The social reformers attacked a number of traditional, authoritarian, and hierarchical social institutions and launched social reform movements to liberate the Indian women from their shackles. There were two distinct groups of progressive movements aimed at the upliftment of Indian women. Both of these groups were aware of the restrictive and coercive nature of the existing social customs and institutions. Reformers formed the group, which vehemently opposed these customs and institutions as they contradicted the fundamental principles of liberty and freedom. Revivalists, on the other hand, demanded the democratization of social relations and they are called revivalists for they wanted renaissance in Indian society based on Vedic society which according to them, was democratic.
Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the pioneer of social reforms in India. He was concerned about a number of evil customs plaguing the Indian society. These included “saha marana” or Sati, female infanticide, polygamy, infant marriages, purdah, the absence of education among women, and the Devadasi system. Raja Ram Mohan Roy single-handedly led a crusade against the evil and inhuman practice of Sati, where a widow of the deceased was forced to immolate herself on the funeral pyre of her husband. This inhuman practice had gained acceptance on the ground that it would secure “Moksha” or liberation for widows. It was also felt that a woman could be led astray if she continued to live after the death of her husband. He strongly refuted the contention that Sati was a free, voluntary act of the widow, and called it a blatant lie. His fruits bore result which led Lord William Bentinck to legislate for the prohibition of Sati, which resulted in the passing of the Prohibition of Sati Act in 1829.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar was yet another figure in social reforms side in Indian history, which sought to improve the condition of widows by legalizing widow remarriages. He wanted that his own life should set an example for others to follow, so he made a pledge that he would allow his daughters to study, and married all his daughters after they crossed 16 years of age. He had also made it public that if any of his daughters were widowed and they wished to remarry, he would allow them to do so. He was also against the widespread custom of polygamy.
Justice Mahadev Govind Ranade played a key role in laying down the foundation of an organization to carry on the struggle for social reform—the Indian National Social Conference. This organization was the first institution on the national level to carry on reform work in an organized way. He took keen and personal interest on the issue of widow remarriages and was an active member of a society, which worked for widow remarriages. In fact, the Shankaracharya had debarred him for attending the first widow remarriage in 1869. Justice Ranade worked toward providing education to the women. Along with his wife, he started a school for girls in 1884.
The Deccan Education Society:
This society was formed in 1884 and started girls’ schools and encouraged the education of women in the state of Maharashtra.
The Ramakrishna Mission:
The Ramakrishna Mission was established in 1897 with an objective of setting up homes for widows and schools for girls. It also gave refuge and shelter to destitute women, ante- and post-natal care for women. It also provided training for women to become midwives so that they can become independent.
The Arya Samaj:
In its initial years, it worked as revivalist organization main emphasis being women education. Girls were trained in home science, domestic affairs, and fine arts. It also included training in religion and religious ceremonies. The Arya Samaj also managed shelter homes for distressed women.
The Hingne Women’s Education Institute:
This institute was started in 1896 to cater to the needs of women regardless of their marital status. Various training were given to young unmarried girls in various fields to prevent early marriages. Smart skills and education were imparted to married women to enable them to carry on domestic life efficiently and economically. It also gave training to windows to make them economically independent and self- resilient. S.N.D.T. Women’s University:
Shreemati Nathibai Damodar Thackersey Women's University was established to meet the needs for higher education for women. It was exclusively for the education of women and medium of instruction was mother tongue.
The Seva Sadan:
Seva Sadan was started in 1908 and targeted educated and enlightened women of different communities who desired to work for the upliftment of backward women. Its main activity was to provide social and free medical aid to women and children of the poor classes. It also ran shelter home for destitute and distressed women and children.
The Indian National Social Conference:
Some of the activities taken up by this organization were—to deal with issues of child marriages, the sale of young girls, the practice of polygamy, and widow remarriages. It also took up the problem of education for women, which was not easily available to them at that time.
All India Women’s Conference:
Like other organizations, it also worked was women’s education as well as social reforms. Its aim was the general progress and welfare of women and children. Various resolutions were passed in different sessions in order to elevate the status of women. It fought against the evils of early marriages, polygamy, and prohibition of divorce. It advocated complete equality for women in property matters, which were denied to them. It sought to improve working conditions for women. It was staunch in its approach towards immoral traffic in women and children and against the inhuman custom of Devadasi, which included giving away young girls for temple service, which were sexually exploited in the name of religion.
The Role of Women in Indian National Movement
Not only Gandhi Ji but also Indian women have also been on the forefront to sacrifice their lives and nourished the Indian freedom struggle,
One of them was Annie Besant, whose name is synonymous to the Theosophical Movement in India. She advocated the liberation and freedom of Indian women. She influenced many Indian women to join her Home Rule Movement. She credited the success of the one Rule Movement to the involvement of a large number of women, which according to her brought to it the uncalculating heroism. Sarojini Naidu also called, as Nightingale of India was one of the forerunners of women participation in the Indian National Movement. She was advised by Gopal Krishna Gokhale to use the magic of her poetry to rejuvenate the spirit of independence in the hearts of villagers. She met Mahatma Gandhi in the month of August 1914 and from then onwards devoted her energy to the freedom movement. Sarojini Naidu was as an active politician and freedom fighter. In 1917, she headed a delegation to meet Mr. Montagu (he was considered to be liable British Politician) for women’s suffrage in India. In this regard, she had also gone to England in 1919 as a member of the Home Rule League deputation where she pressed for women suffrage. In 1918, she passed at the special congress session in Bombay, supporting women’s franchise. In 1919, she became a women campaigner for the satyagraha movement, traveling all over India to propagate the movement. She appealed to women to agitate against the Rowlett Act, which provided political cases to be tried without a jury. In the year 1920, she decided to be part of the non-cooperation movement as well. During the 1920s and 1930s, she supported the Akalis on whom ban imposed on them, as the organization was considered unlawful by the government.
In 1930 Sarojini Ji joined the Civil Disobedience Movement, it so happened most of the leaders were arrested so duty fell on her to took over the struggle and continue the campaign. Jawaharlal Nehru in his book “The Discovery of India” referring to Sarojini Naidu wrote, “she not only displayed the courage and daring but was the epitomic in her organizational power as well.” She also holds the prestigious title of the first woman in the history of India to become the President of the Indian National Congress.
Other women who were instrumental in freedom struggle were Pandita Ramabai, Anandi Gopal, Savithribai Phule Kamaladevi Ghattopadhyaya, Kalpana Dutt Madame Bikaji Cama etc. Gandhiji was a great devotee of women power and knew it will make a huge difference and make freedom struggle more effective. So he tried bringing in women into the fold of the national movement. Gandhiji believed that marriages should take place only when there is a desire not as a compulsion. He advocated that child marriage was a brutal social custom that has a very negative impact upon the delicate physical and mental well being of the child. Enforced widowhood, especially for child widows were irrational and urged the parents of a child widow should make efforts to get their daughter remarried. He also condemned the practice of Purdah and practice of Devadasi. One of the greatest contributions of Gandhiji to women for which we should be indebted to him is his insistence on their participation in politics. Gandhiji felt that women should have, as much a share in winning Swaraj for India as men, which he felt, is true emancipation of women. It will make women realize the importance of living a conscious life.