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Indigenous Feminist Discourse: Analysis of the Works of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay and Tarabai Shinde

Divya Chauhan [M.A. Social Work, TISS]



The indigenous feminist discourse has historically been under-discussed in India. The academia and scholarly work pertaining to feminist theory and women’s rights are heavily reliant upon on the western feminist movements. This is not because there is a lack of women’s writings in India but because these writings are not given the opportunity to rise to the foreground. Ramachandra Guha’s book ‘Makers of Modern India’ gives insight into the lives of two feminist women - Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay & Tarabai Shinde and sheds light upon their writings and socio-political contributions. He puts them in his list of makers of modern India because he believes that their work and literary pieces will hold great social relevance even after centuries (Guha, 2010). This paper aims to analyse the ideologies of the two women, their role in shaping the lives of people around them and their impact on the Indian society at large. In consonance with the same, the paper aims to draw out the social problems that these women were confronted with in their times and the solutions proposed by them while approaching these problems.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay

Kamaladevi was born into a middle-class Brahmin family in 1903. Her father was a civil services officer in the colonial government. Her mother being a Brahmin woman was learned and literate. She could read English, Hindi, Tamil & Marathi and could also play the violin. Even though, Kamaladevi belonged to an aristocratic family, she too fell prey to the harmful traditional practice of child marriage and was widowed in her teens. However, she was able to pursue formal higher education and turn her life around owing to her mother’s continuous encouragement. When Kamaladevi was a child, her mother had "asked Annie Besant to bless her daughter so that she too might become like her a woman of strength to serve the people and especially women" (Brijbhushan, 1976). Perhaps, this upbringing by her mother planted the seeds of revolution in Kamladevi and she grew into a woman who never shied away from raising her voice and lived her life serving people.

She joined the All India Congress committee in her early twenties and played an instrumental role in the development of the Nationalist movement in India. She was a supporter of Gandhi’s philosophy but also critiqued him for not being sensitive enough to women’s rights. She advised him to include women’s voices in the fight to attain independence. During the Salt Satyagraha, she herself sold salt packets outside the Bombay Stock Exchange and the Bombay High Court, which got her arrested for the first of many times.

Socio-Political Ideology

Kamaladevi, along with other intellectual men and women, founded the Congress Socialist Party (CSP) in 1934. She urged the Congress to pay attention to the plight of the working class and the peasants. Kamaladevi was a socialist and advocated for better working conditions at factories and farms. Her socialism, however, did not resonate with the politically ill-treating, single-party socialism of the Soviet Union. She believed in democratic socialism. Her social awareness was very vast because of her political associations in India and her education abroad. She has witnessed and studied the lived realities of the oppressed caste and class. This made her devote her life to social reform.

She was not only a socialist but also a feminist. She questioned the invisibilization of women’s labour at home and talked about recognition of value of women, separate from her husband. She believed that women can only be emancipated from a man’s shadow if they are given the opportunity to educate themselves, enhance their talents and function beyond the domestic obligations. She made relentless efforts to eliminate several social injustices such as exploitation of women and child labourers, lack of food supply for children (Singh, 1977).

She also addressed the fire of communalism burning in India and held the British Imperialism responsible for lighting it. She believed that the Colonial policy of ‘Divide and Conquer’ had led to the initiation of the communal differences. According to her, the fanatical fervour of Muslim masses and their urge to secure a separate homeland, free from Hindu oppression, stopped them from realising that they were being politically herded and that the root cause of their oppression was the lack of economic stability brought by the post-1857 employment policies of the Colonial government. She stated that the upper-caste Hindus oppress the lower- caste Hindus just as much as a Muslim landlord oppresses a Muslim farmer. “The Muslims of Bengal died like flies in spite of a Muslim Ministry in power . . .” (Guha, 2010). The idea of partition was only being fed to camouflage the real socio-economic issues of poverty & unemployment.

Theoretical perspective

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay viewed the social problems through the Structural- Functionalist lens. She tried to analyze and explain the social conditions cohesively. She believed the several elements of society contribute to the stability and instability of a country. The stability of a household is dependent upon the priceless labour of the woman who manages it, economic stability is dependent on employment opportunities, fair wages and safe working conditions. Social stability is dependent upon fair and equal treatment of all humans regardless of caste, religion or class. Thereof, they are all interconnected with each other to create an equilibrium. She asserted the proper socialization of women so that they can develop consciousness of their faculties, become capable of earning their own livelihood and break out of their ascribed statuses.

Kamaladevi looked at the communalism in India through the conflict perspective, when she said that the Colonial government is using religion to divert the masses from questioning the real exploitation because the government and the Muslim league were benefitting from this arrangement.

Impact on Indian Society & Present Day Relevance

Kamaladevi noted that re-establishment of handicraft and other small-scale industries could resolve the problem of unemployment in post-colonial India. She believed that this Craft Renaissance rested in the hands of women, therefore, she made great efforts to create work centres for training refugee women in handicrafts and help them gain independence & livelihood (Datta, 2019). The small-scale cottage industries and businesses owned by local artisans still remain extremely significant in India. The Indian Vocal-for-Local campaign launched in 2020 is based on the same idea of making India self-reliant and generating new employment opportunities.

Kamladevi stated that social problems of unemployment, hunger and human exploitation cannot be tackled by producing more but by equitable distribution of the produce. This idea is still applicable to the Indian society where the rich are getting richer. They hold all the resources to produce and the money to buy most of the produce. While the economically weaker segment of the society has to struggle every day for food and shelter.

She also advocated against the caste and gotra barriers in the Hindu marriage bill because she believed that there needs to be a change in the rigid personal laws of societies in India, which still holds true.

Her idea of training and recruiting women in the nursing profession to tackle the scarcity of health services and meet health emergencies in the country, is evidence enough of her foresight and her relevance in the present day pandemic.

Tarabai Shinde

Tarabai Shinde was born in 1830s into a Maratha family living in the Berar region of Maharashtra. Her father was a clerk in the deputy commissioner’s office and a member of Jyotirao Phule’s Satyashodhak Samaj. There is not much known of her mother and her role in Tarabai’s life. Owning to the absence of girls’ schools in Buldana, Tarabai did her learning at home. Most Brahmin women in 19th century were able to receive education, unlike the Maratha women. However, Tarabai could read and write in Marathi and some English. Her style of writing was raw, abrasive and unconventional. Her pamphlet on comparison between the statuses of men and women in India (Stri-Purush Tulana) is considered a path-breaking feminist literature. Jyotirao Phule appreciated her writing and her manner of questioning the systemic exploitation of women in India. She used satirical expressions to depict the real picture of Marathi women and to challenge the patriarchal structure existing in the Indian society.

Socio-Political Ideology

Tarabai’s feminist discourse became popular after it was reprinted in 1975 by Dr. S.G. Malshe, “saving the treasure from obscurity” (Kosambi, 1995). Ramachandra Guha calls her a subaltern feminist. Subaltern because Tarabai acknowledged that women in this society hold an inferior position, including herself. She referred to women as marginalized and oppressed by patriarchal domination. Feminist because her writing directly challenged this disparity between genders and mocked the superiority complex in men. Her approach is often and easily considered very aberrant because she dared to question gender roles in 1882. Moreover, she attacked men and the Brahmanic religion for being selfish, wicked and oppressive towards women. She addresses the atrocities faced by women when their fathers marry them off in exchange for money or cattle. She refers to Asura/Arsha marriages wherein daughters are treated like merchandise to be purchased by a man (Maharajh & Amin, 2015).

She questions the practice of calling women thoughtless and ignorant when it is the patriarchal society that doesn’t allow women to receive education and escape the bounds of domestic duties. She shames the intelligence of men which they use to make counterfeit notes, take bribes, fabricate evidence, commit treason or to run off with someone’s wife.

Tarabai didn’t ask for the empowerment of women, she believed that the solution for the social problems faced by women was in complete annihilation of gender norms.

Theoretical perspective

Tarabai Shinde looked at the society and its social problems through the Conflict perspective. In her booklet, Stri-Purush Tulana, she discusses the unequal power dynamics between men and women. She mentions how the society is male-dominated and men hold most of the power and resources. Men benefit from this social arrangement and use their power to control the lives of women. She sees the society through the lens of ‘Haves & Have-Nots’ and states that this societal structure is inherently partial towards the male gender. This results in the perpetual distrust and competitiveness amongst men and women.

Impact On Indian Society & Present Day Relevance

Tarabai’s feminism is very similar to the 21st century feminism where feminists all over the world are challenging the ascribed roles of women and gender stereotypes. She talked about women not receiving the same education as men. In 2021, the curriculum for men and women is the same, however, the access to education for all women & girls is still a far-fetched dream. There are several factors responsible for this, including but not limited to, absence of proper sanitation facilities, child marriage, sexual harassment, trafficking and child labour.

The Asura marriage which Tarabai discussed in her booklet is now illegal in India. The Supreme Court of India opined that Asura marriages are unapproved in all Hindu castes because they involve sale of bride for a price. However, if bridegroom gives ornaments out of affection or wishes to bear the wedding expenditure, it does not constitute an Asura marriage because there is no intention of making a sale transaction (A.L.V.R.S.T. Veerappa Chettiar vs. S. Michael Etc, 1963).

Tarabai also talked about how men disguise themselves as Sadhus, Gurus, Yogis, Brahmacharis and prey on young girls who visit them. They pretend to be holy and pious but in reality they are full of lust and deceit. Her opinions still hold relevance because many such God-men have been convicted for rape, sexual assault in India.

Comparative Analysis & Conclusion

Kamaladevi and Tarabai, grew up in very different social groups. While Kamaladevi was privileged enough to receive proper formal education; Tarabai had no access to schooling so she learned everything at home. This difference in education could be because Kamaladevi was born nearly 70 years after Tarabai or because Kamaladevi belonged to a Brahmin aristocratic family while Tarabai was the daughter of a clerk.

Both of them lend their voices to the women whose voices had been supressed. However, their narrative of feminism was not alike. Kamaladevi believed in gradual upliftment of women by welcoming them into educational and professional spaces, giving them succession rights, providing better working conditions to them and promoting women artists; while Tarabai asked for the reformation of the entire patriarchal social structure.

Kamaladevi believed that feminists do not seek to fight or imitate men. According to her, the women’s rights movement wished to empower women and establish a respectful and equitable society. Whereas, Tarabai refused to accept the superiority of men over women and believed that men and women should not be judged through separate parameters.

One thing that both these women vehemently opposed was the systemic oppression of the lower castes, the working class and the Kisan by the hands of those who held the social power and resources. Kamaladevi discussed how the upper-caste Hindus oppress the lower-caste Hindus just as much as a Muslim landlord oppresses a Muslim farmer. She believed that this oppression is prevalent amongst and perpetuated by all religious institutions. While, Tarabai blamed the Brahmanic religion for unceasingly exploiting women from lower castes and other religious groups. These women might have had different socio-political realities but both of them made pioneering contributions to the lives of oppressed women and undoing patriarchal relations.


  1. A.L.V.R.S.T. Veerappa Chettiar vs S. Michael Etc, 1963 SCR Supl. (2) 244 (1963)

  2. Brijbhushan, J. (1976). Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya: Portrait of a Rebel. Abhinav Publications.

  3. Datta, A. (2019). ‘Useful’ and ‘Earning’ Citizens? Gender, State, and the Market in Post-Colonial Delhi. Modern Asian Studies, 53(06), 1924-1955.

  4. Guha, R. (2010). Makers of Modern India. Penguin Books India.

  5. Kosambi, M. (1995). Book Reviews: Rosalind O'Hanlon, A Comparison between Women and Men: Tarabai Shinde and the Critique of Gender Relations in Colonial India, Oxford University Press, Madras, The Indian Economic & Social History Review, 32(2), 276-278.

  6. Maharajh, L., & Amin, N. (2015). A Gender Critique of the Eight Forms of Hindu Marriages. Journal of Gender and Religion in Africa, 21(2), 77-98.

  7. Singh, S. B. (1977). Review of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay: Á Reminiscential Biography, by J. Brijbhusan. India International Centre Quarterly, 4(2), 212–214.

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