“Real solemn history, I cannot be interested in.... The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars and pestilences in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.” - Jane Austen
While today we might be approaching the fourth wave of feminism, this quote by one of England’s finest female writers and feminists of the 18th century, does still feel relevant. Why? Well, little seems to have changed today when it comes to crediting women’s contributions to a nation in the pages of archived history. Take India, for instance. Apart from the legendary Rani Laxmi Bai, have any of our history books mentioned any other commendable female figures that have been commemorated for anything; except their beauty or honouring their husbands? So does that mean the women of ancient India kept themselves confined to a world of domesticity? This biased and morphed history of patriarchy will definitely have you believe that but we bring to you a story that says otherwise.
In the hinterland of India, now the heart of Madhya Pradesh’s Bhopal, lived a line of formidable women rulers know as the ‘Begums of Bhopal’. They challenged the patriarchal structures of kingship, religious dogma and the social prejudices of the period and ruled in their own legal and constitutional right for 150 years, out of the kingdom’s 240-year-old existence. According to this compilation by Google Arts And Culture the the roles they played in the shaping of the nation were extremely “decisive, empowering and effective; one which is unprecedented in Islamic political history.” In a country where religion, caste and gender politics are always lethally infused with each other, it is not surprising that formal history taught in classrooms makes little or no mention of these women.
One of the most prolific Begum’s of Bhopal was Nawab Sultan Jahan Begum, as she is known by her official title. She ruled from 1868-1901; a time period where women still had to oblige to the purdah system and were seriously deprived of any sense of personal agency. Jahan Begum made path-breaking achievements in her political career, which have been recorded in her auto-biography Gauhar-e-Iqbal: An Account Of My Life, which has been translated to English by C.H Payne.
A true reformer, she wrote about how her carpet, lungis and blanket-making workshops for prisoners resulted in a “reasonable control over criminal offences.” With criminal psychology, criminal health and reformatory approaches towards punishment being contemporary discourses today, Sultan Jahan’s system of justice was definitely far ahead of its time.
Probably one of the earliest feminists in Indian history, Begum Jahan had full faith in women’s capabilities. During the mutiny of 1857 she controlled and led her army because she believed that,“even though nature had created women to meet their identified responsibilities, yet some of them were born with such qualities that they could meet administrative responsibilities just as men do.”
Apart from having a strong sense of confidence in herself she also wished to give young girls who were oppressed under the then socio-cultural climate a sense of empowerment through education. As early as 1907, she opened two schools for both Hindu and Muslim girls. Moreover upholding such a fair sense of duty to a community apart from the one she belonged to is perhaps a impossibility with the leaders of today, most of whom who rely on religious vote banks to come into power.
With such figures like the Begums Of Bhopal who defied gender binaries even before the word was coined, Indian society’s current definition of the traditional woman bound by domesticity, appears particularly regressive. We hope that the past reminds us of a more liberated and equanimous society that we are capable of creating for women.
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