(The writer is an advocate practising in the Madras High Court, Chennai. She is the Propaganda Secretary of Dravidar Kazhagam. She is an active leader and promoter of Periyar’s ideals.)
In the year 1938 the eminent women in social life of Tamil Nadu, convened a women’s conference at Chennai. Among the resolutions for advancement of the society and improvement in the status of women, the conference lauded the contribution of One Man, who stood and fought against the slavery of women in all sphere of life and conferred on him the title ‘Periyar’. Yes, he opposed the norms, customs, beliefs, faiths, Religion and God by which ever name it is called to subjugate the women and deny her due rights and dignity, he raged a war against that. When those beliefs claimed immunity under the umbrage of Religion, he declared to be the arch enemy of Religion. When the priests placed the God as the shield he gave the clarion call to form a Godless society, against all inequalities. That Man was Periyar E.V.Ramasamy Popularly known as Periyar. The Revolutionary leader was the philosopher and founder of the movement built up to demolish the dilapidated social structure and to treat the minds which were religiously infected against half of the human community. Until his demise in the year 1973 he continued the tireless fight against the inequality of women. The declarations of Periyar form the basis and foundation for feminist ideology in India.
A comparative study of the status of women in Tamil Nadu in the beginning of the 20th century with that of the 21st century will reveal the journey of women from the state of the undignified and the unrecognized. Bravery to the assert empowered and awakened women to claim the right in all walks of life. This change was achieved by Periyar and his contributions towards this achievement are incomparable till date.
The role played by Periyar as a Feminist is not yet recognized by many of the women’s movements and Associations in India because they are led by women who belong to the upper caste and upper class, the supremacy of whom was challenged by Periyar. Periyar was the Pioneer of Feminism in India and no philosopher had reached the heights that Periyar reached in his philosophy and practice to bring in the change in society both in thinking and in action.
The uniqueness of Periyar and his feminist ideology is that his concern for women flows from his innate sense of equality and justice. Periyar was born in the year 1879. He married at the age of 19 and developed comradeship with his wife Nagammai. He insisted his wife to call him comrade. He took her to political meetings. Periyar encouraged his younger sister Kannammal also to take part in public life, taking part in meetings, conferences, pluckettings, protests and facing imprisonment are uncommon in the early decades of 20th century. But the acts of Periyar reveal that his mind was not inhibited by the social and religious bias against women.
The second phase of his approach towards women’s issues could be identified from the incident that he decided to perform remarriage to his niece who became a window after a child marriage. The wrath of parents, close relatives and the community was treated like dust by Periyar. The priority for Periyar was protecting the young girl from falling into dangerous rites of widowhood. This natural instinct to fight for the right of voiceless women formed the pavement for his zealous travel for equality of women.
Periyar was actively leading the National movement and prior to that he was holding public posts including the Chairman of Erode Municipality. During those days it was the responsibilities of the Municipal Chairman and Commissioners to visit the temples and verify the accounts and properties and check whether the procedures were followed as per religious norms. During those visits Periyar had seen women in different age groups staying in the temple as Devatasis appointed and paid by Government fund. The women who crossed the age for dancing were granted pension by Municipality. In practice those women were subjected to sexual exploitation by the wealthy and powerful men and the temple priests. The Devatasi sold her rights for consideration and a young woman entered the temple to her place. Though this practice was associated with Hindu temple and religious faiths, Periyar decided to eliminate this practice to save the women from subjecting to prostitution in the name of God, religion and arts. He abolished the ‘transferable right’ of the Devatasi status and then declined to fill up the post of Devatasi fallen vacant due to the death or retirement of the incumbent Devatasi. This action also faced opposition from religious leaders. But Periyar never gave up his decision and proceeded with his reformative action.
Periyar raised serious questions about the connection between the superstious beliefs, in equal treatment, coerced sacrifices and harassments inflicted on women on the one hand, praising the women for her motherhood, worshipping women as goddesses, attributing superlative qualities of patience and tolerance on the other hand. All queries against the sufferings of a woman received two answers. One was that it is her fate and the other answer was that it was destined by god and religious rules. Therefore she had no option expect to undergo the suffering with endurance. Periyar refused to accept the religious practice and declared that women need not be afraid of those holy rules and none could prevent women from living her life with human dignity.
To march towards his goal Periyar convened meetings, and conferences, and passed resolutions against the unscientific practice and the rule of religion and society.
1. Making education a fundamental right of women.
2. Empowerment with priority in the departmen where women can be preferred.
3. Sharing power in politics and government by reserving 50% seats to women.
4. Training in hard core jobs to eliminate the identification of weaker sex.
5. Imparting Technical education to women and make them capable of handling the modern technology.
Periyar insisted the Governments to implement the above decisions and passed resolutions demanding the reservation and priority in education and employment for women in the conference of Self Respect Movement convened at Chengalpet (near Chennai) in the year 1929. This conference was the pioneer in advocating the social rights of women and this was the triggering point for entry of more women into social reformation movement. The concern and empathy of Periyar on women had resulted in demanding the social rights identically called by the feminist as social Feminism.
The ideological fight against the age old theories of religion was started parallel to the social demands by Periyar. Periyar questioned each and every condition imposed on women. He criticized the life of “A woman who was dependent on her husband for two square meal and a pair of clothes and shelter. In return the women should work at home from morning till night serving the husband with utmost obedience, bearing his tortures and still worshipping him as her god, giving birth to his children and remaining chaste and loyal to him.” Periyar was the only man who questioned this life and asked, “Why should a woman endure this humiliation” Periyar rejected the ‘glory’ attached to the sacrifices of women for the sake of the husband. He rejected the stories portraying women in the light of ‘glory’ for her loyalty to her husband and he called the women to come out of those images and role models. The stories created to stereo type women into those moulding of a proud slave to husband were subjects to enquiry by Periyar.The greatness attached to such women characters were criticized by Periyar as ‘stupidity’
The intellectual area of Periyar’s travel pertaining to the physical and sexual rights of women was comparable only to the analysis of Simon Debourair the renowned feminist. Periyar identified the cause of secondary status of women in family is the hierarchy inbuilt in the social system having the family as its basic unit. Periyar firmly held that unless the family system is demolished the women can never be liberated. In addition to that Periyar analysed the founding factors of Justification for subjecting a woman into slavery by way of family. The family has constructed the kitchen for the women and the hall for the men. The supremacy of man was attached to his birth and the birth of a girl child was considered to be a woe and cumulative loss of money and prestige of the family. The denial of education was due to the fear that once she gets education she will learn to write love letter and will marry out of caste. If she is permitted to move freely she will fall in love with other caste man and thus the social order will be destroyed. This was the predominant ideology of the people who were ruled by Hindu Dharma or sanadana Dharma. To change this inequality and hierarchy of the society the religious rule was challenged by Periyar.
The strong dosage of criticism and condemnation of Periyar about the Manu smiriti, the legal text of Manu who was considered to be a saint and scholar by the Hindu Brahmins and upper caste people, spread shock waves in the society. Periyar questioned the rule of Manu prescribed conditions to women such as “when young a woman is a slave to her father at youth she becomes a slave to her husband in old age she will be a slave to her sons. No woman is entitled to be free at any age.
Periyar quoted this condition of Manu in public meeting and awakened the women folk to come out of the religious clutches. While condemning the Hindu religious rules and portrayals of women, Periyar criticized the condition of women in Christianity and the imposition of pardha in Islam. Periyar questioned the story of Virgin Mary as to why the mother of the god was projected as Virgin. The ideology of Periyar about the family system and questioning the role of women, calling women to come out from the religious clutches are known in the western theory as reformative feminist ideology.
The Radical principles of Periyar and his space in describing the personal rights of women could be found only in Radical Feminism.
The social rights were claimed through the claim for equality. The rejection of family conditions and its confining mechanism led to fight for identification of individual rights of women. The next of the struggle was carried by Periyar to an unimaginable plight in the history. In this sphere Periyar conducted self respect marriages and he travelled extensively into remote villages. He converted the wedding stage as his stage for propaganda. He spoke of the matters of womans individuality, right to marriage and remarriage, refusing to undergo the widowhood, right to sexual desire, having control over the womb, refusing to give birth. They were all addressed in self respect marriages held in hundreds and thousands attended by huge gathering of women and men.
This kind of propaganda to address the women’s rights and feminist ideas were not thought of by any other reformer or revolutionary in any part of the world.
The radical ideas of Periyar on women rights were shocking the people. His call to women to remove the uterus, ‘if it is the cause for her suffering and to have her womb under her control were not easily digestible to the society. The resolution passed in ‘Salem conference’ in the year 1944, declaring that if a married woman falls in love with some one else she should have a right to divorce her husband and marry the man of her choice’ was misrepresented by the upper caste media, attaching stigma to the resolution as though Periyar recommended immorality.
Periyar left no stone unturned in his ideological fight and research for the cause of inequality and gender bias. Periyar questioned the formulation of language as favoring men against women. In English. words like the human and history form the biases of reference. Likewise Periyar questioned the language and literature for its gender biased formation. Great epics were torn into pieces for its inhuman treatment of women. Periyar questioned the importance of chastity and asked why such morals are not imposed on men and how women alone could protect morals when men are licensed to be immoral.
Periyar not only wrote but also addressed the meeting and declared that “morality cannot be one way traffic”.
The series of articles Periyar wrote on the topic “why a woman became a slave?” is a rare collection of feminist principles which contain the ingredients of all schools of Feminism. Thus Periyar Feminism is unique.
Periyar believed that with development of science and technology human being will advance and the bias and prejudices against women will whither away. Though women have moved many steps further the globalization of consumer end marketing economy and renewal of religious identities are once again taking our world back to the 19th century.
The recent increase in killing of new born female children, and the failure of Government efforts to combat the fall of sex ratio of women into 920:1000 are cautioning and reminding us that we need a renaissance promoting Periyar Feminism and propagating among men and women once again as Periyar did. Time alarms the society to start it forthwith.