Indian women who hit patriarchy where it hurt

By Kushal Gulab

Sometimes even the word ‘history’ makes us sputter in a rage of frustration. His story. Why is it all about men? How come such few women feature in our pasts? With the exception of Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, did they really do nothing worth remembering?

Perhaps that was the case – patriarchy specializes in putting women down and keeping them there. But that does not mean no woman beat the system and broke out. It just means that men, who kept scholarship very much to themselves all over the world till the early 1900s, did not tell their stories. Because, you know. One woman can inspire millions of others. Bang! That would be the end of patriarchy.

There are two ways to deal with this. One is to sputter with rage as we have just done in the two paragraphs above. The other is use the next few paras to bring Indian history’s hidden women heroes back to the front, the place from where they once led.

Meet 10 Indian women of the past who hit patriarchy where it hurt (not including Rani Laxmibai of Jhansi, because you know her already).


Mirabai came from a 16th century princely family in Rajasthan and was tortured by her in-laws for the strength of her belief in Lord Krishna. When her husband died, Mirabai’s father-in-law ordered her to commit sati, but she refused, saying that her real husband, Lord Krishna, was not dead. She inspired thousands of people to take up Vaishnavism, according to

Kittur Chennamma

Much before the Rani of Jhansi, Kittur Chennamma, queen of the princely state of Kittur in what is now Karnataka, led an armed revolt against the British East India Company in India in 1824. When the rebellion failed, according to Buzzfeed India, she was arrested and died in prison.

Savitribai Phule

The fact that you can read, write and use digital media can be traced to Savitribai Phule, a child bride at the age of nine who insisted on being educated, became India’s first woman teacher, and then went on to found India’s first school for girls in 1848, according to Buzzfeed India.

Chandramukhi Basu and Kadambini Ganguly

In 1882, these were the first two women in India to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, according to The Better India. Two years later, Basu got her MA, again the first Indian woman to do so, and then became a lecturer and later principal of Bethune College in Calcutta, the first South Asian woman ever to lead a college.

Princess Sophia Singh

The youngest daughter of Punjab’s last maharaja, Duleep Singh, Sophia was brought up in England, but two visits to India where she saw the depth of poverty radicalized her, according to author Anita Anand in UK’s ‘The Telegraph.’ Back in England, she became a suffragette fighting for women’s rights, even throwing herself at the Prime Minister’s car. For this, she was jailed.

Noor Inayat Khan

A direct descendent of Tipu Sultan, she served as a secret agent during World War II, and in 1943 was the first woman radio operator to be sent into Nazi-occupied France, according to the BBC. She was arrested and tortured by the Gestapo but refused to reveal any information. In 1944, she was sent to the concentration camp in Dachau where she was shot.

Usha Mehta:

Before Noor Inayat Khan operated a secret radio in Nazi-occupied France, in India in 1942, Usha Mehta did much the same thing when the British suppressed news about the Quit India movement, according to The Better India. Like Noor, she was arrested and refused to reveal any secrets to the British colonial government. In 1998, the Indian government awarded her the Padma Vibhushan.

Captain Lakshmi Sahgal:

A fervent member of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army that worked with the Japanese during World War II to overthrow the British in India, Sahgal in 1943 created and led the INA’s women’s unit, the Rani of Jhansi regiment, one of the very few all-women army units anywhere in the world at the time to participate fully in combat, according to Wikipedia.

Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit

In 1953, Pandit became the first Indian and first woman to serve as president of the UN General Assembly. She was also the first Indian woman to hold a cabinet post in Parliament, and was twice president of the Indian National Congress, as well as Indian ambassador to Russia in the late 1940s and governor of Maharashtra later, according to Catch News.

Shakuntala Vasishta:

India’s first gazetted woman police officer, Vasishta began her career in 1949, in the Punjab police, and went on to become the deputy superintendent of police in Delhi in 1969. In 1984, she retired as deputy commissioner of police in Delhi.


Have Something to Say? Comment on Facebook

Leave a Response