Badass Women of the Anti-Colonial Movements

Women played a key role in the various anti-colonial movements that have resisted European hegemony since its very beginning.

Its a serious problem in historiography that women are often marginalized from narratives and analysis.  This is no less true in the studies of colonialism and anti-colonial movements; despite women playing a prominent role on all three continents, men such as Gandhi, Bhagat Singh, Ho Chi Minh, and Che Guevara are often pushed exclusively to the spotlight.

However, this passage from Robert Young’s Postcolonialism: An Historical Introduction does an excellent job illustrating the diverse and powerful movements lead by women in the colonies, and the actions they took to liberate their homelands from European domination.

In India, several women lead armed rebellions in 1857-8, notably Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, the Rani of Ramgarh and Begum Hazrat Mahal.  In later years there were many public political activists and politicians such as Pandita Ramabai and Kadambini Ganguli in the 1890s, the revolutionary activist Bhikaiji Cama in the early twentieth century, and Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and Lado Rani Zutshi during the Civil Disobedience movement in the 1920s and 1930s; in Ceylon, Ezlynn Deraniyagala and in Indonesia, Raden Adjeng Kartini.

Rani Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi, one of the leaders of the 1857 Rebellion


Raden Adjeng Kartini, Indonesian nationalist and feminist activist in the late 1800s

In India women participated not only in the campaigns of Gandhi and the Congress Party (Sarojini Naidu was the first Indian women to become President of Congress in 1925), but also formed their own political organizations affiliated to the Congress Party or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, such as the Rashtriya Stree Sangha (RSS), Desh Sevika Sangha (DSS), the Mahila Rashtriya Sangha (MRS) in Bengal, the Nari Satyagraha Samiti (NSS) in Calcutta, and the Rashtriya Sevika Samithi.

Indian women were also active in various forms of ‘terrorist’ violence: Kalpana Dutt, for example, took part in the Chittagong Armory Raid of 1930; Suniti Choudhry and Samiti Ghose shot the Magistrate of Comilla in 1931.  The following year Bina Das made an unsuccessful assassination attempt on the Governor of Bengal at Calcutta University, and Pritilata Waddedar, a schoolteacher, led a raid on the Pahartali Railway Officers Club in 1932, dying in action.  Many women such as Aruna Asaf Ali, Sucheta Kriplani and Usha Mehta worked underground during the Quit India movement.  In August 1942 Mehta helped establish a secret free radio station, which began broadcasting as Congress Radio.  It was not shut down until mid-November.  Lt-Colonel Lakshmi Swaminathan was made Commander of the Rani Jhansi Regiment in Bose’s Indian National Army; women’s sections were started in Singapore, Malaya and Burma.

Pritilata Waddedar, a Bengali schoolteacher who lead an attack on a bougy European country club in 1932, which was successfully burned down. However, the police soon surrounded Waddedar, who commited suicide to avoid arrest and torture.

Pritilata Waddedar, a Bengali schoolteacher who lead an attack on a European country club in 1932, which was successfully burned down. However, the police soon surrounded Waddedar, who committed suicide to avoid arrest and torture.

Lakshmi Swaminathan, Commander of the Rani Jhansi Regiment of the Indian National Army, which attempted to overthrow the British Raj from 1942 to 1945.

Elsewhere, just as women were prominent fighters for the FLN in Algeria, Palestinian women such as Leila Khaled were part of the PLO’s most active terrorist groups, and more recently, women have been very evident amongst the radical socialist Tamil Tigers (LTTE) in Sri Lanka as part of a common response of resistance to the succession of government (and Indian) anti-Tamil pogroms and military onslaughts since 1977–though whether some acts, such as restoring one’s honor by committing a suicide-bomb attack, mark an advance for women remains doubtful.

Leila Khaled, Palestinian Marxist militant who participated in the plane hijackings of the late ’60s and early ’70s

Women played a major role in the anti-colonial war in Vietnam against the French and the US.  The communist Vietnamese activists Nguyen Thi Nghia, Nguyen Thi Minh Khai and Minh Khai were all arrested, tortured, and executed by the French.

Nguyen Thi Minh Khai, Vietnamese communist activist who agitated for liberation and socialism throughout the 1930s. She was captured, tortured, and executed by the French colonial government in 1941.

In Africa women’s participation in anti-colonial movements ranged from leading military campaigns against European colonizers, as in the case of Mbuya Nehanda, the war chief whose troops attacked the forces and installations brought into Shona country by Cecil Rhodes (she was captured and executed in 1897), or the famous women warriors of Dahomey, finally massacred by the French in 1894, to the violent resistance to colonial taxation by the peasant and market women of West Africa (modern Nigeria) in the 1920s, to a wide range of forms of positive action, economic and cultural resistance throughout Africa, to participation in legal and illegal forms of civil rights campaigns as in South Africa throughout the twentieth century, as well as participation in the armed struggle in Angola, Eritrea, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Namibia and Zimbabwe.

Mbuya Nehanda (center), spiritual leader of the Shona people who lead a rebellion against the British in the late 1800s, in the region now known as Zimbabwe. She was captured and executed in 1897.


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2 Responses to Badass Women of the Anti-Colonial Movements

  1. Pingback: Sweet and Sharp, Vol. 27 | In Our Words

  2. Pingback: Dur-e-Aden on Women in Radical Groups | CDA Institute

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