The need to celebrate women has always lingered in face of systemic erasure of female figures from history.
The urge to explore how did women exist, or continue to exist in the backdrop of violence, fascism, instability, chaos, has resurfaced time and time again, perhaps, even more so now, as we live in the aftermath of devastation brought about by toxic masculinist identities, its determinants and various progenies. The feminine, then is evoked to find respite in. As a post-colonial South Asian generation, we find ourselves indebted to women in history, who even if not widely acclaimed, have left indelible on our historical trajectory and present-day consciousness. Their existence has continued to be the antithesis of the colonial construction of an ‘exotic’ brown woman, who had little to no purpose but to display self-effacing, passive behavior. Here we have listed four fabulous women from the South Asian colonies who have left a legacy of resistance and reclamation.
Born as Iftikhar un Nisa, this wife of the Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah, lived a subversive life driven by ambition. Hazrat Mahal, as she came to be known, was invincible in face of the insatiable appetite of the imperial forces for the Indian lands. After the annexation of Awadh in 1856, a dejected and defeated Wajid Ali Shah left behind Hazrat Mahal with their son, Birjis Qadar. It was then that Hazrat Mahal led an armed resistance against the East India Company to install her son on the throne and assert their right to the land. No matter how short-lived Hazart Mahal’s success was, she completed her years with utmost dignity, refusing to bow down to the imperial rule till her death in Nepal; she sought refuge there after the defeat of her forces in 1859 by the imperial army.
The memory of Hazrat Mahal’s resistance and strategizing lives on, refusing to be written off even in Orientalist historiography which notoriously remembers women only for their passivity or not at all, as William Howard Russell wrote in his memoir, ‘My Indian Mutiny Diary’, “This Begum exhibits great energy and ability. She has excited all Oudh to take up the interests of her son, and the chiefs have sworn to be faithful to him. The Begum declares undying war against us.” Thus, today, as a post-colonial generation it is incumbent upon us to reclaim the memory of Hazrat Mahal, her struggle and non-compliance.
Touted as the first generation of women Muslim prose and fiction writers in the subcontinent, one can trace the genealogy of female representation in Urdu literature to Muhammadi Begum and the likes. An advocate of female literacy and rights, Muhammadi Begum was also the first woman editor of an Urdu magazine, Tehzeeb-i-Niswan (1898), having to her credit the heralding of feminist, progressive thought in Urdu literature. Although traditional in her ways, Begum did not allow her experience of womanhood to become a hindrance in her endeavors, rather, thoroughly empowered by her femininity, she worked towards narrating her own and others experiences through her characters. Despite her privileged and sheltered existence, Muhammadi Begum did not live up to the stereotype of a complacent upper-class woman, but utilized her liberty to extend freedom to other women, through her writings and activism. The brilliance and fierceness of her existence and work inspired a generation of radical, feminist authors in Urdu literature, and it continues to indebt women in our part of the world.
‘Sultana’s Dream’ (1905) was Rokeya Hossain’s vision of a ‘Ladyland’ where matriarchy existed as opposed to patriarchy and gender roles were hilariously reversed to highlight their absurdity. Writing in colonial Bengal, Hossain was one of the first people to envision a feminist utopia, who then went on to dedicate her life to the cause of subverting the hegemony of nationalist masculinist identities; which survived through the systemic subjugation of women. To assert women as equal stakeholders in society, she established the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ School in 1909, the first school for Muslim women in Bengal.
Not only this, but in 1916, Rokeya Sakhawat founded the Anjuman-e-Khawatin-e-Islam, Bangla (Bengali Muslim Women’s Association), an organization that rallied for women’s right to education and employment. She resisted all attempts from all quarters to force her into docility and aimed to empower other women to do the same. Although, unconventional in her thoughts and disruptive in her actions, Hossain was immortalized in history and now has the 9th of December dedicated to her in Bangladesh.
Referring to herself as ‘an Asian woman architect’, Minnette De Silva insisted on garnering acknowledgement for accomplishing a rare feat; being Sri Lanka’s first modernist architect and Asia’s first woman to become an Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Born to a progressive politician and a suffragette, De Silva grew with an acute awareness of her (cap)abilities, despite living in a British colony with colonial ideals of femininity. Her enthusiasm for architecture coupled with her social capital, De Silva found herself in company of influential people like Le Corbusier, paving way for the concrete manifestations of her ambition. Thus, in 1948, she set up an architectural studio in Sri Lanka, becoming ‘one of only two women in the world at the time to establish an architectural practice in her own name’. However, for De Silva, comfort was not a constant, rather, facing hostility and gendered disadvantages, she breathed her last in isolation and destitution. Experimental in her designs, articulate in her thoughts, tough in her demeanor, and questioned for her ideas, Minnette De Silva was a woman of all times, who was following her heart and simultaneously confronting misogyny and the masculine hegemony.
By Zuha Sohail