Celebrating forgotten women personalities

Every year on the 8th of March we celebrate Women’s Day all around the world to commemmorate  social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women ,raise awareness about women’s equality, and accelerate gender parity. International Women’s Day was first celebrated in 1911. When we talk about strong and famous female personalities, there are a first few names that pop up into our minds immediately. Such as Rani Laxmibai, Mother Teresa, Kalpana Chawla, Sarojini Naidu, etc. But there are a few women that have excelled in thier fields and are seldom talked about. So on this day, that is dedicated to celebrating women’s success and courage, let us acknowledge and learn about some of these lesser known women.

1. Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi

Anandi Joshi was one of the first Indian female physicians. She was the first female of Indian origin to study and graduate with a degree in medicine in the United States. She is also believed to be the first woman to set foot on American soil from India.

Anandibai gave birth to a baby boy at the age of just 14, but the child could not survive more than ten days due to a lack of medical care. The incident was a turning point in Anandi’s life and inspired her to do something about healthcare in India. In March 1886, Anandibai graduated with an MD. The topic of her thesis was “Obstetrics among the Aryan Hindoos”, and her thesis utilised references from both American medical textbooks and Ayurvedic texts. On her graduation, Queen Victoria sent her a congratulatory message. In late 1886, Anandibai returned to India and received a grand welcome. The princely state of Kolhapur appointed her as the physician-in-charge of the female ward of the local Albert Edward Hospital. Anandibai died of tuberculosis early the following year, on February 26, 1887, in Pune before turning 22.

2. Abala Bose

Besides being born to the family of renowned Brahmo reformer Durga Mohan Das and marrying to the famous Indian scientist Sir Jagadish Chandra Bose, Abala Bose deserves a special place in the great history for her pioneering work and life long devotion to the social causes. She was an early feminist, who worked her entire life to provide education to women and for the better treatment of widows in the Indian society.

She was profoundly interested in bettering the lives of women and was able to set thousand wheels in motion, by asking Sister Nivedita to train the teachers at the kindergarten level. The school saw a revolution in the entire education system when girls were being trained in self-defence and older girls were even taken to visit different places of their interest. Understanding the geographical restrictions while reforming the education system in Bengal, she took her goal of empowering young girls through education on a mass level, by launching Nari Shakti Samiti, with the help of her friends and brothers.

3. Shila Dawre

Shila Dawre shut all these stereotypes down when she became India’s first woman auto driver. Rubbing shoulders with khaki-clad men driving rickshaws, clad in her regular salwaar kameez, she drove around the lanes of Pune, owning them.

When she kickstarted her journey as an auto-driver in 1988, she came across many people who were unwilling to rent out their auto-rickshaws to her on the sole ground that she was a woman and they were unsure if she would safely drive their vehicle, constantly reiterating the stereotype of women being bad/unsafe drivers. But she wasn’t going to give up. She got in touch with various women self-help groups who helped her avail of opportunities to drive auto-rickshaws when the regular drivers were on leave.

4. Begum Hazrat Mahal

Begum Hazrat Mahal was one of the few women who challenged the British during the revolt of 1857. Her maiden name was Muhammadi Khanum. She was born at Faizabad, Awadh. Later in life, she performed a mut’ah marriage with Nawab Wajid Ali Shah.

Awadh was annexed by the British East India Company in 1856 and Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh was sent into exile to Calcutta. Hazrat Mahal decided to stay back in Lucknow along with her son Birjis Qadir. After the absorption of Awadh, a rebellion broke out at Meerut and the banner of revolt was raised in Lucknow which spread rapidly to other towns of Awadh. Lucknow was the only place where the English did not leave the Residency building and faced the rebels until they were able to regain their lost power.

Begum Hazrat Mahal often called meetings to encourage soldiers, asking them to be brave and fight for the cause. She wrote letters of instruction for the movement and is reported to have appeared on the battlefield on February 25, 1858, mounted on an elephant. 

5. Ismat Chughtai

Ismat Chughtai’s non-fiction work, much like her fictional short stories, stands apart from the work of her contemporaries due to the unapologetic exploration of the feminine experience of discrimination, agency, social norms, politics, and desire which was previously not something that Urdu literature had experienced. Historically, much like the literature of most other Indian languages, the world of Urdu short stories, poetry, and essays has been dominated by the male gaze. 

While she addresses issues like homosexuality, feminine desire, dowry, class divisions, and access to education in her short stories, concerns that fall under the feminist umbrella, her characters cannot turn around and tell us how they feel about what they experienced and how it impacted them years later. The theme of independence in Ismat Chughtai’s work cannot be separated from the politics of the time that she was writing in. While political activists and agents that were at the forefront of the Indian freedom struggle focus on India’s identity as separate from Britain in their work, she focuses on the way freedom is defined within India. Ismat Chughtai’s work is therefore regularly interpreted as having Marxist undertones with a feminine perspective because it is through her experience of men being freer than women and the rich being freer than the poor even under the British Raj that she envisions not just a transfer of power when she talks about independence, but a restructuring of it: a political stance that the current wave of intersectional feminism takes.

6. Sarla Thakral

Not only does India has the highest percentage of women commercial pilots in the world today, but it is also more than double that of the global average. According to the data released by the International Society of Women Airline Pilots in 2018, the percentage of women commercial pilots in India is 12.4%, while the global percentage is only 5.4%. But who was the woman who paved the way for women pilots?  It was Sarla Thakral, who, back in the year 1936, at only the age of 21, became the first Indian woman to fly an aircraft and laid the groundwork for Indian women to enter the field of aviation.

Delhi-born Sarla was fiercely ambitious who got an aviation pilot license in 1936 when she was just 21. She tied the knot with P D Sharma, also a pilot, at a young age of 16. Her husband was the initiator behind her achievement and her father-in-law was also supportive of all the things. When Sarla took her first flight, she was not just married but also a mother of a four-year-old daughter. At a time when aviation was only about men, Sarla entered the cockpit of a Gypsy Moth and made a history as India’s first lady pilot AND she stepped into the cockpit in a saree!

7. Durga Bhabhi

Durgawati Devi or Durga Bhabhi, also known as the ‘The Agni of India’, is remembered to this day as a threat to the British police. She had tremendous influence on revolutionaries such as Bhagat Singh, Ashafaqullah and Chandra Shekhar Azad. She also wielded a strong influence on the members of the Hindustan Socialist Republican Association (HSRA). She was a Bengali, married at the age of 11 years. Being one of the very few women who actively participated in the armed rebellion against the ruling British Raj, Devi accompanied Bhagat Singh on the train journey.

Devi donated all her jewels and cash to the HSRA in order to purchase arms and ammunition for the revolutionaries. After Devi’s husband passed away in a bomb testing operation at Lahore prison, many expected her fight to have come to an end. However, Devi endured the pain of his partner’s death and continued her fight against the British rule. Later in 1935, Devi established a school for poor children in Lucknow, having left politics.
Devi passed away on October 15, 1999, in Ghaziabad at the age of 92. Reportedly, she led a quiet life in anonymity after India’s Independence in 1947.

8. Justice Anna Chandy

Justice Anna Chandy – the first female judge in India, the first woman to become a judge of a High Court, and perhaps the first woman to become a judge in the Anglo-Saxon world. She was sworn in as a judge of the High Court of Kerala on February 9, 1959 and held office upto April 5, 1967, for over eight years.

Chandy dedicated her significant efforts to the rights of women to work and was a feminist of her time. Anna also worked towards demanding quotas for women in government jobs. Chandy known as the first generation feminist was the first to get a law degree in her state. Anna along with advocating for women’s rights also found and edited her magazine Shreemati for a similar concern. Along with being a judge Anna also campaigned for election to the Shree Mulam Popular Assembly in 1931, for which she met with criticism from the newspapers and opposition but was elected for the period 1932-34. During her retirement, Anna served in the Law Commission of India, and with that she also wrote her autobiography named Aatmakatha.

“Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women.”

Maya Angelou







Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s