18 Aug 10 women leaders of independence movements across Asia
This week, several Asian nations like Pakistan, India, and Indonesia celebrated their independence days, highlighting significant milestones and heroes in anti-colonial history. Yet, women revolutionaries often go unnoticed, with their contributions are discredited.
From influential stateswomen to rebels, here’s a brief list of celebrated women leaders who paved the way for gender equality in Asia with their contributions to independence movements in their countries. The life and legacy of these women have inspired generations of women leaders around the world.
This list isn’t in any specific order, nor is it exhaustive. Share in the comments the women leaders in your country who are celebrated for their contributions to national struggles. Remember to explore our references for more about their lives and legacies.
1. Melchora “Tandang Sora” Aquino (1812 – 1919), The Philippines
Melchora “Tandang Sora”, also known as “the Mother of the Philippine Revolution”, is the first Filipina to appear on a Philippine peso banknote, featured on the 100-peso bill.
During the 1896 Philippine Revolution, Aquino provided her store as a refuge for sick and wounded revolutionaries.
The Katipunan, the anti-Spanish colonialism group, held secretive meetings in her until Aquino was caught and arrested by the Spaniards. In 1896 she was deported to Guam, a Micronesian island, and she stayed there until her repatriation in 1903.
2. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya (1903 – 1988), India
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was a pioneering Indian social reformer, freedom fighter, and politician. She actively participated in Gandhi’s Indian independence movement and was the first woman in India to run for political office in 1926.
She championed women’s rights, played a key role in the salt satyagraha, and travelled globally during World War II to promote India’s freedom cause. After independence, she focused on resettling displaced people and promoting Indian arts and handicrafts. In a sharp departure from her contemporary times, Chattopadhyaya pioneered women’s labour rights and home to be recognised as a site of economic production, as the changes in the economic make-up of the country rendered women’s labour unpaid and reduced economic opportunities for Indian women.
3. Fatima Jinnah (1893 – 1967), Pakistan
Fatima Jinnah, also known as the Madar-i-Millat (‘mother of the nation’) in Pakistan, was a politician and stateswoman.
She played a fundamental role in forming the All India Muslim Women Student’s Federation in Delhi in 1941, which scholars say laid the foundation for the All Pakistan Women’s Association (APWA). APWA, founded by fellow politician Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan after the independence of Pakistan, is one of the longest-running organisations for women’s welfare in the country. Fatima Jinnah’s legacy is often tied to her brother Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. However, recent scholarship on her life has shed light on her role in the mobilisation of Muslim women for political causes.
4. Lily Eberwein Abdullah (1900 – 1980), Malaysia
Lily Eberwein Abdullah was a Sarawakian nationalist and a women’s rights activist. She was politically active in the anti-cession movement of Sarawak (now a part of Malaysia) in the 1940s. The movement emerged as the territory was to be ceded to the British Empire in 1946 against the wishes of the Sarawakians, who were ruled by the British Brooke family.
Eberwein was the principal of Permaisuri Malay Girls School from its founding in 1930 until the anti-cession movement began. When the British government sought to prohibit all civil servants from getting involved in the anti-cessationist movement in 1947, several of them, with a majority of Malay teachers, resigned from their positions in protest. Eberwein was among them. She also chaired the women’s wing of the Malay National Union and rallied support for the anti-cession movement. When the movement eventually failed, she turned her attention to education for Malay girls by establishing the Satok English School in 1950 and remained active in public life.
5. Raden Adjeng Kartini (1879 – 1904), Indonesia
Raden Adjeng Kartini was a Javanese noblewoman. Her letters to her Dutch peers, published in “Through Darkness into Light”, made her an important symbol of Indonesian independence.
Despite traditional constraints on Javanese noblewomen, Raden Adjeng Kartini had an opportunity to attend a Dutch school due to her father’s position in Dutch colonial administration. Her schooling was discontinued in her adolescence. But Kartini continued correspondence with her Dutch peers. In her letters, She wrote extensively about art, politics, education, and the plight of Indonesians under colonial rule. After being married to a progressive Javanese official, she aimed to establish schools for Javanese girls, but her life ended at 25 due to childbirth complications. Her letters were published posthumously in 1911 as Door duisternis tot Licht (“Through Darkness into Light”). As the first Indonesian published in Dutch, her opinions became popular in the Netherlands. The publication also led to the establishment of the Kartini Foundation, which opened the first girls’ schools in Java.
6. Rasuna Said (1910 – 1965), Indonesia
Rasuna Said, often dubbed “Singa Betina” (lioness), is revered for her pre-independence nationalist efforts and subsequent official roles in the post-independence era.
Her significance grew in 1932 as she became the first woman to be arrested in the Netherlands Indies for “sowing hatred” against the Dutch. She was active in the political party Union of Indonesian Muslims and advocated her party’s stand against colonialism. In her speech in 1932, she defended her Islamic political party’s stance, spoke about the Quran’s interpretation of imperialism as the enemy and urged women to stand for independence, which eventually led to her arrest. Once she was released from prison, she started a girls’ school and edited a weekly journal. After the independence of Indonesia in 1945, she was appointed to the first Indonesian legislature, the Provisional People’s Representative Council.
7. Daw San (1887 – 1949), Myanmar
“Daw San” was the pen name of Ma San Youn, a Burmese writer and the founder and editor of Independent Weekly, which ran in the1920s and 1930s. She led movements for the political rights of Burmese women and wrote for national unity.
She first entered the literary circle in Burma in 1918 with her patriotic story ‘Khin Aye Kyi’, which centred on a Buddhist woman embodying Burmese national values. Daw San emerged as a leader Burmese Women’s Association alongside Daw Mya Sein, a fellow Burmese writer and historian. They led demonstrations in Yangoon demanding women’s rights to vote and to stand for parliamentary elections in 1929, aligning with similar movements in India and Britain. For Daw San, both patriotism and feminism were of equal importance. Her association pioneered progressive reforms, women’s education and suffrage for Burmese women. She wrote sharp critiques on contemporary politics in The Independent Weekly, which she ran for a decade.
8. Salud Algabre (1894 – 1979), The Philippines
Salud Algabre, recognized as Henerala Salud, was a pivotal Filipina revolutionary, championing the Philippines’ liberation from American occupation and advocating for peasant rights, particularly land distribution.
Within the Sakdal movement, which sought “immediate, complete and absolute independence”, she emerged as a notable figure. In the Sakdal revolt of 1935, Salud led a group in Cabuyao, blocking roads and confiscating weapons from the marines. But the government successfully quelled the uprising. After a few days of hiding, she presented herself to the authorities. She was imprisoned for more than a year until she received a pardon. Her married name, Generalla, conveniently transformed into “Generala,” the Spanish term for “woman general.”
When asked if she felt bitter about the failed uprising, she expressed no regrets and replied, “No uprising fails. Each step is a step in the right direction.”
9. Nguyen Thi Giang (1906 – 1930), Vietnam
Nguyen Thi Giang, associated with the Vietnamese Nationalist Party Viet Nam Quôc Dan Dang (VNQDD), was a revolutionary in the fight against French colonial rule.
Joining the party in 1929, Nguyen Thi Giang worked as a propagandist. She travelled extensively throughout northern Vietnam in order to gather support for the cause of Vietnamese independence. Nguyen was deeply involved in covert actions against political figures and institutions. During the Yen Bay mutiny in 1930, an uprising of Vietnamese soldiers in the French colonial army, she coordinated VNQDD troop movements. Following the failed uprising, VNQDD leaders, including her fiancé Nguyen Thai Hoc, faced execution by the French. Just days later, Nguyen Thi Giang took her own life. Though her passing is often portrayed romantically, she held her ground for Vietnamese independence.
10. Rosa “Muki” Bonaparte Soares ( – 1975), Timor Leste
Rosa “Muki” Bonaparte Soares is a lesser-known yet crucial figure in Timor Leste’s struggle against the Indonesian occupation.
She studied in Lisbon in the early 1970s and was drawn to political activism. She became involved with the Timorese Social Democratic Association (ASDT), which later transformed into FRETILIN, and played a role in negotiations with the Portuguese Decolonisation Commission in Dili in May 1975. Bonaparte ardently worked for women’s emancipation and the nationalists movement, which she believed were inseparable. Tragically, her life was cut short when Indonesian forces invaded in 1975. Despite her untimely demise, her writings urging women to participate in politics and national freedom remain impactful.
Melchora “Tandang Sora” Aquino, The Philippines:
Lalaine Alindogan, 10 Filipinas who made history that you should know about (Part 1) | Cold Tea Collective | https://coldteacollective.com/10-filipinas-who-made-history-p1/
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, India:
The British Library | https://www.bl.uk/people/kamaladevi-chattopadhyay
Shrayana Bhattacharya, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh: India’s Lonely Young Women and the Search for Intimacy and Independence
Fatima Jinnah, Pakistan:
Rozina Visram and Dr Chandan Mahal, Women in the independence movements of the 1930s and 1940s | The British Library | https://www.bl.uk/voices-of-partition/articles/women-in-independence-movements
M. Reza Pirbhai, Fatima Jinnah – Mother of the Nation | https://www.cambridge.org/core/books/fatima-jinnah/0E3C1124B29B07811E332926C535CBF1#fndtn-information
Lily Eberwein Abdullah, Malaysia
Parliwomen on Instagram | https://www.instagram.com/p/CSJoilqJUPn/?img_index=2
Welyne J. Jehom, Lily Eberwein: Her Life and Involvement in the Anti-cession Movement in Sarawak, Susan Blackburn and Helen Ting, Women in Southeast Asian Nationalist Movements | https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1qv1g3.12
Raden Adjeng Kartini, Indonesia
Rasuna Said, Indonesia
Sally White, Rasuna Said: Lioness of the Indonesian Independence Movement, Susan Blackburn and Helen Ting, Women in Southeast Asian Nationalist Movements | https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1qv1g3.9
Independent Daw San, Myanmar
Chie Ikeya, The Life and Writings of a Patriotic Feminist: Independent Daw San of Burma, Susan Blackburn and Helen Ting, Women in Southeast Asian Nationalist Movements | https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/j.ctv1qv1g3.6.pdf
Salud Algabre, The Philippines
Luisa T. Camagay, Salud Algabre: A Forgotten Member of the Philippine Sakdal, Susan Blackburn and Helen Ting, Women in Southeast Asian Nationalist Movements https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/j.ctv1qv1g3.10.pdf
Nguyen Thi Giang, Vietnam
Micheline Lessard, “I Die Because of My Circumstances”: Nguyen Thi Giang and the Viet Nam Quôc Dan Dang, Susan Blackburn and Helen Ting, Women in Southeast Asian Nationalist Movements | https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv1qv1g3.7
Rosa “Muki” Bonaparte Soares, Timor Leste
David Hutt, East Timor’s “Red Rosa”, New Mandala https://www.newmandala.org/rosa-bonaparte-east-timors-red-rosa/