Through spoken and written word of Indian history and mythology, there are stories told of women who did not let gender discrimination stand in the way of their goals. They showed bravery, intelligence and resourcefulness by standing their ground.
Now we stand right at the cusp of a transition from the patriarchal system that suppresses women to a system which supports the individual.
Patriarchal values have been ingrained in humans for so long, that shifting perspective will take decades. But change must begin somewhere and it’s on us to catalyze it.
Here are just a few of the rebels who paved the way for us and let us know that freedom and human rights are worth fighting for.
Razia Sultana was the first and only female monarch to have ruled the Delhi sultanate. As a young child, she would observe her farther, Sultan Iltutmish at court dispensing justice and administrating the empire.
Iltutmish too thought that it would be beneficial to train her to rule in case of her father’s absence. She showed a keen mind for politics and in learning to fight.
A favorite of her father Iltutmish, she proved to be the most capable of all of his progeny. Still, tradition dictated that a male heir be chosen.
However, the chosen heir Nasiruddin Mahmud, Iltutmish’s eldest son, met an untimely death leaving the Sultan in a quandary. When he marched onto Gwalior with the intention of capturing it, Razia proved her mettle, helped by the Sultan’s trusted advisor.
Despite being named the heir, when Iltutmish died, her brother Rukn ud-din Firuz was raised to the throne instead. With his mother calling all the shots, Rukn gave himself to decadent pleasures and debauchery.
He and his mother, Shah Turkaan, were promptly assassinated after six months of rule in which they were said to have been very cruel to their subjects.
Razia Sultan was then reluctantly raised as the monarch. She was a wise and just ruler, often mingling with her subjects to understand them better. She encouraged the preservation and protection of Hindu cultures.
Her lover, Altunia, was made the governor of Bathinda for his loyal service. But while he was there, sly rival nobles spread rumors that she was in an illicit relationship with one of her servants.
A jealous Altunia led a rebellion against her and imprisoned her in Bathinda. The rumors were proved false and the couple got married. She and her consort, the governor of Bathinda, were assassinated when they led troops to Delhi to win back her kingdom from Bahram Shah who had seized the throne in her absence.
Her star shone bright till her brother assassinated her to assume the throne. Bahram’s reign was full of strife and he was killed two years later by his own army.
She was the first female teacher of India. Savitribai had a great love for learning as a child and her 12 year old husband Jyotirao was inspired to teach her to read and write in a time when women were not allowed to study.
In 1948, Jyotirao started a school for girls and the 17 year old Savitri found her calling as a teacher. The couple was often pelted with mud, shit and stones for committing the sin of battling women but the couple never let it deter them from their path.
She was a strong advocate of women’s rights and strived to combat caste and gender discrimination. Every woman in India owes it to Savitribai for gaining procuring the rights to study and choose a career.
Portrayed as a tragic heroine in Ramayana, Sita shows her quiet dignity and strength in the face of adversities. She is often seen as a docile wife but it is actually her love and devotion to her husband that drives her actions.
When Rama was exiled from his kingdom, the newly married Sita insisted on accompanying him and experiencing the same hardships instead of remaining in the lap of luxury.
She was compassionate even to strangers and a disguised Ravan took advantage of this to kidnap her. Throughout her captivity, she maintained her dignity and refuted any advance made by him.
When she returned, Rama asked her to walk through fire to prove her chastity as it was believed that fire would not burn the innocent. She is said to have emerged alive and unhurt.
But when he asked her a second time to prove her chastity to the kingdom, she refused to sacrifice her dignity and chose exile into the forest than live in luxury with a husband who did not trust her.
She raised her two children in the forest. They grew up to be strong, wise and educated in the arts that were required of princes.
Satyavan Savitri is a story of how a woman defied the god of death to preserve the life of her husband. Savitri’s beauty was intimidating to the men in her kingdom so she set out on a trip to find a suitable husband.
She finally found one who had all the qualities she desired. He lived in the forest with his father who was an exiled king. However, Narad predicted that Satyavan was to die within a year but Savitri insisted on marrying Satyavan.
Three days before the prophesied death, she kept a rigid fast. She accompanied her husband into the forest on the fateful day. While chopping wood, Satyavan felt tired and lay down.
Savitri followed Yamraj, the god of death, when he started to lead the soul of Satyavan away from his body. Impressed by her dedication, Yamraj granted her a boon.
She could ask for anything but the life of Satyavan. But Savitri framed her words in a way that tricked Yamraj into returning the soul and life of Satyavan.
A protagonist in the mythological war of epic proportions between Pandavas and the Kauravas, Draupadi was a princess who chose the Pandava Prince, Arjuna, as her husband when he emerged victorious in her swayamwara.
She became the wife of Arjuna’s four siblings when a stray comment by their mother compelled them to honor her words by sharing her as a wife. She is the only woman known to have practiced polyandry in Indian Mythology.
She accepted her fate with grace and demanded justice for the crimes against her by the Kauravas. After the Kauravas attempted to disgrace her by undoing the clothes she wore after her husband, Yudhishtir, lost a wager, her faith in Krishna was rewarded.
Krishna used his divine powers to lengthen the cloth so that they could not complete the deed. After this, she vowed never to wash her hair till she could use Dussassana’s blood as shampoo and stoked the flame of revenge burning in the hearts of the Pandavas.
Maharani Durgavati is a source of inspiration for her indomitable spirit when fighting a much larger invasive army from the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the 16th Century AD.
She mounted an elephant and fought fiercely even while encouraging her enemy to fight. When defeated, Durgavati sacrificed her own life and denied her enemy the satisfaction of killing her.
Rani Lakshmibai (Jhansi Ki Rani)
Let us never forget the story of Mahakarnika who was married to the Mahaja Gangadhar Rao, the Maharaja of Jhansi. The young bride suddenly found herself with reins of power when her husband died in 1853.
She proved more than able to govern a kingdom and was much respected by the nobles and the commoners. She earned the epithet of Lakshmibai, after the Goddess Lakshmi of the Indian Pantheon. She did not just govern but also fought fiercely when Jhansi was threatened.
When Jhansi came under British fire, she jumped on to her horse from her Fort with her son Damodar tied to her back and escaped. Her plea to guard Gwalior against a British attack fell on deaf years.
When the battle finally came as she had predicted, she dressed as a cavalry leader and fought till she was mortally wounded. Even while her life was slipping away, she spotted a soldier and shot him. The soldier promptly ended her life.
Ahilya Bai Holkar
The founder of the Holkar dynasty, Malhar Rao Holkar passed away in 1766 and was succeeded by his daughter-in-law, Ahilya Bai Holkar. She was an extremely capable lady with considerable skill in administration.
She is responsible for shaping Indore into a city. While neighboring regions were infested with violence, hers was a reign of peace and development.
Her love of art and religion is evident in the many monuments that she commissioned during her reign. Her benevolence was not restricted to the Holkar borders alone. She built dharmashalas in every corner of India.
The archives of our history are filled with women who defied societal norms time and again. Some of these heroes have even gone unsung. All we can do to honor them now is to keep the fight alive.
Featured image by Beohar Rammanohar Sinha [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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