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South Asian Feminists from History You Need to Know

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

Welcome to a new monthly series called “South Asian Feminists from history you need to know.” Our main aim is to educate as many followers about past South Asian feminists who made leading changes in a society filled with female-driven social inequality.

This post will be updated monthly with a new feminist icon.

Ramabai Ranade (1863-1924) 

Ramabai Ranade, born on the 25th of January, 1863 was one of India’s first women's rights activists and feminists. What is most fascinating was Ranade's ability to create social change for women during a time they were not privileged to rights and freedom. She was able to set a powerful image for women of her time and the future, making it her sole purpose to educate herself to fight for female rights in India. Her husband, whom she married at age 11, was a scholar and social reformer, and fought against society norms, raising awareness against child marriage and untouchability. He ignited a great passion within Ranade. This passion led her to chair the first session of the ‘India Women Conference’ held in Bombay in 1904.

Ranade was the founder and President of the ‘Pune Seva Sadan Society,’ a woman’s institution which provides a safe and uplifting environment for underprivileged girls. This establishment works to educate and empower young women to become more than what society sets out for them, allowing them to grow into independent, strong, and well-versed women. Today, Seva Sadan is the most successful of all Indian women's institutions and is attended by thousands of women. In addition to Sevan Sadan, Ranade, and her husband are the main establishers of India’s oldest all-girls school, Huzurpaga.

The 19th century is looked upon as a turning point for feminism in India, with some calling it the First Phase. Ranade pioneered women’s rights, introducing new modern concepts of female democracy, equality, and individual rights to India. She is classed as an iconic feminist of her time, being one of few women who initiated talks of feminism. During the start of the 19th century, it was a group of male social reformers who fought against female inequalities such as Sati (an ancient practice where the widows sacrifice herself, by burning on her dead husband’s funeral pyre). To pioneer in a century where even men were dominating female activism, can only show how devoted and strong she was to female equality. Ramabai Ranade was an extraordinary woman, dedicating her life to the improvement of women’s lives, bringing great social awareness and change for females from the 19th century to today. 

Zubeida Rahimtoola 1917-2015

Welcome to the second instalment of Feminists Throughout History. This month, we at Pardesi would like to introduce you to an extraordinary woman called Zubeida Rahimtoola. 

Born in Mumbai on Aug 12, 1917, Zubeida Rahimtoola was a women’s rights activist and social worker, primarily based in Karachi. From a young age, Rahimtoola began contributing her services along with leading politicians to achieve the independence of India and the creation of Pakistan. Her lengthy time mixing with governmental officials laid a strong foundation to the start of her female activism. She is widely known as a founder of the All Pakistan Women’s Association, a foundation that continues to aid women today. 

The All Pakistani Women's Association (APWA) is a non-profit and non-political foundation, which aims to promote the moral, social and economic welfare of women. They strive to provide a platform that informs as many women as possible about women’s rights and issues globally. As she was based in the United Kingdom at partition in 1947 she became the first President of APWA UK. The association has 56 branches all over Pakistan excluding global offices,  covering core issues such as education, social welfare, rural reconstruction and internal affairs and of course the rights and responsibilities for women. Rahimtoola continued to be a key member for APWA, remaining President of the Sindh APWA (1953-54), followed by being Vice President APWA National (1955-58). Additionally, she also remained Chairman APWA Cottage Industry (1956-74). Finally, she remained Chairman Karachi APWA 1991-97.

What makes Rahimtoola such an incredible woman was her ability to thrive in a patriarchy, where women were, and continue to be, looked upon as less important and not valuable to society. To help create a platform in Pakistan and the United Kingdom, which had the sole purpose of only aiding women, bringing them to the forefront of the community. Furthermore, her successful role in politics and the future of women in a community which prides its men over its women-only shows how impactful she was in Pakistan and a feminist and politician. Zubeida Rahimtoola passed away in 2015 leaving a beautiful legacy of female empowerment in the South Asian community.

Begum Rokeya

Born Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain in 1880, but commonly known as Begum Rokeya, was a Bengali feminist, writer, educator and political activist. Married at the age of 18 to 38-year-old Khan Bahadur Sakhawt Hussain. As a liberal, he encouraged Rokeya to learn English and Bengali and to write as much as she could. His encouragement for her education set the path for her extraordinary life of feminist activism. 

She advocated for female equality establishing The Muslim Women’s Conference in 1916, an organisation which fought for women’s education and employment. The organisation held debates and conferences regarding the status of women in South Asia, along with social reform debates based on original Islamic teachings that had been lost over time. In 1926, Rokeya oversaw the Bengal Women’s Education Conference, Bangladesh’s first attempt to bring women together in support of women’s education rights. 

Rokeya is widely known for her many literary works, for example, “Matichur,” a collection of essay expressing two volumes of feminist thoughts, “Sultana’s Dream” a feminist science fiction novel set in “Ladyland” a place ruled by women and finally Padmarag,  a novel depicting difficulties faced by Bengali wives. Her work was extremely apt for the early 1900s, writing about the struggles of South Asian women in a dominant patriarchy. In addition to writing novels, essays and poetry, she regularly wrote for a wide range of magazine and newspapers all over India. Rokeya’s literary work and the death of her husband led her to establish an all-girls high school called Sakhawt Memorial Girls High School, which she ran for 24 years. 

Like many other feminists that this series looks at, Rokeya was an extraordinary woman breaking down social barriers for women in a male-dominated world.  Today, Rokeya is considered as a pioneer feminist in Bengal paving the way and influencing modern South Asian female authors. On the 9th of December, Bangladesh commemorates Begum Rokeya for her work and legacy.

Mangala Devi Singh

Devi Singh was an activist and feminist, who was famously known for pioneering democratic and feminist rights in Nepal. Unfortunately, there isn’t as much information about Singh, as with past feminists in this series. On the other hand, with the small details, we do have, it is clear that she was an extraordinary woman.

In 1948, Singh led a peaceful protest to Prime Minister Padam Shumshere of Nepal, demanding education, employment and voting rights for women. The complaint was a daring move on Singh’s part, asking for female rights in a patriarchy where women were under-appreciated and unequal. Known as the first female leader to fight for female rights in Nepal, Singh became a well-known name in the feminist movement.

In 1952, Singh led a female faction of the Nepal Women’s Association, after it had an ideological split. The Nepal Women’s Association was the female wing of the Nepalese Congress, which was also the first female political organisation of Nepal. As its first leader, Singh decided to protest the visit of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, leading to many women being arrested on the day. Due to her decision to protest the arrival of the Prime Minister, Singh was removed from congress.

In 1996, Mangala Devi Singh passed away from Kidney Failure. Since her death, she is annually celebrated on the 26th of August, remembered as a freedom fighter, political leader and activist for many women in Nepal.

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