On the Freedom of Women: Anna Chandy

Translated by J Devika

[this is an earlier version of my translation that appeared in my book Her-Self, which was published by Stree/Samya, Kolkata, 2005. For a fuller, annotated version, please refer the book]

     Anna Chandy (1905-1996) was one of the most articulate representatives of the ‘first-generation’ feminists in Malayali society, but she is now much better known for her remarkable career. Brought up in Thiruvananthapuram, she earned a post-graduate degree with distinction in 1926, and went on to become the first woman in Kerala to earn a degree in Law. She joined the Bar in 1929 and soon earned fame as an eminent practitioner in Criminal Law, and as an ardent champion of women’s rights, especially in the publication she founded and edited, Shrimati. She was a member of the Shree Mulam Popular Assembly between 1932-34, and was appointed  First Grade Munsif in 1937, the first Malayali woman to occupy the post. In 1948, she became District Judge and a High Court Judge in 1959. She also served as a member of the Law Commission after her retirement in 1967. Her autobiography was serialised in the Malayala Manorama in 1971, and published under the title Atmakatha in 1973 (Thrissur: Carmel Books).

This brilliant speech was made when she was a young lawyer, just twenty-four, at a public meeting presided by ‘Sahityapanchanan’ P. K. Narayana Pillai. She was apparently an uninvited speaker who barged onstage to respond to Sadasyatilakan T K Velu Pillai’s call to ban women from paid employment in government in Travancore, claiming that this would reduce men’s opportunities and destroy the family. She frames this as a lawyer’s response to unfair accusations against women in court. Her daring is amazing: Velu Pillai had been her teacher at the Law College. Narayana Pillai  was a well-known scholar, critic, a judge of the Tiruvitamkoor High Court, and a member of the Shree Mulam Popular Assembly throughout the 1930s.

[first published as ‘Streeswatantrytte Patti’, in Sahodaran Special Number, 1929: 133-46]


In this Case, our major argument is that this accusation is completely unfounded and lacks in optimism. It has been brought forward with the intention of undermining the government’s favourable attitude towards women, evident recently, and is contrary to fairness and justice. We also object that the complaint is invalid. From the elaborate petition, it is clear that the plaintiff’s immediate demand is to ban all efforts by women to gain employment, on the grounds that they are a bunch of creatures created for the domestic pleasures of men, and that their lives outside the hallowed kitchen-temples will harm familial happiness. “Women necessarily need education. Those who are qualified must be allowed to take up employment and the professions”, argues the plaintiff, contradicting himself. First of all, we would like to ask where all these reformers were, when fee concessions were being granted to women for English education, which has indeed destroyed the Eastern ideal of a Sheelavati-like chastity. For, as described in the petition, these artless women had been, indeed, spending all their lives in the interior of homes like caged songbirds. Where were they, when women were appointed as teachers on a salary of a hundred rupees, as soon as they earned a B. A. degree? The present-day unemployment of women, and their mad rush after paid jobs is but a consequence of their entry into higher education. The (former) speaker (i.e. Velu Pillai) gauges that it may be proved without much debate that women are best suited to stay at home. He has also quoted from Shakuntala’s essay to Shankaracharya’s  Vedanta to applaud Womanly Duty. If so, why were women students shoved, eyes shut, along a path of learning, entirely inimical to this Duty, so destructive of Eastern Ideals?

Women who work hard at Differential Calculus and Public Finance should not benefit from it in practical life, indeed! If the modern Manu Samhita decrees that women should remain kitchen-idols singing the songs of someone murdering Mallan Pillai, and limiting themselves like fleas devoid of self-respect to spending the twenty-five rupees produced by the B. A. holder-Husband’s sweat and toil, then why spend lakhs of rupees on a First-Grade College for Women, and many thousands on Western Lady-teachers? What knowledge do these colleges provide women, that would help them to become ideal mothers and blessed wives? All teachers, including the (former) speaker are culpable here. I cannot fathom even now why he has proceeded to don the mantle of a Cassandra to make dire prophesies of social revolution or communal conflagration on the basis of a mostly anachronistic contention, which anyway implies that the readily-perceptible ill effects had been ignored for selfish advantage, in the first place. English education has been prevalent in our land for one hundred years. Women could well have been restricted to their homes on the pretext that they have been exclusively fashioned for such life. We object that instead of implementing the above measure, silence was maintained over the past one hundred years, and therefore this grievance is rendered obsolete. Besides, all teachers, including the (former) speaker have misled women in their act of granting them qualifications for employment, and to argue thus after such deception cannot be valid. The (former) speaker has stated that the dictum ‘Woman deserves no freedom’ is more or less extinct and that the women of Keralam are not slavish, especially those of the matrilineal communities, who, he claims, are the ‘Empresses of the Home’. His own speech testifies aloud that this is not always the case. The first lines of the shloka lay down that Woman must be protected by her father in childhood, by the husband in youth and by the son in old age. The article titled ‘Atyavashya Parishkaram’ that fills nearly twelve full columns of the largest of Malayalam newspapers, the Malayalarajyam, unwaveringly hammers in the point that Woman should stay at home, and if married, she should stay under the guardianship of her husband. If the Woman is to stay wholly under the husband’s protection, then how can one claim that the pronouncement ‘Woman deserves no freedom’ has indeed become defunct? In truth, that dictum from the Manusmriti of ancient times has been blended into the Manusmriti of the Age of Kali.

How is one to claim that women in Keralam are not in bondage? Women in the numerous castes and communities in Keralam occupy distinctly different situations. Antarjanams, who are confined to the inner-quarters with bronze bangles, the cadjan-leaf umbrella and the servant girl; Muslim sisters who suffer eternal hell in purdah, ridiculed by their menfolk as the soulless herd lacking the Adam’s Apple; Brahmin girls trapped in wedlock at an age in which one plays at mud-pie making, to become widows at the door-step of youth, and condemned to live on with shaved heads, heaping curses upon life; Christian women, forever accursed by the harshness of dowry – all these are slaves who live in Keralam. Let us now consider the condition of the Matrilineal Domestic Empresses. Those who have lived in matrilineal arrangements know well that matriliny is but a chance product of political circumstances or social upheaval, and that it is ludicrous to view it as the banner of women’s independence. What freedom do these hapless sisters enjoy in the matter of matrimony? Is the (former) speaker arguing that there are no sisters who have had to kneel before the avarice of the uncle or the brother, to consent to an arranged union, and lead agonised existences under the peremptory order that “yours is not to reason why, yours is to do and die”? These women who pride in the fact that property is inherited only in the female line, what substantial liberty do they hold? What we usually see is the passive holding of property, signing upon the dotted line drawn by the uncle or the brother. In any case, since the loyal followers of the community have already deserted this descent, calling it archaic, there is nothing in matriliny to set it up as the Pillar of Pride of women’s freedom. My humble opinion is that Nair women do not possess essential freedom.

Nevertheless, in case my opinion is adjudged worthless, we would like to examine as our witness none other than the famous community leader, Mannath Padmanabha Pillai. Let him testify on oath whether women in matrilineal families have been able to participate freely in the necessary efforts to revive the community. Recently, I had the occasion to be briefly enlightened about the freedom of women of matrilineal families at a village meeting celebrating Gandhiji’s birthday. I, who had readied to speak a few words to the womenfolk on the affectionate insistence of the organisers, could not spy a single female infant within that expansive hall. On inquiring about this, I was told that though allowed to attend temple festivals and so on, women were yet to be permitted to take part in public meetings. When the record of women’s freedom remains thus, there is no meaning in designating them as ‘Empresses of the Home’ or ‘Sanctified Goddesses’. If these Empresses who may report at temple festivals to be pushed and tugged around, are not free to attend public meetings which are free of such discomfort, what is the use of the royal title? The (former) speaker waxes eloquent over the veneration of women as deities, and points out that we adore not Father India but Mother India. My wish is that women should not be worshipped as Goddesses; they must be treated as mere mortal creatures. What does Man, who worships Woman as Goddess and then desecrates her in stealth, do? He condemns her to tragic suffering and takes refuge in the mores of society, shaped entirely by men. If trapped within immoral practice, the Woman ends up in perpetual hell, while the Man is ensconced in the Abode of Holiness. That is the hitch in being adored as a Goddess.

Until the day in which an evenhanded standard is forged to assess both parties alike, this sort of Goddess-worship remains hollow and inane. Are not women excluded from representative bodies like the Municipality and the Popular Assembly in a way that is certainly inglorious even for the matrilineal women who the (former) speaker depicts as free in all respects? Those who club women with lunatics, are they going to worship women as Goddesses?

The (former) speaker is also insistent that we must not import and plant the saplings of dissent from alien lands that will cause women and men to gang up against each other in a clamorous showdown, and that such factionalism would lead to the disruption of the home, and the destruction of the family. From all this one cannot help suspecting that some great social revolt is close at hand. The (former) speaker’s assertion is that the desire of women for paid employment destroys the domestic bliss that he so warmly acclaims. This can be seen only as a mere figment of imagination. I do not see who is rousing the war-drums today, which were never heard in those days in which married women began to work as teachers and assistant Inspectresses, and in which married attendants and doctors entered government service. One can hardly help being reminded of Don Quixote’s joust with the windmills when one witnesses this utterly unreal social calamity conjured up in an imaginary world, and desperately fought off with instruments assembled from every possible source, ranging from Ravana’s death to the passing of Cromwell. In actuality, I do not think that any woman-graduate who has recently entered government service is married. I am informed that the lady graduates who have been employed at the High Court and the Secretariat are unmarried. In that case no one need to harbour fears that were non-existent earlier.

The (former) speaker has agreed that unmarried women should be given employment. This appears contradictory. Either women, deemed the Guardians of the home, Generous Hosts and Husbands’ Darlings, remain in the interior of the house as Chief Secretaries of Kitchendom, with no woman sweating after a job. Or, if they will be permitted to secure employment, it is my opinion that an exotic law that may bring considerable adverse effects in the future is not needed. If married women are denied jobs, they will only aspire to employment even at the cost of throwing off matrimony some way or the other. The (former) speaker has discovered a minor law that that the majority of women in our country have intense desire to marry and become mothers. If so, one would have to suppress the desire for maternity violently as a basic condition for employment. What will be the state of a country in which all women in higher education remain virgins lifelong, and all women employees, marriage haters? If the sole heirs of families decide to accept virginity for the sake of employment, will not those families face extermination?

My fear is that the abhorrence towards marriage required of the progeny of ancient families as part of their jobs will wreck these well established structures, just as one shatters massive rocks by piercing them and igniting gunpowder in the crevices. This opinion (i.e. the former speaker’s), which claims to have ensued from the immaculate love of the Nation, does it require women of high education, intelligence and skill to remain dull blossoms in the Garden of life, bereft of redolence, all for the sake of employment? The (former) speaker, who praises children as the pleasing transformation of one’s own flesh and blood, born with bright faces and delightfully lovable words, the supports of our old age, the golden pillars of everlasting prosperity of the Nation, does he claim that the children should not be born in the land to capable and intelligent women, merely because they are employed? My humble conviction is that such reformism should not prevail among men and women.

The exposition ‘An Urgently-Needed Reform’ argues in sum that married women should not be granted employment by the government, and that if women desire employment, they should shun marriage. Many arguments have been deployed to establish this indefinite bit of thought. Let us examine them, one by one.

  • One reason advanced is that the self-respecting man would not accept the income generated by Woman’s travails. What a blatantly arrogant and discriminatory thought! As if self-respect were the preserve of men alone! Is this to say that Woman, who must be Man’s partner in sorrow and joy, must stay confined to the kitchen as despicable vermin, content with devouring whatever the husband may eke out of his labours, sometimes in ill-health, or seething with distress at the unjust practices of his superiors? Both parties require sufficient amounts of self-respect. In that case, no one will feel outraged.
  • Another argument in favour of this Manusmriti of the Age of Kali that decries the employment of married women is that when a working couple reunites at home after work in the evening, the encounter of fatigue with exhaustion will precipitate a most uncomfortable situation for both. Though the veracity of this argument cannot be examined here in detail, a few words are in order. In the example used by the (former) speaker, it is not clear whether the wife of the Peishkar (head of revenue administration) became a doctor, or whether a lady doctor’s husband became a Peishkar. The husbands who permit their wives to work are probably those who compare their wives’ income with theirs, and find the latter more attractive, and are not perturbed by that their wives are not around in the house to remove their slippers, wipe their sweat, and perform other such servile duties, when they return from work. Therefore this objection is simply childish.

Indeed, those officials who saunter down to the gambling Club soon after work, indulge themselves in pleasures of various sorts, and finally reach home when the cock crows, must necessarily have lady doctors for wives. On the contrary, what would possibly go wrong if the husband and wife rejoin after work, share and debate their day, and behave like true partners? If the stink of whisky is presented as the scent of eucalyptus, an officer-wife may not swallow the lie. She may not accept the husband’s nightly adventures as essential part of his official commitments. When both enjoy economic independence, the other may not meekly suffer the violent quarrels and autocratic commands of one. Therefore the husband who agrees to his wife’s employment must necessarily be virtuous, and open to welcoming his wife as a companion. Is this harmful to the happiness of the world?

A further objection made in the (former) speech is that if both husband and wife earn, too much wealth will accumulate in the same house like the merging of the streams of the Yamuna and the Ganga. Behold! What an effusion of egalitarianism! If this logic is applied to men’s employment as well, will anyone argue that when the sole heir of millions competes with the ardent devotee of the Goddess of Poverty, the latter is more deserving? Are jobs granted now on that principle? The Ganga-Yamuna merger need be feared only when such a ‘Bolshevik’ current of opinion gains ground in the land. In reality, if the clerk-wife of a man earning ten rupees receives a salary of fifteen, the family income will only be twenty-five rupees. What dreadful accumulation of wealth does this hint at? I do feel that this is but a baseless argument.

Another protestation is that working wives will be unable to care for their children properly. Though at first glance this may appear to be a credible argument, careful reflection reveals that it does not justify women’s exclusion from paid employment. The mother’s presence in the upbringing of a child is unavoidable only for some time immediately after the child’s birth. Once the child starts school, even Kitchen-Deities get their chance at mothering only at night. I do think both working and non-working mothers can devote enough attention to childcare. And I do opine that even if it falls a little below the mark, it will actually work to the advantage of the Nation. We may assess the relative sturdiness and health of infants if we compare those infants raised in mansions upon soft downy mattresses and swathed in woolly garments, to the infants of a farmer couple who are left entirely to their own wits early in the day. If we had not been unnecessarily obsessed with childcare, then Indians raised altogether at the breast of their mothers would not have become the slaves of a race brought up by servants. It may also be seen that even fifty of our kitchen-yoked children will not match up to the daring and the stamina of a single white child. Since the (former) speaker has ventured forth into the world of insects and animals, let me glance at the world of Nature. Many may have noticed the cow push away its calf after it has grown somewhat. What does this mean? ‘The period of guardianship is over now, stand on your own feet, seek food for yourself’ – this is what the cow gives notice of. In the same way, if we concede that the parents’ responsibility is limited to raising a child from helpless infancy to self-sufficiency, then our children will prove that they possess the capacity for self-reliance, and rid themselves of the fragility of nerves that causes them to die of heart failure when the telegram announcing the results of the B. A exam arrives. Let the advocates of birth control themselves decide which of the following is more injurious to society: the cruelty of parents who act without any thought of the mother’s health, the father’s resources and the needs of the older child, or the minor ills to be suffered in entrusting the child to the care of the servants. Or, what would be wrong if the parents engage in a bit of renunciation, in self-control, for the sake of employment? Therefore, the insistence that women should waste away within homes in the interest of childcare should be abandoned. Those who are endowed with an abundance of motherly love are in any case quite unlikely to turn to employment away from their children, under any circumstance. In short, I think that no woman should be sent to work in disregard of her wishes, physical condition and abilities. I merely insist that no discrimination based on sex or marital status must be made among those who have the necessary qualifications and desire for employment. It is quite possible that some married women need employment. How heart-rending it would be, if a woman seeking work under the dire circumstances of having to bear the burden of caring for a bed-ridden husband, and helpless little children, is denied work on the grounds of her marital status? That should not happen. It must be established that all qualified women, irrespective of whether they are married or not, are be free to take up employment.

How many are the respectable women who support their families on self-earned incomes? Whose salary ensured the security of the family of that renowned Deshabhimani, who was exiled for his valiant struggle against injustice in Vanchi [Tiruvitamkoor]? If women were denied work because of their marital status, would it have been possible for that Paragon of Chastity to support her family thus? Has matrimony brought any disqualification to Smt. Muthulakshmi Reddy, the Deputy Speaker of the Legislative Assembly at Madras? What about Sarojini Naidu who has spread the radiance of national pride all over the West, whom the [former] speaker himself extols as Goddess, is she not married, and a mother? If she had been compelled to stay behind kitchen-bars, would it have been possible for her to scale political heights inaccessible even to the manly men of India? Certainly, worthy women of the world have not been restricted by their marriages, nor have they been bound to kitchens. It is impossible to stem this unimpeded flood of women’s freedom with the Dams of Kitchenism. Are not the women members of the legislative assemblies of Tiruvitamkoor and Kochi married? What scourge has overtaken the country because Smt. Chinnamma and Mrs. Lukose, well-known for admirable social service and prowess in the medical sciences respectively, have tied the knot? We are gathered here today to celebrate the birthday of the respected regent Maharani of Tiruvitamkoor. Does not her exemplary life announce that women with children can perform both maternal and public roles with remarkable competence? Therefore let no woman be incarcerated in the kitchen on account of her marital status, let the paths towards freedom of employment and wealth creation be opened up to all women irrespective of their marital status. Those who have the enterprise, favourable environment and the ability for employment will seek it. Others will act according to the degree of maternal affection they possess. Those husbands who think that their wives’ employment will impair the family’s well-being need not send them to work. Besides, the married female-employee has the definite advantage of help male support, compared to her unmarried counterpart. If a lady teacher handling classes in a (junior) college is married to a professor teaching in the graduate class, will she not be aided by her husband in teaching? If the lady doctor is married to another doctor, will not her curative abilities be superior to those of a single lady doctor? In short, the wife will be sent to work only with the full approval of the husband. If such a couple live in mutual fidelity, what social revolution is to be feared? What communal antagonism is to be foreseen?

An additional difficulty with the wife’s employment, it seems, lies in the possible abasement that may have to be faced by the Woman Graduate forced to pay her respects to her superior officer and his ignorant wife. We will overcome this, taking relief in the fact that women too share in the affront suffered by the man forced to respect and salute his female superior and her ignorant husband.

The [former] speaker is also afraid that if women are allowed into jobs, they may disgrace men by working as Daffedars (head-peons) etc. As long as all men are not Daffedars, all women will not be peons. Just as the members of the male race range from Emperors to sweepers, there will be members of the female race ranging from Empresses to sweepers. Will they be obstinate that all women should be Empresses or government secretaries? Even if they do, will that work? Given things as they are, is it appropriate to aver that women should not be given jobs because one may have to see them in the form of Daffedars, lugging around boxes. Women usually seek work to help or support the father, the husband or brother. Such men, who are the woman’s guardians, will not direct her towards disgraceful occupations. Even if they do, even if women consent to such a great sacrifice for the sake of their loved ones, what is wrong with that? Besides, when did this infamy provoked by the sight of female Daffedars crop up? Indeed, a mind that was never outraged by the sorry sight of many thousands of women carrying loads of paddy to the Chalai market for their daily bread, returning oppressed, cowering at the dirty comments passed by some depraved men, how it has been inflamed by the box-carrying of the female Daffedars of an imaginary world! Now, a few words are in order about the habit of quoting shlokas from the Smritis and Shrutis. The malady of justifying all sorts of inanities with shlokas is an epidemic that has infected the sharp- smooth chaps and the Scholars of Unfathomed Wisdom in our midst. A citation from the Smriti, culled out in case one wants to show the illegitimacy of post-menarche marriage for girls. When Atirudram [a sacrifice performed to propitiate the God Rudra] seems unavoidable to appease the authorities, yet another reference to the Shruti. If an authority upholding the Varnashrama dharma is urgently needed, that can be made up with the Sankarasmriti. Plenty of shloka– pieces too, to hold up the denial of widow remarriage. There can be any hope for India only when a cure is found for this affliction. We allege that the simile produced by the author to justify his argument, which requires that married women must roost in kitchens, and the scrap of a shloka deployed to establish it, constitute a deliberate effort to insult women. The Treta and Dwapara Ages have passed. The shlokas of these Ages have also turned to dust. Hence the recitation of shlokas to defend orthodoxy must cease.

In short, it is by no means expedient to load the responsibility of domestic strife upon those women who seek employment in order to support their menfolk. The bane of the land is precisely the reform that sets up the married-unmarried distinction as the principle of discrimination. We plead that this pointless reform is uncalled-for. Those who do not need paid work and those who have not the health for it need not bother about employment. The large-hearted women who combine in themselves the Vishalyakarini and the Mritasanjeevani [two among the four divine medications] will manage motherhood and government employment the best they can. Only that they must be allowed to utilise their natural talents for the general good. If it is acknowledged that Woman too is a self-respecting creature and that she too has a share in the burden of maintaining the family, if women and men can live together in mutual constancy and oneness of heart, advance legislation to prevent a catastrophic clash will be rendered redundant. Women who demand representation in Parliament, government service etc. do not hanker to enter the army, or fight the French War. Is this not an ideal expression of their sense of discretion and discrimination? As long this good sense, praised by the [former] speaker, stays intact, can it not be reckoned that women will not seek anything that will sully their Womanliness or bring disgrace to men, like joining the army, hunting out criminals, or raiding for illicit arrack? If a verbal agreement is insufficient, we are prepared to put up the necessary bail.

Surely, economic independence is the foundation stone of the tower of women’s liberty. It is this independence that women seek when they aspire for employment. Folks who take pride, in place and out of place, in that women are free in all respects, fire off speeches aimed at denying them government employment and other means by which the paths to economic equality may be opened up. The very contradictoriness of this can only evoke mocking smiles.  If anyone retains any suspicion regarding women’s capacity for service, they need only to refer to the recent comment made by a man who was an unshakeable misogynist for many years, George Bernard Shaw, that women have much greater stamina and hence, efficiency, than the men who idle away their time in tattle-telling. We do not wish to extend this statement further. Hence we pray that the Honourable President-Justice, known for his legal erudition and cultured views, may reject this inessential plaint, and allow us at least the travel fare from Kottayam. Some of the defendants do fear an adverse judgement since the Honourable Justice has himself expressed certain opinions seemingly favourable to the plaintiff at a meeting in Manacaud. And in case the judgement happens to be adverse, we will console ourselves by remembering that even the Sarda Bill had its opponents.


1 thought on “On the Freedom of Women: Anna Chandy”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.