'Every Woman is a Mother in Embryo': Lala Lajpat Rai and Indian Womanhood
This paper deals with the writings of Lala Lajpat Rai on the contentious 'women's question* in India in the beginning of the twentieth century. The last few decades of the nineteenth century had witnessed intense debates on issues concerning women's lives. How they were to be educated, if at all, when were they to be married, should widow re-marriage be allowed to them, were they to be brought out of purdah? etc. These debates carried out mostly by men, became especially important, as the status and condition of women often became the signifier for the state of morality and prestige of the nation. Conversely, the colonizing state, tried to show the 'degradation* of Indian women to be synonymous with a fallen people.
Recent historiography is exploring the various reasons that problematized any issue concerning women in these years. Historians have pointed out how, for instance, idealized conjugal relations came to fulfil an essential need for self-respect and self-esteem in the *un-colonized* domain of the home. Thus, any attempt at disturbing this sacred sphere met with a rabid outcry of protest. What came to be especially feared were women themselves, who challenged or resisted the attempted fossilization of their lives, and insisted on their subjectivity. An educated and self-assured woman could be stigmatized as the harbinger of social crisis, amongst the new middle-classes of the times. Relegating women to the domestic, a spiritualized domain, seemingly away from the political, public, and material concerns was advocated as a means of resurrecting the Hindu male's self-pride. One possible way of achieving this confinement was by eulogising their mothering function.1
Other historians have, on the other hand, also pointed out, how the nationalist rhetoric, by emphasising certain feminine roles, social and familial, opened up opportunities for women to participate in public life. This is especially true of the Gandhian period, when, women participated in the nationalist movement in large numbers, revelling apparently in their womanly qualities of nurturing and sacrifice.2
Department of History, Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University.
Social Scientist, Vol. 22, Nos. 1-2, January-February 1994