I’m never more inspired than when I’m spending my Saturday afternoons researching the most illustrious, the most extraordinary, the most awe-inducing women of world history, and of course I haven’t even scratched the surface in terms of subjects to write about. If I could, I would plaster my walls with pictures of these women: Eleanor of Aquitaine atop her horse en route to the Second Crusade. Emma Goldman slamming her fist on a pulpit as she addresses a hall full of factory workers. Sojourner Truth standing up in front of a crowd of hostile white men and skeptical white feminists to speak about her struggles as a slave and demand: “Ain’t I a woman?” It’d be like one giant wall of daily affirmations.
Raziyya al-Din (c.1200-1240) is another historical woman who was both excoriated (because she was a woman) and exulted (because she did stuff anyway). Born into Mughal nobility, Raziyya would go on to become the only female sultan in medieval India. Histories alternately refer to her as either Sultana or Sultan—let’s be clear that she preferred the latter, because a “sultana” technically referred to the wife of the sultan, and she wasn’t no sultan’s wife.
Raziyya’s father was Iltumish, a ruler in the Delhi Sultanate. The Delhi Sultans were a series of Muslim Turkish rulers based in Delhi who, through the medieval period, controlled much of north India. Iltumish and Raziyya, specifically, came from the first Delhi dynasty: the Mameluks, or slaves.
Iltumish recognized early on that his daughter was particularly well-suited for sultan-ing. She had accompanied him on many military campaigns and was ambitious, smart, and full of leadership skills. Thus he formally nominated Raziyya as his successor in preference to his many sons. (This makes me very well-disposed towards ol’ Iltumish. What a progressive guy!)
The problem: Despite the ostensible power of the Sultan’s throne, the elite Turkish nobles (always, always those unruly nobles!) wielded a disproportionate say in court matters, and they were not happy with Iltumish’s choice. When he died in 1236, they overrode his nomination and put one of his sons on the throne instead.
Fortunately for Raziyya, they soon saw the error of their ways. Her brother was incompetent and his conniving, ambitious mother made his rule even more unappealing. They removed him from the throne and gave Raziyya her due as the new Sultana Sultan that same year.
Raziyya, for her short term, proved to be a terrific Sultan. She was wise, benevolent, tolerant to Hindus, and adept at crushing rebellions when they arose. Like past YHWOTD Hatshepsut, she adapted men’s clothing, discarding the veil and dressing as a Sultan, I suppose, ought. Contemporary historians sang her praises, and eminent Indian historian Farishta remarked, “The men of discernment could find no defect in her except that she was created in the form of a woman.”
Her reign went well for the first couple years, but her appointment of an Abyssinian slave named Yaqut to a high office and her close relationship with him (speculation abounds that they may have been lovers, but sometimes I wonder, would the same speculation abound if she had been a man?) caused disgruntlement amongst those same unruly Turkish nobles. They eventually killed Yaqut and imprisoned Raziyya in a fort in Bhatinda, outside Delhi.
Raziyya was able to escape her imprisonment by marrying one of her captors (!) and the two of them marched on Delhi to recapture the throne. They were defeated by a dude named Balban, who would later become Sultan, and were unfortunately killed fleeing from battle in 1240.
Thus ended the short life and even shorter reign of Raziyya al-Din. But she was remembered fondly. Contemporary historian Minaj-us-Siraj called Raziyya “a great monarch, wise, just, generous, benefactor to her realm, a dispenser of equity, the protector of her people, and leader of her armies.”
What I’m reminded of when I read the singing of Raziyya’s praises, the apparent faultlessness of her Sultancy, is that—as Ta-nehisi Coates noted in an excellent, excellent essay on Barack Obama—minorities, including women, who rise to positions of power often have to be “twice as good and half as [insert minority identity here].” I’m not deeply cognizant of the social context of medieval India, but it’s noteworthy that the one of the only woman to emerge, victorious, from the margins of history in this period was, if the historians' language is to be believed, a perfect ruler and practically a man.
Obviously, that’s how they rolled back then---male sultans and all---and I get that. But even today, I think it’s a good reminder to not get complacent about the advances of women. There will be exceptions to every patriarchy, as Raziyya proves—but even with her boundary-breaking, the system remained intact, as it often does, even when briefly and occasionally challenged by extraordinary women. But at the very least exceptions like Raziyya can serve as inspiration and/or fodder for daily wall poster affirmation.