Behramji Malabari—Parsi activist who fought widowhood, child marriage in Hindu society

Shedding scrutiny on his ‘anglicised’ Parsi roots, Malabari emerged as the force behind the Age of Consent Bill that helped end ‘matrimonial slavery’.

Could a Parsi activist call for reforms of a regressive Hindu practice of ‘matrimonial slavery’? These days the answer might be a simple yes, but back in late 19th century Western India it wasn’t. Behramji Malabari, a journalist and a poet, was faced not just against those who believed in upholding these ‘traditions’, but also personalities such as Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who opposed it.

Malabari’s presence in the chapters of the Indian reform movement might have disappeared, but his legacy lives on. Often criticised for being a ‘western reformer’, he was the force behind the passage of The Age of Consent Act in 1891, which redefined the institution of marriage—a subject that continues to make the news to date.

In the Notes on Child Marriage and Widow Remarriage, he wrote: “Even though still an infant, her life is a social failure. In most things, she is at the mercy of others because the average Hindu widow is not able to appreciate and protect her rights as a member of society… To many, it is a wonder that the world hears so little of the results of such social inequality. I believe that is so because woman is the sufferer. It is not in her nature to publish her wrongs, however great”.

Despite his contribution to the rights of Hindu women, Malabari’s ‘heavily anglicised’ Parsi identity was a cause of distrust for many. The efforts of the ‘Luther of rose and lavender’ to reform Hindu society irked even legendary freedom fighter Bal Gangadhar Tilak, who claimed that “No one but a Hindu can possess that intimate knowledge of the Hindu Shastras, and the daily observances enjoined therein which is essential in any writer who attempts to prepare papers on the questions now placed before the government”.  


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