The international woman’s day is observed on the 8th of March and provides us an opportunity to think about and thank all those die hard feminists who made this day a reality. Today, the women have the best of opportunities, the highest rights and the most respect in the society, but all this did not come on its own. The better situation that most women find themselves in today is all thanks to the sheer perseverance and activism of a few determined feminists. Most of these feminists were women, no wonder; they were the sufferers, so they took up their own cause. But the finest feminist in Indian history you’ll be surprised to know is not a female. He was a male and his name was Ramaswamy.
But nobody knows him by that name today. Ordinary people are known by their given names all their lives. Only the truly great souls have the rare honor of being known by their nom de plume. And this soubriquet then becomes so major an influence that people actually forget the person’s real name …..Ramaswamy was one of those great souls who eclipsed his own name and became known as Thanthai Periyar, Father Great Man.
Coming to think of it, after the Buddha, the Christ, the Nabi and the Mahatma, the only other man to be known by his own personal soubriquet is Periyar. And contrary to all these other men, Periyar was a self proclaimed atheist who publicly denounced the existence of God. It was for this daring anti-god campaign that he was very well known all over the world.
But there is yet another unsung facet to this Father Great Man…he was the most vociferous feminist of the last century. Today, we all live in a world where equal opportunities to women are a reality; women are no longer treated like vassals, at least in the educated societies. Yet, all the freedom that women enjoy today is directly a result of the activism that Periyar led in the last century.
To go back into the grueling past, women then were not allowed to study, they were married off when they were still little girls. Suppose, the child bride’s equally child-like husband got bitten by a snake or died of cholera, then the girl was subjected to all the rituals of widowhood and persuaded to perform ‘sati’, or was left to spend the rest of her life in austere celibacy. Remarriage of a widow was considered sacrilegious. Talk of rights for a woman was tantamount to blasphemy.
Even the women who escaped the pangs of widowhood were no better off. There were innumerable restrictions on every one of the women’s moves. She could not study, go out of the house unaccompanied, work and keep her own wages, or own property; she could not even choose her marriage partner. She had no rights whatsoever, she was not even recognized as a separate entity; her identity was fused with that of her male proprietor, the father, husband, brother or son. “..The lord in all his wisdom had created the women as the weaker sex, to be forever under the protection of the men folk…”or so these practices were justified.
The men of the last century considered all the toils of the woman to be part of the glorious Indian Heritage. So what if women were forced to jump into the funeral pyre of their husbands, was it not a sacred custom dripping with national pride! So what if the women are married off from their cradles…it keeps them 100% pure and agmark chaste, rationalized the leaders like Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Even Mahatma Gandhi for all his ahimsa, did not show much sympathy on the plight of the women, he felt all the suffering made them better beings.
But Periyar was an independent thinker – unsullied by religious trappings. He was a daring revolutionary and a relentless rationalist who believed in the equality of all humans, whatever their caste, creed, colour or sex. Although he himself had been raised in a family steeped in Vaishnavite rituals, the young Ramaswamy could not tolerate the hypocrisy of Hinduism that speaks of all souls being made of the same Paramaathma at one end, and snobbishly discriminates against them in the name of caste, religion and sex on the other.
Like Leonardo da Vinci who invented the first helicopter several centuries before the average human could even comprehend the idea of a flying vehicle, Periyar was a man much ahead of his own time. He was a social scientist, who thought up of new traditions of social living, way before anyone could even envisage it. At a time when the whole world considered the woman as the subordinate, Periyar began thinking of women as equal to the men, in all aspects.
And for this equality of women, Periyar fought brave battles and defied all prevailing conventions. During his time, the ideal woman was valued for her body, her beauty, her baby making ability, her obedience, her culinary skills and her Karpu. Periyar defied each and every one of these.
He believed that all things being equal a woman did not have to display her body all decked up and decorated, hoping for the male’s approval. Just as the men gave up beautification, ornaments and long hair, which had until a few centuries ago been the norm for Tamil men, Periyar urged the women to give up their beauty restraints. He was the first man ever in India to suggest that the Tamil women give up their long hair, big pottus and long-winding sarees. In his travels abroad, Periyar had noticed that women in other countries had their hair cut short and dressed in convenience clothes; he recommended the same to Indian women. He even urged his wife Nagammal to give up her nine yard saree and upgrade to trousers and shirts. He was such a progressive man, who had no patience for silly traditions that had no survival value.
Likewise Periyar did not set much store for baby making or obedience. He saw women as much more than mere gestational grails. He saw them as intelligent minds and encouraged them to study just like the men did. In his book, “Why women became slaves?” Periyar noted that ignorance makes the woman dependant on the man, but knowledge could give her power. He encouraged women to think logically for themselves with discretion (paguththarivu) rather than just blindly hang on to idiotic gender stereotypes, laid down by centuries of mindless automatic obedience.
He ridiculed the notion of “women being subordinate to the men” and explained that subjugating the female was only a weak man’s attempt to feel stronger than he actually was.
As for cooking, Periyar strongly believed that women should give up cooking all together, and families had better dine communally from a centralized kitchen. Thus freed from the morning-to-night grind of cooking, the women would have more time to develop their minds, he explained.
As for the grand sentiment of Tamil culture, Karpu, Periyar thought it was a clever ploy to put a leash around the woman’s neck and keep her subdued all her life. He encouraged women to come out of these narrow cultural constraints and propagated the “Self respect marriage”, in which, contrary to the traditional Kanyaadhaan marriage rituals, the girl would not be given away to the groom like a slave. Since the woman was equal to the man in all aspects, she could very well choose her own partner, marry him as an equal in a simple and dignified ceremony, where there is no hullabaloo of hypocritical vows which no one understands or intends to follow anyway.
While Tamil movies till today keep praising the Thali as the holy of holies, Periyar, felt it was another clever trick to rein in the woman, much like tying a controlling rope around the cattle’s necks. If the partners are really equal then how can it be that one of them alone ties a cord around the other’s neck? Either both would tie cords around each others’ necks or neither should….and thus, Periyar eliminated the Thali from the “self respect” weddings. Even without the thali, the mantras, and the other traditional rituals, such Self Respect Weddings are considered legal and binding in Tamil Nadu, all thanks to our Father Great Man and his political protégés who later became Chief Ministers of the state.
Even after such a self respect marriage, Periyar felt if the woman did not like her partner, she had every right to walk out of the marriage and live on her own or seek another companion. Periyar was such a visionary that he even protested against the use of the terms husband and wife, which he felt were demeaning to the womenfolk. Much like animal husbandry, husband is a term that denotes proprietorship, while the Tamil term for a wife, “manaivi” meant, “the one who manages the house” had a subordinate flavour to it. Therefore he preferred to use the term “thunaivar” meaning spouse and “innaivar” meaning equal partner.
Not only did he encourage women to get out of the Karpu shackles, he also fought for gender rights and equal opportunities. He made sure that women could take up studies and employment, hold property and keep separate income. He opposed atrocities such as culturally sanctioned prostitution, sexual abuse against women and oppression of women’s rights.
His logic so lucid and his reasoning so scientific, no one dared to oppose Periyar. In fact most of the cognoscenti looked up to him as the ultimate rational thinker and eagerly embraced his principles. Self Respect Marriage became the highest statement of intelligent living. Also it became highly fashionable to treat women as equals and it was considered extremely uncouth to discriminate against them.
Under Periyar’s all-powerful wings, the women slowly got on to their feet, realized their self worth and moved towards emancipation. He, for the first time in Indian history convened women’s conferences to discuss gender issues from 1936. The women felt so indebted to him for all the efforts he put to empowering them, that in one such women’s conference the Tamil scholar Neelambigai honoured him with the title “Periyar”. Since that day, the sobriquet stuck. The same man had battled against so many of the society’s evils, but it was for his championing the cause of the women folk that he ascended from an obscure Mr. E. V. Ramaswamy to the exalted title of “Father Great Man.”
And Periyar proved that he deserved such a high title by bequeathing his foundation, the Dravida Kazhagam, which is a non political social reformist organization, to his partner Mrs Maniammai. No other leader had ever transferred the onus of any organization to a lady, because probably deep in their minds they still doubted the woman’s ability to lead. But Periyar had no such doubts, he was sure of the woman’s abilities and left Mrs Maniammai to continue all his good work.
True to Periyar’s philosophies, the nation’s first ever engineering college exclusively for women was started in Vallam near Thanjavur, twenty years ago and the dress code for all the girls studying there is, trousers and shirts! Considering that even to this day, many vice chancellors in the state ban their girl students from wearing trousers to college in the name of Tamil Culture; it is a stark reminder that Mr E. V. Ramaswamy is indeed The Great Man, who could think much ahead of all other ordinary men.
And to this Father Great Man, we womenfolk owe many sincere thanks, for we are where we are today, all because of his great efforts. What a real Great Man! Wow, what a Periyar!