Women against Colonialism: A Forgotten Struggle

The pens that wrote history have always been in the hands of men. When these pens were scribbling ink on parchments, they forgot something very basic and very crucial; they forgot to write about their women.

So much has been the affair to invisiblize the existence of women and confining them to the mere roles of child-rearing and homemaking that people of today find it hard to believe that Rani Laxmi Bai of Jhansi isn’t a myth but a gallant daughter of this very soil who battled against British Imperialism and who carried in her bones the courage and resilience of her foremothers. Even her army was comprised of women, with Mundar and Motibai serving at the significant positions of security in charge and canon operator, respectively. 

While Laxmi Bai was fighting in Jhansi, Begum Hazrat Mahal stood firm against East India Company at Awadh, riding on an elephant and leading her soldiers from the front. She forced the British to flee Lucknow at one point.

Rani Avantiba also raised arms against the repression and treachery of the British and lead her army to capture Suhagpur and also defeated the British at Shahpura. Another important mention is Azizan Bai who fought at Kanpur, dressed as a male, and also organized a group of women who distributed arms and ammunition and tended to soldiers’ wounds.

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Among other great women whose sacrifices are predominantly unheard of, is the Queen of Tulsipur who formed a joint armed front with Nana Sahib, Raja Devibaksh Singh, and Begum Hazrat Mahal. She did not surrender and nor she could be caught by the British.

Other than the queens it was also several common women who played a very critical role to combat British Imperialism. Asha Devi, Bhagwati Devi Tyagi, Jamila Khan, Man Kaur, Rahimi, Indra Kaur, Raj Kaur, Bakhtavari, Habiba, Shobha Devi, and Umda, were among the women who embraced death in the wake of their anti-colonial struggle. Many of them went to gallows yet some were burnt alive.

It was the legacy of these women that their coming generations of daughters carried, battling not only the oppression of the British Raj but patriarchy as well. But it was British expansionism that made them conscious of their state and helped them organize; establishing the fact that women’s issues could not be separated from the question of foreign domination. Thus, the Women’s Movement was strongly associated with the Freedom Movement since its inception and the anticolonial struggle that gave a political discourse to it.

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This is evident from the fact that it was under British Rule when major law reforms concerning women were introduced including the laws which forbade female infanticide, child marriage, and sati and allowing widow remarriage, raising the age of consent and improving women’s inheritance rights.

Though political leaders advocating for the nationalist agenda portrayed women in public solely as ‘mothers of the nation’ rearing brave sons who would eventually fight the enemy. But women proved, time and again, that their role wasn’t merely to guard and transmit the national culture. Aparna Basu writes:

‘Women organized themselves into groups and were willing to join processions, face police firing and go to prison. They broke the salt law, picketed shops selling liquor and foreign manufactured cloth. There were women who joined terrorist groups and helped in editing and distributing banned newspapers and manufacturing bombs.’

– Aparna Basu

Though women were fairly active in the freedom struggle, they took prominent leadership roles when male leaders of the freedom campaign were arrested or jailed. Sarojini Naidu directed the salt protest after Gandhi’s arrest until she was arrested. More than 80,000 people were arrested during salt protests and of these over 17,000 were women.

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Today, when the anticolonial struggle is thing of the past, women continue to strive for the rights their male counterparts have been enjoying since the inception of this country. They struggle to be recognized as equal and active participants of the freedom movement. 

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