Women’s Movement in India: All you need to Know

This paper will discuss the cultural and gender implications of the women’s movement in India, examine the role of reformers like Jotibha Phule in the movement, touch upon the current scenario of the movement and status of women in the 21st Century as well as discuss the legal framework of the movement.

Women’s Movement in india

Introduction: As of the 21st Century, much debate has been going on about the position of women in society. In a country like India, the status of women has always been regrettable. One can barely remember a time when Indian women enjoyed equal power as men. The structure of the culture and society in India is far more complex than most societies and therefore, tackling women’s issues is slightly more complicated owing to the country’s rich history of traditions. India has a historically traditional society and ancient texts like the manusmriti greatly influenced the way our society works. The controversial text had many inconsistent views on women and portrayed women as incomplete and incapable without men. It was through the help of such texts that male supremacy thrived in the Indian context.  Reformers like Rajaram Mohan Roy, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Ishwarchandra Vidya Sagar, Annie Besant, M.G. Ranade and Jotibha Savithribai Phule fought for change in the nineteenth century. They fought for reforms with regard to social practises like sati, purdah system, enforced widowhood and child marriage which highlighted and encouraged the oppression of women. The women’s movement in India took various forms in different parts of the nation. Despite facing severe resistance and several hurdles, a lot of good came off the movement. This paper will discuss the cultural and gender implications of the women’s movement in India, examine the role of reformers like Jotibha Phule in the movement, touch upon the current scenario of the movement and status of women in the 21st Century as well as discuss the legal framework of the movement.

Gender and Cultural implications

Questions related to women’s issues and their status arose in the nineteenth century in a ‘modern India’ and thus a reform movement came about. Increased differences between men and women became one of the major causes for the birth of women’s movement in India. These differences led to more gender-defined roles which in turn led to increased oppression of women in society. Due to the division of sexes and increased differentiation in their roles and functions, men and women were brought up differently as well as treated differently; with men being considered the superior sex. Reformers protested that this separation in the duties and roles need not translate into the oppression of women in society.  Indian women were influenced by ideas from the west and protests on violence against women. The women’s empowerment movement can be defined as a “bottom-up process of transferring gender power relations, through individuals or groups developing awareness of women’s subordination and building their capacity to challenge it” (Gandhi, 2019).

The Indian women’s movement was influenced by western ideals and the main focus areas of women’s movements in India as well as the west largely remained the same. While the ultimate goal which is the upliftment of women is the same for feminists from both parts, the obstacles faced by the Indian reformers and the issues that needed their attention differed. Aspects like education and equal rights were common to both, however; Indian reformers paid special attention to local issues like sati and dowry related harassment. The basic message of this movement was to prevent the ill-treatment of women, maintain dignity and raise the status of women (Gandhi, 2019). By the 1920’s however, the movement had gained impetus and different rationales were being expressed. Reformers argued that “women’s rights should be recognized because of women’s socially useful role as mothers.” They also said that “women have the same needs, desires and capacities as men and were thus entitled to the same rights” (Gandhi, 2019). This was one of the first movements that saw a large number of women coming together and fighting for their rights. It saw women from all strata of society participate and included the participation of rich, poor, young, old, tribal women among others. This period also saw the emergence of a number of local women’s organizations like the Women’s Indian Association (WIA), the National Council of Women in India (NCWI) and the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). Organisations like these worked towards the welfare of women and played an important role in the movement. The social reformers focused on issues like eradication of Sati, promotion of widow remarriage, ending polygamy, abolishing child marriage among others. They also focused on promoting women’s education (Gandhi, 2019). Post-independence however, the campaign for women’s rights and issues took a back seat. The women had to go through heavy trauma and were left with tragic experiences from the independence struggle. It was also assumed that independence and development would automatically lead to changes in the social order of the nation and women’s issues would be tackled. Women’s groups were divided and it was mainly the middle-class and elite educated women doing most of the activism. It was only after the 1970’s that the movement was considered a legitimate one. The women’s movement in India is therefore commonly divided into three phases- the first phase (1850–1915), the second phase (1915-1947) and the Post-independence phase.

It was only in the Post-Independence phase that the movement was taken seriously and was given due importance. Due to the efforts of the reformers, the Constitution of India made provisions for equality of women and freedom from discrimination based on gender. The women’s movement in India had a significant impact in education, employment and the globalisation process in the country.

Women in India did not enjoy access to education as their main role was to take care of the household. They were oftentimes married off at a young age and their domestic responsibilities posed as a hindrance to them receiving any sort of training. The Indian government created the National Policy on Education (NPE) in 1986 and consequently launched the Mahila Samakhya in order to empower women. The main aim of the programme is to “create a learning environment for women to realize their potential, learn to demand information and find the knowledge to take charge of their own lives” (Anantha Raman, 2009). The movement also led to an increase in the number of teachers available and in turn led the increase in enrolment numbers of girls in schools. Female literacy rates however are stiller lower than that of males and efforts are being taken by the Indian government to increase these dismal rates.

Indian women were considered an economic burden to society especially in rural areas in the country. They were not seen as economically productive or useful due to their lack of education and training. Their contributions in the household were not considered. This lack of training ensured that they could not make any productive contributions and were hence side-lined. High illiteracy rates among them prevented them from taking up any technical jobs and restricted them to lower-paying jobs which did not require high skills levels and provided little to no job security. In fact, the discrimination between female and male labour was so high that women doing the same job as a man commanded a lower price. For example, the work in the agricultural sector was more or less standardised, but a woman still earned lesser than a man even after clocking in the same number of hours and doing the same amount of work. The government of India is actively working towards eliminating these inequalities, directly and indirectly, due to pressure from women activists. When Cine Costume Make-Up Artist & Hair Dressers’ Association (CCMAA) came up with a rule which did not allow women to obtain memberships as makeup artists’ in 155, the government overturned it citing the right to equality and a number of women are now a part of CCMAA.

We cannot ignore the impact of globalization on women in India. Most women’s activists are in the opinion that globalization has indirectly created more hurdles for women in the workplace. Globalization has paved way for the entry of multiple multinational corporations that have been accused of “exploiting the labour of young underpaid and disadvantaged women’ in free trade zones and sweatshops, and use “Young lower middle class, educated women,” in call centres (Gangoli, 2007). These multinational companies are also responsible for commodifying women and creating the image of an ‘ideal woman.’

Role of Reformers

Towards the end of the 1800’s, a number of women leaders emerged from all parts of the country that took part in public gatherings and highlighted the issues faced by women. These women took on professions like teaching and nursing in order to bring about change and expressed themselves through writings (Gandhi, 2019). Rassundari Devi, a Bengali housewife wrote ‘Amar Jibon’ which translates in ‘My Life’ in Bengali. The book described the pitiful condition of women back then and was a plea to women to stand up and fight against the unjust social practices and customs. Rabindranath Tagore’s sister Swarnakumari Devi launched the Theosophical Society of India. Tarabai Shinde published ‘Stree-Purush Tulna’ in 1882. Her texts echoed the struggles faced by women due to patriarchy and spoke about the subordination of Brahmin and Non-Brahmin women. With the aim of educating women, the Begum of Bhopal founded the All India Muslim Women’s conference in 1916. In the 20th century, women like Sarojini Naidu and Annie Besant headlined women’s participation and played a role in legitimizing it. The Rashtriya Stree Sabha was founded at the same time and focused on national activities. Apart from these icons, there were a number of women that came together from all walks of life in order to fight for their rights. The Dandi March witnessed thousands of women participating. The women’s movement also saw a number of men lead the way for women’s rights and equality. Pandita Rama Bai began making changes within the four walls of his home by educating his wife who taught their daughter. He also founded the Arya Mahila Samaj which took care of distressed women (Gandhi, 2019).

Savitribai Phule is popularly seen as the “lady who changed the face of women’s rights in India” and her contribution to the women’s movement in our country is unparalleled. The Maharashtrian attempted to educate women from depressed castes while educating herself (Gandhi, 2019). Born in 1831, the educationalist, poet and social reformer is oftentimes referred to as the “first female teacher of India.” With help from her husband Jyotirao Phule, she played a key role in improving the plight of women’s rights in India during the British Raj. They founded the first Indian girl’s school in Bhide Wada, Pune in 1848. She tirelessly worked towards ending the ill-treatment and discrimination felt by people based on their gender and caste. Along with her son, Savitribai opened a clinic in Pune to provide treatment for those affected by the Bubonic Plague epidemic in 1897. Unfortunately, Phule and her husband faced heavy resistance consistently as a result of their caste. They were Shudras- a lower and marginalized caste and hence people were not as accepting of them or their work. Despite constant resistance, Savitribai and her husband never gave up and continued to champion women’s rights until their last breath.

Legal framework and contemporary data

Legal reforms for women were always a priority in the movement. Due to the efforts of reformists, Government agencies, Political parties, academic establishments and institutions and the media have been forced to take the women’s movement seriously and accept its existence. They have been forced to consider the practicality and the need for some of their demands and bring about change, even if it is on a small scale. Since 1947, seven 5-year plans have focused on women’s issues. The planning commission of India has made conscious efforts to bridge the gap of inequality between men and women and have come up with various schemes to provide better health, employment, education for women. They have allocated resources especially for the welfare of women. The 2001 census report showed a growth of literary rates among women by 50%. These numbers however are still dismal compared to the rest of the world and there is still much left to work on. Unjust Family laws have been abolished in order to provide more rights to women. For example, the practise of Sati was made illegal and the Triple Talaq bill was recently passed. A number of legislative reforms were made as a result of the movement. India enacted the Family courts Act in 1984 and introduced the Domestic violence Bill in 2002 in order to provide women protection within the four walls of her home. The Rape law and Dowry prohibition Act were passed in 1980. Heavy campaigning for the protection of women from domestic violence led to the act being passed in 2005. Furthermore, the prevention of sexual harassment at the workplace act was passed in 1997 among others. Over the last decade, a number of organizations pursuing women’s rights have emerged and have led to further changes being made in society. All of these reforms would not be possible without the efforts of the social reformers and it was because of the women’s movement that the government was pressurised into making changes. All these acts are very much in practise in contemporary India and affect the way our society functions today.


As of today, 21st-century Indian women enjoy much more freedom than they did in the ’90s; however, there is still a long way to go in terms of reaching an ideal situation of equality. In a complex society like ours where factors such as religion, caste and race hold so much importance, gender rights become far more complicated. Because our country gives so much importance to tradition, people are adverse to change and do not welcome it easily. Affectively implementing change, therefore, will take time and is not something that can be seen overnight. Women like Sarojini Naidu and Savitribai will forever be remembered for their contributions for the empowerment of India, but we must not forget the countless number of unnamed women who fought for women’s rights and the selfless sacrifices that have gone into bringing about change. The women’s movement brought to light the fact that violence against women comes from a place of unequal relations of power between men and women. Only if women are empowered by society will there be some balance in these relations, thus ridding our society of such discrimination. Until then, women’s autonomy will continue to be a battle for cry.


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Mehak Neel is a Sociology and Journalism at FLAME University. Her undying love for travel is rooted in her curiosity to learn about various cultures. She considers the knowledge of current world affairs a vital asset and is often found passionately discussing the same. Her hobbies include football, athletics and painting.