I wrote a piece in the New Year Eve’s edition of the Guardian about the last queen of the Punjab, Jindan Kaur.
The piece highlights the life of an inspiring, gutsy and far-from-perfect heroine in Punjabi culture. But it is also is a microcosm of a wider issue that needs to be highlighted: that there is a culture of female dissent in the east. This may seem obvious. But how often are women in “the Orient” to use Edward Said’s term, made to appear too eager to be dominated and often victims rather than pro-active women in charge of their destinies. Too often and this view is perpetuated in the media too.
Knowing about a historical figure like Jindan Kaur may not change the image of women or even people’s minds overnight, but it shows that there are figures to look back to. Complex women who had much to contend with and showed grit and persistence in the face of odds. Highlighting such women helps us begin the process of asking: where are they? How can we continue to highlight them and raise awareness of them?
There is a argument I did not get to make about how western feminists can sometimes look down on women’s struggles in eastern countries without realizing that a history of dissent does exist and we don’t always know about the figures that instigated it. Or the figures are not always spoken about in a way that makes them recognizable as part of a social movement.
But there are figures like Jindan Kaur. Then there are others like the writer Amrita Pritam who wrote about the horrific fallout for women in the Punjab during Partition – stories not discussed enough. Also the Rokeya Hossain story mentioned in the feature – Sultana’s Dream – came ten years before what is considered one of the first western feminist utopian stories, Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This indicates a visionary attitude for society by women living in it at the time; not just passive women living as victims of oppression.
What history/stories are we missing while we are engaging in debates? When I went to the British Library to do research on Jindan Kaur, a search of her name yielded few results in the computerised archives. The librarian told me women were “very badly represented” in the catalogue. There should be radical rethinking of how we view history and one place we can start is by digging out these ‘hidden heroines’ and spreading awareness of them.