Why you should care

Her brief reign over 13th century India was remarkable — not because of her gender, but because of her ideas.

Razia Sultana’s Delhi was not unlike New Delhi today. No statistics on discrimination, rape or abuse were kept, yet it was indisputably a man’s world – even if you were the daughter of a sultan. But Razia, a Muslim princess whose Turkish ancestors had invaded northern India in the 11th century, had one advantage denied so many young women in India today: an education.

You see, it was not so uncommon when Razia was born in 1205 for Sultanate princesses to be trained in the arts of war and administration. But they were just never consulted on such matters as long as a brother or father drew breath. Razia’s father, Iltutmish, had accomplished the 12th century’s version of going from the mailroom to the boardroom by rising from slavery to the throne of the Delhi sultanate, and he had learned to prize competence above all else.

So, 730 years before Jawaharlal Nehru’s only child, Indira Gandhi, became India’s first female prime minister, Iltutmish nominated from his deathbed his 30-year-old daughter Razia to rule his kingdom.

In 1236 the male nobles, or emirs, of the sultan’s court would not tolerate this and chose to ignore it, elevating Razia’s debauched younger brother Ruknuddin to rule in her stead. As fate would have it, six hedonistic months later, Ruknuddin was assassinated, and the emirs reluctantly made Razia the sultan.

Razia Sultana

Source Kaiser Tufail

Razia had little contact with women growing up in her father’s court and had never learned the customary behavior that was expected of one in the Muslim society she ruled. Or maybe that’s just what she wanted others to believe. Choosing to wear a man’s tunic and headdress and to unveil her face to her people as a gesture of transparency, one of her first acts as sultan was to propose a rather democratic bargain with her subjects: If she did not fulfill their expectations, she told them, they were free to depose her.

Razia had little contact with women growing up and had never learned to follow expected behavior… Or maybe that’s just what she wanted others to believe.

Of course, the notion of a sultan being accountable was not nearly as controversial as the lack of a veil, and when the emirs informed her that it would be a problem, she famously responded that it did not distract her at all from her duties, and if it proved distracting to them, well, that was indeed a problem…for them.

Razia’s four-year rule was brief, but it occurred at a critical juncture in India’s history. The Turkish invasions had brought large numbers of Hindus and Muslims into close contact, and Genghis Khan’s Mongol incursions into the region during the 1220s had brought displaced scholars to India from universities across the occupied territories. The composite religious and intellectual culture that would define India until the present day was just taking shape, and Razia’s response to her changing kingdom was radical, even by today’s standards.

Quoting Islamic teachings to the disgruntled emirs about the importance of learning for men and women, she initiated large-scale infrastructure and education projects. She held meetings that were open to the public and reached out to her Hindu subjects, attempting even to abolish the “minority tax” levied on them. This final gesture, along with the fact that her right-hand man (and alleged lover) Jamal Yaqut was not Turkish, was a bridge too far for the emirs. With their help, a governor named Altunia staged a successful coup in 1240, killing Yaqut and taking Razia as his prisoner. Razia would later die in battle alongside Altunia while trying to regain her throne from yet another one of her brothers.

Like the reigns of so many influential leaders, Razia’s rule was short and tragic, but its impact was inestimable. The world of men and the heirs and emirs within it had learned, whether they cared to admit it or not, that they did not have a monopoly on courage or common sense, and that their sisters were not going to just step aside without a fight.

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