Women suffer from Gandhi’s legacy

Mohandas Gandhi held India back when it came to women’s rights – and his own behaviour around them could be bizarre
Michael Connellan

guardian.co.uk
, Wednesday 27 January 2010 12.00 GMT

Mohandas Gandhi, whose death anniversary falls on Saturday, was an amazing human being. He led his country to freedom and helped destroy the British Empire. Little wonder India worshipped him, and still worships him, as the Mahatma – “Great Soul”. In the west he is viewed as a near-perfect combination of compassion, bravery and wisdom.

But Gandhi was also a puritan and a misogynist who helped ensure that India remains one of the most sexually repressed nations on earth – and, by and large, a dreadful place to be born female. George Orwell, in his 1949 essay Reflections on Gandhi, said that “saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent”. If only.

Gandhi despised his own sexual desires, and despised sex in any context except for procreation. He preached that the failure to control carnal urges led to complaints including constipation. He believed that sex was bad for the health of an individual, and that sexual freedom would lead Indians to failure as a people. He sought to consign his nation to what Martin Luther called “the hell of celibacy”. He took his own celibacy vow unilaterally, without consulting his wife.

Both Gandhi and his hagiographers claimed he viewed women as equal to men, pointing to his inclusion of women in India’s independence struggle. He celebrated non-violent protest as a “feminine” principle, neutralising the masculine brutality of British rule. But his sexual hang-ups caused him to carry monstrously sexist views. His view of the female body was warped. As accounted by Rita Banerji, in her book Sex and Power, “he believed menstruation was a manifestation of the distortion of a woman’s soul by her sexuality.”

…Gandhi believed Indian women who were raped lost their value as human beings. He argued that fathers could be justified in killing daughters who had been sexually assaulted for the sake of family and community honour. He moderated his views towards the end of his life. But the damage was done, and the legacy lingers in every present-day Indian press report of a rape victim who commits suicide out of “shame”. Gandhi also waged a war against contraceptives, labelling Indian women who used them as whores.

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Author: Leslie Carol Botha

Author, publisher, radio talk show host and internationally recognized expert on women's hormone cycles. Social/political activist on Gardasil the HPV vaccine for adolescent girls. Co-author of "Understanding Your Mood, Mind and Hormone Cycle." Honorary advisory board member for the Foundation for the Study of Cycles and member of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research.