Call her Sultan

Raziya al-Din

One of my favorite women in history is Raziya al-Din. The daughter of a former slave who rose to become Sutlan of India, Raziya had opportunities that most women did not have in the early 1200’s. Because of her status (and being her father’s favorite) she was educated and had elite military training. For the time this was quite shocking considering that this era in India’s history is one of the darkest for women. A time when women were thought of as mere property instead of equals.

When it came time to choose a successor, her father Iltutmish gave Raziya boss status instead of one of his sons who seemed more interested in carousing and overindulging then ruling the country. He even told the people that she will be addressed as “Sultan” instead of “Sultana” since that merely means the wife of the sultan and does not show that she is the one true ruler. What this proud papa said of his decision, “My sons are incapable of leading and for that reason I have decided that it is my daughter who should reign after me.”

Raziya was said to be a great, but controversial ruler. In almost four short years, she got India back on track economically by concentrating on infrastructure, negotiating trade agreements, building libraries, schools, and supporting the arts. She even dared to say that she believed in religious freedom and that all sects should be treated equally under the law. As one ancient historian put it: ‘Sultana Raziya was a great monarch. She was wise, just and generous, a benefactor to her kingdom, a dispenser of justice, the protector of her subjects, and the leader of her armies. She was endowed with all the qualities befitting a king, but she was not born of the right sex, and so, in the estimation of men, all these virtues were worthless.’

One of her greatest supporters was a very handsome and brave Malik Altunia whom many believe was also her childhood sweetheart. Standing by her through her reign and helping to strengthen her rule she eventually made him governor of Bhatinda (Punjab). Although, having a growing list of enemies is never a good thing and people knew the only way to get rid of Raziya was to break this union. While Malik was off fighting enemies, a rather ugly rumor got started about her flitting around with another man. An enraged Malik set off with his army to capture the Sultana. She was stripped of her powers and placed on house arrest. Fortunately, Malik saw the error in his ways and released her from captivity. They married soon thereafter, but settling down to enjoy wedded bliss was not in the cards. While she was imprisoned, one of Raziya’s step brothers (Bahram) had taken the throne for himself.

The newlyweds assembled an army to take back the palace, but it was not to be. Raziya al-Din died leading a battle atop an elephant against her brother’s troops. Sultan Bahram ruled for just 2 years and was later dethroned for being utterly incompetent. However, Sultan Raziya’s legacy continues to flourish to this day through books, movies, and even television programs as one of India’s greatest leaders.

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