The Role of Muslim Women in Indian Freedom Movement

History records past developments and talks about personalities and characters related thereto. It tells us how the developments took place and what role the various personalities and organisations played therein. It is therefore necessary that historiography be factual and not manipulated. But unfortunately for quite some time history is being rewritten brazenly in our country.

Written by

Dr. Muhammad Raziul Islam Nadvi

Published on

History records past developments and talks about personalities and characters related thereto. It tells us how the developments took place and what role the various personalities and organisations played therein. It is therefore necessary that historiography be factual and not manipulated. But unfortunately for quite some time history is being rewritten brazenly in our country. The developments that are well acknowledged are being changed, and the personalities and organisations whose contributions are well-known are being erased, and those having played no considerable role are being highlighted. This is the general scenario; however, the national history of the last two hundred years is in danger nowadays.

The English came in India as merchants, established East India Company and promoted their business at the hilt; but gradually their political interest and influence went on an increase. On one hand the Mughal administration started weakening while on the other the East India Company took roots in the Indian soil. In the middle of the 19th century the Delhi and Awadh governments were uprooted; this created a revolution against the English. Although some historians dubbed it as ‘revolt’, in reality it was the first war of independence, which all sections of the country had fought together against the English usurpers.

The followers of all religions, especially Hindus and Muslims, participated therein; nevertheless, if seen justifiably, the role of Muslims in this struggle for freedom was the most important and their sacrifice unparalleled. This was all but natural ‘cause the Muslims had been deprived of governance due to the British power and dominance. Therefore, they were bubbling with the emotions of rage and restiveness; and the English too took them as their enemy number one.

Therefore, when the English were out for revenge, they targeted the Muslims most, massacred them, sent them on the gallows, usurped and looted their properties, left no stone unturned in torturing them. But how strange it is that efforts are being made to depreciate this bright history of Muslims for quite some time. The great Muslim personages who had sacrificed their all and even laid down their lives are being forgotten, so much so that textbook chapters on them are being dropped. Contrary to it, the personalities who had not played any considerable role in the struggle for freedom or had been the yes-men of the English, are being highlighted in an unprecedented manner.

The Ulama played the most important role in the freedom struggle; they not only provided proper guidance for the Muslim Ummah at such a delicate time but also actively fought against the English and even laid down their lives. The English had no sooner established their rule in the country than they started arresting Ulama on a large scale and sent thousands of them on the gallows. Muslim traders and deep pockets opened their treasure chests to help the freedom fighters wholeheartedly. Highly educated Muslims having side-lined their lucrative posts and mundane charms rendered their services to the freedom struggle. Muslim women on one hand fought in the battlefields and on the other extended moral and meaningful cooperation to their husbands, brothers and sons so that they could struggle with utmost concentration. In the prevailing scenario when the contributions of Muslims are being negated and efforts are on to side-line them, there is need to adopt various ways to highlight their contributions.

Very little has been written on the role of Muslim women in the Indian freedom movement. The books available on Muslim freedom fighters generally mention men; they mention the role of Muslim women on a very surface level. However, there are a few articles published in magazines and journals which highlight the role of Muslim women freedom fighters. The book which deserves mention in particular here is Hindustan ki Jang-i-Azadi mien Muslim Khawateen ka Hissa (The Role of Muslim Women in Indian Freedom Struggle) by Dr. Abida Samiuddin, Reader Aligarh Muslim University Aligarh. This book chronicles 37 Muslim women who participated in the 1857 War for Independence, Non-Cooperation Movement, Khilafat Movement and later national struggle for freedom. This is of course a very small number. There are thousands of Muslim women who played an active role in the freedom struggle.

Chronologically, the freedom movement of India can be divided in two periods – one, 1857 and later period, when the revolt was raging in the various places and armed struggle against the English was going on; and two, the period when the grip of the English had taken roots in the Indian soil and different movements were running to liberate the country from the English. In both the periods Muslim women were struggling along with other freedom fighters.

Addressing Indian women, Asrarul Haq Majaz (1911-1955) said: Tire māthe pe ye āñchal bahut hī ḳhuub hai lekin / tū is āñchal se ik parcham banā letī to achchhā thā (How nice this scarf looks on your head, but/ it would be better if you make a flag out of it). Muslim women not only made flags out of their scarfs as and when needed but also fought with guns and swords in their hands, rode horses, and proved their worth by fighting against the enemies in battlefields.

In the 1857 and later period, many Muslim women participated in the war. They donned men’s clothes to participate in sword fighting, killed many enemies and were killed, many were arrested and hanged or burnt alive. On many occasions they displayed greater bravery than that of men fighters. There were many women who were widowed, whose children were killed, houses burnt, properties looted – but they never looked back and remained steadfast in the war against the enemies.

On one occasion, Col. Hudson said: “When the women of the country are so venturesome and patriotic, the British rule here will depend only on the treachery of few traitors craving for some wealth or jagir.”

When there was complete chaos in Delhi, a woman named Nazneen belonging to a well-to-do family of the city joined the fighters’ army and was deputed as guard of the city-wall. She was well-versed in gun pointing and sward wielding. While guarding the city-wall, she was shot at and martyred.

An unnamed woman wearing green burqua, carrying sword and gun, and riding a horse used to exhort the fighters to attack the British forces, and also fought herself. She used to appear on a horse and after the attack would disappear. One day she fell off the horse and was captured. She was sent to a prison in Ambala in July 1857 and now it is unknown as to what happened to her.

Asghari Begum (b. 1811) of Thana Bhawan, who was mother of Qazi Abdur Rahim, the revolutionary leader), fought against the British forces. She was captured and burnt alive.

Habiba Begum (b. 1833) of Muzaffarnagar was captured while fighting; the British forces sent her and her sister on the gallows.

Two hundred fifty-five women of Muzaffarnagar were shot dead; 11 women, including Raheemi Khatoon, were hanged till death.

Haji Begum (d. 1859) of Sasaram was well versed in horse riding. She along with other fighters fought valiantly against the British forces.

In the saga of the war against the Britishers there is the mention of a courtesan named Farhat Jahan. Charged with a sense of patriotism, she covered her face, kissed the sword and rode into the battle. At last, she fell victim to the shot of Gen. Hudson.

There was another courtesan, Azizun Nisa (or Azizun Bai) of Kanpur. When the fire of revolt against the Britishers reached Kanpur, she threw her anklet and took up the sword. She prepared an army of women; these women having disguised in men’s clothes and with swords in hands went out to help the fighters; Azizun, riding the horse, would be leading this army. They would move along the streets and lanes and cantonments, carry provisions for the fighters, and spurred the fighters on to fight. At last, she was captured. When a list of revolutionaries was prepared, the name of Azizun was at its top. Gen. Havelock tried to make her confess so that she might be released, but she replied: “I would prefer to die to seeking forgiveness.” At last, she was shot dead.

In the 1857 War of Independence, Begum Hazrat Mahal (Muhammadi Khanum, 1820 – 7 April 1879), the harem Begum of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Lucknow, is the most famous Muslim woman fighter. She had exemplary leadership talent. She put strong resistance against the British forces and continued doing so for a long time. When, after the revolt in Meerut, the flames of revolution reached Lucknow, she displayed her exceptional talents. The British authorities sent Nawab Wajid Ali Shah to Calcutta (now Kolkata) but Begum Hazrat Mahal stayed put in Lucknow. She gathered a large number of fighters in North India. Among them was Maulana Fazl Haq Khairabadi, who along with his comrades, after the exile of Bahadur Shah, had joined the army of Begum Hazrat Mahal.

Unlike Delhi which the Britishers had captured quite easily, Lucknow proved to be tough for them. Begum Hazrat Mahal fought them there quite valiantly. Donning men’s clothes, turban on the head and sword in the hand, riding a horse, she, like a ferocious lioness, would attack the British forces and disrupted them, row after row. Seeing her intrepidity and valiance, W.H. Russell, in his book My Indian Mutiny Diary, writes:

“This Begam exhibits great energy and ability…. The Begum declares undying war against us. It appears, from the energetic character of these Ranis and Begums, that the zenanas and harems a considerable amount of actual mental power and, at all events, become able intriguantes. Their contests for ascendancy over the minds of the men give vigour and acuteness to their intellect.”

J.C. Marshman, in his book The History of India, writes: “The resistance the revolutionaries put in Lucknow was so strong that the British forces had never encountered, so much so that such resistance was not put even in Delhi. The presence of Begum Awadh goaded the revolutionaries greatly. Very extraordinary, alert and active woman.”

It is an important historical incident that no sooner Major William Stephen Raikes Hodson (1821-1858), who was head of the Intelligence Wing of the British army and who had killed three princes of last Mughal king Bahadur Shah Zafar, had reached Lucknow than Begum Hazrat Mahal, with her astute war strategy, got him arrested and hanged.

The war against the Britishers was fought at different fronts in the leadership of Begum Hazrat Mahal. On certain occasions, the British forces had to face defeat but due to traitors the freedom fighters were defeated. Seventy-four thousand fighters were killed on the bank of the Gomti. On another occasion there was fierce fighting around the Begum Kothi but she never looked back. Lt. General Outram offered peace treaty many times, promised annual pension; and at last, when he came to know that the Begum was thinking of going to somewhere, he sent a message that she didn’t need to go out. But the Begum rejected the offer of truce every time and in spite of having been defeated she did not surrender. At last, she along with her son Birjis Qadr fled to Nepal, where after having spent a life of anonymity for some years she died on 7 April 1879.

After the World War I (1914-1919), when the colonial powers divided the Ottoman Caliphate among themselves, the Khilafat Movement in India decided to put up a decisive battle against the British colonialism. The Khilafat Movement proved to be a milestone in the national struggle for independence. At that time there was an unprecedented display of national unity and integrity as the followers of all religions came together to participate in the freedom struggle. In this regard, Muslim women too did not stay behind. Along with their husbands, brothers, sons and other relations, they fought shoulder to shoulder against the enemy.

Their services can be gauged with the fact that at the time when their husbands were passing days and nights behind the bar, they would not only manage domestic chores and bring up children but also encouraged their husbands and also looked after the families of other prisoners. Even during the days of severest trials, they did not utter a word of complain.

As for rendering active services to the second phase of freedom movement, the services of Abadi Bano Begum (1850-1924), mother of Ali Brothers (Mohammad Ali Jauhar and Shaukat Ali) are worth writing in golden letters. Brimming with love for freedom, she was a valiant patriot and great freedom fighter. The title of ‘Umm al-Ahrar’ was bestowed upon her for her distinguished services. Among the commoners she was affectionately known as ‘Bi Amma’. The historical personality of Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar (1878-1931) is the result of the training of Bi Amma, which Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar himself has acknowledged. He wrote: “Whatever I am and whatever I have, Allah has blessed me with through my Mother.”

The political life of Bi Amma began during the days of World War I. When The Defence of India Act was implemented during the war and a number of leaders of freedom movement, including Maulana Mohammad Ali and Shaukat Ali, were detained, Anjuman-i Nazarbandan-i-Islam was revived and a fund was created, to which Bi Amma announced to contribute.

Dr. Abida Samiuddin writes: “Ali Brothers were detained. Bi Amma had turned fragile, but the detention of her sons infused her with new spirits. She participated actively in the Khilafat Movement. She would travel far and wide, address large audiences, meet with and address willing gatherings at stations. Her tireless strivings lent the Khilafat Movement a new lease of life.”

During the Khilafat Movement, Shafiq Rampuri composed a poem entitled “Sada-i Khatoon” which became very popular as it enthused the freedom fighters in the length and breadth of the country against the British colonial rule.

An All-India Women Conference was held in the presidentship of Bi Amma in Ahmedabad on 30 December 1921. Thousands of women participated therein. Besides many renowned Non-Muslim ladies such as Kasturba Gandhi, Sarojini Naidu, Anusia Bai, Chaudhrain and Sarla Devi, the names of Muslim ladies like Amjadi Begum (wife of Maulana Mohammad Ali), Shamsunnisa Begum, Begum Dr. Mukhtar Ahmad Ansari, Nishatunnisa Begum (wife of Maulana Hasrat Mohani), Begum Khursheed (wife of Khwaja Abdul Majeed) and Begum Saadat Bano (wife of Saifuddin Kitchlew) are worth mentioning here. This shows that along with Non-Muslim ladies, a large number of Muslim ladies also participated in the freedom movement with utmost zeal and enthusiasm.

Talking about the active participation of Bi Amma in the Khilafat Movement, Gandhiji wrote in Young India:

“Although she was old, she had youth-like strength. She continuously travelled for the attainment of Khilafat and Swaraj. She was a staunch follower of Islam, and to her the freedom of India was impossible without khaddar and Hindu-Muslim unity. Therefore, she made concerted efforts for the unity, which to her was part of Iman.”

During the days of detention of Ali Brothers, then Director of Indian Intelligence Sir Charles Cleveland wanted them to make a pledge. His representative Mr. Abdul Majeed, Deputy Superintendent of Indian Intelligence, met with them. When Bi Amma came to know about it, she told Mr. Abdul Majeed:

“I want the government to know that if they (Ali Brothers) would accept such things as to contradict even a bit the religious commandments or the law of the land then I believe Allah would bestow so much strength upon my heart and robustness upon my wrinkled hands that I would slit their throats then and there.”

Like Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar’s mother, his wife Amjadi Begum also actively participated in the Khilafat Movement. A study of Gandhiji’s Young India tells us that Bi Amma and Amjadi Begum, during their tours, collected crores of rupees for the Congress’s Satyagraha and Khilafat Funds.

Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi writes:

“Amjadi Begum used to accompany the Maulana (Mohammad Ali Jauhar) in every Khilafat Conference tour, and always participated in meetings and other activities.”

The police arrested Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar at Voltaire Station in 1919.  At that time Amjadi Begum was accompanying him. She entered the police station and said to the Maulana:

“Don’t worry. Don’t think of me and the children. Allah was the Sustainer and He is the Sustainer even now. You were only a source. Allah can give even indirectly or even with other source. As for your work; if you permit, I will do that.”

In 1930, the Maulana was suffering from multiple diseases. In that very condition, he went to London to participate in the Round Table Conference. Amjadi Begum was accompanying him. The Maulana breathed his last there and was buried in Bait al-Maqdis.

One more lady is Nishatunnisa Begum, wife of Maulana Hasrat Mohani, who played an active role in the freedom movement. She remained with her husband for life, standing steadfast with utmost indomitable patience and fortitude. Maulana Hasrat Mohani himself acknowledges her services in these words:

“Had there been no Begum Hasrat, Begum Azad and Kamla Nehru, Hasrat would have been editor of some newspaper, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad would have been bringing out Al-Hilal and Al-Balagh, and Jawaharlal Nehru would have been at best a successful barrister. These ladies were out-and-out faithful and sacrifice personified. They sacrificed their lives, but never asked us, ‘O lovers of politics! You are going to prison, what would happen to us?’”

When Maulana Hasrat Mohani was arrested in 1908, Begum Hasrat wrote a letter to him the very next day:

“Bear heroically the misfortune that has befallen you. Never think of me or the home. Beware! See to it that no weakness is committed by you.”

Maulana Hasrat Mohani was arrested for the second time in 1916. He refused to obey the order of detention. Then, Begum Hasrat wrote a letter to him:

“This is the extent of your steadfastness. I admire you.”

Moved by this character of Begum Hasrat, Maulana Sulaiman Nadvi once wrote:

“When, after the imprisonment of her husband, there was no one to take care of her, hardly any Muslim woman can compete her in bearing all sorts of difficulties with courage and steadfastness.”

One distinguished name among the women freedom fighters is Zuleikha Begum, wife of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. She wholeheartedly supported the Maulana all through his tough times, used to console him during his prison days, remained a constant source of strength to him and thus fulfilled her loyalty to him. The Maulana himself has acknowledged it:

“Zuleikha Begum tried her level best to remain stuck together through thick and thin. She not only supported me but bore all sorts of difficult situations with utmost steadfastness. On the mental level she shared my thoughts and beliefs, and in practical life she was my friend and helper.”

Maulana Azad was sentenced to one-year rigorous imprisonment and imprisoned in a prison in Calcutta in December 1921 for his role in the Khilafat Movement. Then his wife, in a telegraphic message to Gandhiji, wrote:

“The verdict in the case of my husband Maulana Abul Kalam Azad was pronounced today. He was sentenced to only one-year rigorous imprisonment. It is surprisingly lesser than what we were ready to hear. If punishment and imprisonment is compensation for service to the nation then you will have to acknowledge that even in this matter stark injustice has been done to him. This is not even little of the little he deserved.”

Maulana Azad’s engagements went on increasing due to political activities. Due to tours, travels and repeated imprisonments the Maulana could hardly stay at home. The health of Zuleikha Begum started deteriorating fast. But the letters the Maulana received from her in the prison mentioned everything save and except her health problems. When the Maulana was in Ahmednagar jail, he came to know about his wife’s severe illness through newspapers. At the suggestion of the government of Bombay the Jail Superintendent offered to release the Maulana on payroll. His friends, especially Pandit Nehru tried their level best to convince him to accept release on payroll, but the Maulana did not budge. At last, Zuleikha Begum, with her wish to see the Maulana reposed in the heart, breathed her last on 9 April 1943.

Saifuddin Kitchlew is one among the freedom fighters. He got a law degree from a German university. But he gave up his practice of law and committed himself to Congress and the Khilafat Movement. His wife Saadat Bano (1893-1970), who was a litterateur and poetess, wholeheartedly supported him. On one occasion she told her husband:

“Don’t worry about anything. You will find me steadfast and a true patriot in bringing up the children and dealing with the affairs of life. I would not hesitate in sacrificing my life in this valley of thorns.”

Khwaja Abdul Majeed, a famous barrister in Aligarh, was vice chancellor of Jamia Millia Islamia. He was a renowned freedom fighter. He cooperated with Gandhiji in the Non-cooperation Movement. His wife Begum Khursheed (1896-1981) fully supported him. When freedom fighters were arrested, Begum Khursheed wrote to Gandhiji, saying that she was sorry that her husband was still free while his friends were sent to prison. And, when he was arrested, she wrote to Gandhiji:

“You will be pleased to know that government authorities have arrested my husband.”

About some Muslim women it is discovered even today that they had participated in the resistance against the British forces and sacrificed their lives.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar is well-known. When the British forces opened indiscriminate firing on the people attending a peaceful public programme, a Muslim woman named Bibi Umar Baihi was also martyred.

Rana Bano (b. 1888) of Midnapur (West Bengal) participated in the Quit India Movement (1942). She got injured in police firing during an attack on Nandigram police station and was martyred.

[The writer is Vice President Idara-i-Tahqeeq-o-Tasneef Aligarh and Assistant Editor Tahqeeqat-i-Islami Quarterly, Aligarh. Extracted and translated from his paper in Urdu presented recently in a seminar held in Hyderabad, Telangana]