In his writings, Mahatma Gandhi expressed very clearly and thoughtfully his own personal view on women. When bearing in mind the bad treatments that woman had to suffer, he considered this a shameful condition that affected women all over the world and not only Indian ones. He believed that “all of us men must hang our heads in shame, so long as there is a single woman whom we dedicate to our lust. I will far rather see the race of man extinct than that we should become less than beasts by making the noblest of God’s creation the object of our lust”. Gandhi held that women should go back to a simple life and that they would enjoy a decent freedom. He thoroughly rejected the custom of child-marriage, deplored the condition of the poor child-widows and assumed that women would gain the faculty to vote and to exercise equal rights. The Mahatma also believed that the remedy to stop the bad treatments against women was more in their hands than in men’s hands: they had to avoid adorning themselves for men’s pleasure, even if it was for her husband, choosing as a model for dressing the sober and chaste Sita.
Gandhi refused the idea that women were naturally dependent on others borrowing examples from the Hindu epic tradition: “Who says that woman is dependent on others? […] Sita was Rama’s better half and enjoyed empire over his heart. […] Who will say, after reading the Mahabharata, that Draupadi was dependent on others? Who will call Draupadi dependent, Draupadi who, when the Pandavas failed to protect her, saved herself by an appeal to Lord Krishna? […] A woman who has the strength to preserve her purity, to defend her virtue – to call such a woman dependent is to murder language and violate dharma [the principle or law that orders the universe]”.
In Gandhi’s view, the character of Goddess Sita was an example for all Indian women. In fact, Sita was the true incarnation of virtue, humility, simplicity and bravery. Indeed, according to the Mahatma the beauty of a virtuous woman did not consist in the fineness of her dress but in the possession of a pure heart and vigorous life. Addressing himself to Indian women, Gandhi affirmed: “I would like you to imitate Sita’s virtues, Sita’s humility, Sita’s simplicity and Sita’s bravery. You should realize that Sita for the protection of her virtues did not need the assistance of Rama, her Lord and master. […] It was the purity of Sita which was her sole shield and protection”. In addition, he continues: “You must become pure in mind and body like Sita, for then alone you will become the mothers of heroes. […] You must emancipate yourselves and your daughters from the thralldom of the various social abuses and tyrannies that are prevalent in your midst at present”. According to Gandhi, women had to play within their households the role of queens.
Women will eventually put an end to the ill-treatment towards them when they will stop thinking that they are weak. Men started ill-treating women because the latter had yielded to lust, being enslaved by passion and sexual desire. The fact that women are physically weaker than men translated into the fact that they were helpless before man and that they always needed man’s protection. For Gandhi, it is true that men and women differ as far as the body is concerned, but in terms of soul men and women are equal.
The Mahatma Gandhi upheld an authoritatively strong position against the practice of sati. He reckoned that the ritual of self-immolation of the widow at the death of her husband was not a sign of enlightenment but of gross ignorance to the nature of the soul, which is immortal, unchangeable and immanent. Self-immolation is a vain practice and must not be considered an example to emulate. For Gandhi, the real condition of widowhood was to be lived only through constant striving and constant immolation of the spirit from day to day.
Gandhi believed that Sita was a permanent example of unbeaten purity and should have been the continuous point of reference for all Indian women: “It is my belief that any woman who has the purity of Sita cannot be touched by anyone”.
Mahatma Gandhi once said that women in general characterized the best half of humankind.