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The not-so-modern modern Asian woman

By Summer Yasmin


I like to think of myself as a forward thinking, progressive South Asian woman. I also like to point out that I’ve beaten some obscure odds by succeeding despite the sometimes contradicting and restrictive culture I have inherited. But today I will do something I dislike; I will criticize myself for my contentious and judgmental view of my own history.

Many Desi women like me can site you thousands of examples of “modern” Asian women success stories. From Miss Worlds to female presidents of patriarchal nations, we have a ready roster of examples to combat the images of the past. You know, those “back in the day” subservient, dupatta-clad women who we swore we would never be like. In this quest to quell the stereotypes, is it possible we have inadvertently buried parts of our feminine history that could in fact shake the image of the “oppressed Asian women”?

Now I don’t mean to undermine the realities of those in our culture who suffer; women and girls denied basic rights or those with rights struggling to merge them with contradicting cultural beliefs. These are real and valid issues. But do they define us? No, they certainly do not! Am I trying to say Desi women don’t have it tough sometimes? No, I definitely am not!

The reality is we spend a great deal of time, energy and literary space telling ourselves and the world that we will not be like those women of the past; we will rise above deep rooted gender biased and socio-cultural expectations. And we say this like we, the modern Desi women (those born and brought up during the last few decades) are the torch bearers of this movement. But we are not!

This beauty and brains persona so many Asian women have become famous for is actually an inherited position. There were those long before us, who lived with similar if not more ingrained restrictions than we do. For us it is culture, for them it was law. We are punished by society; they were punished by both society and government.

And yet they triumphed, in every sphere of life imaginable. These women are often forgotten because we write off the time period in which they existed as “medieval.” God forbid we would use them as the poster girls for our feminist pursuits. But there they are, grinning knowingly up from the grey areas of history books, waiting for us to take notice of them.

The first to catch my attention was Razia Sultan, formally known as Jalalat ud-Din Raziya. Yes, how very Jodha Akbar, except she wasn’t the Jhoda, she was the Akbar; the Sultana of Delhi from 1236 to 1240. Razia was the only female ruler of both the Sultanate and Mughal period. She dressed like a man in tunic and turban and sat in open Darbar, a gutsy act of rebellious proportions. But she wasn’t just all image; the lady was an accomplished general and a shrewd politician, able to keep her nobles in check and the general population happy.

Her downfall came on the personal front; she had a relationship (the nature of which has been lost in history) with a black Abyssinian courtier. It was this that turned the tides of favor against her, leaving her a Queen who lost everything because she refused to be racist, prejudice or cast conscious. Take away the whole Sultanate thing and you have a blueprint shared by many Desi women, then and now.

Other female rulers who gave the Mughals a run for their money were Durgavati, the Gond Queen and Chand Bibi, defender of Ahmednaggar (and not the hooker from Bollywood’s Ishaqzaade). Let us not forget that “behind every great man there is a women.” Ask Jehangir and he will likely rise from his grave to vehemently deny it but it’s a speculative fact that his wife Nur Jehan wielded imperial power and was the real force behind the Mughal throne!

Women also played an important role in defending India against foreign invasion and in the fight for independence from British rule. Names such as Kittur Chennamma, Abbaka Rani, Rani Lakshmi Bhai, and Begum Hazart Mahal can all be found on the list of those who led rebellions against the British and Portuguese.

As far as Independence is concerned, the list of women freedom fighters is surprisingly lengthy: Bhikaji Cama, Dr. Annie Besant, Pritilata Waddedar, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, Rajkumari Amrit Kaur, Aruna Asaf Ali, Sucheta Kriplani and Kasturba Gandhi to name a few.

Not only were these women brave and tough, many of them were also known for their educational pursuits (Art, poetry, literature, science, mathematics, politics) and also for being stunningly beautiful, impeccably fashionable, elegant and sophisticated.

Thus, we Desi girls are definitely not a race of women whose lineage is of oppression and mediocrity. And this full package isn’t a recent phenomenon either. We are, in some part, a reflection of our heritage, one we should be proud of as the legacy of women who will survive and achieve, despite it all.


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