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Knowing Tarabai Shinde, a 19th Century Social Reformer Who Wrote India’s First Feminist Text

“But do men not suffer from the same flaws that women are supposed to have?”

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Roxane Gay, and Arundhati Roy are some of the modern-day authors who have helped shaped the feminist discourse in the country. However, before them, there was Tarabai Shinde, a 19th century feminist who was known for her work Stripurush Tulana (A Comparison Between Women and Men), which was originally published in Marathi in 1882. She wrote the book after a widow was sentenced to death when she aborted her unborn child. In it, Tarabi criticised the inherent patriarchy in Hindu religious scriptures and pointed out the sexist ways in which men and women were treated differently. Needless to say, the reception to her work was hostile and it remained largely undiscovered until S.G. Malshe re-published it in 1975. It’s considered to be the first modern Indian feminist text, which continues to be controversial even today.

 

Here’s an excerpt from the text:

 

“Let me ask you something, Gods! You are supposed to be omnipotent and freely accessible to all. You are said to be completely impartial. What does that mean? That you have never been known to be partial. But wasn’t it you who created both men and women? Then why did you grant happiness only to men and brand women with nothing but agony? Your will was done! But poor women have had to suffer for it down the ages.”

 

Who was Tarabai Shinde?

 

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Born in the Berar province of Buldhana, in 1850, Tarabai didn’t have the privilege of attending school to receive a formal education. Her father, Bapuji Hari Shinde, a radical and a senior clerk in the office of the local deputy revenue commissioner, took it upon himself to home-school her. She learned several languages like Marathi, English, and Sanskrit and was also well-versed in classical and modern literature. Tarabi was married at a young age, but instead of moving out of her parents’ house, her husband move into her maternal home. Throughout her marriage, Tarabai chose to remain childless because she didn’t think that having a child elevated a woman’s position in society.

 

Tarabi was a close associate of social activists Savitribai Phule and her husband, Jyotirao Phule. Together, they founded the Satyashodak Samaj (aka Truth Finding Community), which fought against social injustices. Tarabai also worked at the Phule’s school for lower-caste girls and the shelter for upper-caste widows. Tarabai dedicated her life towards fighting for gender equality and against the caste system. You can read more about her work here.