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The feminist philosophies of Periyar

"I would say that marriage takes place to make a woman a slave to man"

"A close analysis of the conduct of our close relatives, friends or acquaintances will show us instances of their bad dealings and dishonest ways," writes Periyar. 

Born in Tamil Nadu in 1879, Erode Venkatappa Ramasamy, famously called Periyar, was the tallest revolutionary of his time who used logic to enquire about human nature and relationships. He used rationalism to propose a theory of knowledge through his books and writings vis-a-vis methodological questioning of existing social norms with a sensitivity to the disadvantaged. A social reformer, activist, politician, and holder of equality and justice, Periyar is widely known for the ‘Self Respect Movement’ and as the Father of the Dravidian Movement. 


Periyar's readiness to welcome modernity in light of the emancipation of people, especially the oppressed castes, classes and women, makes him unique from other reformers of his times. The works of Periyar, which are subjected to scholarly scrutiny, include a critique of Brahmanism, the idea of atheism, an analysis and rationalist rejection of religion, journey in politics. It seems appalling that students and even teachers of the Philosophy department of leading Universities of India sail through undergraduate curricula, sometimes postgraduate as well, without ever having read Periyar's philosophy. Rene Descartes, a philosophical propagator of posing systemic doubt on lifelong accumulated beliefs to discover the truth, would have loved to engage with Periyar's rationalist approach in the Indian socio-political context.

Liberty of Women to Love-Desire

In her book 'Against the Madness of Manu' Sharmila Rege writes, "Within women's studies, pluralism has come to mean a relative absence of debate and thus a 'peaceful co-existence' between those who 'do caste' and those who do not- as if caste were a matter of choice for those doing gender". 

Her observation pointed out the negligence of feminists and those doing women's studies in investing efforts to reclaim Dr. B. R. Ambedakar in feminist epistemology. A similar denial can be seen within academia and feminist circles when we observe how rarely the feminists have reclaimed Periyar's feminist orientation in their theory of knowledge.

'Collected works of Periyar E.V.R.', complied by Dr. K Veeramani, record speeches, interviews, and opinion pieces that tell the readers about Periyar's thoughts about various topics. Social and economic equality between the sexes and the radical concept of sexual freedom for women is central to his idea of liberty.


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Periyar's philosophy of equality in 'the personal' is reflected in his idea of self-respect marriages, a significant social change introduced as a part of the ‘Self Respect Movement’. He imagines self-respect marriage as a rational marriage that doesn't require a Brahmin priest or an auspicious day; it is instead a "compassionate agreement" between the partners. 

In 1932 Periyar made a trip to the Soviet Union; he observed and wrote about the nature of companionship. Periyar used logic and reason based on his experiences, so it can be said that he used rationalism and empiricism to form his epistemic work.

In his idea of 'Family Partnership,' Periyar advocates for a marriage whose nature is rather like that of a well-thought and planned arrangement between two individuals who "like each other and desire to become life partners". 

The "mental calibre, love towards one another, their experiences, their vision of future life" are more important rather than the Sanskrit mantras and the Brahmin priests, caste identity, astrologer's prediction about the day of marriage and the position of celestial bodies. He is a staunch supporter of the right to choose partners and partnerships out of love and free will. 

"Chastity and love have been used to subordinate women and subject them to men's control", he writes. 

Periyar's idea of family, companionship and philosophy of love recognises women as equal individuals; he believes in "all things for all". 

bell hooks later proposed similar ideas about love from a feminist perspective. In her book 'All about love' she analyses the illusionary behaviour where women often mistake abuse and subordination as an expression of love.

He wrote, "somehow it is now made compulsory on the part of a husband and wife to live together. This sort of compulsion yields peculiar results". He understood that adult relationships are conditional, that that is a matter of choice; if the partners, due to any sort of difference in viewpoint, vision etc., at any point in life, wish to part ways, they must be allowed to do. Otherwise, "they are submerged in an ocean of misery".

Periyar can also be read from the 'philosophy of love' standpoint, which democratises the idea of love. He rejects force in love. He seems to be impressed by what he observed in Russia; he recalls those imprints in his writings: partners kissing each other before leaving for work, writing each other notes when dealing with rough days of dislike.

A large section of people in the nexus of Hindi literature loves to romanticise and sometimes over-romanticise the love trajectory of Amrita Pritam (novelist, poet) with the two men in her life, the two lovers. Interestingly, in a letter she wrote to her friend and lover Imroz in 1966, she painted Russia for him as a place of revolution and love.

Children, Family and their Impact on Women 

"I would say that marriage takes place to make a woman a slave to man'…' Marriages are for selfish ends", Periyar writes. 

He is upset and questions the condition of 50 per cent of society's population. A society of his imagination is well-educated, healthy and mindful. However, the absence of family planning and birth control are the barriers to such achievement. 

He lays down the reasons for the need for birth control. A big family seizes the opportunity for quality life for not only the parents but also the children. Women's health is at risk when she has to give birth to children frequently, one after the other. "A woman should recoup her health before she conceives again", he writes. The minimum age of marriage was 22 for women to the idea that early conceiving leads to the seizure of pleasure for the married couple; Periyar had a reason-driven approach about how and what a family must be. He was a supporter of widow remarriages and inter-caste marriages. His writings in this context are a critical and brilliant intervention in India's moral and social foundations.


The idea of private property exclusive to men makes them control women's sexuality and impose the notion of chastity on women; he makes this observation. He questions societal hypocrisy where there is a normalisation of men having multiple wives or partners but not vice versa; he even draws a question mark on the social assumption of monogamy as the natural way to be for human beings.

"People crave for a male child so that the son could light his dead body", Periyar takes the needed dig. There has been a disparity between the two sexes since birth. Because of Brahmanical patriarchy, the male child gets more rights and social privileges.

Although Periyar only talks about two sexes, mentioning ‘male' and 'female', he is not restricted to seeing the success of the relationship between them in connection to being able to have and raise a biological child together. "Intercourse between man and woman will not be necessary for childbirth", he wrote. He critiqued the widespread practice of child-rearing and bearing. 

At this point, he deviates from accepting the ideal condition that a heteronormal couple has to fulfil to fit into the caste-centric heteronormative society. "People used to say I have supported birth control because I have no children" he doesn't hesitate in talking about his personal life, "personal is political" the feminist quote given by Carol Hanisch in 1970 seems to find an apt solace in his ideas. He pointed out and questioned the lesser-valued societal position of a childless widow.

More job opportunities for women, 50 per cent reservation for them, reproductive rights, and having more women in grassroots politics are some of the critical concepts Periyar widely talks about. 2018, in Tamil Nadu, 2022, in Vellore, there have been multiple incidents of vandalisation of Periyar's statue.

Periyar's works carry a specific significance for Indian society if it wants to be self-reflective. 

For that, the deep-rooted patriarchy, caste supremacy, moral policing of women, and controlling women's sexuality and bodies must face ethical combat with societal conditioning. 

The current BJP government gives the campaign slogan "Beti Bachao Beti Padhao" (Save Daughters, Teach Daughters), but the question remains: Will they ever reflect and propagate Periyar's thoughts on the emancipation of women?

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About the author

Aishwarya is a philosophy student and a freelance journalist. Born in Bihar, they read to escape existential dilemmas and write to express themselves. Instagram: @khamosh_kolaahal



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