Feminism as a consolidated movement against the discrimination of women is a powerful social movement against patriarchal values and self-fashioning of cultures that implicate themselves on certain markers of identity. The body, as Judith Butler theorizes, always takes on a form that is obviously an effect of ideological repetition. The forms and performative gestures of gender do not attend to a human being ‘naturally’, but constitute a vast body of pre-existing potentialities that are quickly acquired as a person grows up. The body then, does not remain merely a site for the application of external power, but is simultaneously formed by power. In this light, it is interesting to see the leakage of power in the vast continuum of human history in the form of women emerging as ‘a’ great fighter against ‘a’ powerful force. But these are profane, nonetheless. The sacred is always Virgin Mary, or some other figure of humility or motherliness, and a Rani of Jhansi thus ‘emerges’ from the depths of consciousness to reclaim a structural freedom from discursive formations that was denied originally (all pun intended to the original sin).
But now the profane seems to have become the sacred. One of the most aesthetic expressions of this reclamation is the not the emergence but the consolidation of the position of the women combatants, who have fought alongside men in battles. The sprouting of these individuals in history is also very important and this article will deal with both the aspects of writing about the emergence of woman combatants- the individuals in history who enjoy legendary status in the imagination, and the ones who are changing the apparatuses of imagination by making the acts of valour ‘natural’.
Throughout history, we see many individual women who have been valiant fighters and have become legendary figures and sources of inspiration for other women. Rani Abbakka of Ullal near Mangalore is one such woman who fended off the Portuguese on several occasions. The Portuguese by the 16th century had most ports of the Indian Ocean in their firm control. Another similar figure, Queen Mangammal of Madurai fought many kings ranging from the Mughals to the Marathas to several other small kings who refused to pay the annual tribute and declared rebellion against her. She was able to suppress most of these rebellions against her kingdom and ultimately proved to be a much greater ruler than her husband. Mai Bhago was also a great fighter against the Mughals and saved her Sikh community from the hands of the Mughals. In this way she resisted conversion to Islam. Examples of such brave fighters from other cultures are also present and should be hailed as great. The Celtic queen Boudicca fought against the Romans in Britain. It was customary for the Celtic kingdoms to train their daughters in sword-fighting and other similar activities. The other examples from ancient history are Chilonis who was a princess of Sparta and had married Cleonymus who was not allowed to accede to the throne and was sent away from Sparta. He attacked his homeland, but the queen Chilonis along with her lover Acrotatus, was able to defend her land. There are more examples of such brave women fighters which can be found here. Joan of Arc is also known for her bravery when she fought for France in the Hundred Years’ War. Recently, S.P. Harish and Oendrilla Dube have shown that there was 27% increase in wars when a woman was in power in Europe between 1480 and 1913. The explanation is that there was a greater division of labour when the queen was in power. This means that the queens were keener to place their spouses in official positions and be free to think about wars and aggressive foreign policy in general. On the other hand, when the king was in power, he would be less inclined to place their wives in official positions and so would have to manage both the state affairs and foreign policy, which would have been a very difficult task. This theory is open to debate, but nonetheless is the illustration of instances where women have tried to break free from existing paradigms of identity formation.
If we look at more recent history, we can find more and more women becoming combatants and active participants in wars, revolutions and uprisings. Constance Markeivicz was an active participant in the Easter rising against the British Empire. She was also able to hurt a British sniper and put into solitary confinement and the only one out of the 70 women to have met this fate. Blaanca Canales, the Puerto Rican nationalist was involved in an armed uprising against the United States in the year 1950, when the United States passed a bill that made printing and publishing a crime by law. Celia Sanchez, the life-long partner of Fidel Castro, was a great revolutionary, who led many combat forces and was the main orchestrator of the 1952 coup of the Batista government when more than 80 fighters were brought to Cuba in order to make the coup possible. During World War II, Lydia Lydvayak became the first woman in history to score an aerial kill. This was made possible by the fact that the Russian army decided to recruit women aviators.
Carrying on the tradition of women engaging in armed struggles, the most important turn has been in the last five years. With the Arab Spring and the subsequent rise of the ISIS, a large number of women have come out to defend themselves and their countries. The ISIS is a death cult and has transformed the very notion of the nation-state by showing that the nation-states cannot protect their citizens. Against this vicious idea, women have stood up from Yemen to Syria to Iraq and many other middle-eastern states. The Yazidis are a people that have been hated by the ISIS and have been the victims of the most brutal of human crimes possible. A big salute is due to the women fighters of the Yazidis who have named themselves the “Sun Ladies”. They were the rape victims of the ISIS and were witness to the devilish nature of the Islamic State, where mothers even threw their babies off the cliffs and then jumped themselves in order to die in a better way. Alfred Yaghobzadeh has masterfully captured the plight of the Yazidi women fighters, most of who even deny that they were raped by the ISIS militants because of the culture of shame. The photographs taken by him have delved into the resilient mentality of these women and also others like the Kurdish women fighters, who had saved the Yazidi women from the ISIS. This solidarity between the Yazidis and Kurds was an effect, in a sense of the formation of Rojava, or the small sub-states in Syria by the Kurdish minority and that have been targeted constantly the Syrian government. Many men had fled, but around 16000 fighters had stayed back in Rojava to fight the ISIS. A basic principle of the Kurdish struggle was gender equality. The YPJ or the women’s wing of the army, was born out of this principle. Rehana became an online celebrity when she killed 100 ISIS militants in Kobane, one of the worst sufferers of ISIS attacks. The Iraqi Kurdish women’s army, known as the Peshmerga (those who face death) had also been active in parts of Iraq that were controlled by the ISIS. The Christian minority in Syria has also produced female fighters in north-east Syria who fight alongside the Arab and Kurdish fighters against ISIS. Umayyah Naji Jabara, an Iraqi politician was killed in a combat with the ISIS. She was personally leading the combat when she was hit by a sniper. A Canadian woman, one of the very few from the western states to have joined the fight against ISIS, is an example of voluntary participation in the war against terror. She is of the view that the Kurds have displayed extreme gender equality in this struggle and women have been treated very well.
In the Indian context, apart from Rani Abbakka and Rani of Jhansi, there are several other women in Indian history who have been great fighters. In the ballads of north Malabar, for example, we have the legend of Unniyarcha, who saved her village from the Moplahs in the 16th century. Even before the formal rebellion against the British had started at a large scale, Kittur Rani Chennamma was involved in a fierce struggle against the British when they did not accept his son as the heir to the throne but instead wanted to annex the kingdom. In Awadh, for example, the wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, Begum Hazrat, with the help of a number of associates provided the longest and the toughest resistance to the British after the sepoy mutiny took place. The begum ruled for 10 months as a regent in Lucknow and died in Nepal in 1879. Rani Laxmibai, or better known as Jhansi ki Rani does not need much elaboration here. She fought against the British after the repeated appeals against annexation were rejected. But she fought her fiercest fight in 1858 when she had to flee from her fort to Gwalior, before she was finally overpowered by the British. Another great example from this period of Indian history would be Jhalkari Bai, who was a part of the army of Jhansi and was trained in swordfight. Azizun Bai and Uda Devi are also remembered as legendary fighters in the 19th century. Moving forward from the 19th century, new forms of rule and power demanded new forms of resistance. The provisional Azad Hind government during the Indian Independence Movement was formed in Singapore. During the world war, when the army of the Azad Hind was aiming to overthrow the government, Laxmibai, or Captain Laxmi was leading the Rani of Jhansi regiment.
Recently, the Secretary-General of the United Nations praised the peace-keeping unit of the Indian police force that works for the UN. Their work in Liberia, especially during the Ebola breakout has been praised. This police unit of the UN entirely composed of Indian women police officers is the first of its kind. To give such other examples, Yamin Hazarika made it to Indira Gandhi’s security team from Assam. She had cleared the police service examinations but was appointed in DANIPS (Delhi, Andaman and Nicobar Islands Police Service) Sanjukta Parashar is regarded as the first IPS officer from Assam, because it is not clear whether Yamin Hazarika was ever promoted to the police forces. She has been fighting the Bodo militants and has killed 16 of them and has arrested over 64 militants. But this is not the only reason why people respect her so much. She is known to be a very humble person. She holds a PhD in US Foreign Policy from JNU. Every six months, around 5000 women graduates take various examinations for the posts in the Indian army. They have achieved various laudable feats and are ever-growing, showing how the Indian society is changing and more women are coming to the forefront. The army is generally, however, reluctant in appointing women officers, but the ITBP is a glaring exception. It has employed female veterinarians in their ranks. They have also expressed the desire to employ 30% women in the general duty cadre. Valour has also been exhibited by women like Vinaya Patil, who is the wife of Flight Lieutenant Shashikant Damgude. She joined the IAF after her husband died. The first woman to be awarded the sword of honour is Divya, who made great contribution to the Indian army and is a source of inspiration for other women. Lieutenant Kiran Shekhawat became the first woman to die on duty. She was on a Dornier aircraft which went down. Apart from these individual feats, some structural changes are also taking place. Indian Navy has expressed the desire to recruit more female flyers. Sapper Shanti Tigga is also an inspiration for other women. She is in fact the first lady jawan among the 1.3 million-strong defence forces. She has time and again outperformed her fellows, all of whom are male. She is a widowed mother. The most positive development this year, however, has been the recruitment of three female flying officers. As mentioned above, too, the IAF had been asking for more female recruits and this was made true by this latest recruitment.
Despite such positive developments, both in the Indian and global context, the debate whether women can be good combatants and a force to reckon with, is far from over. The main concerns of the army officers, in India too, among others are the issues of psychological complexity, which might prove to be an obstacle in the way of the women participating in combats and also the fact that they would, for example, not be able to carry other male officers when they are injured, and hence seriously hindering the relief measures. While these concerns may be true, the women are also hopeful that they would be able to bring about a change in the dimensions of the relationship with male officers. Concerted efforts can be taken up for the purpose of training the women well. But that needs a lot of will power from the society.
(Co-authored with Suvankur Sukul)