The first panel discussion at Ahmedabad’s Women Writers’ Fest focused on unsung heroines of Indian history. Authors Rana Safvi and Ira Mukhoty spoke to Anurita Rathore on how history and historians have unfairly treated women of substance in our past. From sidelining them, to conveniently neglecting their feats and contributions to the society and even branding them as unfeminine.

Discovering the heroines of Indian history

Speaking about what motivated her to start seeking women in Indian history, whom the young Indian women today can look up to, author Ira Mukhoty said, “It started as a very prosaic journey. I have two daughters and when they were younger, I was looking for stories of Indian heroines for them to relate to, because our culture has been in some ways taken over by the Western role models. So I thought what do we have here locally that can inspire young women today. And I looked out in popular culture and popular literature and all the women figures that I found, they seem to be presented in a certain bland homogeneous avatar. Something young girls can’t relate to.

So I was driven to understand, is this the way they really were? Were women from 2,500 years ago really this bland? Is this the way Indian women have always been? Or is there something behind this? Is there a way in which we are whitewashing these figures and we are presenting them even today in the 21st century as a certain subjugated or domesticated lot? But for the 21st century, we need women who are fierce. We need women who are not nice all the time. We need to tell our daughters that you go out there and speak your mind and be fierce. Stop always trying to pander to the idea that the society has of us.”

Were women from 2,500 years ago really this bland? Is this the way Indian women have always been? Or is there something behind this? -Ira Mukhoty

How television and pop culture portray our historic heroines

Author and historian Rana Safvi said, “Television serials and WhatsApp forwards are ruining us, let’s put it that way. The research done for television serials is very poor, with a few exceptions. Especially for what is churned out today, the research for historical serials is really bad. And WhatsApp forwards, of course, everybody knows, you can write whatever you want, it’s a one-way street. So many people living in rural areas or people who don’t have access to books believe that this is the truth. For example, Jodha-Akbar, there was actually no person as Jodha. The story of Mughal-E-Azam was based on a book by Imtiaz Taj, where he has this romantic idea of a Jodha. Jodh Bai was the wife of Jahangir. So I remember when this movie by Ashutosh Gowariker came out, there was a lot of protest in Rajasthan, that how can you show Akbar’s daughter-in-law as his wife. But nobody listened to it because we have this romantic idea of Jodha in our mind.

Akbar’s Rajput wife was Harkha Bai. He had a lot of alliances with Rajput women and one of them was Harkha Bai, who was given the title of Mariam-uz-Zamani afterwards. But because Imtiaz Taj wrote Jodha Bai, so we’ve got this romantic idea of Jodha-Akbar. These women had so much more to them than just the romance or just the idea of what we have invested them with. That’s not what their life must have been like. Akbar’s wife was one of the first alliances between the Rajputs and Mughals. She must have had to face her own demons. She must have had to go through a lot of things to reach that status that she did. Akbar never expected her to give up her religion and she continued with her religious practices. But in serials they show very single dimensional women. I’ve watched each and every serial based on the Ramayana and Mahabharata, both Sita and Draupadi are shown as single-dimensional women.”

Lack of representation in history

According to Safvi, “Historians who are writing about our history are not focusing on women, they are focused on territorial warfare, on power and most of the power and territorial warfare and battles were fought between men. So when we talk of women we only talk of jauhar and the sati, or of women being taken away as slaves. We don’t talk of the achievements of women. Besides if you are a strong woman, you are just seen as a threat. Whereas a man is seen as intelligent if he is strategizing, a woman is seen as scheming.”

If you are a strong woman, you are just seen as a threat. Whereas a man is seen as intelligent if he is strategizing, a woman is seen as scheming. -Rana Safvi

To this Mukhoty added, “As soon as you have a woman who is a little exceptional, you have aspersions cast on her. There was this aspersion on Noor Jehan that this is a petticoat government. Even Akbar’s foster mother Maham Anga was also very powerful, but when biographers write about her, it is with this undercurrent that she wanted power so badly, what was wrong with her? Or that she was unfeminine in that way. So as soon as a woman shows ambition or has a mind of her own, then she is said to be unfeminine.”

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