National Women’s Day: Remembering Sarojini Naidu, Flag Bearer of Women Empowerment

Today, India celebrates National Women’s Day to observe the 144th Birth Anniversary of Sarojini Naidu.
Remembering Sarojini Naidu, Flag Bearer of Women Empowerment
Remembering Sarojini Naidu, Flag Bearer of Women Empowerment
Swagata Borah

Women Empowerment has become the most talked about topic today. But do you know who made the term brisk and worth its popularity decades back in India? It is none other than Sarojini Naidu, the woman who became the face of women’s empowerment in India.

Today, India celebrates National Women’s Day to observe the 144th Birth Anniversary of Sarojini Naidu.

Born to Bengali parents Dr Aghore Nath Chattopadhayay and Varada Sundari Devi on February 13, 1879 in Hyderabad, Naidu became an Indian Political Activist, feminist and poet.

Naidu played a key role during India’s freedom struggle. She was a firm believer of Satyagraha and a close follower of Mahatma Gandhi. Besides, it might also be known to all that she was the first woman president of the Indian National Congress and the first woman Governor in India.

Naidu started her writing journey at the age of 12. She used to write in English and sometimes, her writings took the form of lyric poetry in the tradition of British Romanticism. This brought her great challenges to reconcile herself with her Indian nationalist politics.

Her first book of poems was published in London in 1905, titled “The Golden Threshold”. Her last book of new poems published in her lifetime was published in 1917 named “The Broken Wing”. It includes the poem “The Gift of India” that criticized the British Empire’s exploitation of Indian mothers and soldiers.

Later, in 1928, a collection of all her published poems was printed in New York. After her death, Naidu’s complete poems, including unpublished works, were collected in ‘The Feather of the Dawn’ in 1961, which was edited by her daughter Padmaja Naidu.

Naidu’s speeches were first collected and published in January 1918 as ‘The Speeches and Writings of Sarojni Naidu. This was a popular publication which led to an expanded reprint in 1919 and again in 1925.

Naidu’s literary work as a poet earned her the title of “the Nightingale of India” or “Bharat Kokila” by Mahatma Gandhi as he saw color, imagery and lyrical quality of her poetry.

Her poetry includes both poems for children and others written on more serious themes including patriotism and tragedy.

When India was hit by a plague endemic, Naidu diligently worked with people affected by the disease. To acknowledge her impressive work, the British Government honored her with the “Kaisar-i-Hind'' medal.

Sarojini Naidu often spoke about the how important it is for women in our society to get education on empowerment. She inspired women to participate in the freedom struggle and fight for their rights. Here are some ways in which Sarojini Naidu made a difference for women’s rights in the country:

Rights of widows: At the 22nd session of the Indian National Social Conference held in 1908, Sarojini Naidu pushed a resolution demanding educational facilities for widows, establishing women’s homes, and removing obstacles in the remarriage of widows. She did this at a time when these subjects were considered controversial.

Right to vote: In 1917, Sarojini Naidu set up the Women’s Indian Association (WIA), with Annie Besant and others. The main aim of the WIA was to obtain women’s right to vote. She led a women’s voting rights delegation to London to plead for equal rights for women and also joined the international movement for women’s suffrage.

Right to equality: Sarojini presided over the Indian National Congress at its 1925 session, making her the first Indian woman to become the president of the Congress. (The first woman to preside over the session was Annie Besant, a British citizen in 2017). Reporting about the event, The New York Times did a long feature with the headline, “A Joan of Arc Rises to Inspire India.’

Right of representation: She founded both the WIA and All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). Both organizations played important roles in the fight for women’s rights in the country. Under her leadership, the AIWC pressed for non-communal elections as opposed to elections along communal lines as proposed by the British Parliament.

Right to equal political status: As the British were mulling a new constitution for India, in a 1931 letter addressed to the British Prime Minister, Sarojini Naidu and Jahan Ara Shahnawaz, prominent women activists at the time, representing “progressive” women of India demanded, “complete and immediate recognition of their women equal political status, in theory, and practice, by the grant of full adult franchise or an effective and acceptable alternative, based on the conception of adult suffrage.” They also asserted that “to seek any form of preferential treatment would be to violate the integrity of the universal demand of Indian women for absolute equality of political status”.

On March 2, 1949 Naidu died of Cardiac arrest at the government House in Lucknow.

She holds her legacy even after leaving the world. Till date Naidu has taken over as "one of India's feminist luminaries".

Composer Helen Searles Westbrook (1889-1967) set Naidu’s text to music in her song “Invincible.”

Edmund Gosse called her "the most accomplished living poet in India" in 1919.

Naidu is memorialized in the Golden Threshold, an off-campus annex of University of Hyderabad named for her first collection of poetry.

Asteroid 5647 Sarojini Naidu, discovered by Eleanor Helin at Palomar Observatory in 1990, was named in her memory.

 Here's a look at a few memorable quotes from Sarojini Naidu literary works:

"Tell me no more of thy love, papeeha,

Wouldst thou recall to my heart, papeeha,

Dreams of delight those are gone,

When swift to my side came the feet of my lover..." - A Love Song From The North by Sarojini Naidu

"Like this alabaster box whose art

Is frail as a cassia-flower, is my heart,

Carven with delicate dreams and wrought

With many subtle and exquisite thoughts.

Therein I treasure the spice and scent

Of rich and passionate memories blend

Like odours of cinnamon, sandal and clove,

Of song and sorrow and life and love." - Alabaster by Sarojini Naidu.

The emblem of women empowerment in India wore many hats.

As a social activist, she worked tirelessly to herald in change and as a freedom fighter, she stood firm against the tyranny of colonial rule. A celebrated poet, playwright, she used poetry as a means to address social issues and empower women for a better India.

She was the person whose contributions made a lot of difference for women in a country where they were only treated as “nurturers”.

By becoming an advocate of women empowerment, she brought realization to the Indian society that the role of Indian Women is bigger than the kitchen and heavier than the in-house responsibilities.

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