As a kid, I was asked to mug up five or ten names of “major” freedom fighters of India and be proud of my country’s defiant history. But, only later I realised that those stories and names didn’t include many women freedom fighters who were the harbingers of change and embodiment of woman power. The list was also quiet on Muslim freedom fighters. The records of Indian history lack stories and narratives of women warriors, activists and politicians. More so because even though we have achieved political freedom, freedom from patriarchy is still a dream.
Forgotten stories of Muslim freedom fighters in India
The discrimination is worst in the case of Muslim women freedom fighters who have sloganeered, shed blood and gave their lives for the country’s independence but whose names have been forgotten by biased and patriarchal narratives of History.
Did you know that 225 Muslim women martyred in the 1857 revolt of India against the British rule? And how many of them can you count on your fingers? Patriotism and nationalism have no gender, caste, colour or religion. It is a will to assert your identity and love your country which is as much yours as it is of every citizen and warrior who dared to question injustice. So here is a list of few Muslim women freedom fighters that you should know:
Begum Hazrat Mahal
Begum Hazrat Mahal was the wife of Wajid Ali Shah, the Nawab of Avadh who was banished to Bengal by the British. Post her husband’s banishment, Begum took charge of Avadh as the regent and played a prominent role in 1857 revolt. Like Rani Lakshmi Bai, she challenged the British rule and especially opposed their mechanism of destroying the religious places.
As Mohi-ud-Din Mirza, the film-maker of the documentary Begum Hazrat Mahal: The Last Queen of Avadh said in an interview, “This Queen fought the British tyrants of the East India Company and later, Queen Victoria herse…Her militant activities against the English were not only to secure freedom for Avadh but freedom for India.”
She is also known for leading a rebel force to capture Lucknow where she ruled for 10 months and confined the British rulers in the Lucknow Residency. This event is recorded in History as Siege of Lucknow. However, later the British rulers defeated the rebel force and Begum went into political asylum in Nepal and died in Kathmandu on April 7, 1879. She is said to have given the longest resistance to the British rule.
Abadi Bano Begum
Abadi Bano Begum was the first woman to address a political rally wearing a burqua. Popularly known as Bi Amma, she participated in National freedom struggles, Khilafat Movement and propagated Hindu-Muslim unity. On Mahatma Gandhi’s advise, Bi Amma played a vital role in encouraging women to take part in freedom struggles. Moreover, she also played a pivotal role in Swadeshi movements. She collected funds and organized meetings to teach women the importance of discarding British goods and using swadeshi products. Bi Amma collaborated with Begum Hasrat Mohani, the wife of Maulana Hasrat Mohani, Sarala Devi Chaudhurani, Basanti Devi, and Sarojini Naidu in this campaign.
In he book Gandhi and the Ali Brothers: Biography of a Friendship by Rakhahari Chatterji, Maulana Mohammad Jouhar says, “Suffice it to say that, although she was practically illiterate, I have, in all experience, of men of all sorts of types, come across none that I could call wiser and certainly that was more truly godly and spiritual than our mother.”
Bi Amma was also the mother of Muhamamd Ali Jauhar and Shaukat Ali popularly known as Ali Brothers whom she raised on her own after being widowed at an early age.
Amjadi Begum was the wife of Muhammad Ali Jauhar and daughter-in-law of Bi Amma. Unlike the common relationship of envy and fights between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, Bi Amma always encouraged Begum to join politics. She actively participated in national freedom movement along with her mother-in-law and husband.
She accompanied her husband in all the political conferences and even addressed and encouraged women to participate in freedom struggles. It is said that she was beside Ali Jauhar in the First Round Table Conference in London as he was too ill to survive alone. She helped her mother-in-law in the freedom movements and in Khilafat movement. Moreover, on Jinnah’s advise, Begum joined the First Working Committee of Muslim League as the only woman among 25 members. At an All-India Muslim League annual session held in Lucknow in 1937, Begum formed a separate electorate for women giving them the opportunity to participate in freedom struggle.
After the death of Muhammad Ali, Turkish writer Halide Edib had visited India and later wrote, “The intermediary between me and purdah club was Begum Mohammad Ali. She has remained true to her husband’s teachings and as definite a character as one may meet anywhere. […] If Muslim women want to do things they must do it without leaving Purdah. She herself mixed with men, though she kept her veil…” Moreover, Mahatma Gandhi dedicated an article on her titled ‘A Brave Woman‘ where he admired her as a courageous wife of a courageous man.
Born in 1811, Asghari Begum took part in 1857 revolt at the age of 45. She challenged the British rule in the present-day Uttar Pradesh. However, she was captured by the British in 1858 and burnt alive. She was the mother of Qazi Abdur Rahim, the revolutionary of Thana Bhawan.
Habiba was another forgotten Muslim woman freedom fighter who challenged the British rule in 1857 revolt. She belonged to a Muslim Gujjar family and fought many battles against the British in Muzaffarnagar. However, at the age of 25, she was captured and hanged along with 11 other female warriors.