Feminism India

The Women Who Shaped India

As India celebrates 70 years of independence today, we at Feminism India want to celebrate some of the iconic yet less represented women who helped shape our great nation.

Each member of our team has individually contributed to this piece and we're proud to present to you this list of great women who were born between 1577 and 1915.

  1. Nur Jahan:

    A brilliant strategist, architect, diplomat and one of the sharpest minds in Indian history - this describes empress Nur Jahan best. But she has gone down in history as a manipulative and power hungry woman who made ambition seem toxic. Yet it is impossible to overlook the fact that the Mughal empire would have perished without her. While her husband, Jehangir, abandoned his duties, she single-handedly defied gender norms and dealt with complex administrative issues. Had it not been for her, India would not have prospered as much as it did in terms of trade, infrastructure, literature and much more. She was the first Mughal empress to issue royal seals of her own, and take crucial decisions which shaped India’s future.

  2. Velu Nachiyar:

    Almost a century before the first war of Independence in 1857, Velu Nachiyar fought the British to regain her kingdom after her husband was killed in battle. She accomplished this by going into hiding with her young daughter for eight years and organizing a coup where a faithful servant walked into the British ammunition storage unit doused in oil. This suicide attack was just a small part of her battle against the British. Not only did she regain her kingdom but she also ruled successfully for a decade thereafter.

    Being trained from childhood in martial arts, archery, horse-riding, and war strategy, Velu was a natural leader. She was also a scholar who was well-versed in prose and multiple languages including French, English, and Urdu. She was South India's Rani Lakshmi Bai who was born a century ahead of the latter.

  3. Annie Mascarene:

    Standing tall on the exact geographic and cultural centre of Trivandrum city is The Annie Mascarene Square, an ode to one of the most prominent Malayali freedom fighters. Her whole life if closely examined is a complex mesh of astonishing elements. A Latin Catholic who studied in what is now called a ‘Chenkota’(a communist party-led college) Maharajas college, and a law graduate who fought for the freedom of the country from a place whose historical contribution to the same in often ignored. Fighting with valour for a cause she believed in, she was the first woman MP from India’s most literate state. She stood her ground even when imprisoned and paved her way up. A woman of substance, quality, and serious style!

  4. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay:

    We pick our battles and fight them in our own capacity. The story of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay resonates with this dictum. As a social reformer and freedom fighter, the methods that Kamaladevi adopted were unconventional according to her times.

    Born into a family that valued education and to a mother who was determined enough to raise her daughter independently on her husband’s death, Kamaladevi grew up as an educated and self-reliant young woman. Widowed at 16, she attended Queen Mary’s College, Chennai, where she was introduced to Harindranath Chattopadhyay whom she married, despite stiff opposition from an orthodox society that disapproved of widow remarriage.

    She paved the way for many women by being the first woman to run for a legislative seat and becoming the first secretary of the All-India Women’s Conference that she founded. During the Salt Satyagraha, she was one of the only two women volunteers. Remarkably enough she went to a nearby High Court to sell the Magistrate some ‘Freedom Salt’. She was also arrested for entering the Bombay Stock Exchange to sell the salt that she had prepared. She believed that development must not exclude women, and was the force behind the renaissance of industries where female participation was in the majority, like Indian handicrafts, handlooms, and traditional theatrical forms. She set up the Indian Cooperative Union through which she set up the township of Faridabad (without state assistance) rehabilitating over 50,000 refugees from the Northwest Frontier. Today, her legacy continues in the form of the National School of Drama, Sangeet Nataka Academy, Central Cottage Industries Emporium, and the Crafts Council of India. Here was a woman whose strong conviction not only contributed to the cause of freedom but also ensured the security of millions of women post-independence.

  5. Renuka Ray:

    One of Renuka Ray's greatest influence was Mahatma Gandhi after she met him at the tender age of sixteen. It was through his encouragement that she went to study in London in one of the most prestigious colleges - The London School of Ecnomonics.

    At the time, in 1921, it was unheard of for women to be accomplishing such great feats, but her maternal grandparents were the most distinguished couple of their times and it's from here where the roots of achieving greatness stemmed. Roy's maternal grandfather, Prof. P K Roy, was the first Indian to receive a D Phil from Oxford University.Her maternal grandmother, Sarala Roy, was a well known social worker who worked for the emancipation of women.

    On returning to India from London, she joined the All India Women’s Conference and fought hard to champion women's rights and inheritance rights in parental property. She became President of the All India Women’s Conference in 1932 as a result of her perseverance.

  6. Amrita Sher-Gil:

    Many have heard of Amrita Sher-Gil, but who was she and why is she so important? Everything about this painter can be described as ambivalent, from her identity and sexuality to her fusion of western and Indian styles.

    She was unapologetic. Years before the Guerilla Girls or Margaret Harrison, Sher-Gil was already ‘subjectifying' women in her work. Indeed, the India portrayed in her paintings is quite different from the affluent situation she was raised in. She didn't have time for ‘cheap emotional appeal’ or false exquisiteness; her subject was India and the women of India. Blending technical finesse and unabashed candour, she was truly a woman who made her presence felt while she was alive and left a legacy after her demise. A pioneer in every sense of the word, Sher-Gil has influenced some of the biggest names in contemporary Indian art.

  7. Lakshmi Sahgal:

    Captain Lakshmi Sahgal from Kanpur was drawn to the Indian freedom struggle while she was a young medical student. She went on to become the leader of the all-women Rani of Jhansi regiment of the Indian National Army. Immediately after independence, as a doctor, she restarted her medical practice in Kanpur amongst the refugees and the marginalized sections of society. In our post-independence India, she was a member of the CPI(M) and the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA). She campaigned for India's political, economic and social justice. She was the presidential candidate for the left in 2002, the election which APJ Abdul Kalam went on to win. She was an outstanding leader of women's movement in India and left the country, a fine and enduring legacy.

    8: Ismat Chughtai:

    Pioneering Urdu feminist writing, Chughtai boldly portrayed the rigid, hypocritical society in which she grew up. Her most famous and 'controversial' book Lihaaf explores same-sex female desire in a conservative Muslim household in the Colonial Era, where marriage is a social obligation and the wife treated like a forgotten possession. Through the narration of a young, innocent girl, the oppression of these women is brought out, without rendering the protagonist, Begum Jan, helpless. Instead, Begum Jan finds sexual pleasure in her housemaid, depicted through metaphors and hints. In In the Name of those Married Women, Chughtai describes the day she was summoned to court on charges of obscenity due to Lihaaf, bringing out her honest, spunky, and witty character, her fear in the face of "filthy letters" of hate, and ultimately her ability to look on the bright side and enjoy her stay in Lahore where she was to appear before court.

Written by:
(based on the order of the list)

Ankita Narayan

Edinburgh, Scotland | http://ankita.ink/

I'm a blogger, podcaster, wife and feminist. I record snippets from my life on my blog, tackle social issues on my podcast and work with my team of fellow feminists in this space.