The Khaksar Women Who Fought for Our Freedom: Allama Mashriqi Pioneered Female Empowerment

“[Translation] After several centuries, we are again giving this lesson to every Muslim woman that the very existence and bringing up…of humankind is because of is the life of a nation and Ummah also based on your commandment…” - Allama Mashriqi (“Quol-e-Faisal”, 1935)

The Khaksar Women Who Fought for Our Freedom: Allama Mashriqi Pioneered Female Empowerment
The Khaksar Women Who Fought for Our Freedom

By Nasim Yousaf :

The Khaksar Movement, led by Allama Mashriqi, with uniformed Khaksar Muslim women playing a prominent role stood as a formidable force challenging British colonial rule in India until its culmination. Despite their significant contributions, the pivotal role these women played in shaping the demise of the British Raj has been largely overlooked in historical narratives. They are often mentioned only briefly in a few lines here and there. To address this historical oversight and pay homage and reverence to their valor, I have penned a book entitled “The Khaksar Women: Warriors for Independence,” scheduled for release soon. With International Women's Day on March 8th and Khaksar Martyrs' Day on March 19th, 1940 this article is dedicated to honoring the resilience and sacrifices of Khaksar women, shedding light on their activities and their support for the victims of March 19th. Another reason for writing this piece is to remember and commemorate the bravery of the Khaksar martyrs who laid down their lives in Lahore for freedom.

In the Indian subcontinent, women were largely restricted to domestic roles in a male-dominated society with few exceptions. Their duties primarily revolved around managing households and caring for the family. This trend was mirrored in America, as illustrated by the 1955 article "The Good Wife’s Guide" in "Housekeeping Monthly," which emphasized wives attending to their husbands' needs, like “Arrange his pillow and offer to take off his shoes. Speak in a low, soothing and pleasant voice. Don't ask him questions about his actions or question his judgment or integrity. Remember, he is the master of the house and as such will always exercise his will with fairness and truthfulness. You have no right to question him. A good wife always knows her place.”

Allama Mashriqi was born into an enlightened family; apart from the men in his family, even his mother and sisters were educated, which was a rarity at the time. Recognizing the imperative need to empower women, Mashriqi emerged as a pioneering Muslim leader who recognized the crucial role of women's empowerment not only in advancing societal progress but also in liberating India from the shackles of British rule. After Mashriqi founded the Khaksar Movement, his first wife, Wilayat Begum, also played a significant role in its launch, as documented in Mashriqi's book titled "Isha'raat" and the journal named "Al-Islah" dated August 12th, 1938. Despite resistance from orthodoxy, in 1935, Mashriqi took a monumental step towards fostering female emancipation and empowerment by launching the feminist movement through his groundbreaking and revolutionary work "Quol-e-Faisal." This marked a significant departure from the prevailing societal norms that relegated women to the confines of the household.

Women in large numbers joined the Khaksar Movement throughout India. Among them were Mashriqi’s daughters, Khaksars’ wives, sisters, daughters, and other relatives. These women proudly donned the Khaksar khaki uniform, adorned with a shoulder band bearing the inscription “Akhuwat” (meaning brotherhood). They enthusiastically attended Khaksar Camps, underwent military training, drills, and parades, and carried spades on their shoulders as they marched alongside or independently from men. It is important to note that in the 1930s, even in the American military, women were mainly restricted to nursing and clerical roles. Khaksar women in India were pioneering combat training, street marches, and political activism—a groundbreaking movement that captivated thousands, reshaping women's roles in Indian society and elsewhere.

Some of these extraordinary women held prominent positions and titles within the movement, delivering public speeches and actively recruiting more Khaksar women. Additionally, preteen Saeeda Bano and the Khaksar women, both those holding titles and mainstream members, played a crucial role in community service initiatives, including during the 1943 Bengal Famine where they were instrumental in saving lives, providing essential aid, and aiding in the rehabilitation of tens of thousands alongside the men Khaksars.

In addition to their humanitarian endeavors, these women were deeply involved in anti-British rule  activities. They distributed Khaksar literature to promote the movement's goal of ending British rule and organized women's meetings to propagate Mashriqi’s message. In 1939, they played a pivotal role in paralyzing the Government of United Provinces (U.P), leading to the British Governor of U.P. signing a peace agreement on Mashriqi's terms. Following this agreement, Mashriqi established a parallel government and appointed Khaksar governors, with some women, for example, being appointed to Punjab and United Provinces respectively as members of the team to assist the Khaksar Governors.

Following the brutal murders of Khaksars on March 19th in Lahore, Khaksar women participated in protests and joined their Khaksar brothers when they launched the Civil Disobedience Movement. Their demonstrations became so nerve-wracking for the British Government that they had to induct women police to control them, a first in the history of British India. The Khaksar women attended the historic All-India Muslim League Session held from March 22nd to 24th, 1940, in Lahore, where the Pakistan Resolution and Khaksar Resolution were passed. At the session, alongside male Khaksars, these women demanded the release of Allama Mashriqi and Khaksars, and the removal of the ban on the Khaksar Movement.

On May 31, 1940, Mashriqi’s son, Ehsanullah Khan Aslam, died as a result of police brutality on March 19th, 1940. These women in uniform paraded with Aslam’s body, and some of them were in burqa. It was a massive funeral procession comprising over 50,000 people, marking the largest funeral for any child in British India.

During the ban on the Khaksar Movement and Mashriqi's imprisonment, these women also played roles as spies, conveying messages between Mashriqi’s home and Khaksar leaders, and vice versa. They continued to hold secret meetings and engage in activities to keep Mashriqi’s mission of seeking freedom alive. As a result of their anti-British activities, several were threatened, harassed, and even beaten. Saeeda Bano, a 10-year-old girl from Delhi, played an amazing role in the freedom movement. She was daring and a fiery, eloquent speaker, leading women's marches and protest demonstrations. During these public demonstrations, they used to raise anti-British rule slogans such as "British Raj Murdabad" and "Hukumat-e-Bartania Murdabad," which mean "Down with the British Raj" and "Death to the British Government," respectively.

On June 18th, 1940, Bano, along with men and women Khaksars, marched in uniform and belcha towards Punjab Premier Sir Sikander Hayat Khan’s house to hand over a letter to the Premier; however, Bano, along with others, were arrested. The Tribune (Lahore) reported on June 19th, 1940 that “They were taken into custody...the ten-year-old girl...took out a letter from her pocket addressed to Sir Sikandar Hayat Khan, Premier of the Punjab, and began reading it in the Kotwali. The letter contained a reference to the Premier and the Khaksar agitation. The letter was seized by the police.” The next day, when Khaksar men and women, along with Bano, were produced before the Duty Magistrate, The Tribune dated June 20th, 1940 reported: “…women after arrest were persuaded by the police officers to go back and not to join the Khaksar movement in future, but they did not agree as a result of which they were sent to female jail…they are also persecuted for alleged parading in military formation and being members of an unlawful association…” In prison, they faced rough times, but as a result of tough military training and dedication to Mashriqi’s mission, they would not surrender and continued to bear the atrocities of prison, sacrificing their respective families, a particularly challenging ordeal for women. On August 19th, 1940, the Magistrate gave his verdict and released Bano, being a minor. He issued orders for the release of other women as well under certain terms, according to The Tribune dated August 30th, 1940: “One woman consented to furnish security, and the rest refused...and preferred jail”.

Khaksar women's influence transcended their movement, inspiring other organizations. Hindu leader Subhas Chandra Bose similarly integrated women into his Indian National Army in the early 1940s. Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s All-Indian Muslim League established the Women’s National Guard in 1944. Thus, it can be said that Khaksar women’s courage and dedication reshaped women's roles in the Indian subcontinent.

Furthermore, Mashriqi incorporated talented Khaksar women into the team that contributed to the framing of the constitution known as “The Constitution of Free India, 1946 A.C.” during the mid-1940s. Others distributed copies or delivered lectures on the publication's contents to garner support. Mashriqi’s constitutions found favor among the public as they safeguarded the rights of Muslims and non-Muslims to maintain India's unity—a sentiment shared by the majority who never desired their country to split apart. Based on the support for the said document and other favorable factors, throughout the 1945-1946 elections, both men and women Khaksars campaigned vigorously for Khaksar candidates. Despite their efforts, the British establishment, as part of its policy, ensured that Khaksars did not emerge victorious. They went to great lengths to secure the All-India Muslim League’s sweeping triumph, establishing the party as the legitimate sole representative of Muslims and achieving their goal. Mashriqi, alongside other leaders, including Khaksar men and women, protested vehemently against the electoral rigging, yet their grievances remained unaddressed by the establishment. For further details, read my work titled, “Jinnah Paid Subsidy for Pakistan: 1945-1946 Elections Manipulated.”

In 1947, when Prime Minister Clement Attlee announced the transfer of power to Indians no later than 1948, according to Mashriqi, it was a ploy to gain time to start horrific killings of Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs. These killings were then to be used as a reason to refuse to quit India and proclaim that the people demonstrated they were not ready for freedom and running the country. Mashriqi’s assessment gains validity as it is well-known that the British had no plan to leave India for many more years. Aware of British intentions, Mashriqi ordered 300,000 Khaksars to reach Delhi on June 30th, 1947. This action alarmed the British, and Lord Mountbatten hastily announced the partition plan and had it accepted before the assembly of the Khaksars. Yet, in June, despite strict restrictions and the enforcement of Section 144, well over 100,000 (the media in British India reported 70,000 to 80,000) reached Delhi, including Khaksar women. The omission of Mashriqi's role in ending the British rule and other facts, such as during riots, Khaksar women worked day and night to protect lives or worked in refugee camps for the rehabilitation of Muslims and non-Muslims, highlights the selective nature of historical narratives and the perspectives that are chosen for presentation. To discover these hidden facts and comprehend the reasons behind Mountbatten's acceleration of the partition plan and the swift transfer of power, it is crucial to watch the documentary "The Road to Freedom: Allama Mashriqi's Historic Journey from Amritsar to Lahore" from beginning to end. Additionally, reading the article titled "The British Chessboard: Jinnah, Gandhi, and the Strategic Divide of India" will provide further insight into this historical context.

In conclusion, the Khaksar Muslim women stood firm in their fight against colonial power until its rule came to an end, which was no mean achievement. Moreover, despite the patriarchal challenges they faced Khaksar women stepping out of their comfort zones and facing disapproval from many played a crucial role in the Khaksar movement by providing vital organizational support. They exhibited exceptional confidence, individualism, and pride, inspiring other women and boosting morale. The role of women in the Khaksar Movement in India was indeed groundbreaking and way ahead of its time, inspiring other organizations everywhere to follow suit.

The credit for this indeed goes to the visionary Allama Mashriqi who, despite heavy criticism from non-Muslims and conservative Muslims, stood firmly against these odds, with Maulvis declaring Mashriqi an infidel, and brought about such a revolutionary change. In the 1930s, Mashriqi empowered women during a period in the East and West when they did not have equal rights. He was ahead of his time and his efforts had a profound impact and laid the foundation for the global movement that eventually integrated women into various fields, including the armed forces of today.

NOTE: Allama Mashriqi's Khaksar Movement, founded on a self-help basis, is a compelling case for the study of how he managed to establish an army of over five million male and female members without proper academy, establish branches of the movement in many foreign countries, and do all of this without financial support from either domestic or foreign sources, all while operating under the watchful eye of British rule. This feat is particularly remarkable given the absence of modern communication technologies and the anti-Mashriqi British-controlled print media.

Scholar Nasim Yousaf has spent over two decades writing about the history of the Indian subcontinent, commencing his research in 1996. The grandson of freedom fighter Allama Mashriqi, Yousaf has authored 18 books and digitized 19 rare works by Mashriqi, including his historic journal "Al-Islah." Yousaf's writings cover, for example, figures like Jinnah and Gandhi as well as the partition of India. His research has found an international audience, with online activity indicating readers from at least 73 countries engaging with his work.

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