As Women’s History Month is coming to an end, I’d like to highlight the inspiring and empowering life stories of female freedom fighters of South-Asia who fought voraciously and fiercely against the British Raj and worked tirelessly to see their visions turn into a reality.
Being a literature student, my coursework involves reading stories of freedom fighters, survivors, writers, poets, politicians, and playwrights from the past. Over the past few years, I have specifically developed an extra interest in reading history books to understand my ancestors better and to connect with my roots.
Things can be hard for an individual who is born and brought up in a completely different country and culture than their original heritage. Often times they forget the sacrifices their ancestors made so that today’s generation could live in a world devoid of discrimination, sexism, or racism. However, I never got a chance to read books, stories, or plays about women who looked and spoke like me. I remember wondering why people never wrote about women like us. Perhaps we were too different? Maybe we were not interesting enough? Could it be our history was not as empowering as the history of other countries and cultures?
It was only when I did extensive research that I realized that people did, in fact, write about women like me. However, no one cared enough to hype it up because we were “not as important.”
My great-grandmother often told me stories from the past. She told me about the freedom fighters of South-Asia and how they fought voraciously against the British Raj. Explained the plays and poems were written in support of the freedom fighters. Went into detail about the tales of Saddat Hassan Manto and the bravery of Bhagat Singh. Let me know about the hierarchical system of the country under British rule and how the South-Asians were treated poorly even in their own country.
Amidst the fight for freedom against the British colonizers, lots of lives were lost. Husbands were separated from their wives, brothers from sisters, and parents from children. Amongst those freedom fighters, were women too. Most people do not know about them because we don’t talk about them enough.
Some women freedom fighters fought with their pen and words while others fought with their voices. Some freedom fighters were even taken to prison and tortured to death, while others were killed on the spot. The fight for freedom had been endless. However, some South-Asian women freedom fighters fought bravely and tirelessly against the British Raj alongside their allies and gained freedom for their respective separate countries.
In this Women’s History Month, it is important we remember the sacrifices some immaculate South-Asian women freedom fighters have made in the past and the efforts they implemented to see their visions turn into reality. Some of those women were:
1. Fatimah Ali Jinnah
2. Sarojni Naidu
3. Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan
4. Amrita Sher-Gil
5. Usha Mehta
1. Fatima Ali Jinnah – Madar-i Millat, the Mother of the Nation
Fatima Ali Jinnah (1893 – 1967) was the sister of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. Fatima Jinnah formed an early interest in politics and plays a substantial role in women’s rights across the nation. Even before Pakistan came into being, Fatima Jinnah represented an advanced status of women and always believed in women’s rights. She said, “Remember it is women who can mold the character of the youth of the nation.”
Fatima Ali Jinnah was an English-educated, an avid social worker, and was a professional dentist in the early 1930s. In between the years, 1964 and 1965, Fatima Jinnah ran for President. This was during an era where it was widely unacceptable for women to work in politics. However, despite not winning the presidential elections, Fatima Ali Jinnah’s bold move was praised by citizens nationally.
During the Indo-Pak separation, Fatima Jinnah formed the Women’s Relief Committee and extensively engaged herself in refugee relief work during the transfer of power. The organization later evolved into the All Pakistan Women’s Association.
2. Sarojni Naidu – Poet, Politician, Advocate, and Activist
Sarojni Naidu (1879 – 1949) was a ferocious advocate for the Indian Independence Movement. She was also a poet who extensively advocated for anti-imperialism and women’s civil rights. Sarojni Naidu had one of the most prolific literary careers in history. She wrote ferociously about her anti-British political views and also wrote immense articles about the emancipation of women. The core of Sarojni Naidu’s ideology revolved around feminism and freedom.
Her interest and passion for the Indian independence movement led her to become the first female president of the Indian National Congress and become the first female Governor of Uttar Pradesh. In 1917, she helped develop the Women’s Indian Association
Her passion for feminism and freedom led her to create the Women’s Indian Association in 1917, an initiative that sought equal rights for women in terms of representation and voting. Sarojni Naidu also contributed to forming a feminist magazine named Stri Dharma, a magazine that published content from a feminist perspective.
3. Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan – A Freedom Fighter and Economist
Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan (1905 – 1990) was born into an upper-caste Hindu family. However, she converted to Islam when she got married to Liaquat Ali Khan, who was a Muslim Lawyer and later became Pakistan’s first prime minister. When Khan and her husband were on their honeymoon in London, they met Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who was the chief of the Muslim League. Together, they convinced him to return to India and resume the movement’s leadership. Together, they formed an alliance to liberate India and form a separate nation, Pakistan.
During the partition, Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan helped the refugees who fled India. In 1949, she organized an All Pakistan Women’s Association. In 1951, after the assassination of her husband, she continued her mission and in 1952, became the first Muslim woman delegate to the United Nations.
4. Amrita Sher-Gil – A Freedom Fighters and a Fierce Painter
Amrita Sher-Gil (1913 – 1941) was a Hungarian-Indian artist who painted portraits of her family, lovers, friends, and herself. Sher-Gil was a groundbreaking painter of the 1920s-1930s. She also contributed to subverting an ordinary painting of subservient, obedient women and chose to paint and portray the complexities, identity crises, confusion, and loneliness felt by women. Her paintings portrayed the gruesome reality of being human.
Amrita Sher-Girl was indeed an artist way ahead of her time. In some of her paintings, Amrita Sher-Gil also painted the portraits of the Indians who belonged to the minority community and depicted in her paintings the submission and patience they had to face at the hands of the British Raj.
From the beginning of her career as an avid activist and painter, Amrita Sher-Gil never failed to show her support for the emerging India Freedom struggle.
5. Usha Mehta – One of the Bravest Freedom Fighters
Usha Mehta (1920-2000) was amongst the most fierce freedom fighters in history. In 1942, during Gandhi’s Quit India Movement, Usha Mehta and her friends ran a secret radio station. She did not stop her actions, despite her father’s disapproval, who worked under British rule as a judge.
Usha Mehta reminisces one of the finest moments of her life when she, along with her friends, was arrested for running the secret radio station. She refused to answer the police’s interrogative questions and as a result, had to spend four years in prison in the west of India at Yerwada jail. It was the same jail where Mahatma Gandhi was jailed twice, along with 250 other female politicians.
In an interview in 1969, Usha Mehta said, “When the press is gagged and all news banned, a transmitter certainly helps a good deal in furnishing the public with the facts of the happenings and in spreading the message of rebellion in the remotest corners of the country.” She added, “It is a pity the new generation of political activists and leaders are paying scant respect to the Gandhian ideas, the chief among which was non-violence. If we don’t mend our ways, we may find ourselves back at square one.”
What Do We Learn From Their Lives?
The aforementioned freedom fighters did not let their differences and their gender get in the way of them fighting against the British Raj. With their hard work and consistency, they gained independence in the year 1947. They worked tirelessly towards their beliefs and did not give up, even when they had to face years in prison for speaking up their ideas against the British Raj. The South-Asian freedom fighters worked tirelessly and dedicated their entire lives to the welfare of the future generation. They worked hard so we could live in a world devoid of racism, sexism, and discrimination. Every effort the freedom fighters have made in history, no matter how significant or small it might have been, has impacted us in some way and has made lives easier for today’s generation.