Women in India have endured often harsh and cruel lives in a society which has long favored boys to girls, sanctioned child marriage, and practiced a dowry system. The government and culture have limited their access to education, employment, and escape from (domestic) violence. What they have accomplished has at times been overlooked or credited to others.
In many instances, Christian women have confronted additional challenges. Christian converts have faced significant persecution from the communities they’ve left, and those raised in families who switched faiths a generation or two prior still endure generational pain and trauma related to these hardships.
Nevertheless, numerous Indian Christian women have responded to their circumstances with a strong sense of justice and compassion for others suffering oppression. They have made notable contributions to child rights, social justice, the freedom struggle, nation building, and women’s empowerment. Here are four Indian Christian women whose lives of service, ambition, and compassion offer the church imperfect but remarkable role models.
The Social Reformer: Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati (1858–1922)
“People must not only hear about the kingdom of God, but must see it in actual operation, on a small scale perhaps and in imperfect form, but a real demonstration nevertheless.”
Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati devoted her life to empowering women and promoting gender equality in 19th-century British-ruled India, a society where patriarchy was deeply entrenched. Although politicians and activists have routinely applauded her relentless efforts to serve the marginalized, they often overlook her Christian faith, which served as the foundation for her life and work.
Though Ramabai was born into a Hindu Brahmin family in the jungles of Karnataka State, she converted to Christianity in her 20s after famine took the life of her husband and spurred a crisis of faith.
In 1882, Ramabai met Father Nehemiah Goreh, an Indian priest, who revealed Christ’s message of compassion and love to her. When she traveled outside the country, including a trip she took the following year to England to pursue her studies, Ramabai later acknowledged that “Father Goreh preached to me from India. His humble sweet voice has pierced my heart.”
She also began to read the Bible herself.
“I realized after reading the fourth chapter of St. John's Gospel, that Christ was truly the Divine Saviour he claimed to be, and no one but He could transform and uplift the downtrodden women of India,” Ramabai wrote, in a quote that is attributed to her. “Thus my heart was drawn to the religion of Christ.”
Even prior to her conversion, Ramabai had felt called to care for the vulnerable. In 1881, she founded the Arya Mahila Samaj, a women’s organization that advocated for women’s education, including the training of female teachers and administrators, and for the elimination of practices such as child marriage.
Herself a widow, Ramabai knew the plight of women who had lost their husbands, and in 1889, she founded the Mukti Mission as a refuge for destitute women, children, and disabled persons. The mission provided shelter, education, and vocational training for women and gave them tools they needed to lead independent and fulfilling lives.
Ramabai’s care for the communities she served also manifested through her Bible translation endeavors. She learned Hebrew and Greek and in 1905 started translating the Bible into simple Marathi (the native language of Maharashtra) for the people living in rural areas, who found the classical form too difficult. It took her 18 years to complete the translation.
“I was hungry for something better than what the Hindu Shastras gave. I found it in the Christians’ Bible and was satisfied. … How good, how indescribably good!” she wrote later. “What good news for me a woman, a woman born in India among Brahmans who hold out no hope for the likes of me! The Bible declares that Christ did not reserve this great salvation for a particular caste or sex.”
Ramabai's Christian faith also made her a target of criticism and persecution. Many Hindus saw her conversion as a betrayal of her culture and heritage and accused her of attempting to convert others. Despite this, Ramabai remained steadfast in her beliefs and continued to use her faith to promote social justice and equality.
Her legacy continues to inspire women and social reformers in India and around the world. As she wrote, “A life totally committed to God has nothing to fear, nothing to lose, nothing to regret.”
Pioneering physician:Hilda Mary Lazarus (1890–1978)
Hilda Mary Lazarus dedicated her life to serving others through medicine and faith.
Born in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, in 1876, Lazarus grew up in a devout Christian family that had converted to the faith two generations before from the Brahmin Hindu background and had suffered significant persecution for doing so.
Her father, Daniel Lazarus, was a respected educator and author and served as the principal of Canadian Baptist Missionaries (CBM) School, which his daughter attended.
Hilda Lazarus entered Madras University years before the prestigious university officially opened its doors to women in 1915. She later earned a medical degree and gold medal for exceptional work in midwifery from Madras Medical College.
She then pursued further medical education in the United Kingdom, passing exams in London and Dublin, obtaining membership in the Royal College of Surgeons, and specializing in obstetrics and gynecology. Lazarus became the first Indian woman to join the Women’s Medical Service (WMS) and worked for the government from 1917 to 1947.
As a doctor, Lazarus supervised hospitals and improved medical services for women and children across India. She trained nurses and midwives, a responsibility that at times required her to learn new languages. She authored a book about her life and experiences in England.
In her late 50s and a year before retirement, Lazarus left the WMS for Christian Medical College (CMC), in Tamil Nadu, becoming its first Indian head. The decision to lead “an institution that would clearly face a struggle even to survive” at this stage of life was fueled by a “deep and strong” Christian commitment, later noted Ruth Compton Brouwer, in a piece on Lazarus’s legacy.
“Not only had [Lazarus] grown up in a home that had implanted an ethic of Christian service, but she had contributed over the years in a variety of ways to the work of medical missions in India,” she wrote. “Thus, when an opportunity came to help secure a future for a fully professional Christian medical college in an independent India, it seems clear that she felt a sense of vocation to take up that opportunity, notwithstanding the difficulties to be faced.”
Lazarus was concerned with not only keeping CMC’s standards of care high but also making its Christian commitment central. When there were concerns about proselytization taking place at the hospital, Lazarus did not deny these charges but countered that the patients found the institution’s clear religious commitments helpful, noted Arthur Jayakumar in History of Christianityin India: Major Themes.
“She seems to have practiced and defended forms of overt evangelism that many medical missionaries had by then eschewed in favor of a more informal approach and the witness provided by their professional and personal lives,” he wrote.
In recognition of her contributions, Lazarus was awarded numerous honors and accolades throughout her life, including the Kaisar-i-Hind Medal in 1942, one of the highest civilian awards in pre-independence India, and the Padma Shri, one of the highest civilian awards in independent India.
India’s First Female Lawyer: Cornelia Sorabji (1866–1954)
"I am sure God is sending you to your work, my child. Don't be afraid to go in his strength,” Florence Nightingale to Cornelia Sorabji in 1892
Cornelia Sorabji had several firsts to her credit. She was the first woman to graduate from Bombay University, the first Indian woman to study law at Oxford University, and the first female lawyer in India. Additionally, she was the first woman to practice law in both India and Britain, a fact that was recognized and honored when a bronze bust of Sorabji was unveiled in London in 2012. (In 2017, she even earned her own Google doodle on the anniversary of her 151st birthday.)
Sorabji was born in Nashik, Maharashtra, to former Zorastrians who had converted to Christianity. Her family—particularly her father, who later became an ordained minister—had suffered intense persecution for their faith. Nevertheless, she was fortunate to receive a good education, which was rare for girls at that time.
In 1889, she traveled to England, where she became the first woman to study law at Oxford University. However, she did not graduate, as women could not be awarded degrees until 1920.
After a long struggle, Sorabji became India’s first female lawyer in 1923 and practiced in the Calcutta High Court. Besides fighting gender segregation, which kept women and girls from mixing with men outside their own families, she advocated for social reforms like the abolition of child marriage, protection of widows and orphans, and education for girls. Sorabji worked alongside Pandita Ramabai, and in 1929, she gave up her law practice to devote her time entirely to social work.
“She believed that children should be educated to understand and critique their customs so they could modify them,” wrote Oxford-educated lawyer Aradhana Vadekkethil. “She knew that the law could help drive social change but strongly believed that education had to be done first.”
Nevertheless, her work had hard and lonely moments. Over the years, she had to remind herself that “God removes mountains,” “I must have faith in the outcome,” and “[I] must learn trust in God” as recounted in Richard Sorabji’s Opening Doors: The Untold Story of Cornelia Sorabji, Reformer, Lawyer and Champion of Women's Rights in India.
In a letter to a close friend, she confessed, “I feel that God would not have made it possible for me to try and get my call and come out again, unless I was meant to try and struggle on a while at this job here.”
Though initially an advocate of independent India, she later changed her stance that India should continue to be under British rule to counter “Hindu laws to eliminate child marriage and uplift widows and putting an end to the cruelty they were subjected to” and thus became unpopular among the nationalist leaders.
Sorabji was also no fan of Gandhi and at one point told him, “The missionaries take hundreds of thousands of outcastes under their protection, clothe and educate them, and fit them to stand on their feet. Besides, you are an outcaste yourself now. What credit can be claimed by an outcaste for adopting an outcaste child?”
Her relationship with Katherine Mayo, an American journalist who used Sorabji’s critiques of Gandhi for her own white-supremacist ends, also led to significant controversy for the Indian lawyer. Sorabji eventually moved to England, where she lived until her death in 1954.
Sorabji was awarded the Kaiser- i- Hind Gold medal (one of the highest civilian awards in pre-independence India) in 190 by the government of India.
The Courageous Peacemaker: Neidonuo Angami (1950–Present)
“Peace is always in the making. It is not an event. There is no success in peacemaking. It is always in the making.”
Neidonuo Angami was born on October 1, 1950, in the midst of conflict. Her home, Nagaland, had declared itself as an independent state, sparking conflict between the Nagas and the Indian military.
The Angamis were a Christian family, like the majority of their neighbors. (The community collectively are known as the Angami Nagas.) Just 200 years ago, the community were headhunters. Since the arrival of American missionaries in the late 19th century, more than 90 percent of the community has embraced Christianity.
From an early age, Angami had to face the challenges of living in a war zone, spending her childhood hiding in the thick jungles surrounding her home to escape the constant gunfire. When she was six years old, her father, who was working as an interpreter with the state administration, was captured and beheaded while on duty. Her widowed mother did her best to raise Angami and her four siblings under difficult economic conditions.
Despite financial hardships, Neidonuo Angami went on to university and, after graduating, became a police officer and later a teacher.
Together with a few other Naga women, Angami founded the Naga Mothers’ Association (NMA) in 1984. The organization she led for many years began with a focus on social problems such as drug addiction and alcoholism, as many women bore the brunt of their husbands’ and fathers’ deadly habits. It later fought the stigma borne by HIV/AIDS patients (specifically prisoners), but it soon expanded into a space where women attempted to mediate the bloodshed that existed within the community.
NMA’s advocacy echoed much of the work women had done for centuries in the community, where at times they entered battlefields to stop fights between Naga intervillage headhunting wars.
At risk to their own lives, through the “Shed No More Blood” campaign, the NMA brought together groups from the Naga underground and Naga mothers who had gone through terrible pain and sorrow because of the struggle (between the Naga underground and the Indian forces). In 1997, with the trust that NMA built with these men, they negotiated a ceasefire between the insurgents and the federal government.
With no professional skill or support, Angami and her colleagues have built up a successful peace initiative. Today, Naga women have a role and a say in the peace process between the state agencies and the nonstate army. The trust-building process continues even in the midst of fierce violence and suspicion. This year, she is supporting four candidates seeking to become the first women to ever be elected to Nagaland’s assembly in its 60-year history.
Neidonuo Angami's contributions to society have not gone unnoticed. In 2000, the government marked its appreciation of her role in the peace process by conferring the prestigious Padma Shri on her, and she was one of 1,000 women shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize.
In 2022, for her work in combating drug abuse and alcoholism as well as breaking the stigma of HIV and other social evils, Angami was conferred with the prestigious A Kevichusa Citizenship Award 2022, a local prize honoring those who seek the common good of the people.
“I was a very seriously traumatized child,” she said. She recounted to the audience that her father’s skull was brought home three years after his death, a horror that spurred in her “anger, shame, and all this bitterness for a long time.”
“It is all God’s grace to be recognized again.”