Some battled the odds to stay in school, and make it to college and graduate, only to be told they weren’t wanted in the workplace.
Those who struck out on their own – doctors, lawyers, scientists, educators and even spies – fought to be taken seriously and had to contend with name-calling and ridicule. But it was these pioneering individuals whose grit and vision led to women being represented in Parliament and even in boardrooms. None of this would have been possible if a few courageous women hadn’t decided to set an example, regardless of the personal cost.
In the spirit of the theme of International Women’s Day today – ‘I Am Generation Equality: Realising Women’s Rights’ – here’s a look at five of India’s women pioneers, whose lives were full of firsts but also littered with hurdles as they took on the patriarchy. These are the inspirational stories of women in Indian history.
Kadambini Ganguly|Wikimedia Commons
Kadambini Ganguly (1861 – 1923)
She was called the equivalent of a prostitute for visiting patients late into the night
In 1882, Kadambini Ganguly and Chandramukhi Basu created history as the first two women graduates in the British Empire. Ganguly then decided to pursue medicine and applied for admission to the Calcutta Medical College. To her dismay, her application was turned down as the college did not admit women. However, after being threatened with legal action from some Brahmo leaders who were spearheading the movement for female emancipation in India, the college relented.
After she acquired a medical degree, Ganguly worked as a doctor at the Lady Dufferin Women’s Hospital on a monthly salary of Rs 300. She simultaneously ran a thriving private practice and her patients even included women from the Nepali royal family.
Ganguly’s commitment to her patients was unwavering and she sometimes worked day and night. But this dedication was questioned by conservative Hindu society. No woman from a respectable family would be ‘out there’ like her.
Cornelia Sorabji|National Portrait Gallery, London
Cornelia Sorabji (1866 – 1954)
‘You see, you are not a man, and no woman should be allowed to meddle with the law’
These words were uttered by the Chief Justice of Bombay, Sir Charles Sargent, to Cornelia Sorabji, who went on to become the first woman lawyer in India.
At the University of Bombay, doors were slammed in Sorabji’s face when she went to attend lectures as she was the only woman among 300 male students. At Somerville College in Oxford, England, she was denied admission to the Law faculty and was asked to study English Literature instead, as it was considered ‘more suitable’ for women.
When she finally overcame the obstacles that littered her path and earned her stripes as a lawyer, Sorabji was often allotted absurd cases like one where she had to defend an elephant against someone who had removed the animal’s favourite banana grove! By 1899, Sorabji had spent five years trying to become a barrister but to no avail. So she invented her own job description outside the legal set-up as legal advisor to ‘Purdahnashins’ or ‘women in purdah ’. Besides exercising her expertise in matters of inheritance, adoption and dispute resolution, Sorabji also helped make the lives of the women she represented better.
Kamala Sohonie|Wikimedia Commons
Kamala Sohonie (1912 – 1998)
‘Though Nobel laureate C V Raman was a great scientist, he was very narrow-minded’
These words express the anguish of a pioneering Indian botanist and the first woman to earn a doctorate in a scientific discipline.
After earning a BSc degree, Kamala Sohonie applied to work as a research student in C V Raman’s Lab at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore but was denied admission. It didn’t matter that her name featured high up on the merit list; Raman, a Nobel laureate, simply did not want women students working under him.
But that didn’t stop Sohonie. She demanded an explanation from Raman and observed a Gandhian-style dharna in front of his office. He relented and agreed to offer her a year’s probation – but with some very stringent and unfair restrictions. Later, at Cambridge, Sohonie made a path-breaking discovery in the area of plant respiration and it earned her a PhD degree. Apparently, she wrote her thesis in just 14 months and it was only 40 pages long!
Back in India, Sohonie was appointed by President Rajendra Prasad to conduct research on neera , a drink made from sweet palm nectar, legumes and rice flour, and to study how it could meet the nutritional needs of Indians. This was Sohonie’s contribution to public health.
Homai Vyarawalla|Wikimedia Commons
Homai Vyarawalla (1913 – 2012)
Her early works were published under her husband’s name.
Homai Vyarawalla, India’s first woman photojournalist, not only made history but also recorded history being made. She broke into an all-male domain at a time when there were only a few working women, let alone women photographers, in the country. A young Vyarawalla went to town with her new camera. In the ‘30s and early ’40s, she photographed her peers in art school and captured the streets and sights of Bombay. Perhaps a reflection of her own nature, her images capture the exuberance of youth and the life and times of the city she lived in.
Vyarawalla also photographed independent India’s first flag-hoisting ceremony at the Red Fort in Delhi. She chronicled the lives and deaths of statesmen like Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and Mahatma Gandhi. Today, some of the most iconic images of an independent India in the making, the climactic moment of the country’s freedom itself, and the heyday of a new republic were recorded by her lens.
Noor playing her veena|Spy Princess, The Life of Noor Inayat Khan by Shrabani Basu
Noor Inayat Khan (1914 – 1944)
Her superiors questioned her skills for secret warfare, noting her ‘gentle manner’, ‘lack of ruse’ and ‘temperamental nature’.
But remarks and opinions like these did not hold back Noor Inayat Khan, a British spy of Indian origin, who made the greatest sacrifice of all.
When German forces invaded France during the Second World War, Noor and her family moved to England. Despite their Gandhian upbringing, Noor and her brother Vilayat decided to join the fight against the Nazis. Noor volunteered with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and trained as a wireless operator. She was among the first batch of women to train in this field, and the first-ever woman radio operator to be dropped behind enemy lines.
Soon, Noor was recruited to join the France section of the Special Operations Executive, a secret organisation set up by the British to conduct espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance in occupied Europe against the Axis powers, and to aid local resistance movements. She was trained to handle guns, explosives, break locks, kill silently and send letters in code.
In the early hours of 17th June 1943, Noor was sent to France under the name ‘Madeleine’. Her role was to secretly transmit defence information via radio back to Britain. For three months, she dodged the Nazis, was constantly on the move and altered her appearance to evade detection. But luck was not on her side. She was betrayed by a French woman who had revealed Noor’s whereabouts to the Germans.