Biographies of Notable Female African and Asian figures from the 19th and 20th Centuries
In celebration of International Women’s Day 2020, The Open University’s Ferguson Centre for African and Asian Studies and its History Department have created this teaching resource – short biographies of pioneering and notable women from Africa and Asia, who were active in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These women are vitally important in helping us understand social, cultural and political changes in Africa and Asia, with a particular emphasis on feminist politics, suffrage movements, independence movements and anti-colonial activism. The creation of this teaching resource was driven by an ever-constant need to understand historical events from a variety of perspectives that are very often not presented in History teaching in the West. Each biography includes links to additional resources, and there is a list of further online readings at the end. This is the first time this group of African and Asian women has been presented together in a collective way. We hope that this will be a useful resource for teachers and educators to help their students understand the contributions of Africa and Asian women to African, Asian and World history.
We will be updating this resource - please send further suggestions and links to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Queen Mmanthatisi (1781-1836)
Leader of the Tlokwa: 1781-1836.
Mmanthatisi was a well-known female military leader during the early 19th century. She was born the daughter of Chief Mothaha of the Basia in the Harrismith District (later Orange Free State). She later became the wife of Mokotjo, the chief of the neighbouring Batlokoa. Mokotjo died while their son Sekonyela was still too young to take over control of the chieftiancy, and Mantatisi assumed control and acted as regent for Sekonyela. Her reign extended into central Africa, and at the height of her power she commanded a large army. However, a series of battles beginning in 1823 diminished her power.
Nana Asma'u (1793-1863)
Sokoto Princess: 1793-1863
Nana Asma’u was a princess of the Sokoto Caliphate, poet and teacher. She is considered a formative proponent of modern feminism in Africa. From a young age Asma’u was a star student and mastered four languages and memorised the Qur’an. Through her poetry she addressed issues from divine truth to Sufi women saints. Much of her poetry focused on women leaders and the rights of women. Many Islamic women’s organisations, schools and meeting halls in Nigeria continue to bear her name, a testament to her impact and legacy.
Sarraounia Mangou (late-1800s)
The Queen of Lougou, capital of the Anza kingdom (modern southwest Niger): late-1800s
As queen of the Lougou, Mangou fought French colonial troops of the Voulet–Chanoine Mission at the Battle of Lougou (in present-day Nigeria) in 1899. Though unsuccessful in resisting the French, Sarraounia and her followers put up a notable resistance, and continued to attack the French after having retreated from the city and began to work away at the morale of the French. Soon afterwards, the Voulet-Chanoine mission collapsed, amidst controversy over the mission’s cruelty. Mangou was also immortalised within oral tradition for having resisted attempts by the Sokoto Caliphate to proselytise Islam among her people. In 1980, her biography was popularised by Abdoulaye Mamani’s eponymous novel.
Qurrat ul-Ayn (c.1815-1852)
Iranian poet and women’s rights activist: c. 1815- August 1852.
Qurrat ul-Ayn was an Iranian poet. She joined the Iranian Babi movement, and died for their cause. She attracted much attention at the time; in 1866, the French diplomat Comte de Gobineau, remarked that ‘she turned not only against polygamy but also the veil … her public preaching, however, was applauded by an already great number of persons who shared her enthusiasm and helped widen the circle of followers.’ (Bayat-Philipp, 1978)
Queen Laxmibai, Lakshmi Bai of Jhansi (1828-1858)
Queen of Jhansi: November 19, 1828 – June 18, 1858.
Laxmibai learned to read, write, ride a horse and wield a sword at a young age, overcoming many of the expectations for women in India’s patriarchal society. In the mid-19th century, the East India Company annexed her Kingdom of Jhansi and removed her from power. Laxmibai tried to regain control of Jhansi through negotiations, but when her efforts failed, she joined the Indian War of Independence of 1857. Rani built up her army and led them to battle, only to perish on the battlefield in 1858. Alongside her legacy as a heroine of the first Indian War of Independence, she is remembered as an unconventional queen, refusing to abide by the purdah system which insisted on women to be concealed from public view.
Empress Dowager Cíxi (1835-1908)
Chinese Empress Dowager and Regent: November 29, 1835 – November 15, 1908.
Empress Dowager Cixi of the Manchu Yeye Naru Clan was Chinese Empress Dowager and Regent. She effectively exercised control over the Chinese Government in the late Qing dynasty from 1861 until her death in 1908. Cixi ousted a group of regents appointed by the former Emperor and consolidated her control over the dynasty by installing her nephew as the Guangxu Emperor in 1875. She supervised a series of moderate reforms known as the Tongzhi Restoration.
Savitribal Phule (1831-1897)
Indian social reformer: January 3, 1831 – March 10, 1887.
Savitribai Phule was a pioneer of women’s education in India. As a member of the dalit caste she was a marginalised person in India. Phule played an important role in improving women's rights and ending social prejudices in India during British rule. She is chiefly remembered for establishing, alongside her husband, the first school for girls in Pune, India, in 1848. She also fought tirelessly against the unfair discrimination of people based on caste and gender.
Mekatilili Wa Menza (c.1860-1914)
Giriama Freedom fighter: c.1860-1914.
Thought to be born in the 1860s, Mekatilili is considered one of Kenya’s earliest freedom fighters. She was born in Mutara wa Tastsu Ganze village in Kili Country. She is remembered for leading her people in a rebellion to resist the British and the encroachment of the British East African Company who planned to displace her people and imposed the much hated ‘hut tax’. Mekatilili was arrested by the British on October 17, 1913 and exiled to Kisii, Nyanza Province. She later returned to her homeland and continued to oppose the British and their imposition of colonial policies.
Yaa Asantewaa (1840-1921)
Queen Mother of Ejisu in the Ashanti Empire: October 17, 1840 – October 17, 1921
Yaa Asantewaa was the Queen Mother of Ejisu. As an influential Ashanti queen of the early twentieth century she remains a powerful symbol in Ghana and Africa today. She is remembered for her fight against British colonialists. In 1896 the Ashanti people rebelled against the British presence in their lands, and Britain’s attempt to construct the Gold Coast colony. Yaa Asantewaa assumed the role of Commander in Chief to the Ashanti Army. The fifth war against the British in the Anglo-Ashanti wars became known as the Yaa Asantewaa War of Independence (1900).
Tarabi Shinde (1850-1910)
Indian feminist: 1850-1910.
Tarabai Shinde was an Indian feminist activist who fought against caste discrimination and patriarchy in 19th century India. In her first published work Stri Purush Tulana (A Comparison Between Women and Men) 1882 she explored the disparities between women and men in Indian society and critiqued the upper-caste patriarchy. Her work is regarded as one of India’s first modern feminist texts. Shinde’s pamphlet was controversial, challenging the Hindu religious scriptures as a source of women’s oppression.
Tatyu Betul (1851-1918)
Empress of Ethiopia: 1851 - February 11, 1918.
Betul extended her power through an adroit blend of patronage, political marriages and leadership. She was the third wife of Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia. She founded of Ethiopia’s capital city Addis Ababa. She was a strong proponent of traditional values in Ethiopia and was deeply suspicious of European interventions. When Italy invaded Ethiopia from its Eritrean colony, Betul marched north and defeated Italian forces in the historic Battle of Adowa in 1896. During the last years of his reign, when Menelik II was weakened by illness, the Empress Taytu Betul, whose official title meant Light of Ethiopia, ruled the kingdom until she was ousted in 1910.
Zaynab Fawwaz (1860-1914)
Lebanese poet, novelist and historian of women: 1860-1914.
Zaynab Fawwaz was a Lebanese essayist, poet, writer, dramatist and historian of women. She emigrated to Egypt around 1870 and became a prominent writer on gender issues and women’s history. She is most well-known for her historical dictionary on prominent women. She began work on her 453 biographical sketches of historically significant women on 7th October 1891, entitled Al-Durr al-manthur fi tabaqat rabbat al-khudur – meaning Pearls Scattered in Times and Places. The book was printed between 1894-1896. Fawwaz also wrote novels and plays, and was a pioneer figure among early Arab novelists. Her play al-Hawā wa-al-Wafā (Love and Faithfulness) 1893, was the first play written by an Arab woman.
Ramabai Ranade (1863-1924)
Indian social worker and women’s right activist: January 25, 1863 – January 25, 1924.
Married at the age of 11, Ranade became an exemplary voice in the cause for women’s rights. From the 1880s she became actively involved in the Prarthana Samaj, a reformist prayer society. She attended meetings and lectures organised for the women in the Samaj espousing education for women. This became a vehicle for spreading numerous ideas to a wider audience. Ranade was the president of the Seva Sadan, a notable Indian female institution which focused on womens’ professional and vocational training. She also founded the Seva Sadan Nursing and Medical Association. She spent her life dedicated to many social welfare schemes and political movements.
Anandibai Joshi (1865-1887)
Indian Doctor: March 31, 1865 – February 26, 1887.
Anandibai was the first Indian woman to obtain a medical degree in the Western hemisphere. In 1883 she set sail for American on the ‘City of Calcutta’ steam ship. She undertook a two-year degree in Medicine at the United States at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania (only the second college to offer medical programmes for women in the world), for which she was awarded a scholarship. She began her training at 19 and graduated with her Doctorate in Medicine in 1886, with a dissertation on ‘Obstetrics among Hindu Aryans’. In October 1886 Joshi set sail for India. Unfortunately the long crossing exacerbated her poor health condition, and she died on February 26, 1887.
Nyabingi Priestess Muhumusa (died in 1945)
Nyabingi Priestess: died in 1945.
Muhumusa was a practitioner of the East African Nyabingi priestesses’ group that was influential in Rwanda and Uganda from 1850 to 1950. She is remembered also for having organised resistance against German colonists in Rwanda, and it was alleged that in 1911 Muhumusa proclaimed “she would drive out the Europeans” and “that the bullets of the Wazungu (Germans) would turn to water against her.” She organised resistance against German colonialists until she was detained by the British in Kampala from 1913, where she remained incarcerated until her death.
Ahebi Ugbabe (died in 1948)
Warrant chief of Enugu-Ezike, Nigeria: died in 1948.
Ahebi Ugbabe was a ruler in colonial Nigeria. In her book The Female King of Nigeria (2011), Nwando Achebe describes how Ugbabe rose from the status of a commercial sex worked to warrant chief in Nigeria. In her early life as a commercial sex worker she aligned herself with British officials, and Ahebi used her relationship and the British incursion into Igboland to become leader of the British force into Enugu Ezike, her hometown. She was rewarded by being made village headman, eventually being elevated to warrant chief. This was an exceptional circumstance, owing to British policies of female political exclusion in colonial Nigeria. Owing to her own political brilliance, she later became king of Enugu-Ezike, which superseded male political hierarchy in the area.
Kasturba Gandhi (1869-1944)
Indian political activist: April 11, 1869 – February 22, 1944.
Kasturba Gandhi was a prominent Indian political activist in South Africa, returning to Indian later in her life. Whilst in South Africa she was imprisoned for three months for protesting against the treatment of Indian immigrants in the country. She continued her activism when she returned to India, where she was arrested and jailed several times. She was imprisoned in 1942 along with other pro-independence leaders, including her husband M.K. Gandhi, for taking part in Gandhi's Quit India movement. Her health deteriorated and she died in prison in 1944.
Bibi Maryam Bakhtiari (1874-1937)
Iranian Bakhtiari revolutionary: 1874-1937.
Bibi Maryam Bakhtiari was the daughter of Hossein Gholi Khan and an Iranian Bakhtiari revolutionary. She was a prominent activist and military commander in the Iranian Constitutional Revolution. She played a vital role in the capture of Tehran in 1909 as part of a campaign to force the government into introducing democratic reforms. Throughout her life she was one of Iran’s foremost women’s rights activists, and a pioneer in Iran’s constitutional movement.
Raden Adjeng Kartini (1879-1904)
Indonesian nationalist and journalist: April 21, 1879 – 1904.
Kartini was born in Jepara on the north coast of Central Java. She was part of an aristocratic Javanese family that collaborated with the Dutch colonial administration. Kartini had the unusual opportunity to attend a Dutch school. She was became fluent in Dutch. During adolescence, when she was forced to withdraw to the cloistered existence prescribed by tradition for a Javanese girl of noble birth, she began to correspond with several Dutch friends from her school days. In her letters Kartini expressed concern for the plight of Indonesians under the conditions of colonial rule, and for the restricted roles open to Indonesian women. Her main concern was the emancipation of women, but she was also aware of a number of societal problems in Indonesia, including female autonomy and legal equality. She is remembered through her letters which she wrote during her days in seclusion, which were later published in a book entitled Door Duisternis tot Licht (Out of Dark Comes Light) in 1911. These letters proved an inspiration for prominent Indonesian women in the fight for independence from Dutch colonial rule.
Huda Sha’arawi (1879-1947)
Egyptian feminist: June 23, 1879 – December 12, 1947.
Huda Sha'arawi was an Egyptian feminist, nationalist and founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union. Born into a prosperous family in the Egyptian city of Minya, she was confined to a secluded apartment and was ordered to wear a face veil when outside her home. She received her education at home in French. As well as a feminist, she was a strong supporter of independence from British colonial rule. She was active during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919, where female-led protests fought for independence from British colonial rule. In 1938, Sha'arawi sponsored the Eastern Women’s Conference for the Defence of Palestine in Cairo, which advocated Palestinian nationalism. She was a prominent feminist, and decided to abandon the veil in 1922. In 1924 she led female picket lines at the Egyptian Parliament’s opening, and submitted a list of feminist demands. She continued to lead the Egyptian feminist movement until her death in 1947. She also published the Egyptian feminist magazine l'Egyptienne. She became a symbolic figure in the Egyptian liberation movement.
Fadhma Amrouche (1882-1967)
Algerian/French poet and folksinger: 1882 – July 9, 1967.
Fadhma Amrouche was the illegitimate daughter of an impoverished Berber peasant. Amrouche was born a Muslim, but subsequently converted to Christianity under the tutelage of Catholic missionaries. Amrouche was one of the first Algerian women to write an autobiography. It was published posthumously as Histoire de ma vie in 1968, which discussed her life and the tension between her traditional Kabyle upbringing and the influence of France. She later became a naturalized French citizen and raised two children who became well-known French literati—Taos Marie-Louise Amrouche, a poet and novelist, and Jean Amrouche, also a poet.
Taj al-Saltana (1883-1936)
Persian princess and memoirist: February 14, 1883 – January 25, 1936.
Taj al-Saltana was a Persian princess and memoirist of the Qajar Dynasty. She was the daughter of Saner al-Din Shah, the King of Persia from 1843-1896. Cloistered from a young age into the confinement of the royal andarun (harem), she was kept away from public. Though her memoirs she explored the ‘harem mentality’ and the lives and experiences of the female servants living within the andarun. She was highly critical of the anduran’s practices and its deadening environment. She also promoted breast-feeding and played a role in the establishment of the Society for the Emancipation of Women, which evolved out of revolutionary societies of the Constitutional period in early twentieth century Persia. Throughout her life she was a prominent women’s rights advocate in Iran, and a member of the underground movement Njoman Horriyyat Nsevan or Women's Freedom Association (the Society of Women's Freedom). She was also a prominent writer, painter and intellectual.
Malak Hifni Nassif (1886-1918)
Egyptian feminist and social reformer: December 25, 1886 – October 17, 1918
Malak Hifni Nasif was an Egyptian feminist. Born in Cairo, she attended Abbas Primary School, and continued her education at Saniyyah Teacher Training College. After being forced to quit teaching upon her marriage, she started writing under the pseudonym Bahithat al-Badiyyah (Seeker of the Desert) about the status of women in Egypt. Over her life she contributed to the intellectual and political discourse on the advancement of Egyptian women in the twentieth century. In particular she protested male abuses of divorce and the practice of polygyny. She advocated for the participation of women in congregational worship in mosques, and their educational and professional equality.
Raicho Hiratsuka (1886-1971)
Japanese writer, journalist, political activist and feminist: February 10, 1886 – May 24, 1971.
Raichō Hiratsuka was a pioneering Japanese writer and political activist. In 1906 she graduated from the home economics department of Japan Women’s University, before co-founding Japan’s first female-run literary journal Seitō in 1911. She used the journal to challenge womens’ traditional roles at home. The first issue ‘In the beginning a woman was the sun’ was considered to be a declaration of women’s rights in Japan. She also co-founded the New Woman’s Association Shin Fujin Kyokai in 1920, which became an instrumental vehicle in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. She later served as the president of the Nihon Fujin Dantai rengo-kai and vice-president of Women's International Democratic Federation.
Daw San (1887-1950)
Burmese writer and women’s activist: 1887-1950.
Daw San founded the popular weekly newspaper Independent Weekly, published during the 1920s and 1930s. She was a prolific writer and a leading member of the Burmese Women’s Association, an elite women’s organisation established to reinforce the activities of the General Council of Burmese Association (GCBA) as well as to protect and advance the intellectual and spiritual growth and well-being of Burmese women.
Yamakawa Kikue (1890-1980)
Japanese essayist, activist and feminist: November 3, 1890 – November 2, 1980.
Yamakawa Kikue devoted her life to the liberation of Japanese women and the improvement of their condition. She was the first social feminist in Japan and is remembered as ‘a warrior of the pen’ in the Japanese women’s rights movement. In her early life she graduated from the private women’s college Joshi Eigaku Juku in 1912. During college she met the editor of the feminist periodical Seitō for which she wrote a number of articles, later becoming involved in the ‘Bluestockings’ feminist movement. She later married Japanese Communist activist Yamakawa Hitoshi. She is remembered for publishing a six-point manifesto in 1925 calling for equal gender rights. She wrote politically motivated articles including Women of the Mito Domain: Recollections of Samurai Family Life (1943). Later she served as the head of the Women and Minors Bureau in the Ministry of Labour until 1951.
Korean feminist, poet, writer, artists and educator: April 28, 1896 – December 10, 1948.
Na Hye-sok was Korea’s first female professional painter and also Korea’s first feminist author. She is best known for her feminist novels and short stories. Hyonghui (1918) was her most famous work; a short story about a woman’s self-discovery and her subsequent search for meaning as a ‘new woman’. She was critic of the early twentieth century traditional Korean marital institution. She was the main organiser of the Association of Korean Student in Japan, and after graduation she became involved in the movement to end Japanese imperial rule in Korea. Throughout her life she continued to write about women’s issues, and after her divorce in 1931 wrote A Divorce Confession in the Samcheolli magazine in 1934, raising issues with gender inequality. Despite her acclaim, she was unable to make a living from her art or writing, and lived largely off the charity of Buddhist monasteries, and died in a hospital for vagrants in 1948.
Queen Soraya Tarzi (1899-1968)
Queen Consort of Afghanistan and feminist reformer: November 24, 1899 – April 20, 1968.
Soraya Tarzi was Queen Consort of Afghanistan from 1919-1926, and wife of King Amanullah Khan. She was born in Syria and educated by her father, the Afghan intellectual Mahmud Beg Tarzi. Tarzi was instrumental in the design of Afghanistan’s first constitution regarding legislation for women. At the conclusion of a speech by King Amanullah Khan, in which he denounced the veil, Soraya publicly tore off her veil in support. She is also remembered for opening the first girls’ school in Kabul and founding Afghanistan’s first women’s journal Ershad-i-Niswan (Guidance for Women).
Trinidad Fernandez Legarda (1899-1998)
Filipina Suffragist and Editor: March 28, 1899 – 1998.
Trinidad Fernandez Legarda was a Filipina suffragist, philanthropist, editor of the Woman’s Outlook, a pro-suffrage publication in the Philippines. She was also President of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs. In 1931 she published an essay entitled ‘Philippine Women and the Vote’ in the Philippine Magazine, in which she drew from American suffragist ideas to make her case for suffrage. The NFWC led the campaign for women’s suffrage in the Philippines in 1921. During the Second World War she established a home for veterans and war widows, and in 1946, she led the reorganisation of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs. Despite being unsuccessful in her 1949 bid for the Senate, she later became the Philippines’ first female ambassador, appointed in 1958.
Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit (1900-1990)
Indian politician: August 18, 1900 – December 1, 1990.
Vijaya Lakshmi was the first Indian woman to hold a Cabinet post, and twice served as President of the Indian National Congress. She also served as India’s ambassador to Russia in the 1940s and was later appointed Governor of Maharashtra. After Indian Independence in 1947, she entered the diplomatic service and became India’s first ambassador to the Soviet Union, and later became the first female President of the UN General Assembly. Her brother Jawaharlal Nehru was the first Prime Minister of India. She came out of retirement in 1977 to campaign against her niece Indira Gandhi, instead supporting the Janata Party, who went on to win the election. In 1979, she was appointed the Indian representative to the UN Human Rights Commission, after which she retired from public life.
Rukmini Devi Arundale (1904-1986)
Indian theosophist, dancer and animal rights activist: February 29, 1904 – February 24, 1986.
Rukmini Devi Neelakanda Sastri was an Indian theosophist, and an important dancer and choreographer of the Indian classical dance form of Bharatanatyam. She was also a prominent animal rights and welfare activist. She is remembered as the first woman in Indian history to be nominated a member of the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of the Indian Parliament. In 1956, Rukmini Devi was awarded the Padma Bhushan and in 1967 she received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship, an honour for the performing arts.
Mabel Dove Danquah (1905-1984)
Ghanaian Journalist and Political Activist: 1905 – 1984.
Mabel Dove Danquah was a Gold Coast-born journalist and political activist. She was one of the first African literary feminists. She wrote for the African Morning Post, Nigerian Daily Times, the Accra Evening News and Daily Graphic. In 1951 she was CPP candidate for the Ga Rural constituency which she went on to win. This made her the first female member of the legislative assembly of the Gold Coast, and the first women to win an election in Ghana. She was a vocal supporter of Ghanian leader Kwame Nkrumah and used the Accra Evening News to voice support for the end of British rule of Ghana. Danquah was a talented novelist and writer, publishing many works including the Happening of the Night (1931), The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for Mr Shaw (1934), Anticipation (1947) and many more. In 1972, she had to retire from writing having lost her sight.
Begum Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan (1905-1990)
Pakistani politician: February 1905 – June 13, 1990.
Begum Ra'ana Liaquat Ali Khan was born into an upper caste Hindu family. She served as economic adviser to Jinnah’s Pakistan Movement Committee prior to the emergence of Pakistan as a nation. She converted to Islam when she married a Muslim lawyer, Liaquat Ali Khan, who later became the first Prime Minister of Pakistan. From 1947 to 1951 she served as the First Lady of Pakistan and was one of the leading women figures in the Pakistan Movement, as well as a prominent economist and stateswoman. As First Lady she continued in her support for women. Later she became a trusted advisor to Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.
Nguyen Thi Giang (1906-1930)
Vietnamese Revolutionary: 1906-1930.
Nguyen Thi Giang was a Vietnamese revolutionary and fiancée of Nguyen Thai Hoc - leader of Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (the Vietnamese Nationalist Party) Nguyen Thi Giang committed suicide at Tho Tang village after she was captured and executed by the French colonial authorities.
Doria Shafik (1908-1975)
Egyptian feminist poet: December 14, 1908 – September 20, 1975.
Doria Shafik was an Egyptian feminist, poet and editor. She was a prominent leader of the women's liberation movement in Egypt in the mid-1940s. By the age of 32, she had earned a doctorate in philosophy from the Sorbonne, and published essays in Arabic and French. In the 1940s she returned to Egypt and began to work at the Ministry of Education. In 1945, having been rejected by the French magazine L’Egyptienne, she went to work for La Femme Nouvelle. She took over the publication in 1946. When she heard of the death of Huda Sha’arawi, she was determined to take up the feminist struggle. In 1951 she convened 1,500 women at a lecture hall at the American University of Cairo. She subsequently led the women to the Egyptian Parliament and shut down the legislature for more than four hours, before the President of the Upper Chamber agreed to take up the demand of the group for suffrage. As a direct result of her efforts, Egyptian women were granted the right to vote by the Egyptian constitution. In 1957 she denounced the dictatorship of General Gamal Abd-el Nasser, who put her under house arrest, and died in 1975. Link: https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/north-africa-west-asia/egyptian-feminist-movement-brief-history/
Shamsiah Fakeh (1924-2008)
Malaysian nationalist and feminist: 1908 – October 20, 2008:
Shamsiah Fakeh was a Malaysian nationalist and feminist. She was the leader of Angkatan Wanita Sedar, Malaysia's first nationalist women’s organisation under the PKMM (Partai Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya). She was also a prominent Malay leader of the Communist Party. In 1948, prior to the declaration of the Malayan Emergency, the PKMM and other parties were banned, and Fakeh fled to the jungle and joined the Malayan People’s Liberation Army (MPLA). In 1956, having retreated to the Thai-Malay border, Fakeh and her husband went to exile in China and served as broadcasters with Radio Peking. In 1956, they were arrested in Indonesia amidst anti-communist purges in the aftermath of the 30 September Movement. Expelled from the party in 1972, she later returned to Malaysia in 1994 after the 1989 peace agreement between the CPM and the Government of Malaysia. Her memoirs were published in 2004 by Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) but was immediately suppressed by the authorities and withdrawn from circulation. A Chinese language version was published in 2007.
Dr Tawhida Belsheikh (1909-2010)
Tunisian physician: 1909-2010.
Dr Tawhida Belsheikh was the first woman in Tunisia to qualify as a medical doctor. She first received her Baccalaureate from the Armand Valiere Institut, before moving to Paris at the age of 20 to study medicine. She received her degree in Medicine in 1936. After graduating she returned to Tunisia and worked in her own clinic. She was part of an intellectual elite that fought against French colonial rule. In 1956, after Tunisian independence, she joined the state’s project for family planning and opened a special clinic for family planning in 1963 in the Tunisian capital.
Florence Matomela (1910-1969)
Cape Anti Pass Law Activist and Civic Rights Campaigner: January 1, 1910 – 1969.
Florence Matomela worked as a teacher while raising five children. Matomela was one of the first women volunteers in the 1952 Defiance Campaign. She spearheaded demonstrations which resulted in the burning of passbooks which were used to control and suppress the movements of Black people in urban areas and spent six weeks in prison for civil disobedience. Throughout the 1950s she was the Cape provincial organiser of the African National Congress Women’s League and vice-president of the federation of South African Women. She was banned and restricted to Port Elizabeth in 1962 and was subsequently given a five-year sentence for furthering the aims of the banned ANC. While she was in prison, her health deteriorated badly.
Aoua Keita (1912-1980)
Malian independence activist, politician and writer: July 12, 1912 (Bamako, French Sudan) – May 7, 1980 (Bamako, Mali).
Keita and her family were believed to have descended from Sundiata Kéita, one of the founders of the 13th-century Malian Empire. Keita was admitted into Bamako's first girls' school in 1923, later obtaining a Diploma in midwifery. She was a member of the African Democratic Rally (RDA). She was an anti-colonial activist and was frequently punished by the French colonial authorities throughout the 1950s for her views, and in 1951, she renounced her French citizenship and campaigned in the for the RDA in the 1951 French election. As the RDA grew in strength Keita consolidated her position being elected in September 1958 to the executive body, the Bureau Politique National. In 1959 she became a Member of Parliament, the first woman in Francophone Africa to be elected to the assembly governing her country.
Margaret Ekpo (1914-2006)
Nigerian women's rights activist: July 27, 1914 – September 21, 2006.
Margaret Ekpo was a prominent Nigerian feminist and politician. She was a dedicated social mobiliser and a pioneering female politician who led the country’s first republic, helping to change the face of politics in Nigeria. She is particularly remembered for agitating for Nigerian independence, and for mobilizing Nigerian women to fight for their economic and political rights.In the 1940s, Ekpo started attending meetings to protest the treatment of Nigerian medical staff by the British colonial authorities. In 1946, she founded the Market Women Association, a union for women in the city of Aba. In the fight against the British colonial authorities, she joined the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons party. After independence Ekpo became an elected politician in the Eastern Regional House Assembly.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike (1916-200)
Sri Lankan politician and first female Prime Minister of Sri Lanka: April 17, 1916 – October 10, 2000.
Sirimavo Bandaranaike was the first female Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. She was the widow of Ceylon's former prime minister, Solomon Bandaranaike, who was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959. Sirimavo was born to a prominent Sinhalese family in the Kandyan area of Ceylon. Like other families of status, the Bandaranaikes held prominent positions in the British colonial regime. After leaving school Sirimavo threw herself into social welfare work distributing medicine, organising clinics in rural areas and developing rural industries. After she married Solomon Bandaranaike, she became his confidante, persuading him to resign from the ruling United National Party (UNP) in 1951. Two months later her formed the Sri Lankan Freedom Party, which coalesced around Sinhalese democratic socialism. In 1596, Bandaranaike won the election. After his assassination in 1959, she was encouraged to assume the SLFP’s party leadership. Mrs. Bandaranaike served three terms as Prime Minister of Ceylon over a span of four decades: 1960-65, 1977-77, and 1994-2000.
WomLucy Buyaphi Mvubelo (1920-200)
South African Trade Unionist: January 20, 1920 – October 30, 2000.
Mvubelo was a prominent South African trade unionist and spent her life fighting for the improvement of conditions for workers in South Africa. In 1953, she founded the Garment Workers Union of African Women. In 1955, as a member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions, she grew uneasy with the African National Congress, and was reluctant to align herself with the anti-apartheid struggle for economic gains for workers. In 1958 she joined the Federation of Free Trade Unions of South Africa. In this role she became the first black official to represent South Africa at an international labour conference in Geneva, in 1959. From 1962 to 1986 she was General Secretary of the National Union of Clothing Workers. In 1979, when the South African government allowed equal status for black unions, she protested it stating that the policy excluded thousands of black homeland residents. Later in 1984 she was branded a ‘government collaborator’ by the ANC and her home was bombed. She achieved considerable gains in wages and benefits for clothes workers in South Africa throughout her lifetime.
Mamia Chentouf (1922-2012)
Algerian Independence and women’s rights activist: 1922 – October 10, 2012.
Mamia Chentouf was an Algerian midwife, independence activist and founder of the first women’s rights organisation in Algeria, the Association of Algerian Muslim Women. In her early life she attended the University of Algiers and completed her training as a midwife. During her studies she joined the Algerian Independence Movement, which fought for independence from French colonial rule, and in 1954 she joined the National Liberation Front, and was later arrested in 1955 and exiled to Tunis. During her exile she founded the Algerian Red Crescent Society. At the end of the independence war she returned to Algiers to study political science and served on the National Union of Algerian Women. In 1966 Chentouf organised the National Union of Algerian Women, but later resigned having become disillusioned with its effectiveness.
Kanitha Wichiencharoen (1922-2002)
Thai lawyer and women’s rights activist: November 4, 1922 – May 13, 2002.
Kanitha was born in Bangkok, the daughter of a prominent lawyer who served as senator during the transition to a constitutional monarchy. Kanitha studied law at Thammasat University. She later went to study international law at Columbia University, New York. She then moved to Switzerland and studies International Relations in 1949. She returned to Bangkok and took a job at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 1961, after several other roles, she began a three-year term as President of the Women’s Lawyers Association and began to think of ways of improving women’s services. In 1969 she was selected as President of the International Women’s Association of Thailand and was active in the women’s rights movement throughout the 1970s. She is most remembered for her human rights work with women, she established the first emergency shelter for women in Thailand. She also established the Mahapajapati Theri College, the first college to train women as Buddhist nuns in southeast Asia.
Fethia Mokhtar Mzali (1927-2018)
Tunisian politician: April 6, 1927 – February 12, 2018.
As well as being the first Tunisian woman to gain a degree in Philosophy, which she obtained in 1952 from the Sorbonne, Paris, she was also a prominent Tunisian politician. Returning from Paris she worked as a teacher and then became headmistress at the Teacher’s College in Tunisia. In 1957, after independence, Mzali was elected as a Councillor for the city of Tunisia. In 1983 she was then appointed as Minister for Family and Women, becoming the first female Minister in Tunisia.
Mariama Ba was a pioneers of Senegalese literature. In 1947 she graduated from the École Normale for girls in Rufisque as a schoolteacher. Alongside her passion for education, Ba was a member of the Woman’s movement and fought for recognition of women’s issues, attempting to reconcile her conservative religious upbringing with an openness to liberal culture. Towards the end of her life she published So Long a Letter (1979), a novel which directly confronted polygamy and the caste-system in Senegal.
Gisele Rabesahala (1929-2011)
Malagasy politician: May 7, 1929 – June 27, 2011.
Rabesahala was born in 1929 in Madagascar and is remembered for devoting her life to her country’s independence, human rights and the freedom of peoples. At 17 she became secretary to the Democratic Movement for Malagasy Renewal, a group which campaigned for independence. She later became the first Malagasy woman to be elected as a municipal councillor (1956), political party leader (1958) and minister (1977). She also founded Imongo Vaovao newspaper.
Pauline Lumumba (1937-2014)
Congolese Activist: January 1, 1937 – December 23, 2014.
Pauline Opangu was a Congolese activist, and the wife of Patrice Lumumba (the first Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo). She sought a Congolese political imaginary that was free from Belgian influence, and participated in demonstrations which supported Congolese independence. In 1961, after her husband’s death in a coup d’état, Pauline marched bare-breasted to the United Nations local office to protest her husband’s death and ask for help with the return of his body for burial from his murderers. Under threat from her late-husband’s foes, she fled to Egypt under with the support of President Nasser. She returned to the Congo, via France and Belgium, and lived the remainder of her life in the independent Democratic Republic of Congo.
Djamila Bouhired (1937-present)
Algerian militant: June 1937 – present.
Bio: Djamila Bouhired is an Algerian militant, and heroine of the War of National Liberation from France, 1954-1962. She was raised in a middle-class family by a Tunisian mother and an Algerian father and attended a French school in Algeria. It was typical of such schools to inculcate students with a strong sense of French identity. She was subsequently radicalised through the brutal treatment of FLN (National Liberation Front) prisoners by the French. She quickly joined the underground nationalist movement, and worked as a liaison agent for Saadi Yacef, a prominent commander. In 1957 she was tried for allegedly bombing a café. The bomb killed 11 civilians. French lawyer Jacques Vergès was sympathetic to the cause of the Algerian nationalists, and decided to represent Bouhired. In what would be a historic trial, Vergès accused the government of having committed the acts themselves and waged a public relations campaign on her behalf. Despite Vergès efforts, Bouhired was convicted and sentenced to death by the guillotine. Many figures campaigned for her death sentence to be rescinded, and even Princess Laila Ayesha of Morocco contacted the President of France at the time, René Coty, and asked that Bouhired be spared from. Bouhired served a prison sentence until 1962 and was released with other Algerian prisoners after the war. A year after the war ended Bouhired married Vergès, who claimed to have become a target of the French colonial government. In independent Algeria Bouhired fought for the emancipation of women.
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Idea and Commissioning Editor: Dr. John Slight
Research and Compilation: Dr. Sam Aylett