The women who shaped India's history changed the definitions of what it meant to be a female leader. Here are some of them.
When society told them not to pick a career that was male-dominated, they went ahead and did just that. When society asked them to be quiet, they spoke louder about the things they believed in. And when the world asked them to stop, they just kept going.
In this piece, we explore the works and lives of women in India who enabled so many others to follow in their footsteps.
1. The wind beneath India’s wings
It is impossible to speak of India’s successes in the aviation field without recalling the heroic deeds of flight purser Neerja Bhanot. She died on 5 September, 1986, at the age of 22 while attempting to save passengers on the hijacked Pan Am Flight 73.
Four terrorists — Wadoud Muhammad Hafiz al-Turki, Jamal Saeed Abdul Rahim, Muhammad Abdullah Khalil Hussain arRahayyal, and Muhammad Ahmed al-Munawar were behind the act. Bhanot displayed remarkable courage as she saved the lives of more than 350 passengers on board. For her gallantry, she was posthumously awarded the Ashoka Chakra in 1987.
Another such hero in India’s aviation domain was Captain Durba Banerjee. As India’s first woman pilot, it suffices to say she took India to the skies through her work. When she joined Indian Airlines in 1956, it set the stage for women across India to shatter glass ceilings and step into leadership roles.
She turned a deaf ear to stereotypes that clouded her path as she persisted in her endeavours. Throughout her career, she accumulated an impressive flight time of over 9,000 hours.
While Neerja and Captain Banerjee made their mark in the skies, Mumbai-born Persis Khambatta made it in front of the camera. Her career was tinged with successes, the most popular one being her role of Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979.
The daring Khambatta went bald for it. Through her work, she is credited with paving the way for Indian actors in Hollywood.
2. Heroines of war
During the Bangladesh Liberation War (1947–1971), a group of freedom fighters organised themselves into a group called the ‘Mukti Bahini’. They set the stage for young women to be trained in combat and various operations. Two of its members Captain Sitara Begum and Taramon Bibi were conferred with the ‘Bir Protik’ — the fourth highest gallantry award in Bangladesh — for their outstanding bravery.
Taramon Bibi worked as a cook for the Mukti Bahini and never missed a chance to use this position of hers to roam through the area and keep track of happenings. She did this in the guise of a woman with a mental disability. She would observe the Pakistani Army’s movements and then report these to the Mukti Bahini, who would then act on these reports.
Captain Sitara Begum, meanwhile, served as a doctor with the force. The Kolkata native oversaw operations at a Bangladesh Hospital where casualties of war and emergent cases needed attention.
Years before these two fearless women could play their role, a young girl Rajkumari Gupta displayed the same zeal during India’s freedom struggle. She and her husband Madan Mohan Gupta joined the Independence movement where they would deliver secret messages to leaders.
Numerous times, Gupta put her life on the line while delivering guns to the revolutionaries. She once famously said, “Hum upar se Gandhivaadi the, neeche se krantivaadi the” (We were Gandhians from above; underneath we were revolutionaries).
3. Breaking stereotypes through literature
Women and their pragmatic approaches to dealing with crisis situations have gone down in history. For instance, Dr Gangubai Hangal.
At a time when it was taboo for women to take up classical music, she not only did it but excelled, going on to win the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (1973), the Padma Bhushan (1971) and the Padma Vibhushan (2002).
She was the chosen one to sing the welcome song at the inauguration of the Indian National Congress session in Belagavi in 1924. The audience comprising Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sarojini Naidu, and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad watched on admiringly. Hangal also performed at the Dover Lane Music Conference and the All Bengal Music Festival — two of India’s most prestigious classical music events, continuously for 15 years.
Another literary magic maker Subhadra Kumari Chauhan donned many hats. The Hindi poet was also a freedom fighter and her body of work includes nearly 100 poems and 50 short stories focused on caste discrimination and the dowry system. One of her well-known creations is the collection ‘Mukul’ released in 1930, which includes the famous ‘Jhansi Ki Rani’ poem.
It was after her marriage to Lakshman Singh Chauhan at the age of 15 that Subhadra’s political career took off. She refused to toe the line and abandoned the ghoonghat despite family objections.
In 1921, she and her husband joined the Non-Cooperation Movement and led the ‘Jhanda Satyagraha’ in Jabalpur, raising the Indian flag throughout the city.
Another of India’s women who ignited patriotic fervour through their writings was Kuntala Kumari Sabat, a devoted follower of Gandhi. Her literary accomplishments include ‘Na Tundi,’ ‘Kali Bohu,’ ‘Parasmani,’ ‘Bhranti,’ and ‘Raghu Arakhita.’
Literature was not the only area where she excelled. In 1921, she graduated from medical college and became Cuttack’s first female doctor. Throughout her career, she championed women’s empowerment by speaking against societal injustices and endorsing widow remarriage.
Edited by Pranita Bhat