The following essay revisits the liberal and patriotic contributions of Azizun Nisa, a forgotten warrior of the 1857 Revolt. It also raises important questions concerning rigid colonial ideas of morality that were historically alien to Indian minds.
The First War of Independence in 1857 gave India a host of freedom fighters that would be revered for generations to come. Rani Lakshmi Bai, Tantia Tope, Nana Saheb Peshwa II and Begum Hazrat Mahal have been memorialized in Indian history for their contributions. Among the many names that do not end up getting the same kind of recognition for their contributions is Azizun Nisa – a courtesan who fought in the Siege of Cawnpore.
Azizun Nisa, also known as Azizun Bai, was born in Lucknow and spent her life in Kanpur. Professionally a courtesan of Lurkee Mahil, she donned the role of a warrior and a strategist in the Revolt of 1857. Kanpur was one of the primary sites of the 1857 conflict, where Tantia Tope and Nana Saheb were amassing support to fight the British. Azizun Nisa’s efforts aided the 2nd cavalry unit of the rebel soldiers from Kanpur. It is also reported that rebel soldiers and Indian freedom fighters often used Azizun Nisa’s residence as their venue to hold clandestine meetings and sessions among themselves. Azizun Nisa also contributed to the struggle by collecting and distributing arms, ammunition and other weaponry to these soldiers. In addition to this, she is also believed to have trained women for combat.
During the Siege of Cawnpore in the First War of Independence, Azizun Nisa established her headquarters, where she stayed put with the soldiers. These headquarters were located in one of the gun batteries that were deployed to fire at the British soldiers, and when the need arose, she too armed herself with pistols and made her way into the battlefield. As one of the key conspirators, it is believed that she was taken into custody by General Havelock, who made multiple attempts at forcing her to confess. However, Azizun Nisa’s unyielding strength and courage ensured that she did not confess for forgiveness from the colonial powers. Her selfless and brave attitude chose martyrdom for her country over confessions.
Despite her contributions in one of the most important moments in Indian history, Azizun Nisa remains forgotten. The lack of recognition and awareness regarding Azizun Nisa’s contributions is in tandem with the fate of the others who belong to marginalized sections. Courtesans have for centuries been seen as non-combatants. Their involvement and contributions in the movements forming the struggle for India’s independence have been erased. For example, Azizun Nisa’s role as a strategist and her engagements have been overlooked in the mainstream narrative. Involvement of these marginalized powers were so strong that even after the colonial rulers quelled the 1857 uprising, their properties were confiscated. In addition to this, resources were also deployed to malign the reputation of Azizun Nisa and other courtesans. Narratives were pushed to the forefront that pit the puritan ‘good and moral life’ against the ‘immoral and vulgar prostitute’.
Azizun Nisa was referred to as a tawaif, which unlike today, could be used only by privileged women with intensive training in the classical arts, music, and dances. Additionally, these tawaifs were also seen as connoisseurs of literary works and performing arts, while also practicing poetry in Persian and Urdu. In the current day and age, tawaifs have been reduced to immorality.
The British powers faced threats in the form of courtesans who held powerful, respectable, and well-connected positions in the royal courts. Narratives surrounding courtesans were built up in such a way that stripped them of an idea of respect, and continually reiterating that courtesans do not deserve it. This benefited the colonial powers as it kept these women at bay, and added obstacles in courtesans’ support for rebellion movements along the lines of the 1857 war. This ultimately caused the cultural, political, social, and economic decimation of courtesans’ power and contributions in the royal court.
Women such as Rani Lakshmi Bai and Begum Hazrat Mahal have been at the forefront in discussions about the First War of Independence. At first instance, it could seem to future generations as one of the initial instances of interventions by women in the Indian independence movement. However, though history puts some women under spotlight, those such as Azizun Nisa have been made invisible due to ideas regarding morality and respect, as perpetuated by the British themselves. It is essential that we view all women’s contributions to the freedom struggle, as it would help us better gauge the society from the mid-19th century. We have come over 150 years from the Revolt of 1857, and it is high time that all women involved get their due credit- regardless of their profession or any other social marker.