This March, for Women’s History Month, the Ms. Blog is profiling Wonder Women who have made history—and those who are making history right now. Join us each day as we bring you the stories of iconic and soon-to-be-famous feminist change-makers.
Women are warriors. We have always been warriors, and we will always be warriors. Today, many of us fight to create a society that treats all people with respect—regardless of their beliefs, background or economic status. One thing that helps us stay strong is when we hear stories about women warriors from the past who fought for equality and succeeded.
I want to share a story with you about one of those women. You have probably never heard of her. She lived in what is now northwest India back in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Her bravery helped protect one of the most egalitarian societies ever created. Her name was Mai Bhago, or Mata Bhag Kaur. “Kaur” means Princess. Mai and Mata both mean “Mother.”
Before I can share her story, first I need to give you some background. What is happening in the Middle East today with the rise of ISIS is nothing new. Hundreds of years ago, the countries that are now India, Pakistan and Afghanistan suffered under a fanatical, oppressive regime known as the Mughal Empire. The tactics of the Mughals, if you can believe it, were worse than ISIS. They were dark times.
In the midst of this oppression, a spiritual-social movement began that taught empowerment of women, equality of all people and freedom of religion. Today, we know this movement as the fifth largest religion in the world—Sikhism.
Mai Bhago lived under the shadow of the most violent Mughal ruler, Aurangzeb Alamgir. Aurangzeb disliked that the Sikhs had carved out a niche where people practiced equality and felt free to follow their own faith, so he decided to wage a major military campaign against the 10th Sikh leader, Guru Gobind Singh. He sent hundreds of thousands of troops against the Sikhs’ much smaller forces. Slowly, over time, the Sikh soldiers died or deserted. Guru Gobind Singh was forced into hiding. He and a handful of his soldiers became renegades, but the Mughal force pursued them.
Mai Bhago learned military training from her father, Malo Shah. She loved the freedom and equality of her own society. When she learned that some of the soldiers from her own village had deserted Guru Gobind Singh, she took matters into her own hands. Mai Bhago rallied 40 of the deserters to go back into battle with her. The year was 1705.
Mai Bhago led these 40 men against the Mughal troops pursuing Guru Gobind Singh. She and her men set up camp around a dry well. The Mughal troops were dying of thirst and wanted to get to the water. They did not know the well was dry. The Mughals fought bitterly. They suffered a lot of casualties. Every Sikh soldier, except Mai Bhago, died in the fight. When the Mughal troops had broken through the Sikh ranks and realized the well was dry, they mutinied. The troops turned away to look for water and abandoned their pursuit of Guru Gobind Singh.
As we celebrate Women’s History Month, Mai Bhago is a heroine to remember. As women warriors of consciousness in the 21st century, one challenge we face is the realization that the fight for equality is never won once and for all. Gains made in the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s are being turned back. The next generation of women has to rise to the challenge.
The Mughal Empire died out a long time ago, yet the seeds of sickening violence practiced by the Mughals have somehow sprouted again. It will take sacrifice, bravery and valor for people in the Middle East to establish the egalitarian society that the Arab Spring originally promised.
In honor of Women’s History Month, SikhNet.com has created an animation that tells the story of Mai Bhago. The animation, titled KAUR, weaves together the story of a young girl, Saibhang Kaur, who loves science but gets the message that “girls don’t belong in science club.” Not sure what to do, Saibhang Kaur thinks about giving up. But when Saibhang’s grandmother tells her the story of Mai Bhago Kaur, Saibhang discovers her courage.
Photo of battle between Sikhs and Mughals via Wikimedia Commons