Devika Rangachari: Invisible Women

On the occasion of Historical Fiction Week, Devika Rangachari, author of Queen of Ice, among others, talks about the importance of writing women back into history.

There is nothing that reiterates the importance of writing history that is gender-sensitive than the reactions of school children when I ask them whether women actually existed in the past. More often than not, they look confused—just as if I have asked them whether aliens have mingled with earthlings since time immemorial. So I invariably ask them to name any women figures that they can recall reading about in their textbooks and am promptly deluged with the usual suspects.

‘Razia!’ they shout.

‘She belonged to the 13th century. Anyone before that?’

I can almost see them cudgeling their brains. Most of them give up, at this point, but a few brave ones labour on.

‘The Rani of Jhansi,’ they offer, tentatively.

‘Lakshmibai!’ some of them chant, triumph writ large on their faces.

‘They’re one and the same person,’ I say, wincing at their incredulous expressions. ‘And she came much after Razia. Anyone else?’

I am usually met with mutinous silence, round about now. If I’m lucky, though, I might hear a murmured ‘Sarojini Naidu’. I am not always this fortunate.

‘So do you think women existed during the Harappan civilisation?’ I ask, desperately.

‘No!’ is almost always the immediate answer, followed, more often than not, by a brooding pause and then exclamations of, ‘Yes, they did! Of course they did.’

By this time, the teachers look indignant, debating the wisdom of having invited me to their school. I have managed to stir a hornets’ nest. Why am I talking of things that do not feature in the curriculum? After all, women do feature in textbooks, don’t they?

No, they don’t—at least, not in the way they should rightly be. And this is a fact across the board. So where do they find a mention? Usually in the concluding paragraph of any chapter, neatly tucked away under the title ‘Social Conditions’, that offers a few lines on the type of ornamentation they preferred and the clothes they wore—as if to suggest that women spent their lives obsessing over the correct curve of a bangle or the accessories they needed to adorn their costumes with—and precious little else. As for the rest, it is the men who form dynasties, rule, make laws, engage in economic transactions and are, as it were, everywhere at once, so that what is being taught in schools is actually His Story.

The fact of the matter is that women were extremely palpable figures at various points in history—and this is a truth that historical narratives, that are male-centred, would seek to hide. Consequently, it is possible to read an account of Kashmir’s history in the early medieval period without ever encountering the name of Didda, who was one of its most masterful and effective rulers in the 10th century. It is equally possible to read an account of Orissa’s history in the same period without knowing anything about the women rulers of the Bhaumakara dynasty. Almost everyone has heard of Harshavardhana of Kanauj of the 7th century but almost no one knows that it was his sister who enabled him to obtain the throne, in the first place.

Apart from these, there are a range of women figures who were either on the throne or behind the throne, made sagacious political and religious choices that impacted the populace at large, donated land and built structures to concretise their power on the physical landscape, and were otherwise prominent in the socio-political scenario. Invisibilising these figures—as most historians have been wont to do—is nothing short of sacrilege and an injustice to anyone, whether child or adult, who seeks to understand their history. In a time when history is being rewritten and facts manipulated to endorse political agendas, it becomes all the more vital to write an objective account of our past, treating women as relevant historical figures, among other things.

Which is nothing more or less than the truth!


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