Role Models for Gender Parity
In the week that the women’s reservation bill was passed in parliament, I read a book called “Heroines” by Ira Mukhoty (published in 2017). This is a fascinating book about women who had agency and it felt really relevant in today’s context.
The author has chosen eight unusual women to write about. Two are from mythology, and six are historical figures. Draupadi and Radha are the figures from mythology, while Ambapali, Razia Sultan, Meerabai, Jahanara Begum, Rani Laxmibai and Hazrat Mahal constitute a rather unusual cohort from history.
Here are some of my thoughts and notes about each of these characters.
Ira Mukhoty draws a contrast between Sita and Draupadi. Sita is the epitome of the ideal woman from a patriarchal point of view. Draupadi defied conventions. She challenged her husbands, in-laws and older males in open court. Asked them uncomfortable questions about the “dharma of a king” and whether Yudhisthira had any legal right to gamble away her freedom. Especially after he had already lost his own freedom. She swore revenge on the people who had humiliated her, and never let her husbands forget that. She physically defended herself when she could.
The author concludes, “If Draupadi is admired, beloved and respected even today, she is never emulated. She is not considered a role model for young women to aspire to. Our daughters are never named in her honour. She remains, essentially, an untamed woman.” Why is Draupadi not considered a role model? This is worth thinking about.
The chapter on Radha is titled, “Illicit Goddess”. Radha is known by various names such as “the Nayika (woman in love), Parakiya (belonging to another), Rasika (the passionate one), Padmini (lotus woman), Kamini (a desirable woman) and even, paradoxically, Dulhan (the bride).”
Illicit love. Illicit Goddess. Hmmm. Interesting. The chapter ends with “Radha, on the other hand, is never shackled by notions of shame or retribution. She is superbly free in all her actions and her society, though it may mutter disapprovingly sometimes, never punishes her for her transgressions. Radha’s obsessive love resonates with us even today because we empathise with that longing and yearn for a similar, incorruptible love.”
Today we are often asked to reinvent ourselves. Well, here is a character who reinvented herself not once, but twice. And all this in the sixth century BC.
Ambapali was abandoned at birth by unknown parents. Later she was sold into being a courtesan. She overcame those handicaps to become the most sought after (and expensive) courtesan of her era. She had a liaison with the most powerful emperor of the period. King Bimbisara of Magadha came incognito to Vaishali just before with her and stayed with her for a week. Such was her beauty, refinement and fame.
But then she met the Buddha and reinvented herself as a monk.
“This was an age when the only life available for women was to get married and have children, and when they could be repudiated for not giving birth to male children. Despite such male tyranny, she was able to transform herself into an ornament that graced the city she lived in. And then, when she grew tired of that life, Ambapali renounced the security of her wealth to follow an ascetic who, for one of the first times in history, granted the same spiritual potential to women that men were believed to have.”
In an era when women were meant to stay in purdah, Raziya Sultan was “the first and only Muslim woman monarch of India”. She ruled by herself without a father, husband or son beside her. Decided that she was more competent to rule than her brothers and managed to rally the people and the nobles to support her. A consummate politician, diplomat and military strategist. Also an excellent administrator. Refused to call herself Sultana.
Raziya Sultan could have chosen to lead the luxurious life of a royal princess. Instead, she decided to be the King and more than held her own in this rough and tumble world. Sadly she had a short reign and was captured and killed by her younger brother.
As a reader, we may feel that we know Meerabai. She is the familiar character from numerous bhajans sung in temples and homes all over India, and now seen on YouTube. This chapter shows us the unsanitised version of Meerabai.
“At every step of her life, she had baulked at what was expected of her. She was a reluctant bride who carried with her the idol of Krishna that she would love all her life. She was a disappointing daughter-in-law, refusing to worship the family goddess and, in the eyes of society, culpable for the decline of her clan. If she ever did become widowed, she was a deplorable one and refused sativrata. She threw away the symbols of her suhaag and her caste with relief and set upon the wildering path of her love for her chosen god.”
However, in the twentieth century, the nationalist movement turned Meerabai from the rebel that she was into a nice, demure widow.
“Meerabai’s history was altered so that Rana Kumbha became her supportive husband, building her the Kumbha Shyama Temple and the Sisodias incorporated her into their official history. ‘Thus,’ remarks Parita Mukta [a historian], ‘Mira was reinstated in the bland cardboard shape of a smiling devotee in the very fortress that she had sworn never to set foot in again.’”
This is one of the surprise characters. Daughter of Shah Jahan & Mumtaz Mahal, sister of Dara Shikoh and Aurangzeb, Jahanara Begum was the richest woman of her age and also one of the most influential. She took over the royal household when her mother died early. Managed the palace, got involved in running the empire, tried to reach a diplomatic settlement between her brothers and thus prevent a war of succession. Was respected by both sides till she died. Also had a major spiritual life - was a Sufi. Aurangzeb respected her even though she had sided with Dara and her religious beliefs were different from his.
Shah Jahan was responsible for some of the most exquisite creations in India. From the Taj Mahal to the Peacock Throne to the new capital city of Shahjahanabad (what is today Old Delhi). But his daughter was no less. “Of all the women, Jahanara was the greatest single builder, responsible for five out of the nineteen buildings of Shahjahanabad. She built a mansion in her father’s palace compound overlooking the Yamuna and a central marketplace which contained more than fifteen hundred shops. The Paradise Canal ran through the centre of the market and shimmered on moonlit nights, giving it the name Chandni Chowk.…A second branch of Paradise Canal watered a garden, also built by Jahanara, the Sahiba ka Bagh, the largest garden in the city. To the west of Chandni Chowk, Jahanara built a caravanserai that was considered ‘the most imposing structure in the city after the Jami Masjid’.”
Unfortunately many of the structures built by her were destroyed by the British after the 1857 war of independence. And what remains is unrecognisable from the descriptions that have come down to us.
Rani Laxmibai, Jhansi ki Rani
I am going to write about the last two characters in the book together. There are several similarities between these two women - both were born into modest families, both rose to be queens, and they both fought bravely against the British in the 1857 war of independence on behalf of their sons, and without their husbands. However, one is remembered as a great freedom fighter, while the other is almost forgotten.
Rani Laxmibai was born in a Brahmin family and was fifteen years old when she was married to the middle aged Raja of Jhansi. The Raja died soon after, but adopted a five year old boy and anointed him heir before he passed. From then on the Rani repeatedly begged the British to make her adopted son the Raja, but they kept turning her down. In all these requests, she professed her loyalty to the British.
That’s when the 1857 war started. A few Indian soldiers stationed in Jhansi killed all the British men, women and children who were living there. The British thought that Rani Laxmibai was behind those deaths and hence thought of her as the enemy. She then took up arms and fought against them, withstanding a siege on her fort. When supplies ran out, she escaped with her son and a few soldiers (no, she did not jump off the fort as suggested in fables about her), but continued to fight the British and finally died on the battlefield.
Hazrat Mahal was the illegitimate daughter of a slave. How much lower can you start in life? She became a courtesan or Tawai’f in Lucknow, but was noticed by the Nawab of Awadh, Wajid Ali Shah (of Shatranj ke Khiladi fame). She ended up getting married to him, in a manner of speaking. Wajid Ali Shah had four “nikah” wives, but also took on twenty “muta’h” wives. The latter seemed to have been on a short term contract. Hazrat Mahal bore a son to him and was promptly divorced and pensioned off.
Just before the 1857 war started, Wajid Ali Shah was forced by the British to leave Awadh, which he did along with three of his wives. That’s when Hazrat Mahal came into her own. She managed to rally the people and the nobles to fight the English. She crowned her son as the new Nawab and ruled on his behalf.
“‘Hazrat Mahal showed such courage that the enemy was terrified,’ later wrote Begum Sayda, a co-wife, admiringly to the exiled Wajid Ali Shah. ‘She turned out to be very daring. She has brought name to the Sultan Alam.’” Lucknow was not a walled city, but Hazrat Mahal managed to fortify the city and hold off a siege by the British forces for nearly a year. There was hope that other Indian forces would join in and together they would defeat the British. That did not happen, and, in the end, Hazrat Mahal sought refuge in Nepal, where she later died. She continued to agitate against the British till her last days.
It is interesting that Hazrat Mahal was not considered a hero post independence, possibly because of her background and her religion.
As we speak about gender parity in the modern world, and as we educate our children to think in new ways, we need to provide them with role models. Ira Mukhoty has done a great job of identifying and researching these amazing characters. I came away inspired by these stories.