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The Forgotten Anti-colonial Struggle of Women in India

Bushra Mahnoor | Pakistan

Image credit: Feminism in India

The imperial narrative portrays women in South Asia before and during colonization as meek and passive. Many people today have come to understand this narrative as the truth.

The warrior queens of India would have much to say about that.

Indian history is marked by the female heroism of queens, or Ranis, and other female figures who were front and center in the fight against imperialism. The ongoing affair to invisibilize the existence of women in history, especially women of colour, and confine them to the mere roles of child-rearing and homemaking is relegating female figures like Rani Laxmi Bair of Jhansi to mere fiction, rather than history.

Queen Laxmi Bai reigned over the Indian state of Jhansi in the mid-19th century, while the British were seizing control of India. People today are surprised when they learn she isn't a myth, but rather a gallant daughter of this very soil who fought against British Imperialism and who carried in her bones the courage and resilience of her foremothers. The majority of Rani Laxmi Bai's army consisted of women, and two women, Mundar and Motibai, held the pivotal roles of security chief and cannon operator.

Queen Laxmi Bai Image Credit: The Logical Indian

While Queen Laxmi Bai was fighting in Jhansi, Begum Hazrat Mahal stood firm against the East India Company in Awadh, riding on an elephant and leading her soldiers from the front. At one point, she drove the British out of Lucknow under her control.

In response to British oppression and betrayal, another Queen, Rani Avantiba, led an uprising and was instrumental in the capture of Suhagpur and the subsequent British defeat at Shahpura. Azizan Bai is also mentioned for her role in the battle of Kanpur, where she fought while disguised as a man and led a group of female comrades in supplying weapons, food, and medical care to the fighting men.

Queen of Tulsipur, along with Nana Sahib, Raja Devibaksh Singh, and Begum Hazrat Mahal, formed a joint armed front, and their efforts are largely forgotten. She did not give up and the British were unable to capture her.

There were several ordinary women in addition to the queens who played crucial roles in the fight against British imperialism. Some of the women who fought against colonialism and then committed suicide were named Asha Devi, Bhagwati Devi Tyagi, Jamila Khan, Man Kaur, Rahimi, Indra Kaur, Raj Kaur, Bakhtavari, Habiba, Shobha Devi, and Umda. Others were burned alive in furnaces while others were taken to the gallows.

It was the legacy of these women that future generations of daughters carried, battling not only British Raj oppression but also patriarchy. However, it was British expansionism that made them aware of their situation and helped them organise, establishing that women's issues could not be separated from the issue of foreign dominance. Since its inception, the Women's Movement has been closely associated with the Freedom Movement and the anticolonial struggle, which provided it with a political discourse.

Laws prohibiting female infanticide, child marriage, sati, the laws allowing widow remarriage, the raising of the age of consent and the improvement of women's inheritance rights were all enacted during British rule, making it clear that Indian women were making strides even during one of the darkest periods of Indian history.

However, political leaders who supported the nationalist agenda portrayed women in the public sphere solely as "mothers of the nation," responsible for raising courageous sons who would eventually fight the enemy. Women, however, repeatedly demonstrated that their duty did not stop at preserving and passing on national traditions.

Women formed groups and marched in processions, risking arrest and gunfire from police. They went on strike stores. Many played a crucial role in the distribution of banned newspapers as well as the manufacture of bombs.

Women were fairly active in the freedom struggle, however, they were only allowed to take prominent leadership roles only when male freedom campaign leaders were arrested or imprisoned. Sarojini Naidu led the salt protest, an act of non-violent civil disobedience against the British colonial masters after Gandhi was jailed until she was arrested herself. More than 80,000 people were arrested during salt protests, and over 17,000 were women.

Today, while the anticolonial struggle in the Indian subcontinent is a thing of the past, women continue to fight for the rights their male counterparts have enjoyed since the country's inception. They strive for recognition as active, equal members of the freedom movement.

Bushra Mahnoor is a socialist feminist, student activist and co-founder of the Feminist Students Collective. She recently co-founded a period rights movement called Mahwari Justice, which is working in Pakistan to ensure safe periods for victims of the 2022 floods. You can connect with her on Twitter @bushramaahnoor

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