You’ve probably heard of Mahatma Gandhi, the loincloth-clad man who fronted India’s fight for independence from the British. But right beside him and other male leaders, was an army of women whose trials and tribulations were every bit as compelling.
They also fought a domestic battle against oppressive traditions, such as sati (the burning of a wife on her husband’s funeral pyre) and child marriage. Sadly, the latter still exists today.
From setting up a secret radio station to running for president when it was perceived to be a man’s role, these are some of the empowering stories that are often left untold.
Although she was plagued with health problems, she continued her activism work when she returned to India, where she was also arrested and jailed a few more times. In 1942, she was imprisoned along with her freedom-fighting husband and other pro-independence leaders for taking part in Gandhi’s Quit India movement — an effort to encourage the British to allow India to rule itself. Her health deteriorated and she died in prison in 1944.
Fatima Jinnah (1893 – 1967)
Standing firmly alongside Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was his sister. Fatima Jinnah is fondly remembered as Madar-i Millat, the mother of the nation.
In 1964-5, when she was in her seventies, she even ran for president — a role widely viewed as unacceptable for women. Although she lost, her bold move was praised by Pakistanis, wrote Pirbhai.
Kamala Nehru (1899 – 1936)
Nehru married Jawaharlal Nehru on February 8, 1916 at the age of 17, when he was 26. She supported him in his fight for independence and played a prominent part in political processions, setting up a dispensary in her house for wounded freedom fighters and advocating women’s education.
Nehru was mother to Indira Gandhi, who became the country’s first female prime minister in 1966. She passed away from tuberculosis in Lausanne, Switzerland in 1936.
Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan (1905 – 1990)
Born into an upper caste Hindu family, Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan converted to Islam when she got married to Muslim lawyer Liaquat Ali Khan, who later became the first prime minister of Pakistan.
Noticing that there were not many nurses in Karachi, a coastal city in the south, Khan requested the army to train women to give injections and first aid. This resulted in the para-military forces for women. Nursing also became a career path for many girls.
She continued her mission, even after her husband was assassinated in 1951, and became the first Muslim woman delegate to the United Nations in 1952.