You might have heard this before: In the original Little Mermaid fairytale, the mermaid felt like she was walking on knives every time she took a step. Sleeping Beauty wasn’t kissed, she was raped. And she only woke up while giving birth to twins conceived from the rape.
Stories meant to be retold for the mass audience are often sanitised, with mature elements removed and largely romanticised for mass appeal.
Because, who would make a movie about a woman who poisoned and manipulated her way to the top and yet, by all accounts, ruled China wisely? What about Nitocris who trapped her brother’s killers in an underground banquet hall she’d built and flooded?
And then there’s Mongolian wrestler princess Khutulun who refused to marry unless her suitor could beat her in a wrestling match. Win and you’d get her hand in marriage. Lose and you’d have to give her 100 horses. She ended up with 10,000 horses.
Where are the stories of historical women who were warriors, queens, princesses, intellectuals, and hellions? Former Dreamworks animator Jason Porath wondered too, and ended up illustrating the stories of Wu Zetian, Nitocris, and Khutulun and lots of other “awesome, awful, and offbeat” women on his website, Rejected Princesses.
Here are 7 of our favourite heroines!
Sidelined Heroine #1: Tomyris (6th Century BCE)
Cyrus II of Persia attempted to conquer the Massagetae (a semi-nomadic group living in what would be Kazakhstan today) by proposing to their widowed queen, Tomyris but was laughed off. The rejected king didn’t take this well and waged war. Many were taken prisoner, including Tomyris’s son who committed suicide when the invader king refused to release him. After a deadly battle, she emerged the victor. Tomyris then decapitated Cyrus and stuffed his head in a wine skin filled with human blood.
Sidelined Heroine #2: Shajar al-Durr (1220s?-1257)
Within a year of being purchased by the Sultan of Egypt as a slave, she married him and they had a child together. But her happiness was short-lived as her husband died just as Louis IX of France began to invade Egypt. Shajar took over the reins, sent the invaders running and captured the French king. This feat humiliated the French and many even set off on rescue missions. In the end, she negotiated a ransom of 400,0000 livres tournois. That’s about 30% of France’s annual revenue back then!
Sidelined Heroine #3: Mai Bhago (late 1600s-mid-1700s)
During the time of Guru Gobind Singh, the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb oppressed the Sikhs fiercely because they believed in egalitarianism. When Mai Bhago’s husband told her he’d left the teacher, she told him to stay home while she rode into battle. She went to the homes of 40 deserters and persuaded them to go into battle with her against the 16,000-strong Mughal troops who were hunting Guru Gobind Singh down. Though they knew it was a suicide mission, the warriors fought bravely and succeeded in forcing the Mughal forces to retreat. This warrior saint was the only one who survived the battle and she became Guru Gobind Singh’s personal bodyguard.
Sidelined Heroine #4: “Onake” Obavva (died 1777)
A powerful warlord named Hyder Ali wanted to conquer Chitradurga, the fort town where our heroine lived, so he had his soldiers crawl through a tiny crevice in the wall. When Obavva noticed enemy soldiers crawling through a hole in the wall, she whacked each guy on the head with the onake (pestle) she was holding and moved the corpses quietly. By the time the guard — he was also her husband— returned from lunch, he found her standing over several dead bodies and rang the alarm. According to some stories, she’d killed nearly 100 men by this point. She died later that day though historians are unsure whether she’d been slain in combat or died of exhaustion.
Sidelined Heroine #5: Ching Shih (1775 – 1844)
She was working in a brothel in Guangzhou when she was captured by pirates. Following her marriage to a super successful pirate named Cheng I, Ching Shih looted and pillaged her way to the top. After his death, she took over the Red Flags fleet they had built together. Eventually, the Red Flags grew to a 70,000-strong force. Pirates under her command had to obey her rules or beware her wrath. Rape a female captive and she’d behead you. If you wanted to have sex with a female captive, you’d better marry her and be faithful or there goes your head. Disobey and yep…you’re headless!
Sidelined Heroine #6: Sutematsu Oyama (1860-1919)
From a family of samurai who served the Prince of Aizu, one of the last to surrender to the imperial forces in the Boshin War, 11-year old Sutematsu was sent to the US with four other girls to receive Western education. Despite the odds, she excelled and graduated magna cum laude ranked third in her class. She could have stopped there, but she didn’t! Rather ironically, she married the War Minister, Oyama Iwao. He’d served as an artilleryman during the war. With her new social standing and the empress’s patronage, she and two other women, Umeko Tsuda and Shige Nagai, opened a school for noble women called Peeresses’ School. Their efforts came to fruition in 1899 when the government mandated that each prefecture had a girls’ school.
Sidelined Heroine #7: Noor Inayat Khan, (1914-1944)
She refused to lie. She wrote music, poetry, and kids’ books. She was a Sufi Muslim and believed in pacifism. Oh, she also told the British military that she would fight for India’s independence after the war. You’d think these issues would make her the worst candidate to be a spy for the British during World War II, but Noor Inayat Khan kicked ass! For nearly 5 months in Paris, she relayed radio-encrypted messages while evading the Gestapo on a daily basis. Eventually, she was caught after a double agent betrayed her. Even as a captive, she lied to the Nazis until she was executed. Her last word was “Liberté!’
By Zoe Liew.
All images courtesy of Jason Porath.
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