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Indian Women Who Inspire Us

Indian suffragettes in the Women’s Coronation Process, London, 17 June 1911. Source: Aljazeera

This week’s blogpost is the first in an ongoing series that explores Indian women in history who redefined feminism and women’s rights at home and abroad.

"I have seen you

At the front of the Long March

The end of your saree tucked tightly at the waist

Shouting "change the name"

Taking the blow of the police stick on your upraised hands

Going to jail with head held high”

– Jyoti Lanjewar, Feminist Dalit Poet (1950- 2013)

Mithan Tata (1898 -1981) & Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh (1876-1948)

Mithan Tata featured in a newspaper, 1919. Source: Parsiakhbar

Mithan Tata was born to a Parsi family, to textile mill employee Ardeshir Tata and women’s rights activist Herabai Tata. In 1919, Mithan completed her Master’s degree from the London School of Economics in law, and qualified as a Barrister at Lincoln Inn. In London, Mithan met Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh, who argued for the necessity of women’s suffrage. Together they took the issue to the British Council, and submitted the memorandum of women’s rights to vote in India. In 1924 on her return to India, Tata served as the first woman lawyer in the Bombay high court, where she continued to advocate for women’s rights and universal suffrage. In 1962, Mithan was awarded the Padma Bhushan for her work.

Princess Sophia with other Suffragettes, Source: NPR

Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh was the youngest daughter of Duleep Singh (the last Maharajah of the Sikh Empire) and his first wife Bamba Muller, and Queen Victoria’s goddaughter. She was brought up at Elvedan Hall on the Norfolk/ Suffolk border. She was a leading member of the Women’s Tax Resistance League, “Taxation without representation is a tyranny… I am unable to pay money to the state, as I am not allowed to exercise any control over its expenditure”.

Princess Sophia fought for British women, voicing the slogan, “no taxation without representation”. In 1928, during her tenure as president of the Committee of the Suffragette Fellowship, when royal consent was given for equal franchise, giving women over the age of 21 and “of property” the right to vote at par with men.

Sarla Thakral (1914-2008)

Sarla Thakral, 1936

In 1936, at the age of 21, Sarla Thukral made history by becoming the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft, paving the way for women like Prem Mathur, Durba Bannerjee, and Padmavathu Badopadhyay to make their mark in the aviation sector.

Thakral’s husband, PD Sharma, was India’s first airmail pilot. He encouraged Sara to take lessons at the local flying school, where, after eight hours and ten minutes of training, her instructor declared that she was ready to fly solo.

Clad in a Saree, Sara successfully flew and landed a Gypsy Moth – passing the solo flying test with flying colours.

Rashid Jahan (1905-1952) & Amrita Pritam (1919-2005)

Left: Rashid Jahan. Right: Amrita Pritam

Rashid Jahan and Amrita Pritam are both notable names in the progressive writers movement. The movement was a progressive literary movement in pre-partition India, with an anti-imperialistic, left-oriented ideology that sought to inspire people through writings advocating equality among all sections of society and radical social justice.

Rashid Jahan, was a medical doctor, a dedicated member of the Communist Party of India (CPI), and later actively took part in the activities of the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). In her own words, she was a “life-long campaigner for women’s rights and pioneering short story writer and dramatist in Urdu”. In a 1973 interview to the Journal of South Asian Literature, Jahan’s sister-in-law, Hamida Saiduzzafar recounted that Rashid had once casually remarked to her :

‘‘We have slept on the mattress of women’s education and covered ourselves with the quilt of women’s education from our earliest consciousness”.

One of Jahan’s most acclaimed short stories is “Dilli ki Sair” (A Visit to Delhi) – a critique of women’s occupation of public spaces and the male gaze.

"Well, we sat in the train from here and reached Delhi

“Well, we sat in the train from here and reached Delhi. There ‘he’ met some wretched station master acquaintance of his. Leaving me near the luggage, ‘he’ vanished. And I, perched on the luggage, wrapped in a burqa, there I sat. First this damned burqa, then these cursed men. Men are anyway no good but when they see a woman sitting like this they just circle around her. There is no opportunity even to chew paan. One damn fellow coughs, another hurls a remark. And I… breathless with fear. And so hungry… that only God knows. And the Delhi station! Bua, even the Fort would not be as huge"

Rashid Jahan fourth from left to right

Khushwant Singh, the famous Indian journalist and writer once told Amrita Pritam that her whole life was so inconsequential and brief, that it could be contained in its entirety on the back of a revenue stamp. She went on to title her autobiography “Raseedi Ticket” (The Revenue Stamp). She was the first woman to win the Sahitya Akademi Award (India’s highest literary award). She is best remembered for her poem: Aaj aakhan Waris Shah nu (Today, I invoke Waris Shah) – an elegy to the 18th century Punjabi Poet, expressing her anguish over the massacres that took place during India’s partition.

“Today, I call Waris Shah “speak from inside your grave” And turn, today, the book of love’s next affectionate page Once, one daughter of Punjab cried; you wrote a wailing saga, Today, a million daughters, cry to you, Waris Shah”.

Amrita Pritam, undated

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