Updated: Mar 11, 2021
Irisa R. and Mariam H.
Here is a collection of visionaries whose fearlessness, grit and perseverance is a testament to what they achieved. Many of these women weren’t easy to find while some you may have already heard of. Even when we rediscovered some of them in obscure archives, we could feel their presence. It would be insincere to pretend they were merely misplaced in history; some of them were footnotes in other people’s achievements, some of them were deliberately silenced and some were seen as too disruptive for their times. They all dared to live their life by their own values and for this reason their stories feel as vivid now as they did when they first emerged as artists, writers, activists and revolutionaries. So please, settle in and enjoy the ride.
Amrita Sher - Gil; The Painter
Amrita Sher-Gil’s achievements are so dense and illustrious that it’s hard to find a starting point, but she is now celebrated as one of the greatest avant-garde artists of the early 20th century. She first picked up a paintbrush at the age of eight but it wasn’t until she painted ‘Young Girls’ in 1932 that she won the grandest prize in Europe.
She spent years in Paris as an acclaimed artist but later recalled feeling, ‘haunted by an intense longing to return to India...feeling in some strange way that there lay [her] destiny as a painter.’ Therefore, when the wheels of India's independence movement truly began moving she was inspired to create art that centred the experiences of Indian women. She succeeded (in every possible way) when she began painting Desi women, with a level of tenderness, sensitivity and cultural appreciation that was unheard of at that time.
Elizabeth Choy; A Fearless Heroine
When you think of a real - life James Bond. You need to think - Elizabeth Choy (minus the creepiness and low-key alcoholism).
She started working as a nurse in Singapore during World War II and when Japan started occupying some of the most dangerous and tightly secured prison camps, she made it her mission to smuggle medicine, letters and food supplies to the prisoners of war. At one point the Japanese forces captured both her and her husband and a soldier later described in horrific detail how they tortured her. Although this torture was known to force anyone into speaking, she kept her word and never revealed the names of the people she helped, effectively saving their lives. It’s by no surprise that she was given the endearing nickname of ‘Gunner Choy.’
She went on to teach at some of the most prestigious private schools in London, and while doing so she always maintained strength in her identity, refusing to ever take off her traditional Chinese wear. If that wasn’t enough, she became the first and only female member of the Legislative Council prior to Singapore's independence from Britain, expanded the Singapore volunteer corp, and founded the Singapore School for the Blind. For all her dedication and services, Elizabeth was awarded the Pingat Bakti Setia (long service medal) in 1973 by her Government.
Meena Keshwar Kamal; The Warrior
Known as Meena, this Afghani woman was a force to be reckoned with.
At the age of just 20, she started the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA). It’s key goals were social justice, gender equality, the separation of religion from the state and the restoration of democracy.
In 1981, to help spread the message of RAWA she started her own magazine called Payam-e-zan (Woman’s message). The distribution of these magazines is worthy of any spy thriller. RAWA volunteers would walk around the markets and spread the message of the magazine, until they formed partnerships and found distributors. It was published in Farsi, Pashto and Urdu and then distributed throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan. The operation was illegal and extremely risky, where if any person was found to be engaging in such activities they could be jailed or killed.
Meena also set up undercover schools to educate women and children seeking refuge. Whilst also establishing a public hospital and a handicraft centre for women that fled to Pakistan, to encourage financial independence.
Meena epitomises how thousands of Afghani women use their strength, resilience and spirit to be true agents of change. She is remembered and honoured by the countless number of Afghani women who continue to fight for their freedom.
Kanitha Samsen; The Humanitarian Lawyer
Before Amal Clooney or Gloria Steinem there was was Kanitha Samsen.
Born in 1929, she was encouraged by her parents to take her education seriously and she was given opportunities that few women in Thailand could have dreamed of at that time.
By the age of 30, Kanitha had completed an International Law degree at Columbia University, a Social Welfare degree at Howard University and an International Relations degree in Geneva. When she returned to Thailand she spent years travelling around rural regions in order to understand how to improve services for women, whilst also offering Pro - Bono (free legal) services to the community. She opened her home to so many abused, elderly or unemployed women that the government started bringing vulnerable women to her doorstep. By 1980, she established the first ever women’s shelter, focused on housing, meals and health referrals, which aided thousands and thousands of Thai women.
Within a few years she took her law degree to town and ended up pushing for legislation that helped women access health care and education. In 1990, to support these changes in legislation she introduced a policy centre focused on analysing the unique socio - economic and political issues facing Thai women.
Later on in her life, she recognised that women tended to be excluded from religious Buddhist ministries so she became ordained as a maechee (a lay nun) and opened up a nunnery where women could be included in the most sacred religious circles.
Googoosh; Singer (disco queen)
Bell Bottom sleeves, funky music and a killer signature pixie cut, wasn’t even the half of it with pop singer Googoosh.
A singer and performer from the age of 3, by the ‘60s she had released hit after hit in over seven languages, danced in nearly every style and had become one of the most successful movie stars. Her music was so energetic and fun that she became known as a disco queen, always performing in flamboyant dresses, skirts or pantsuits. She was also the first female protagonist to ever star in an Iranian film (Bita).
After the Iranian revolution in 1979 her music was banned so her art became a symbol of freedom. She refused to leave Iran for twenty one years, even though that meant giving up the right to perform her songs live, staying loyal to the country that nurtured her talents and catapulted her onto the world stage. In recent years, Googoosh’s music has found a second life. It has been sampled by Kanye West, shared by Beyonce and celebrated all across the world. In 2000, Googoosh made a comeback at the age of 50, releasing new music.
Homai Vyarawalla; Every Hipster's photography Heaven
When we think of the ‘20s we are dazzled by photographs of flapper dresses and pearls, but look who we’ve missed!
Homai Vyarawalla’s photographs were so incredibly AESTHETIC; elegant and purposeful.
She was the first female photojournalist in India (and one of the first in the world). Her first collection of photographs were exquisite and were published in The Illustrated Weekly of India (albeit under her husband's name). They are now what we call ‘candid’ but at that time they were innovative. She was capturing Indian women, draped in their beautiful sari's while chatting to their friends or women just accidentally (perfectly) modelling on a rocky cliff (you know how it be).
She spent most of the ‘40s photographing every major political leader during India’s fight for freedom. Thereby giving a dignified face and voice to many activists, whose fight for independence was considered far too controversial by most international media outlets.
Begum Rokeya; The 1900s Stephen King (If he was a sassy, Desi feminist writer)
Begum Rokeya emerged as a political comedian and writer around 100 years before this style of writing even had a name. She launched her literary career in 1902 with an essay called Pipasa (Thirst) but she is remembered as a true literary genius for Sultana’s Dream (1908) and the novels that followed.
A sci - fi novel set in the future where only women held positions of power and everyone owned flying cars, solar ovens and other futuristic inventions. It was a perfect example of satire and captured the absurdity of inequality, especially in a time where women were barred from most positions of leadership. She also defied her parents (who were Mughal aristocrats) and learnt her local tongue (Bengali) so that she could better understand her community and establish schools aimed at educating girls.
Many of her novels were set in a fantasyland called ‘Ladyland.’ Let’s please make this into a movie (asap).
Nadia Anjuman; The Revolutionist Disguised As A Poet
Born in Herat, Afghanistan’s renowned literary epicentre, Nadia grew up during the tumultuous times of Taliban rule. In defiance of their rulings she enrolled in an underground school named the ‘Golden Needle Sewing School.’ Run by Professor Mohammad Ali Rahyab, she was introduced to literary circles that inspired her in every possible way and would inform her later writing.
Nadia was among the first group of women to enrol at the University of Herat, after the Taliban were ousted. She published her first anthology of poetry titled Gul-e-Dodi (Dark Flower). This anthology gained a devoted readership across Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.
Her poetry was raw and unfiltered. She was particularly skilled at Ghazal style of poetry. It’s now painful to read with the disturbing knowledge that she died from domestic violence.
This extract from her poem ‘Dark Flower’ captures her beautiful intensity and vulnerability;
If I leave this dark place,
know my home will be in the crook of God’s moon
My soul will climb to the center of God’s light
Safia Tarzi; when Madonna said Vogue she meant her
When we first saw Tarzi sitting cross legged, styled in her red turban with a direct and fierce gaze we couldn’t help but be intrigued. After extensive digging (and it really was extensive because damn this woman was mysterious and elusive) we discovered that Tarzi was an Afghan fashion designer, with a high - end boutique in Kabul. Her designs were vibrant focused on mixing traditional Afghan prints with western styles. A 1969 edition of American Vogue featured her as an up and comer in the fashion world.
More research uncovered that Safia had also been a talented photographer, with several of her prints being turned into postcards.
Maharani Gayatri Devi; The Princess Diana of Jaipur
Priding ourselves on being a period drama - addicts, it came as a complete shock when we first came across her biography ‘A Princess Remembers’. She captured the beauty, glamour and elegance of the Indian princely states, without ever defending their importance or justifying their position. Of course, she was royalty and with that comes immense power and privilege but her book describes the culture, fashion and beauty of places in modern day India, Bangladesh and Pakistan with the level of respect and honour that I’ve only ever seen in novels and films depicting the English nobility (‘A Young Victoria’, ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘The Crown’).
Soon after independence she was elected as a member of parliament and she spent her next thirty years as a politician, establishing numerous schools and advocating to loosen the system of purdah (curtain) that was used as a tool to exclude women from positions of power.
Also just for good measure, I’ll leave you with the ultimate fierce energy.
The undeniable star - Zeenat Aman.