International Women’s Day by Professor A.L.I.
International Women’s Day has its origins in both protest and socialist movements, but it has evolved to a day which functions as a lens for the myopia of patriarchy through which we normally see our world. It is a time for us to pause and reflect, as well as to honor and remember, all those around the globe who’ve been marginalized by the patriarchal norms we accept as the status quo. Considering our all-too familiar binary construction of gender, history is only half the story; hence it is only a half-truth, which is akin to a lie. Herstory was an attempt to expose the whole story, and on International Women’s Day, it is incumbent upon all who breathe in the patriarchal air that deadens our senses to the feminine energy that surrounds us, to take a moment to focus on this metaphysical force and imbue our spirits with the feminine; this necessary invocation requires an anchor, and there are many to invoke who represent its power like: Fatima bint Muhammad, Zaynab bint Ali, Rab’a al-‘Adawiyya, Nana Asmau, Queen Nanny of the Maroons, Harriet Tubman, Yuri Kochiyama, Dr. Betty Shabazz, Valliamma, and Amina Al-Sadr, to name a few. Each name represents immense power of spirit and the best examples of what human beings can become, and each of their stories are shrouded by attempts to dim their light in the smog of patriarchy. Yet there is one place that stood above many others in honoring the feminine; giving it its proper elevated status and honoring this force, and it is in this place so many examples arose to champion the human condition using this power. The place is South Asia, and it is here that the concept of Devi was constructed, and where women like Queen Velu Nachiyar arose to champion resistance and freedom; she will be the anchor through which we will explore the power of the feminine and celebrate this day as it should be celebrated, in hopes that one day, there will no longer be a need for a day to correct our myopic vision, since we will see clearly through both eyes and honor the entire gender spectrum of human contribution, but until then: Happy International Women’s Day and An Everlasting Victory to Queen Velu Nachiyar!
The Sanskritic concept of Devi was constructed two thousand years BCE, as a feminine form of the divine. It was a way for practitioners of ancient Vedic faiths to understand a pantheon of divine beings, which included celestial beings who were perceived as mothers, consorts, and sisters to cosmological concepts. Over time this term evolved and in the text Devi Mahatmya explores the idea of the ultimate truth and supreme power as manifest in Shaktism, a movement that was an important branch of Hinduism. This term is still used in the modern era and its concept has continued to evolve even into vernacular usage that is divorced from its theistic origins, yet honors the power of the feminine.
The night before my father died, he awoke from a powerful dream and woke my mother. This is something he never had done in their marriage and according to my mom, he excitedly shared with her his dream in the pitch black night, which was about a vision he saw of a woman made of light calling him towards her; he referred to her as a Devi; he died later that afternoon, on the outskirts of the town he was born in, land once liberated from the yoke of British colonial rule by Queen Velu Nachiyar in a taxicab. Unbeknownst to him, the day he passed fell on the lunar anniversary of the day that Fatima bint Muhammad died; and the great irony is that her adherents often refer to Fatima as the “lady of light”.
The great lie in the history of colonialism/imperialism of South Asia is that the South Asian peoples did not resist and the only form of resistance was non-violent and authored by Gandhi. The second half of this lie was exposed in Herstory, but the first part is also not true. While those tuned into South Asian history will be able to mention the Sepoy Rebellion as one specific example of resistance, it is still viewed as an exception to the norm. Sadly this erroneous presumption is a result of patriarchal smog, which diminishes the light of numerous examples of resistance movements towards European control, all of which were sparked by the feminine. Whether it’s the Mappila Rebellion, which came from the matriarchal Mappila community, or specific examples of leaders like Queen Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi or Queen Chennamma of Kittur who fought British interests in South India, or Queen Abbakka of Ullal who fought the Portuguese, it was the power of the Devi, which manifest itself in the spirit of freedom from the yoke of colonial oppression. The first to fight against the British, in the middle of the 1700’s was Queen Velu Nachiyar and her story is truly remarkable, one worthy of our study and invocation every International Women’s Day.
Queen Velu Nachiyar
Born on January 3rd, 1730, Queen Velu Nachiyar was destined for greatness. A daughter in a royal family, she had access to and studied the art of war as a young girl, mastering the art of silambam (the fighting stick), horse riding and archery along with the science of strategy. She was a scholar of multiple languages beyond her mother tongue of Tamil, including Urdu, French and English at a time where few knew how to read and write in one. She married a king, birthed royal heirs and shared a rule that was peaceful until it was interrupted by violence sparked by the greed of the British East India Company (BEIC), which wanted the lands she governed. They killed her husband, and children, and she escaped into the forests, while the BEIC dismantled her rule and ensnared her lands just as they practically enslaved her people in servitude of wealth extraction. She formed a guerilla army, made up of forest dwellers, struck alliances with neighboring rulers for arms, trained her forces and strategized a way to victory at great personal cost. Her adopted daughter, Kuyilli, agreed to be the vehicle for Queen Velu Nachiyar’s victory, and according to plan doused herself in oil and stole herself into the British military stores, exploding their armory and herself into herstory books as the first human bomb (or suicide bomber in history). This was the tipping point in the revolution and allowed Queen Velu Nachiyar and her forces to defeat the British and re-establish her rule. She held onto the liberated lands for a decade, until she died and was South Asia’s first revolutionary.
Queen Velu Nachiyar’s story is barely a footnote in HIStory, and “Our Queen” is an attempt to commemorate her more than a singular stamp issued by the government of India in December of 2008. Her story is as symbolic as it is iconic—and it represents the power of the Devi, i.e. the feminine spirit as well as the will of Tamil people to be free. “Our Queen” is the second track song leaked off of the Tamilmatic album as well as its first video, and it features the soulful singing of Tony Thomas, which wraps around the lyrics of a Tamil griot (poet/oral historian) who recounts the story of the life, death and struggles of Queen Velu Nachiyar.
The song and video invokes the spirit of the feminine, using the story of Queen Velu Nachiyar as an anchor. Her light beckons through the smog of patriarchy like a lone lighthouse inspiring sailors with hope to navigate treacherous waters to shore; and this video, inspired by her story evokes other images of Tamil women, from soldiers in the army to tea pickers, representing her resistance and the people she liberated respectively. The music video also portrays a simple sketch of her, and the placing of it in a forest clearing; it symbolizes the forest clearing she once hid in as she planned, trained and strategized for the victory of her people.
Celebrate International Women’s Day
International Women’s Day was born of protest and social struggle, and the lens it provides through the smog of patriarchy allows us to commemorate figures like Queen Velu Nachiyar and through her struggle and revolution become inspired to carry out our own—one that helps us dispel the half-truths of history and understand the human experience wholly and at all times.
Celebrate this day by making your own sign: “I need feminism because: _______” and fill in the blank in a way that reconciles your spirit with the feminine—and share it. Share it, and tag/link this article, share it and use the hashtags: #Feminism, #OurQueen, #Tamilmatic, or share it with the video/song above. Let’s link each story, with each other, so that these disparate lanterns representing the truth of herstory help dispel the smog of patriarchy forever.
Each name represents immense power of spirit and the best examples of what human beings can become, and each of their stories are shrouded by attempts to dim their light in the smog of patriarchy.