(Last Updated on : 19/01/2013)
Emergence of women`s organisations in India was in keeping with the spread of education among the women and the various reform movements that were being carried out for women`s rights. The educational experiments of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced a "new woman" with interests that went beyond the household. For the first time in India`s history women began to communicate with women outside their families and local communities. It was this increased communication which brought about an increased awareness among women regarding their rights and responsibilities and the consequent formation of organisations for their purpose.
Education and the rise of different women` schools and colleges was a great factor which facilitated the coming together and increased awareness among women. On the one hand there was a small group of women who shared English as a common language. This made possible communication across language barriers. On the other hand, there were growing numbers of women literate in the vernaculars which enabled them to learn about women`s issues in the new women`s journals. Both these groups of women, segregated by traditional society, were now getting together as they sought the companionship of women like themselves. Encouraged by their male guardians to move with the times they joined the new clubs and associations formed for women.
From small local clubs and women`s auxiliaries of the Indian National Congress
and the National Social Conference came a variety of organizations and associations that reflected women`s concerns. By the eve of Independence in 1947 a coalition of national women`s organizations could rightfully claim it was the second most representative body in India.
Women`s associations, called by various titles, sprang up all over India in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most were geographically limited but they shared the goal of bringing women together to discuss women`s issues. The first organizations for women were begun by men who belonged to the new religious reform associations. In Bengal, Keshab Chandra Sen
, the charismatic leader of the Brahmo Samaj
, developed educational programs, a women`s journal, prayer meetings, and Bharat Ashram (literally "Indian hermitage") where families lived together and emulated the lifestyle of the English middle class. The Prarthana Samaj
did similar work in Mumbai
. Those men who were closely involved with the Samaj from the beginning, especially the famous Prarthana trio - G. R. Bandavarkar, Narayan Ganesh Chandavarker, and Mahadev Govind Ranade
- were concerned with social reform, principally improving women`s status. When Pandita Ramabai Saraswati
arrived in western India in 1882, Justice Ranade and his friends helped her set up the Arya Mahila Samaj for the general uplift and enlightenment of women. The Arya Mahila Samaj imagined the ideal woman as an efficient housewife, entering the public world to help during emergencies such as floods, famines, and plagues.
Women also met in the women`s auxiliaries of general reform associations. The most notable of these was the Bharata Mahila Parishad (Ladies` Social Conference) of the National Social Conference. The National Social Conference was formed at the third meeting of the Indian National Congress in 1887 to provide a forum for the discussion of social issues. The Mahila Parishad was inaugurated in 1905.
Within the Parsee community the major organization for women`s social work, the Stri Zarthosti Mandal (Parsi Women`s Circle) emerged from plague-relief work done by the family of Mr. Naoroji Patuck. Deeply touched by the hardships suffered by women, Mr. Patuck set up a work class in his home. By 1903 there were over fifty women enrolled and his family decided to ask other women to join them in forming an organization. The organization expanded its agenda to include medical care and education and successfully sought funding from the wealthy Parsi philanthropist Sir Ratan Tata
. Equally important, the organization served as a training ground for women who became active in a wide range of activities and organizations in the 1920s and 1930s.
Sarala Devi Chaudhurani
, critical of the women`s meetings held in conjunction with the Indian National Social Conference, called for a permanent association of Indian women. Women responded favorably and Saraladevi began planning the first meeting. Saraladevi`s organization, the Bharat Stree Mahamandal (the Large Circle of Indian Women) had its first meeting in Allahabad
in 1910. The Bharat Stree Mahamandal planned to open branches in all parts of India to promote female education. It developed branches in Lahore, Allahabad, Delhi
, Karachi, Amritsar
, Bankura, Hazaribagh
, Midnapore and Kolkata
to bring together women all over, irrespective of race, creed, class and party, on the basis of their common interest in the moral and material progress of the women of India. The Mahamandal`s leaders regarded purdah as the main stumbling block to popular acceptance of female education. To get around this practice, they would send teachers into the homes to teach reading, writing, music, sewing, and embroidery. Saraladevi had written about the importance of women escaping male domination, so only women were allowed to join this organization.
These organizations became the medium for the expression of women`s opinion. At the same time they were a training ground for women who would later take up leadership roles in politics and social institutions. Those institutions, in turn, played an important role in the construction of the Indian nation. The model that was adopted by these organizations was largely western with its view of women`s civic responsibility. However these were adapted to the Indian context and developed in harmony with the concept of the `new woman` -a companion to man, an ideal mother, and a credit to her country.