Periyar EV Ramasamy: A rationalist, a feminist

Actively voicing against the exploitation of the Dalits and of women, Periyar was nothing short of a radical feminist to the core

Periyar EV Ramasamy
Periyar EV Ramasamy


"Not that all the people of the world should act according to my wish, but that come what may, surely in politics and in public life, human justice alone- not justice as prescribed by any epoch or religion- should be imposed; such is my desire"- Periyar EVR, who would have turned 141 today, remains an idol for everybody in Tamil Nadu. Such was his stature, that he is revered across the country half a century post his death.

A rationalist at heart, he was deeply anti-caste, so much so that he angered almost everybody around him. His opposition to religion often garnered a lot of respite; but emancipated a major portion of Dalits who were battling for identity and existence. He advocated for science as the only remedy for the fallacies of our society. He went on to claim that there is no God. This idea of his arose when he was on a pilgrimage to Kasi in 1904 where he was refused food because of his caste. This made him fight the Brahminical exploitation.

Periyar EV Ramasamy
Periyar EV Ramasamy

Periyar and Feminism

The emancipation of women and the self-respect movement were the major issues he fought for. Actively voicing against the exploitation of the Dalits, of the women; he was nothing short of a radical feminist to the core.

Periyar was one of the few leaders of that era, who made sure that women were active participants in politics and stepped out into the streets. The mass crusade of 1921 against the toddy shops (Kallukadai Mariyal) and the anti-Hindi agitation of 1937 witnessed maximum women on the frontline because of him. Meenabal, a Dalit woman conferred Ramasamy with the title of “Periyar” (elder one, or wise one) in 1938 in Chennai, at a conference where he talked about women’s rights and liberation. Periyar was a strong force during that time who battled with all his might for women’s education and gender equality.

He insisted that women should have the right to choose their life partners and also to walk out of a failed marriage. He said that bearing a child too is, ultimately, a woman’s choice.

Periyar wrote about women and their household obligations stopping them from being free, in the weekly Kudi Arasu in 1947 (18.03.1947) stating, “That there should a separate gender just to look after one’s house and cook is infinitely worse than the Varna system.” And, he suggested “Community cooking” will be a better option to bring women out of kitchen and he also insisted the need for “child-care centres” led by Government.”

Periyar was of the opinion that “Man treats woman as his own property and not as being capable of feelings, like himself. The way man treats women is much worse than the way landlords treat servants and the high-caste treat the low-caste. These treat them so demeaningly only in situations mutually affecting them; but men treat them cruelly and as slaves, from their birth till death.”

About the institution of marriage, Periyar was very clear that a couple should only be in a marriage if both of them feel like it. The outside forces should not compel them to be in this relationship. “Marriages should culminate on account of the wishes of the couple. It is their knitting of the hearts that should lead to marriages.” Ramasamy held.

Advocating for contraception as early as the 1930s through his magazine Kudi Arasu, he openly asked for contraception to become a regular practice among women. He said it was of utmost importance that women are liberated from the responsibility of raising children and taking care of the house all alone.

The Devadasi system of Tamil Nadu was an issue that Periyar fought against unabashedly. The Devadasi system is the practice of keeping some women attached to temples, forcibly, as Devadasis. They aren’t allowed to have any desires, any freedoms. Their only job is to worship and serve the temple. Periyar in his statement pointed out: “Devadasi system was a disgrace to Hindu religion. The fact that, in the name of a temple or a god, some women are kept as common property is an insult to all the women in the society.

At the Virudhunagar conference of the Self Respect Movement, the women members held a separate conference and passed some resolutions demanding that women should have the right to select their life partners without any consideration of religion or community and that weddings should not involve wasteful expenditure and elaborate ceremonies.

Periyar still remains a hero who fought hard for the deprived, oppressed and less privileged. He tirelessly campaigned against superstitions and blind religious faith and advocated for developing a scientific temperament

Here are a few tweets celebrating his anti-caste, feminist legacy:

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