For long decades, our ancestors have fought for freedom and peace, and yet the many contributions of liberal women often go unrecognized. In fact, preconceived mindsets regarding feminism as a whole (including the idea that feminism is inherently anti-male or pro-government) have led many generations to attack feminism and ignore liberal feminists’ contributions to the fight for freedom. Here I will attempt to bring forward some examples of eminent women freedom fighters from South Asian history. Subsequently, I will try to construct a general understanding of how these feminists approached the struggle to secure a better world for all individuals.
Historically, many social structures (ranging from family, to religion, to social groups) relied on biological differences and scientific gender stratification to legitimize the subjugation of women through discriminatory customs, many of which are more or less continuing to date. Extreme religious fundamentalism was often a key factor in denying women autonomy and condemning them to cruel treatment. Women’s freedom of movement (central to economic well being) was particularly restricted and widows were even cremated on the funeral pyres of their deceased husbands as a part of ritual purity.
The Industrial Revolution marks a great turning point in this history. Data shows, for instance, that women’s participation in the labour force increased thanks to high demand from the inflow of trade and commerce during late 18th century. And the stories from our mothers and grannies about how their lives have changed between then and now also tell a story of increasing access to employment and the market.
The credits here goes, of course, to the outbreak of a market system, which brought both opportunity and innovation. Markets gave birth to many new products that have made lives more productive and freed many women from traditional chores. Our part of the world had a common saying that “If a girl cannot make a chapatti round, she will not make peace in the family.” Now that we have chapatti maker, trust me ladies, this has saved a lot of our lives.
It was also in this period when European colonists spoke against the social evils of sati pratha and influenced women to march against it. Indeed, the early 19th century saw budding liberal feminist movements all over the world in the wake of industrialization and the introduction of classically liberal ideas. The following examples from South Asian history show how these ideas manifested in various women’s movements there.
Though women had previously been observed protesting against state oppression on an individual and ad hoc basis, the first actual protest started in the early 19th century with Sister Nivedita (1868-1911) and Begun Rokeya. These women were very influential in the South Asian feminist movement. While they worked explicitly to end state tyranny, they also stressed the importance of reforming oppressive cultural norms. Over the course of their lives, these women fought for women’s independence and girl’s education in both Muslim and Hindu society.
Oftentimes, carnage was a byproduct of attempts to break out of oppression. Abadi Bano Begum (1850-1924), a widow with no formal education, was deeply convinced of the necessity of modernization and modern education for Muslim communities as the only way to earn prosperity. After her sons were jailed for having fought for freedom, her resolve to fight only grew stronger. In the mid 19th century she gathered masses of other women and spoke publicly on the conditions of Muslim women and their individual rights to public participation. In one protest against the un-democratic Royal Proclamation of 1960, these women waved black flags in a public procession. In response, they were incarcerated and brutally tortured.
The women’s freedom movement in Nepal dates back even further, however, to 1814 when Nepali women ferociously fought for their liberation. Not any historical text has clearly mentioned or credited their daring contribution. More recently, during the uprising and terror in Sri Lanka, the liberal grassroots organization Mother’s Front made a spectacular appearance. Since 1990, they worked to ensure women had a space for free speech.
Contrary to what many may think, these feminists were not communist/socialist merely because they often evolved from socialist or communist pressure groups. Rather, they were driven by a desire to secure the lost individuality of every woman. These women saw the limitations of collective strategies like socialism and communism. First, these strategies (especially in the short-term), only addressed class position while again an individual’s individuality was allowed to wither away. Women were never identified as independent individuals by this movement, and socialism/communism in our part of the world was a mere state patriarchy.
These women raised their voices on the benefits of individual strategies over collective ones. Much like modern libertarians, these feminists saw something fundamentally wrong with the government policies and laws that were adding blocks to systems of inequality and discrimination. Their courageous endeavor to end the brutal order of that period has paved our way to a freer society today. Now, it is our duty to expand the intellectual legacy of individualist feminism into the modern era.