Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and the question of women’s liberation in India – III

In 1998, the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre at the University of Pune had published an English translation of Pratima Pardeshi’s seminal text on Dr. B.R. Ambedkar’s thoughts and position on women’s liberation and rights in India. As part of our special issue to commemorate Ambedkar Jayanti 2022, we will be republishing the full 84-page translation in three parts, of which this is the third.


The non-brahmanical path of women’s liberation

In order to understand the principles of the non- brahmanical conception of women’s liberation; it is important to summarise the thoughts of Dr. Ambedkar on the issue.

1) Dr. Ambedkar saw the caste system and the class system as the two major enemies. He saw both these exploitative system as being responsible for the subordination of women. He stressed upon caste based exploitation and traced the linkages between the caste based exploitation and the subordination of women by pointing out how castes emerged through the regulation of women. To put it briefly, he argues that women are the gateways to the caste system.

2) The subordination of women will not automatically end with the end of capitalism but Dr. Ambedkar argues that to this purpose the caste system and patriarchy will have to be attacked. The subordination of women cannot come to an end in a caste based society and it is therefore women who must lead the struggles for the annihilation of castes. He sees organic links between the struggle against the caste system and the struggle for the liberation of women. Thus the idea of women’s liberation is intrinsic to his ideology and is not a token add-on.

3) His position seems to take a stance of ‘Personal is Political.’ He sought to bring into the public sphere, within the auspices of the legal system, the atrocities that women suffered as private within the confines of the home. Issues of bigamy, maintenance etc. are all brought into the public debate. He wishes to transform these matters of the private into political issues and to this end drafts the Hindu Code Bill. His journey of codification of the Law is one that seeks to delimit the private sphere and make more encompassing the public sphere. Share in the property for women, the right to seek divorce and to marry according to one’s will are all issues that come up in the Bill and stand in opposition to the prevalent familial abuse of women. Even within the political sphere, he was opposed to private ownership of land and stood for its socialization. Thus, his views on the public/private, on political issues are in keeping with those on the women’s question.

4) Dr. Ambedkar takes an anti-patriarchal position in the creation of the Hindu Code Bill. He opposes the law of Manu because it subordinates and enslaves women. He prefers the Buddhist, non- brahmanical tradition because it grants freedom to women and gives them access to knowledge. He thus believes that any social transformation is incomplete till gender discrimination in that society comes to an end. 

Thus, both Mahatma Phule and Dr. Ambedkar see the caste system as the major cause of the subordination of women and Dr. Ambedkar calls upon people to revolt against this system. In order to develop upon the non-brahmanical principles of women’s liberation that are embodied in the lives and works of Mahatma Phule and Dr. Ambedkar, we need to take up the following issues:

1) Dr. Ambedkar saw Hinduism as the emerging ground of the caste system and hence argues for a countering of the philosophy and the rites and rituals of this religion. A step further, we need to highlight that caste based exploitation has a material base and therefore opposing this system assumes primacy on the agenda.

2) The origins of the subordination of women, its rise and its fall have been articulated in the works of Dr. Ambedkar. The issue therein needs to be put forth as a theory. That patriarchal exploitation also has a material base needs to be underlined and this must inform our agenda and revolutionary programme.

3) The programme for the liberation of women be seen as an intrinsic part of the struggles against the social, religious, cultural and political exploitation of the caste system. Such a trend has failed to emerge from within the contemporary dalit movement. Even within the Republican Party of India and the Dalit Panthers a perspective on women’s liberation did not emerge, both in theory and in their practices. Efforts to develop such perspectives will have to be undertaken.

4)The Ambedkarite perspective is important to a theory of the emergence and end of the subordination of women in India because this perspective by conceiving women as the gateways of the caste system draws focus on the caste based nature of this exploitation. This theory needs to be developed further by linking it to a historical materialist analysis and to the political economy of the sexual division of labour. Developing non- brahmanical perspective of the liberation of women in India would entail such a task. 

There has been a lack of dialogue between the dalit movement and the communist movement in India and this has hampered the development of a Marxist perspective within the dalit movement. Learning from the history of these mistakes it seems that we can develop the non-brahmanical conceptiualisation of women’s liberation.

As the juncture, it will be useful to review the non- brahamanical perspective through Comrade Sharad Patil’s writings.

Towards a non-brahmanical perspective on the liberation of women

One of the defining characteristics of the non- brahmanical perspective on women’s liberation lies in the fact that it is this trend that first felt the need to rewrite the history of India from a feminist perspective. Comrade Sharad Patil has undertaken one such detailed exercise of rewriting of history through his books ‘Dasa-Sudra Slavery, Vol-I and Vol-II’ and ‘Slavery in Caste based Feudal Society Vol-II.’ It would be relevant at this point to take a review of these stages of history as outlined by Comrade Sharad Patil. 

The stages in history

Most feminist scholars have outlined the age-old history of the victimization of women. Non- brahmanical feminism is opposed to such an underlining of the victimhood of women. This trend argues that primitive societies were matriarchal societies.

a) Matriarchy: Comrade Sharad Patil (1991) has clarified how the Latin nomenclative of ‘Matriarchy’ or Indian synonym, ‘Matr-satta’ are not appropriate. The Sanskrit word str-satta (rajya)/ gynocracy, conveys the sense the best. Pre-class societies were matriarchal societies. This stage of history is marked by the discovery of agriculture by women. Women ploughed with the ‘Sphya’ which served the purpose of a hoe. Land was equally distributed and the head of the Gana-would distribute the land based on the idealization of the dice board. Mathematics was infact born out of these divisions. The most Mantras chanted in the oldest known tunes all belonged to women. Women were also the promoters and perpetuators of dance and music. 

When the female head (Queen) exercised the actual and magical function of apportioning communal wealth in land and its produce, she was rastri or rat and was addressed as devi or amba or ma. Women ruled the tribe and its constituents politically, marriage was matrilocal and descent and inheritance were in the female line. This was matriarchy or rule of mother. The varna system originated in the matriarchal society. There were two moieties; the Ksatra and Brahman. It was believed that the earth rejuvenates due to the union of these two moieties.

In order to mime the union of the two moieties of the earth and heaven, the women and the men of the matriarchal agricultural tribe mated on the new Monday. In order to mime the divine marriage of the earth-mother and moon-god the tribal mother and Brahman united in sacred marriage (Patil, 1982)

b) Matrilineal Theocratic Monarchy and Slave-based Society: The matriarchal societies were marked by an absence of exploitation, but these societies transformed into exploitative matrilineal societies with a three varna system. These societies were marked by the emergence of three varnas; viz- Ksatra, Brahman and Dasa. That is to say; the institution of slavery emerges during this period. These were mainly two types of Dasa the patriarchal Dasa system (Swami-Dasa) and the matrilineal Dasa system. These societies were ruled over by male kings, who were born in matrilineal societies. In the Mahabharat, for instance, upon the times of Kansa, the heir to the throne was never son of king himself but the son of his sister. These societies were characterized by:

1) The political power went into the hands of men. The son of the king’s sister had the first claim to kinship.

2) Agriculture was plough-based and required the use of cattle and hence the ownership of land went into the hands of men.

3) The priestly right passed into the hands of men and hence the right to divide the communal land also went into the hands of men.

4) The murder of women was no longer a crime and infact several queens of the gynocratic tribes were killed. The exchange of women also became prevalent.

The Ramayana marks the site of the most intense conflict between gynocracies and patriarchies. Rama slayed Tatka, the queen of the Malla Kurusha tribe. The notion that slaying of women was a heinous crime became obsolete. Lakshmana defaced Shurpnakha. In the times of the Mahabharat, Draupadi was put at stake. She was originally the matriarchal queen of Indraprastha. Pandvas and Krsna destroyed her gynocracy and established a patriarchal society based on slavery. 

c) Patrilineal Theocratic Monarchy and Sudra Slavery based Society: These societies were marked by four Varnas, Brahman, Kshtriaya, Vaishya and Shudra. In matriarchal societies, agriculture had been very crucial to the society. In the patrilineal societies, agriculture came to be seen as a less prestigious occupation. The pastorals had contempt for agriculture and considered it to be feminine pursuit. There was now a basic difference, matrilineal slavery had not admitted household slaves, but the patriarchal slavery did admit household slaves. This is reflected in the epistemology of the word Sudra itself; Dasa means agrestic slave; while the same cannot be the meaning of Sudra. In matriarchal societies, it was believed that women were the creators of agriculture and hence they would cultivate the land. But in patriarchal societies, the Brahmans, of the priestly varna became the human representatives of the divine. Patriarchal marriage practices became prevalent. Brides had to be from outside of the paternal clan and they were often bought. Women became commodities for exchange. Women became the slaves of the tribe and men became their masters.

d) Oligarchy (Sangha-Gana): Oligarchy (Sangha-Gana) was marked by the establishment of two varnas, viz- Kshtirya and Dasa varnas. This was not a mere repetition of the emergence of varnas in matriarchal societies for in the latter, there were only differences between the varnas but there was an absence of exploitation. The Sangha-Gana is characterized by exploitative relations as private property emerges during this period. These societies are patriarchal and they are proponents of the Samkhya philosophy as against the Brahmanical Vedanta philosophy. The custom and practice of sati emerged during this period. Gautama Buddha launched an attack on practice of slavery prevalent in the Sangha-Gana. Thus came about the feudal revolution. As the slaves came to be employed in agriculture labour, there was surplus production. The Buddha who had a revolutionary perspective towards establishing a Varna-less society; was however a supporter of man-woman inequality. Women were barred from entering the Bhikshu- Sangha. It is only after debate with Ananda, those women were given entry into the Sangha; however subject to conditions and oaths. The life of the Kshtriya women was marked by misery.

The Sangha-Ganas began to decline as their primacy unit was no longer a clan, since the clan disintegrated into extended families. The institution of private property further developed as with a feudal revolution, a caste system emerged. 

e) The (Pre-Turkish) Indian Feudalism: a Feudalism From Above: In the later part of the period of the Buddha, caste system began to emerge. The early period of the caste system; i.e. upto the seventh century is marked by feudalism from above. The period after the seventh century is generally recognized as a period marked by feudalism from below. In the earlier period, the caste system was characterized by flexibility but in the later period, it became rigid and restrictive.

Feudal-caste system was from its very inception based on (1) heredity (2) restriction on occupation (3) hierarchical arrangement of castes (4) division of housing quarters by caste (5) endogamy (6) restrictions on food and social intercourse (7) Caste panchayats. 

Though the caste system during the period of feudalism from above was flexible, it does not mean that it was less exploitative. It is during this period that brahmanical lawgiver enforced the four- Varna model.

In the newly emergent Caste–based society, there were lot of religious complexities involved in the conflict between the brahmnical and the non- brahmnical. Because of this conflict, the caste system was further entrenched in society. The rites, rituals, customs and restrictions prescribed by Brahmanism for women were further strengthened and this tightened the controls that men had over women. The practice of observing fast on ‘Ekadashi’ day was outlined for both men and women while fast such as those of ‘Hartalika’ were prescribed only for women. In observing this fast, daughters had to seek permission from fathers, wives from husbands and widows from their sons. During the period of feudalism from below; the caste system became more restrictive and women came to be further exploited. The atrocities against Mirabai are an example of this exploitation. Brahmanisation led to a law that progressively denied all rights especially of knowledge and intellect to women and shudras. The practice of ‘Jauhar’ also emerged among the Rajputs. Wars led to the enslavement of women, women were abducted by men in order to seek revenge with one another.

Epoch of

Types of Society Prevalent Varna Status of Women


Two Varnas 1. Kshatra 2.


§    Women had rights

of distribution of communal land. Political activity rested in the hands of women. Marriage was woman                               centered. Geometry, Maths & Culture were discovered by women. The relationship between men and women was devoid of enemity. Reproduction                                     was considered to be crucial to the perpetuation of the moiety and hence considered to be

emblematic beauty.

Matriarchal Theocratic Monarchy and slave based society

Three Varnas


Kshatriya 2.


3. Dasa

§    Agriculture with plough and use of animal power emerged. The animals and plough belonged to men and hence women lost control over the land. Political activity passed into the hands of men. But the king was selected through a matrilineal          system. Priesthood passed into the hands of men and so also the distribution of communal land. Murder of women was no longer a crime, in fact matriarchal queens came to be slayed. Man-woman relationship came to be marked by enemity. The contradiction between men and women was   both   internal   and

external. For eg. Hidimba seeks the help of Bhima to slay her brother (internal) and Ram slays queen Tatka

(external opposition)

Patrilineal Theocratic Monarchy and Shudra slavery based society

Four Varnas


Kshatriya 2.


3.  Vaishya

4.  Shudra

§    This society looks down upon agriculture. It came to be considered effeminate by the pastoral Aryans. Women became a commodity. In the gynocratic societies, the fertility of the earth and women was equated and thus women were the agriculturists. But in the society Brahman priest or the Aryans became the mediators between god and human beings. Marriage became patriarchal. The bride came to be bought i.e. women became

commodities. Women became the slaves of the

clan and men the masters.

Oligarchy (Sangha- Gana) Two Varnas



2. Dasa

§    The slavery of women turned into atrocities against them. The custom of sati and other such inhuman practices emerged. There were two Varnas in this society, yet this bi-partite division of society was very different from the earlier bi-partite division in gynocratic societies which were marked by an absence of exploitation. However these societies were marked by exploitation and it is this slavery against

which Gautama   Buddha launched an attack. In the beginning, women were denied entry in the Bhikshu Sangha. The life of Kshatriya women in the Sangha society was pitiable. Hence dispute restrictions of Parivrajya women had begun to enter the Bhikshu Sangha, Savarna marriages and patrilineality          became mandatory. Children of the matrilineal societies came

to be looked down upon.

Pre-Turkish Indian Feudal society (Feudalism from above)

Four Varnas (Caste system had relative flexibility)


Brahman 2.


3.  Vaishya

4.  Shudra

Establishment of patrilineality became crucial. Mixed marriages were forbidden and endogamy was established. The inhuman atrocities against women reached a peak. The Brahman law givers enforced the four varnas. Ganikas were made prostitutes, men disliked pregnant women, so infanticide began. To enforce brahmanical dominance, rituals were enforced on women and Shudras. Through these rituals the hold of men on women tightened while rituals such as Ekadashi were for both men and women, Hartalika was for women. Moreover women could perform rituals only after seeking the permission of their fathers, husbands and sons. The puranas also came to be so organized that women and Shudras had no right claim to the Vedas and it was the Brahman priest who would narrate these to them through the kirtans.

Pre-Turkish Indian Feudal system (Feudalism from below)

Caste system became rigid   Rajputs get drawn into the theme of brahmanisation. As a result who opposed Varna caste and subordination of women for e.g. Mirabai were persecuted. In the period of Feudalism from below the atrocities on women and exploitation increased. ‘Johar’ now emerged among the Rajput alongside sati. Women’s bodies became consumable commodities and hence more and more women came to be kidnapped. Jainism to begin with had been non-brahmanical and hence women had the right to Diksha. Due to this, Vyakarana Shakayyan (817-877 A.D.), a noted religious leader dedicated two parts of his work. ‘Shabda Anushasan’ to women’s liberation. Bhakti did call for spiritual equality but it re-manned patriarchy. Mahadevi’s nose was cut by Naynar because she dared to smell the flower offered to the Gods. Non-Dravidian Bhakti revolts were violent and patriarchal. Devadasi system became prevalent.

Tantra originally was such that it gave a blow at the roots of Varna, Jati and Gender subordination. In this society, caste system became less flexible as animosity between castes increased and the contradictions   between men and women increased. The caste system was now characterized by

1)      Reproduction             of

food/marriage and social intercourse

2)      Heredity

3)      Caste Panchayats

4)      Occupation                by heredity

5)      A division of housing quarters by caste.

§    Based on Comrade Sharad Patil’s ‘Dasa Shudra Slavery Vol I

and II’ and ‘Jati Vyavasthak Samanti Sevakatva’- Complied by Pratima Pardeshi.

f) Patriarchal Jati- Class society: A class system emerged in India after the establishment of the British rule. Classes entered in the caste system and caste-class society emerged. Capitalism denigrates women to the status of commodities and caste, class and patriarchies interface and form the base of the subordination of women.

Capitalism also creates spaces for some minimal degree of freedom for women. Shudras and women began to seek education. Tarabai Shinde wrote, ‘Stri-Purush Tulana’ and this launched a scathing attack on the patriarchal system. Savitribai Phule, Pandita Ramabai, Janakka Shinde- all non-brahmanical revolutionary women learnt to read and write, as also did Anandi Gopal, Ramabai Ranade and Laxmibai Tilak.

The debate on the liberation of women was thus carried out within two broad frameworks (1) Non- brahmanical (2) Brahmanical. Women of the upper castes and classes brought forth issues that were primarily familial and pertaining to notions of brahmanical individualism. The women’s movement in India most often draws its lineage from this trend, such a feminist ideology tends to be brahmanical- capitalist in nature.

If we review the journey from Mahila Aayog to Mahila Aarakshan (National Commission to reservation for women), once again we see the debate divided along lines of brahmanical v/s non- brahmanical perspective on the liberation of women. Brahmanical feminism was increasingly drawn into the co-optive forces of the Mahila Aayog. Complete neglect of the exploitation of the caste system and an absence of a clear-cut analysis of the nature of the State has led this feminist camp towards more and more dependence on the State and increased focus on registration of cases of atrocities with the police and establishment of crisis centers for victimized women. That the very same “State regulated feminists” who participated in the making of the women’s policy later stood up to critique it, needs to be underlined in outlining the shortcomings of mainstream brahmanical feminism. 

There has been an increasing NGOisation of the women’s movement. Foreign funding has led to a mushrooming of organizations that run on project to project basis. In such a setting, programmes for the upliftment of women come to be outlined as against a revolutionary programme for the annihilation of caste-class and patriarchal systems. That the women’s policy came in the opportune times of liberalization and free market, that the International Women’s Conference is organized at Bejing by the capitalist classes is not a matter of coincidence. It is unfortunate that the intrinsic linkages between the caste system, capitalism and patriarchy have not been comprehended by the brahmanical trend in Indian women’s movement. The movement today, thus lies in a lull.

In the context of reservation for women in parliamentary bodies, the true colours of the women’s organizations are being revealed. The Brahmanism of the women both on the Right and Left is apparent. At this time when the question of caste, and women’s subordination has reached a crucial juncture, Left wing women are proposing that the reservations be achieved at the altar of sacrifice by O.B.C. women. Why should upper- caste women get all the cream? All this again highlights the need to put forth a non-brahmanical perspective on women’s liberation in India. It is obvious that several struggles and a revolutionary politics will have to be launched from such a perspective. Marxism-Phule-Ambedkarism seems to be the most appropriate philosophy on the basis of which such a perspective may be developed.

The non-brahmanical stream of feminism considering the material reality demands for an agenda for women’s liberation. These are as follows:

1) That a reformed Hindu Code Law be made applicable to tribal women. This demand has become controversial, since several feminists have argued that the caste panchayats are more liberatory for women. It is important to note that the ‘immediate rendering of justice’ by the caste panchayats cannot be glorified. We need to note that only the men of the group participate in the rendering of justice, that women are not allowed to speak before the ‘panch’ and that much of this oral customary law can be changed with promises of alcohol and meat. It needs to be noted that though tribal women have the right to seek separation (Kadimod) in marriage they have to pay back the “Dej” or bride price. In the absence of economic resources and property in their name (an impact of brahmanical law) tribal women cannot seek divorce (For further details on the issue, see Comrade Saroj Kamble’s Streemukti: Brahmani-Abrahmani).

2) The bill for reservation for women in Parliamentary Bodies be passed along with the necessary clauses for the reservation for O.B.C. women. The caste system divides women. It also determines the nature and intensity of their exploitation. Dalit, tribal and O.B.C. women need to debate their questions in the parliament and must get the basic minimum right to be elected to these political bodies. The demand for reservation for

O.B.C. women need to be underlined and the dangers of ‘getting the Bill quickly passed’ need to be highlighted for such a Bill is likely to favour only upper caste, upper class women. A movement on the issue is building up from within non-brahmanical stream of the women’s movement in India.

3) 25th December (The Manusmriti Dahan Divas) must be commemorated as Indian Women’s Liberation Day (For more details on the issue, see Pardeshi and Kamble- ‘Manusmriti, Streeya aani Dr. Ambedkar’- translation of some parts from the same have been presented at the end of this monograph).

4)  December 25 to January 3 be commemorated nationwide as an Anti-Caste Week. 3rd January being the birth anniversary of Krantijoti Savitribai Phule and December 25th being the Manusmriti Dahan Divas, this demand is important and apt.

5) Women must have access to and control over natural wealth and resources and the non-brahmanical stream seeks to launch struggles for the same.

6) Consciousness raising, dissemination of information and knowledge and cultural struggles constitute an important part of all these struggles. The present work is a step in the above mentioned direction.

The Indian women’s liberation day

The demand to recognize 25th December, the day of the public burning of the Manusmriti as Bharatiya Mahila Divas was first put forth at the ‘Vikas Vanchit Dalit Rashtriya Mahila Parishad’ organized at the Dikshabhoomi on the 25th and 26th December 1996. Dr. Pramila Sampat was in the forefront in putting forth this demand. This was followed by a discussion on the same by the Dalit Mahila Sanghatana.

Later, the Republican Mahila Aghadi took up this issue, arguing that 25th December be recognized as Bharatiya Streemukti Divas. Dr. Prakash Ambedkar called a meeting of all women’s organizations from Maharashtra at Pune on 17th November 1997. An organizing committee was set up to organize a mass rally of women on the 25th of December 1997. Two Parishads one at Nagpur and the other at Vardha were organized accordingly and received overwhelming support. By the next year, it is proposed that national level for the same be canvassed for. In this context, the usual misconceptions about the demand need to be clarified.


  1. Do we need one more day to celebrate when 8th of March is already being celebrated as International Women’s Day?
  2. By celebrating a separate Bharatiya Streemukti Divas are we not becoming narrow and countering internationalism?
  3. Why must this day be called as Streemukti Divas? Would it not be more appropriate to call it Maanav Mukti Divas?
  4. Did Dr. Ambedkar burn the Manusmriti in protest against caste based exploitation or the exploitation of women?
  5. What new gains will the women’s movement make from celebrating one more day?

Some clarifications

  • The Bharatiya Streemukti Divas is not in opposition to the International Women’s Day. Yet it is true that all liberatory struggles cannot be just local or only universal. It is in this context that this demand assumes importance as a counter to the predominance of a brahmanical rendering of women’s liberation in India.
  • The demand is not narrow and limited, instead it calls upon all revolutionary forces in India to recognize the importance of launching anti-caste struggles. Caste is a specificity of the exploitation in the Indian context and must be underlined as such.
  • To argue that it be called as Maanav Mukti Divas is to subscribe in an subconscious manner to the brahmanical ploy that broadbases and there by blunts the issues which it cannot directly oppose.
  • Any one who recognizes the importance of Dr. Ambedkar’s theory of the origin of castes and the subordination of women will not raise the question of whether the Manusmirti had been burnt by him in protest of the caste system or the subordination of women. For Dr. Ambedkar, the two are not separable.
  • This demand does not amount to celebration of one more day. Symbols have always played a crucial role in the emergence of progressive identities, the celebration of 25th December as Bharatiya Streemukti Divas will give to the bahujan women a sense of identify and will help them to identify with the non-brahmanical camp of the women’s movement. Moreover this demand poses an effective opposition to the cultural agenda of the Hindutva lobby.

The women’s movement in India is presently poised at a juncture in which it requires an agenda that will bring to the forefront all those in whose interests it is to end the subordination of women. This means that in a caste based society, dalit, adivasi, and women of the denotified and nomadic tribes must assume the vanguard position. There has been no effective movement for a social and cultural transformation after the Hindu Code Bill.

Brahmanical forces of Hindutva seek to appropriate the non-brahman history and symbols in a bid to make the dalits and OBCs their votebanks. This has to be countered. Many of the progressive struggles still remain innately patriarchal. The Left continues to collapse caste into class and the rich history of Lokayat and Buddhism is thus lost. The demand is a step in countering the patriarchal fascist forces that are assuming power. Hence this appeal!

*At a discussion on the issue ‘should 25th December be celebrated as Bharatiya Stree Mukti Divas?’ organized by the Women’s Studies Centre, University of Pune, some activists argued that this being Christmas Day, our Christian sisters would be unable to join in the celebrations. Some others felt that Christmas and the Bharatiya Stree Mukti Divas coinciding has an added significance for the Dalit Christian women. But considering the practicalities involved in festivities it was agreed upon by most of the organizations that a week long celebrations be declared as ‘Prerna Saptah’ from the 25th of December i.e. the Manusmriti dahan divas to the 3rd of January, the birth anniversary of Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule.