Traditionally understood to be passive and culturally subordinate, Indian women’s movements played a crucial role in transforming the lives of women in colonial South Africa.

This was the conclusion reached by SMMS Academic Dean, Dr Rowanne Marie, after a study of the Indian women’s movements in pre-democratic South Africa. Dr Marie revealed these findings in a paper entitled I am born of a people who would not tolerate oppression: The Role of Women’s Movements in Social Transformation that she presented during the Summer School.

Dr Marie noted that the colonial oppression as well as traditional and patriarchal attitudes in which many Indian women found themselves, had kept them limited to the domestic sphere, with a number of them engaging in hawking and market gardening. Furthermore they had also been deprived of opportunities to acquire the necessary skills for formal employment. But all this was to change.

She said, “Although these women may have appeared docile, uneducated and passive, they were very much aware of their oppression. They were under no circumstances prepared to remain with such an identity that kept them in oppression.  Instead, they began to rally together in resistance against such oppressive identities and looked for ways to recraft their identities.”

As a sign of defiance against oppression, as early as 1907, Dr Marie said, Indian women formed the Indian Women’s Association (IWA) as a platform to address ‘practical gender needs and strategic gender interests.’

“The IWA became very vocal and spoke out against discriminatory practices towards Indian women. They also engaged critically in issues of women’s land rights, access to education, employment opportunities and political representation,” she said.

She also noted that there were 127 women participating in the Great March that Mahatma Gandhi led in 1913, and that they also partnered with other racial groups to hold marches together and execute their resistance.

Despite imprisonment and other hardships they had to endure, the women’s movements continued to grow and impact communities.