Periyar – Pioneer of Radical Feminism

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Feminism took root with the aim of establishing social, political and economic equality between men and women. Based on how one tackles the problem of gender equality, feminism took various forms such as, Liberal Feminism, Radical Feminism, Marxist or Socialist Feminism and Cultural Feminism.

Propagating various revolutionary thoughts to annihilate male chauvinism by identifying the root cause for various forms of gender discrimination in society is the core ideology of radical feminism. Radical feminists also believe that patriarchy cannot be destroyed by just passing new laws or amending the existing ones.

Periyar, a Tamilnadu based social reformist, relentlessly fought for the progress of women and questioned all forms of gender inequality prevalent in the society which subjugated women in the name of religion, culture, tradition etc. In a society where gender inequality is deeply ingrained in the minds of the people, it is to Periyar’s credit that as early as 1925 he founded the Self-respect movement with women liberation as one of the important goals. A large number of women took active part in the movement’s activities in the form of public speaking, organizing protests, writing etc. Periyar tirelessly propagated the need for women education and 50% reservation for women in all sectors. He stood as a pioneer in insisting property rights for women. He published many articles about birth control as early as 1930 in ‘KudiArasu’, a weekly published by him. He took efforts for the remarriage of widows witnessing their plight. None of the leaders in India took feminism to this extent at that time. And obviously, that’s the reason behind the title ‘Periyar’ conferred to E.V.Ramasamy. Yes, the title ‘Periyar’ was conferred to him in a women’s conference held at Chennai in 1938 appreciating his tireless efforts for women liberation.

Periyar’s choice of feminism has a lot of similarities to radical feminism and to that of many western Feminists. This article primarily focuses in comparing their radical thoughts with those of Periyar.

The burden of childbearing and household work:-

Simone de Beauvoir, a French Feminist, who wrote the book The Second Sex (1949) was born in 1908. She said, “One is not born, but rather becomes a woman.” This accurately describes the situation in our society.

With the labels of caste, culture, tradition and good manners, the society imposes various rules for women to keep them in their place. But men are let off the hook. So, the basis of oppression lies in the fact that women are policed with thousands of rules whereas men are free to be as they wish.

Simone de Beauvoir who resisted all forms of women oppression, writes in her book that, “Maternity is a strange compromise of narcissism, altruism, dream, sincerity, bad faith, devotion and cynicism.”

Andrea Dworkin, a Feminist from western society, born in 1946, took a radical view on the oppression of women when she wrote, “Childbearing is glorified in part because women die from it.”

But Periyar had superseded their thoughts, in a more articulate manner when he wrote about this on 12.08.1928 itself in the weekly ‘KudiArasu’. He wrote that, “The burden of childbearing must be completely abolished if women are to attain genuine liberation. Without making this a reality, even if women go as far as hiring husbands, they can’t hope for liberation.”

Simone de Beauvoir in her book also writes about household work and the labour of raising children being exclusively assigned to women and that they should find a way out from those responsibilities.

Periyar wrote about the same in the weekly KudiArasu in 1947 (18.03.1947) stating, “That there should a separate gender just to look after one’s house and cook is infinitely worser than the Varna system.” And, he suggested “Community cooking” will be a better option to bring women out of kitchen and he also insisted the need for “Child care centres” led by Government

Marriage + Family = Institutions which enslave women:-

The institution of marriage has an inescapable grasp on women. Even in our present society, where it is possible for women to a considerable extent to get educated and employed, they still live enslaved by marriage as child rearing and household chores become a sole responsibility for women. Some women lose their financial independence too after marriage and become a slave in the so called names of “House wife” or “Home maker”. So, there have been many radical feminists who have put forward ideas questioning the institutions of marriage and family.

Kate Millett (born 1934) is an American Feminist. She says that family and marriage are the two of the most important pillars that sustain Patriarchy. In her book, “Sexual Politics” she writes, “The complete destruction of traditional marriage and the nuclear family is the revolutionary or utopian goal of feminism.” Similarly, Gloria Steinem (born 1934) who is an American Feminist and Journalist also considered marriage as an institution that enslaves women. In this perspective, Simone de Beauvoir also says, “woman escapes complete dependency to the degree in which she escapes from the family.”

Periyar, who repeatedly stressed that marriages enslaved women, went to the extent that it should be made a criminal offence. He advocated women to lead independent lives as early as 1929 when he wrote in KudiArasu (0.03.1929). He wrote, “For a marriage to result in happiness it should be conceived with that in mind. Rather, if it was to be devoid of love and happiness and is designed just to keep life ticking or to produce children for the society or for the satisfaction and glory of men and to fulfil their lives, I would insist women not to choose such a path, and lead their life the way they want with utmost freedom”

Abolish the ideas of Masculinity and Femininity!

At all stages in our life, the society preaches both men and women to live by the standards of masculinity (manliness) and femininity. The moral guardians would assert that it is how we should safeguard our culture. These standards play a significant role in making women slaves and men their rulers. And this results in, women being servile even in the 21st century. Many feminists recognized that equality could be achieved only when the ideas of masculinity and femininity are completely abolished.

Andrea Dworkin said, “Only when manhood is dead – and it will perish when ravaged femininity no longer sustains it – only then will we know what it is to be free.” Periyar wrote about this in 1928 (KudiArasu 12.08.1928) that, “Women shouldn’t forget that the word masculinity serves the purpose of degrading women. It is an undeniable fact that unless masculinity is rooted out, there is no way for women to achieve liberation. Masculinity is the reason for the enslavement of women.”

Objectification of women came into practice only because of the idea of femininity which states that women should be beautiful. Mass media objectifies women to a greater extent. Even today, women news readers are selected by giving priority to their makeup sense and beauty. Many feminists have fought against objectifying women.

Andrea Dworkin states that, “Female knowledge of objectification usually stops at a necessary but superficial understanding: beauty is rewarded and lack of beauty is punished.”

Putting forward a similar argument, Periyar said, “Women, like men, should dress to their comfort; they should cut their hair short and should stop beautifying themselves up.” Further, his comments about objectification of women through beauty and decoration are articulated in a speech he gave on 21.09.1946 in Tiruppattur:- “I would like to ask whether at least one of the thousands of women have realised that beautifying themselves and being praised for their beauty and tenderness are just humiliation, abasement and acts of enslavement. Why should they beautify themselves? Why should they wear jewellery and gold just to attract the attention of the people? Have any women, parent or husband thought about these? Doesn’t this show that women are just treated as objects? The fact that women dolling themselves to get the attention of people is not considered a degrading and uncivilized act proves the objectification of women. This is a great pity!”

Prostitution and Sexual Freedom:-

Only men hold the right to celebrate sex! This perception leads to sexual crimes against women and also to sexual exploitation. A system of prostitution exists all over the world for men to buy the bodies of women and enjoy their sexual desires. It is a natural thing that women also have sexual desires. But, the society does not permit them to express or talk about them. The reason being that, patriarchal society expects a woman’s body to be under the control of men! Thus, many feminists have protested against the system of prostitution. For example, Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon have raised their voice against prostitution and the production of porn movies.

Prostitution is the monstrous reality of a patriarchal society! It is a degrading practice because women are bought for money for sexual consumption. It is equal to committing a sexual crime since the consent of women is not respected and allows men to rule over their bodies. Catharine writes, “The money thus acts as a form of force, not as a measure of consent. It acts like physical force does in rape.”

Periyar, did raise his voice against this practice in 1930 (KudiArasu 26.10.1930), when he said, “If we were to closely observe the practice of prostitution it is clear that it is nothing but an indication of the enslavement of women. Because the sin and moral degradation associated with prostitution serve only to label women.”

And asking women to resist the practice he said (‘Viduthalai’ 11.10.1948), “The mindset of women should undergo a radical change. They should ask themselves why the practice of prostitution exists only for women. Why don’t men face such a thing?”

Similarly, the Australian feminist and journalist Emily Maguire questions why chastity is of importance only to women and not men. Several feminists have spoken up against the lack of sexual freedom to women, powerlessness over their own bodies and the double standards of chastity.

Periyar meanwhile had written such revolutionary thoughts as early as 1928 in his weekly, KudiArasu (08.01.1928), “If women are to achieve liberation, the system of biased standards of chastity should be abolished and a system of independence in this regard should be created for both genders.”

Like this, in a land deeply immersed in patriarchy, Periyar has relentlessly worked for women liberation till his death.

But, a sad thing to note is that many feminist movements in India censor the thoughts of Periyar. We see several radical feminists all over the world putting forward thoughts about women liberation in the second half of the 20th century. Whereas, Periyar in a country where patriarchy is so widespread, propagated feminist ideas in the early half of the same century and even realised some of them. This is an undeniable fact!

Thus, the above comparisons make it clear that it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to identify Periyar to be a ‘Pioneer of Radical Feminism’ not only in India but the world! Henceforth, Periyar feminism can serve as a powerful tool to make women realise the ways in which they are oppressed and uproot male chauvinism.

Author Bio:-

This article is written by Er.Yazhmozhi, a trainer for GATE exam and one of the editors in Kaattaaru, a Tamilnadu based monthly magazine which covers socio-political and cultural issues in the society.

Mail: – [email protected]

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