With International Women’s Day having been observed on March 8 to shine a light on the fight for equality among genders, we take a look at a quote on empowering women that is often attributed to Dr BR Ambedkar, the founding father of India’s constitution, although there is no clear source for when he said these lines.
Dr Ambedkar is known as a leader of Dalits and people comprising the Bahujan groups in India, but his writings and contributions on the need for uplifting women are also notable, especially for the time in which they were expressed. As a political leader, academic and the first Law Minister of independent India, he made clear that women needed to progress in all spheres of life for the well-being of society as a whole. In this context, we take a look at these lines and their relevance to his ideology.
Additionally, quotes by famous historical figures and those relating to ideologies like feminism form an important part of the syllabus for the UPSC CSE Essay paper.
The above quote references some important themes of Ambedkar’s ideology, relating them to the role of women. “Educate, agitate, organise” is a slogan attributed to him often. It comes from an address at the All India Depressed Classes Conference held at Nagpur in July 1942.
Ambedkar concluded his speech at the event by saying, “For ours is a battle, not for wealth or for power. It is a battle for freedom. It is a battle for the reclamation of human personality which has been suppressed and mutilated by the Hindu Social System and will continue to be suppressed and mutilated if in the political struggle the Hindus win and we lose. My final words of advice to you is educate, agitate and organise, have faith in yourselves and never lose hope. I shall always be with you as I know you will be with me.”
This has been interpreted to mean a step-by-step path that could help marginalised people in gaining the power that had until then not been allowed to reach groups such as Dalits and other backward classes and castes. Education would grant knowledge, helping organise as a collective with other people, to ultimately advocate for relevant causes.
Take the idea of ‘unity’, which the quote begins with. Throughout his life, Ambedkar spoke critically of the caste system and religion, believing them to be hindrances towards achieving unity. He had said, “Fraternity is only another name for democracy”, to explain how hierarchies in society – caste, for instance – prevent brotherhood or a sense of unity from developing.
Similarly, here unity is stressed as an aspirational ideal. But the role of women is also highlighted, to add that unity cannot be exclusionary of women in society, and they must be thought of when we discuss solidarity and togetherness.
Education of women is focused on next. At the time of independence, women in India had limited access to education. But even as of the 2011 Census, there was a significant gap in terms of gender, as the literacy rate stood at 82.14 per cent for males and 65.46 per cent for females. The rate for India was, therefore, 74 per cent.
It is also known that educated parents help in turn nurture educated, healthy kids. Among the key findings of the NGO Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report in rural areas, 2019 was that the mother’s education often determines the kind of pre-schooling or schooling that the child gets.
It said that among children in the early years (ages 0-8), those with mothers who had completed eight or fewer years of schooling were more likely to be attending anganwadis or government pre-primary classes, whereas their peers whose mothers had studied beyond the elementary stage are more likely to be enrolled in private LKG/UKG classes, perhaps showing both the ability and intention to invest more in children’s education.
Finally, the quote mentions that agitation is incomplete without women. Agitation refers to protests or people-led movements, and women have been part of important protests in history – be it the women’s movement against moral and religious codes imposed on them in Iran in 2022, or the 1970s Chipko movement in India’s Uttarakhand, led by women living in forest areas, against threats to their livelihoods and exploitation of forest resources.
Some of the first women-led protests took place in Kerala and Tamil Nadu in the 19th Century, when women from the Nadar caste, an OBC community, demanded to be allowed to cloth the upper part of their body, an act then limited to upper caste women. These protests began in 1823, and their demand was acceded to in 1859, marking an important step forward not only for women but also for other marginalised groups’ right to protest against unequal laws.
Beyond his writings, Ambedkar actively understood how society needs to give opportunities to women while keeping in mind their needs. Sameena Dalwai, professor at Jindal Global School, noted in The Indian Express, “As a policy-maker, Ambedkar’s greatest contribution, apart from the Constitution, was the Hindu Code Bill. It would revolutionise the Hindu domestic sphere by offering women the right to marry by choice and across caste boundaries, give them the right to divorce, and the right to inherit property. Ambedkar felt women, once they become agents of their own fate, will dismantle the caste patriarchy.”
He resigned when the Bill was stalled by orthodox religious groups but it became the law in what Dalwai calls a “diluted” avatar, in the form of the Hindu Marriage Act, Hindu Succession Act, etc.
Dr Ambedkar also noted that the Workmen’s Compensation Act could not leave out women workers. “It is in the interests of the nation that the mother ought to get a certain amount of rest during the pre-natal period and also subsequently, and the principle of the bill is based entirely on that principle,” he said.
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Rishika SinghRishika Singh is with the Explained Desk of The Indian Express. She en… read more