Tarabai Shinde was not your ordinary gal from the 1880s. While most other child brides at the time went about doing their thing, she was busy furiously writing in defiance of the inherent patriarchy she identified in the Hindu scriptures. She is thought of as the first modern feminist writer in India, and it’s a crime that more people do not know about her role in Indian feminism.
As with fellow reformer Pandita Ramabai, Tarabai’s father played a crucial role in introducing her to education and multiple languages. Contrary to the custom at the time, Tarabai’s husband moved in with her family instead of vice versa, which meant that she had a greater degree of freedom than was enjoyed by many of her peers in similar situations. Having made an active choice to not have children, she spent a lot of time with contemporary reformers Jyotirao and Savitribai Phule as well. It was with the latter couple that she became a founding member of the “Truth-Finding Community” or Satyashodak Samaj. This was an organization dedicated to the education and upliftment of traditionally discriminated against or ostracized sections of society, particularly women and Shudras (the lowest caste).
Tarabai Shinde is most known for her passionate pamphlets, the first of which was called “Stri Purush Tulana” or “A Comparison Between Women and Men.” In it, she timelessly demands, “So is it true that only women’s bodies are home to all the different kinds of recklessness and vice? Or have men got just the same faults as we find in women?”
Originally published in Marathi when she was 32 years old, the piece was written in response to an article about Vijayalakshmi, who was a widow who chose not to deliver her illegitimate child for fear of abandonment from society. It must be noted that those were times when widows had a rather bad time of it. Most feminists of the late 19th and 20th century concerned themselves with the rights of Hindu widows, but Tarabai was among the first to examine the intersection of caste and gender in terms of oppression. Moreover, she delved into the roots of the patriarchal beliefs and identified the holy scriptures as an important propagator of such toxic ideals. Now keep in mind – this was years before the school of cultural studies came up with similar thoughts and teachings!
In her pamphlet she starts out by saying, “Let me ask you something, gods! You are said to be completely impartial. What does that mean? That you have never been known to be partial. But wasn’t it you who created both men and women? Then why did you grant happiness only to men and brand women with nothing but agony?” Powerful words. What is more, she dared question the deities that were considered all powerful.
Once this groundbreaking pamphlet was published, it was met with an unsurprisingly hostile reaction from the rest of the public. It was not reprinted until 1975, when interest in her work came on the rise again.
Tarabai Shinde went radically against the situations that she was born into. She brought her husband home, she chose not to have children to prove that a life without progeny could be equally fulfilling, she campaigned for the rights of women. She argued that while women have their faults just as men do, those were by no means a vehicle to view them as inferior to men.
And that is something more people need to hear, whatever the time period.
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