Politics has always been a complex affair bent to favour sons over daughters. Some brave women, however, ceased every opportunity presented to change the course of their fate. Among the tales of these inspirational women is the story of Razia Sultana, the first female ruler of India, whose father left responsible for an entire kingdom. Her history is worth noting because even in present day India, most women have to work twice as hard to assert their vision and virtuosity to get the same recognition their male counterparts receive. Jalâlat-ud-Dîn Raziyâ might have only ruled Delhi for three and a half years but she made an impact, and that impact began with proving her competence to her father. Muslim women in India during this period (1211–1240 CE) were not even encouraged to share their opinions, and there she was, a Muslim woman, taking the reigns of an entire Dynasty. Razia Sultana was an influential ruler in the Mamluk Dynasty of the Delhi Sultanate who challenged the conventional roles of a Muslim woman. She did so through her public presentation, engagement in warfare and interactions with councilmen.
Razia was particular about her public presentation that heavily relied on projecting a masculine image of herself during her reign in order gain acceptance as a female ruler amongst the otherwise male-dominated royalty. She chose to dress herself as a man and used political propaganda, like many male rulers of her time, by issuing coins that glorified her.
Instead of being dressed in a customary veil, Razia ‘cross-dressed’. She wore traditional male clothing such as the tunic called the ‘ Kuva’ and the headdress called the ‘Kulah’. This decision of hers appalled the conservative Muslim society in Delhi as women were not accustomed to abandoning the veil, let alone dressing in male attire. Reportedly, there were two speculations as to why Razia adopted the male dress code.
The first speculation stated that during her childhood and adolescence, Razia did not have much exposure to the social norms of women in the Muslim society as she had limited interactions with the women of the harem at her father’s palace. This perhaps made Razia unaware of how females were required to conduct themselves and what garments they were required to don. Hence, she might have been more susceptible to the male dress code due to the lack of knowledge to abide by the stipulated dress code for women.
The second speculation claimed that in a bid to overcome the public’s reluctance to accept a female Sultan, Razia turned to male garb to justify her status as a capable ruler (p 49-51). Perhaps, such associations with traditional masculine imagery like the Kuva and Kulah could be a political tactic that Razia employed to give her subjects the impression that she was man-like and hence possessed the qualities and skills of a man, legitimizing her reign in the process. She might have hoped to ease a shift in her subjects’ focus from her gender to how she ruled the empire as a Sultan, eventually leading them to accept her reign.
Out of the two speculations, the first one is argued to be an odd one. While most of the evidences claimed that Razia dressed up as a man to legitimize her rule, only this theory seemed to be contradictory, as it claimed that the lack of interaction with the womenfolk might be the reason for Razia to crossdress. Razia is known to be a hard-headed woman with great interest in political issues; hence it is more probable that she might have crossdressed as part of her political agenda to earn acceptance from her subjects.
To further distinguish herself as a ruler, Razia issued silver coins during her short reign and named the coins after her- referring to herself as , al-soltān al-moʿazzam which translates to the great Sultan( p 53). By addressing herself as a ‘Sultan’, which is a masculine connotation for ruler, Razia appeared to make full use of her male facade in order to make a statement: that she is powerful and capable, just like a man. Indeed, she penetrated into the daily lives of her subjects, asserting her masculine status, via her coinage system.
Razia, was one of the few female royalties who conducted themselves in a masculine manner in order to gain acceptance as a female ruling in the midst of their respective patriarchal societies. With respect to public portrayal, Razia is similar to Egypt’s Queen Hatshepsut who authorized her reign by illustrating herself as a masculine figure. The absence of a female equivalent to ‘Pharaoh’ did not deter Hatshepsut from depicting her feminine power, although under the guise of a man.
Engagement in Warfare
A great ruler ideally possess a varied set of skills. The most successful rulers of the Delhi Sultanate were known for their extraordinary mastery of battle. And Razia of course, was no exception. She was highly trained and a fearless warrior. She rode into battle along with her men to seize new territories and reinforce her empire, earning the respect that any exceptional general, would receive. She was the only woman to be allowed to go to war in India, during this period. Not only did she place herself among male soldiers but she also donned the same attire as any other soldier, which was seen as being disrespectful to the Islamic culture of the time. Razia, through both her mastery and controversy made a great impression with respect to warfare. The poet and historian Amir Khusrow wrote in the fourteenth century about Razia on the battlefield (p 105):
Another aspect related to Razia’s public portrayal is that she insisted that she be addressed as ‘Sultan’ and not ‘Sultana’ as the latter means wife of a ruler, a title which she might not have preferred. Razia might have felt that calling herself or letting others refer to her as Sultana might be a hindrance to her reign, especially since a Sultana may not partake in war. This concern of how she must be addressed sheds light not only on how female royalty needed to identify themselves as male in order to gain acceptance as a ruler and warrior; it also showed the prevalence of gender inequality amongst the Muslim community in medieval India. Razia not only had to fight in battles for her empire but also constantly defend her claim to the throne.
Interactions with Councilmen
In addition to being a great warrior, Razia proved to be an excellent administrator, despite being surrounded primarily by male councilmen. She appeared to be a resourceful leader as she implemented rules and regulations for the benefit of her empire. She communicated with the various leaders of her community to improve the infrastructure of her province as a mean to enhance business, construct drainage systems and establish educational institutions such as schools and public libraries. Furthermore, Razia showed interest in the arts and culture scene by supporting talented artists, musicians and lyricists, hence proving herself as a holistic ruler who showed interest in different aspects of society. This clearly shows that in order to engage in such community projects, Razia needed to forge good ties with the council leaders who were predominantly men and based on the number of successful organisations Razia had set up, the resourceful Sultan has indeed projected her influence upon the councilmen despite her gender difference.
Although Razia was respected by many of her subjects, there were councilmen who opposed her, such as the Turkish nobles, as they were unable to accept a female ruler, despite her efficiency. Conspiracies were constructed by these nobles to dethrone Razia and despite fighting courageously, Razia eventually lost her throne, before meeting her tragic end.
Our world today consists of influential women, such as Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Indra Nooyi and more. All of these women are bold and daring and have a great set of leadership skills just like Raiza.
Razia was indeed a woman who defied conventions and restrictions associated with her religion in India. She was headstrong and brave enough to crossdress, fight in battles and interact with male council members, all of which were forbidden for Muslim women to do during that period. She contributed significantly to the Mamluk Dynasty, never seeing her gender as a weakness. Razia represented her father’s last hope of maintaining the glory of the Delhi Sultanate, and she did it, ever so dutifully. Razia was indeed her daddy’s little princess.
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