5 Inspirational Women from Punjab

Celebrating International Women’s Day we go back in time and look at five inspirational Punjabi women:

Mata Bhag Kaur known as Mai Bhago

Mata Bhag Kaur, also known as Mai Bhago the Sikh, Punjabi woman who fiercely led forty men back to the battlefield after they had abandoned Guru Gobind Singh Ji, the 10th Sikh Guru at Chamkor Sahib in 1705.

Born in Chabal Kalan (present-day Amritsar) in 1666 to Bhai Mallo Shah, Mai Bhago was the only sister to her four brothers. Mai Bhago was infuriated to hear that some of the Sikh men from her village who originally set out to Anandpur Sahib to support Sri Guru Gobind Singh Ji, had deserted him as conditions became more difficult. The forty deserters signed a declaration to leave and arrived back at Chabal, where they were welcomed by the rage of Mai Bhago. Mata Ji pointed out their cowardliness and lack of faith, she not only shamed them, but brought them back to the path of devotion. Mai Bhago put on her armour and led the forty men into the famous battle of Sri Muktsar Sahib, which was fought against the Mughal forces at Khidrana in the district of Ferozepur in 1705. Mai Bhago and the forty men reached Khidrana as the Mughals were making an attack on the Guru’s stronghold, Mai Bhago’s battalion were outnumbered 10,000 to 41 and was the only last remaining survivor of this great battle after tiring out the Mughal forces and fighting till their death.

Mai Bhago’s story is one of bravery, compassion and determination. Without her leadership into the battle, the forty men would have never been liberated by their Guru, or be known as the Chali Mukte (40 liberated ones. From there, Mai Bhago became the Guru’s bodyguard, passing of old age in the early 1700s. Mai Bhago’s legacy lives on; her gun and spear can be found in Sikh museums and her house has been converted into a Gurdwara. The BBC also coined Mai Bhago as one of the “most badass women in history” and you should too. 

Maharani Jindan Kaur known as Jind Kaur

Maharani Jind Kaur was the last Sikh Queen of Lahore, the was-then capital of the Punjab Empire. Maharani Jind Kaur was born in 1817 in Chicharwali, in the Sialkot district of Punjab, and was one of Maharaja Ranjit Singh wives. She is often termed as the ‘rebel Queen’ due to her resistance against the British, in which she raged two catastrophic wars that eventually led to the annexation of Punjab. She sent armies to fight for Sikh sovereignty (First Anglo-Sikh War) and thousands of men across the Sikh empire fought in her name (Second Anglo-Sikh War).

The Sikh Empire under Maharaja Ranjit Singh began to collapse after his death in 1839. Following a series of succession-related battles, Jind emerged as adviser for Duleep Singh, her son, who was five years old when placed on the throne in 1843. Knowing the region was under great instability, the British waged a war against the empire that eventually led to the takeover of Punjab. Maharani Jind Kaur spent years organising the Sikh resistance against the British and plotted a rebellion against them once they had finally taken over in 1849. To prevent her from influencing young Duleep, the British separated the Queen from her son and imprisoned her. She was labelled as the “Messalina of the Punjab”, portraying her as a wicked woman who was too rebellious to control. Her son was taken away to England, where he converted to Christianity and lived a life among Queen Victoria and friends.

After being imprisoned, Jind disguised herself as a servant and escaped the fort, travelling through hundreds of miles of forest until she reached Nepal. She was given a house on the banks of river Bhagmati and stayed there until 1860. Despite her distance from Punjab, she continued to reach out to rebels in Punjab and Jammu-Kashmir to overthrow the British. Under constant pressure from the British, the Nepalese government eventually turned hostile towards Jind and she was no longer treated with the same hospitality as upon her arrival. Jind eventually reunited with her son Duleep years later, who suggested she moved to England with him. She eventually died in Kensington on the 1st August, 1863.

Maharani Jind Kaur’s story is one of great bravery and significance. Not only was she the last Queen of the Sikh Empire, but she fought bravely against the wrath of the British during years of war. Although she was not successful, her strength inspired Duleep Singh to turn his back on the British and to take action in reclaiming his Kingdom.

Sophia Duleep Singh (Princess Sophia Alexandrovna Duleep Singh) 

Sophia Duleep Singh was a prominent figure in the suffragette movement across Britain, fighting for the cause of women’s rights. Sophia was born on the 8th of August in 1876 in Suffolk, England and was the daughter of Maharaj Duleep Singh and Goddaughter to the Queen Victoria. Shortly after a trip to India where she witnessed poverty and life outside of her usual comforts, Sophia returned back to England determined to fight for working class women.  

In 1903, Sophia travelled to India despite being banned and going against the wishes of the Secretary of State for India, she went to see the grand celebrations for the accession of King Edward VII as emperor of India. She was shocked by the level of racism and brutality under the rule of the British, here she saw and experienced racism at firsthand. After this trip a spark was lit and Sophia became active in the struggle for equality.

In 1909 Sophia joined the Women’s Social and Political Union and became an active member in protests, the physical scuffles on ‘Black Friday’ in 1910 and she had sold her possessions to friends and family so that they couldn’t be seized for tax payments. The older she became, the more active she became in standing up for women’s rights. She famously sold The Suffragette newspaper outside of Hampton Court Palace where she lived, sparking the attention of the likes of King George V among others. She was arrested for taking part in protests, but her name and status prevented her from going to prison. She raised vast sums of money for movements across the country and fought with the police regularly with her fellow suffragettes. During the First World War, Sophia had also volunteered as a British Red Cross Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, where she tended to wounded British-Indian troops at a hospital in Brighton. 

Sophia’s passion for women’s rights had no limits. After the 1918 enactment of the Representation of the People Act, which allowed for women over 30 to vote, she joined the Suffragette Fellowship and remained a member until her death in 1948. Eventually, women over the age of 21 would be allowed to vote under her Suffragette Fellowship. 

Despite her sovereign status and heritage, Sophia was passionate about the rights of Working-Class woman and continued to fight for them until the very end. Her political vigour sparked the attention of leaders, such as King George V and Winston Churchill and even in-between her activism, she supported war efforts to nurse Indian Soldiers that praised her grandfather Maharaja Ranjit Singh’s legacy. 

Gulab Kaur

Gulab Kaur was a brave heroine who left her comfortable life and husband to fight against the British in Punjab. She was a key leader of the Ghadar Party and mobilised masses from across Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur, and Jalandhar to fight for an armed revolution against British polices that stripped Punjabi farmers of their income. 

Born in 1890 in Bakshiwala, in Sangrur, Punjab, Gulab was wedded at a young age to her husband Mann Singh and soon after, moved to the Philippines in search of a new livelihood as many farmers in Punjab were driven away by British polices. 

During her time in Manila, Philippines, Gulab came across Baba Hafiz Abdullah Fajja, Baba Banta Singh and Baba Harnam Singh Tundilat, leaders of Ghadar Party Branch in Manila. The Ghadar Party was an international political movement founded by expatriate Indians (mainly Punjabi immigrants) to overthrow the British rule in India. Gulab became one of the main organisers of the Ghadar party and travelled across the Philippines to organise Indian residents, and to collect money and weapons for the party. She was also instrumental in mobilising and sustaining the movement through her active role in printing and distributing party literature.

Eventually, Gulab retuned to India and continued her work in Punjab until she was arrested by the British authorities. She was brutally tortured for two years in Lahore’s Shahi Qila and eventually passed away in 1931. Bibi Gulab Kaur is a less well-known Punjabi heroine and there is limited scholarship on her work. However, from what we do know she was a determined revolutionary and leader who was central to the Ghadar party movement in the early 1900s. 

Inderjit Kaur 

Inderjit Kaur was a social worker, professor and an activist during the 1947 Partition of India. 

Born in 1923 in Patiala, Punjab, Inderjit Kaur grew up to study at Patiala’s Victoria Girls School, and subsequently was educated in Lahore, where she completed an MA in Philosophy from the Government College. Inderjit was coined as one of the most educated girls in Patiala, and began teaching at the Victoria Girls Intermediate College in 1946 once she graduated. 

During her time as a teacher, the Partition of India led to wide disruptions around her, including the influx of hundreds of refugees into Patiala. Inderjit, alongside others, formed the Mata Sahib Kaur Dal to support refugee families in the form of food, clothing and their rehabilitation. As the secretary of the organisation, Inderjit played a fundamental role in sending truckloads of resources to other refugees in Baramulla, Kashmir, where the Patiala Army had gone to rescue locals. Inderjit spent her time after this supporting the setting up for the Mata Sahib Kaur Dal School in Patiala, which was formed largely for the education of refugee children. She also organised self-defence training for women refugees and set up gidda classes for girls. 

Inderjit went on to become the Vice-Chancellor of the Punjabi University in Patiala and represented India at various international conferences, including the Conference of the Association of Commonwealth University at Wellington, New Zealand, and at the International Conference of the Executive Heads of Universities, held in Boston, USA, where she was among the only three women university heads in the world. 

Although her time of passing is unknown, she retired her position as Chairman of Staff Selection Commission, Delhi in 1985, after which she moved to Chandigarh to retire.

Bibi Inderjit Kaur is an inspiration to us all. She ran an organisation which single-handedly supported over 400 refugee families, whilst pursuing her own ambitions – becoming one of the first women from Patiala to earn a Masters degree.  She spent her life serving the Punjabi community in the form of education and humanitarianism – something which we can all achieve and take inspiration from. 

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