus, all three aspects — production, storage, and distribution — need to be optimized if India is to feed its ever-growing population.

One company working to drive increased sustainability down the entire agriculture value chain is BASF. For example, the company offers cutting edge seed treatments that protect crops from disease and provide plant health benefits such as enhanced vitality and better tolerance for stress and cold. In addition, BASF has developed a biodegradable mulch film from its ecovio® bioplastic that is certified compostable – meaning farmers can reap the benefits of better soil without risk of contamination or increased labor costs. These and more of the company’s innovations are helping farmers in India achieve higher and more sustainable yields.

Of course, products are only one part of the solution. The company also recognizes the importance of training farmers in sustainable farming practices and in the safe use of its products. To this end, BASF engaged in a widespread farmer outreach program called Samruddhi from 2007 to 2014. Their ‘Suraksha Hamesha’ (safety always) program reached over 23,000 farmers and 4,000 spray men across India in 2016 alone. In addition to training, the company also offers a ‘Sanrakshan® Kit’ to farmers that includes personal protection tools and equipment. All these efforts serve to spread awareness about the sustainable and responsible use of crop protection products – ensuring that farmers stay safe while producing good quality food.

Interested in learning more about BASF’s work in sustainable agriculture? See here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.