Indira Gandhi, True Liberation of Women, 1980

Indira Gandhi

Prime Minister of India (1966–77; 1980–84)

Indira Gandhi served four terms as India’s first female prime minister, beginning with her election in 1966 and ending with her assassination in 1984. The daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, Gandhi was born into a life of politics. Her aggressive war policy and her centralization of power (she ruled by decree during a ‘State of Emergency’ from 1975 to 1977) left a complicated legacy. In 1980, the year she was re-elected for a fourth term, she addressed an audience at the inauguration of a new building complex designed for the All-India Women’s Conference (AIWC), a women’s empowerment group, in New Delhi. ‘I have often said that I am not a feminist,’ she began, ‘Yet, in my concern for the underprivileged, how can I ignore women who, since the beginning of history, have been dominated over and discriminated against in social customs and in laws?’

Although Gandhi publically distanced herself from the term ‘feminist’, her position as the leader of the world’s largest democracy made her, for many, a symbol of women’s potential. In a deeply patriarchal society, she seemed to transcend gender. Perhaps out of fear of appearing weak, she mostly avoided speaking about her sex, and is often called ‘The Iron Lady of India’ – a reference to another formidable prime minister, Margaret Thatcher (see here). In appearing before the AIWC, however, she was paying tribute to a rich history of activism among women in India, dating back to the early 1900s (the AIWC was founded in 1927). Early on, these women-led organizations fought for increased educational opportunities, an end to child marriages and fairer divorce laws, among other issues. In her speech, Gandhi emphasized the need to recognize women as full participants in society. ‘By excluding women,’ she reflects, ‘men are depriving themselves of a fuller emancipation or growth for themselves.’

True Liberation of Women 1980

In the West, women’s so-called freedom is often equated with imitation of man. Frankly, I feel that is merely an exchange of one kind of bondage for another. To be liberated, woman must feel free to be herself, not in rivalry to man but in the context of her own capacity and her personality. We need women to be more interested, more alive and more active not because they are women but because they do comprise half the human race. Whether they like it or not, they cannot escape their responsibility nor should they be denied its benefits. Indian women are traditionally conservative but they also have the genius of synthesis, to adapt and to absorb. That is what gives them resilience to face suffering and to meet upheavals with a degree of calm, to change constantly and yet remain changeless, which is the quality of India herself.

Today’s major concerns are: first, economic and social inequality and injustice between the affluent and developing countries and within countries. Secondly, the anxiety whether human wisdom will prevail over what can only be called a death wish in which the desire to dominate expresses itself in countless ways, the most dangerous being the armament race. And, thirdly, the need to protect this, our only Earth, from human rapacity and exploitation. Only recently have we awakened to the awareness of ancient truths regarding our own utter dependence on the balance of Nature and its resources.

These enormous challenges cannot be met only by some sections, however advanced they may be, while others pull in different directions or watch apathetically. The effort has to be a universal one, conscious and concerted, considering no one too small to contribute. The effort must embrace all nationalities and all classes regardless of religion, caste or sex.