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Lessons in Feminism from Delhi’s Only Ever Female Muslim Monarch

Near the iconic Turkman Gate in Old Delhi, amongst the unassuming shops and cafes, lies the grave of Delhi’s only ever female monarch: Sultan Razia. After walking through the Turkman Gate and traversing the winding, narrow back alleys of the area, you come to a plaque which was placed there by the Archaeological Survey of India.

The engraved stone monument marks the spot that Sultan Razia, South Asia’s first female monarch, lies. She was the daughter of the third Delhi Sultan, Iltutmish, and one of his wives (apparently “the favourite”) Terken Khatun. The space around the grave is a peaceful one; an imam, who lives in a small cabin on the site, potters around maintaining the grounds and a small mosque, located next door, holds low-key religious ceremonies.

In Razia’s time (1205 – 1240), titles were handed down to the eldest son of a family. However, Razia’s eldest brother – Nasiruddin Mahmud – the obvious successor to the family throne died fighting the Mongol Empire. So, her father took the decision of making her his heir; the title would one day be bestowed upon her. According to historian Minhaj-us-Siraj, this was not a difficult decision because he allegedly considered her “worth 20 of his sons” in terms of intellect and ability to take on the big job.

He wasn’t wrong. Razia eventually went down as an excellent political leader. From her early childhood she was trained by one of her father’s “best slaves” – Malik Yaqut – in various disciplines such as the art of warfare, diplomacy and administration. When her father passed away, the scene was set for a successful term in the hot seat. But history doesn’t always pan out the way it’s planned to.

Continued below.

As the story goes, once Iltutmish was no longer in the picture, an influential clan of Turkish nobles took it upon themselves to ignore his dying wishes and place another son of Sultan – Ruknuddin Firoz – on the throne. He was, by all accounts, an unsuitable candidate for the job as he had questionable, even ‘debaucherous’ morals. Some historians suggest that it wasn’t long before the people of Delhi were “in despair” over their new leader.

Razia wasn’t going to take that lying down. Initially dressed in the red clothes that marked someone out as a plaintiff, she revealed her true identity to the congregation at the Quwwat-ul-Islam mosque during a court hearing. She fearlessly explained the situation and appealed for justice. The people accepted her account of the events, her status was immediately elevated to the Delhi’s fifth Sultan and Ruknuddin was promptly thrown in prison and executed. Razia had reclaimed her rightful place in history.

She was then free to go down as both a great historical leader and a seminal feminist. She initiated reforms that improved the quality of poor people’s lives, introduced more arts, more music, better education and (after also ushering in a sustained period of peace) won the hearts of her people.

So, what can we learn from the rousing story of this pioneering, strong and inspirational female leader? That we mustn’t give up on our goals; we should never stop fighting for what is fair and just – regardless of any obstacles that life may throw our way. Through determination, hard work and faith, there aren’t many things that we simply cannot achieve in our lives. I mean there’s getting hold of a Nandos Black Card, but apart from that you can probs do anything. Oh, but don’t get your brother executed – that bit wouldn’t fly these days!

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