Maya Angelou once said that each time a woman stands up for herself, she stands up for the entire womankind. This thought is very astutely reflected in the life of Shareefa Hamid Ali and her activism. But like most other women, her name too has been erased from Indian history and social science textbooks. She had headed the All Indian Women’s Conference, and had gone ahead to represent the country at various international committees. Despite her exemplary work in the field of feminism and diligent efforts to improve the status of women across the strata of society, her name hardly finds a mention within socio-political discussions.
Begum Shareefa Hamid Ali represented India as one of 15 women in the first UN Commission on the Status of Women, drafting the principles that guide the Commission in its work to this date.
She was brought up in a progressive household and was relatively adorned with more privileges and freedom. She, along with her mother, had given up the practice of purdah that is stereotypically associated with Muslim women. Being a broad-minded woman with the kind of liberal upbringing she had, she was determined to bring about revolutionary changes in the lives of women who had been oppressed by society’s bigotry and she sought to bring about legal reforms to improve their lives.
Shareefa Hamid Ali was always at the forefront in the battle for justice, at a time when women’s voices were usually shunned aside.
She had become a voice for Muslim women. Most women in her era were scorned and discarded, but she rose above the prejudiced notions of the world, and destroyed the stereotypes in people’s mindsets to build her own path.
Her interest in politics and the Indian national movement was piqued by a session of the Congress in 1907. As a caring and determined person, she aimed to uplift the lower castes and emancipate their lives through better access to health and education, doing away with the Brahmanical notions of purity prevalent at the time.
Child marriage is banned today, but a hundred years ago, it was a legal phenomenon that hindered girls’ education. Begum Hamid Ali’s persuasive efforts played a crucial role in precipitating the Sarda act- that increased the age of marriage to 15 years for girls.
An influential part of the national movement as well as the All India Women’s Conference, she was one of the 3 women at the Round Table Conference in 1933 that gave her an opportunity to demand universal adult franchise that implied political rights for all, irrespective of gender.
She had represented AIWC at the Istanbul Congress of the International Alliance of Women at the age of 51, and at 54, she participated in the Congress of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom at Luhacovice, Czechoslovakia.
Participation at the UN Commission
She was a key person involved in the establishment of the United Nations Commission for the Status of Women which aims to create an egalitarian society with respect to gender and was founded in 1946.
Not to mention that she achieved all of this within the pre-Independence Indian scenario, at a time when women literally had little to no rights amid socio-cultural and political domains. However, her name does not easily pop up in our minds despite her unforgettable involvement in the ongoing fight for basic rights. This is because we have been conditioned by society to perceive the under-representation of women in the media as normal. They are missing from the available written text as well.
Women have influenced and shaped the world that we live in today, in multiple ways through their tremendous efforts to undo the shackles of patriarchy. But people, books and media continue to ignore them. Their roles in previous wars and other chronicles of the world has been integral.
This just proves how much we need feminism in today’s world. Women across the globe lack the most minimal of rights, and even heroes of the past who fought so hard with toil and hope to build a future for women- are conveniently erased from public memory.
Even though she unfortunately passed away in 1931, the legacy to battle patriarchy that she left needs to be upheld and remembered. While the mainstream media continues to promote an array of stereotypes regarding the Muslim woman, Shareefa Hamid Ali truly stood as a symbol who advocated and propagated for women’s rights, and deserves due acknowledgement for her ground-breaking work in the field of girls’ rights for education and women empowerment.
Vidhi Bubna is a contributor at SheThePeople, views expressed are her own.