ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Suffragettes in Saris

How Indian Women Won the Vote

Indian Suffragettes: Female Identities and Transnational Networks by Sumita Mukherjee, Oxford University Press India, 2018; pp 312, ₹ 699 (hardcover).


Sarojini Naidu famously disavowed feminism: “I do not like what you call feminism.” In February 1929, addressing a meeting of the National Women’s Party at Washington, she said that Indian women had too much to do fighting for both freedom and political equality to have time for feminism. To her, feminism smacked of an inferiority complex. Why should women want to be like men? (p 147) She was not alone in this. In the first half of the 20th century, as Indian women struggled to balance nationalist politics with their social and political demands, lines of alliances became crossed and complex. Mithan Tata reported that Madame Cama, an Indian nationalist, who had unfolded the Indian tricolour at the International Socialist Congress at Stuttgart (1907) and published the journal, Bande Mataram, from 1909 in Paris, shook her head at them for meeting the Southborough Committee demanding votes for Indian women. The best way to achieve votes for women was to fight for freedom, she said. Indeed, for many women leaders in this period, the balance between the fight for freedom and the struggle for political rights, including that of the vote, was a delicate one, rendered enormously complex by the context of imperialism.

Sumita Mukherjee’s new book on Indian suffragettes delves into these complexities, expanding the canvas to explore national, regional and international dimensions of the movement. The book is a pioneering effort, since there has been no major study of the suffragette movement in colonial India. It is one of the peculiarities of the historical scholarship on gender in South Asia that subjects and themes that have attracted a great deal of attention elsewhere in the world have had relatively little attraction for researchers here. There was, as elsewhere, a women’s suffrage movement in India; many historians of the period have noted its existence in passing. There have been only a few attempts, however, to focus research on this aspect of women’s political engagement. This is perhaps in part because of the positional complexity of the struggle for the vote within a context of imperial subjection, as Mrinalini Sinha (1999) pointed out. The only discussion of the subject at some length has been by Barbara Southard (1995), but she told us the story of women’s suffrage only in Bengal. These movements have been dismissed as elite, restricted, and not serious political mobilisation; it is quite common for even scholars to argue that Indian women got the vote by the generosity of nationalist male leadership. Moreover, since women did not have to fight for it, they did not value it. In recent years, feminist historians have suggested that franchise was included in the fight for freedom. The adoption of universal adult suffrage was not in the gift of the male leadership, it was the term on which all sections of the population rallied to the Congress. Even such arguments preclude consideration of the long struggle for the vote waged by a section of women leaders.

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Updated On : 28th Aug, 2019
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