Christian History Home > Issue 94 > Setting the Captives Free
Setting the Captives Free
Oppressed women around the globe await those willing to carry on the legacy of Pandita Ramabai.
Scripture reminds us that some people lie awake at night imagining new forms of evil.More often than not, such evil involves wasting the lives of women and children. In India alone, millions of girls, some as young as eight years old, are "hired," "rented," or simply "sold" or "married" to old men.Victims of drudgery or sexual exploitation, many do not live long, and those who survive—the "broken" or "used up"—are thrown into the street to beg. Widow burning was outlawed in 1828, but today thousands of lives are lost each year to "bride burning," when a mother-in-law "accidentally" spills burning oil on a new bride in the kitchen—usually for the sake of the dowry. About two million children around the world still succumb to "sex tourism" every year.
Many champions of women's rights have given their lives to alter such situations. Christian and non-Christian activists look back for inspiration to the 19th-century Indian social reformer Pandita Ramabai.
No one but [Christ] could transform and uplift the downtrodden women in India.
No word better epitomizes the lifelong quest and career of Ramabai than mukti—the term for liberty, freedom, release, or salvation. It expresses her own personal journey to Christianity. It is the name she gave to her school for rescued girls. Emblazoned on the Mukti Mission's newsletter, the "Mukti Prayer Bell," was an engraving of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, along with the ringing words, "Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof—Lev. XXV, v. x."This was her hope for millions of oppressed people, especially women and children for whom she fought throughout her life.
Ramabai's concern for the plight of women came from her father. A renowned Sanskrit scholar who had been ostracized for daring to teach his child-bride to read Sanskrit, he had been forced to wander the length and breadth of India with his small family, living on alms. He left his daughter a priceless legacy: rigorous training and a disciplined memory that enabled her to recite an enormous corpus of classical lore. After her parents and sister starved to death in a famine, Ramabai continued to wander until, at the age of 20, she was "discovered" by pandits (scholars) of Calcutta. Overnight, she became a national sensation.
In 1882, after social reformers invited her to teach young women, she spoke out against the degradations of child-marriage—which almost invariably resulted in homeless child-widows—and castigated men for their treatment of women. "I am the child of a man who had to suffer … on account of advocating Female Education. … I consider it my duty, to the end of my life, to maintain this cause … in this land."
Meanwhile, Ramabai had been growing more and more disillusioned with ancient religious texts indicating that women had no souls, nor any place in eternity. Not long after she stumbled upon a copy of the Gospel of Luke, she had long discussions with Nehemiah Gore, a renowned Brahman Christian convert. She publicly declared her faith in Christ while she was visiting England. "I realized, after reading the fourth chapter of St. John's Gospel, that Christ was truly the Divine Saviour he claimed to be, and no one but He could transform and uplift the downtrodden women in India." Her quest for mukti had reached its goal: "I was hungry for something better … I found it in the Christian Bible and was satisfied."
When Ramabai attended her cousin's graduation from Women's Medical College in Philadelphia, her cause found an international audience. Her speeches made her famous throughout America as a pioneer in the battle for women's rights. Frances Willard, president of the Women's Temperance Christian union, described Ramabai as "a woman-lover … not man-hater, for she is too good-natured not to love all humanity … but because women need special help."
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