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The Fairly Unknown History Of The Begums Of Bhopal Who Defied Patriarchal Norms To Rule

While we debate over the steps that must be taken to liberate Muslim women, very few of us are aware of the century-long reign of Muslim women in India's heartland - the Begums of Bhopal.

The Begums of Bhopal, often known as the ‘roses,’ ruled India during a crucial period in the Indian history. While we debate over the steps that must be taken to liberate Muslim women, very few of us are aware of the century-long reign of Muslim women in India’s heartland.

Most of us are not unfamiliar with the fateful rule of the Mamluk queen, Razia Sultana, the daughter of Shams-Uddin-Iltutmish, the only woman ruler of the Sultanates in our present capital, and how it was cut short by the warring patriarchs of the community who could not stand a single woman as their leader.

The incredible Begums who defied patriarchal norms to rule Bhopal

This instance of woman’s rule in India has been cited by most of our secondary school history textbooks today, those which sprinkle about as token examples of women’s contribution, among others, the tales of the intelligent Noor Jahan, Empress of Jahangir, or the courageous Rani Laxmi Bai.

However, few of us are aware of the century-long Muslim women’s rule in the heart of India. Generations of Muslim women ruled with administrative efficiency and diplomatic perspicacity not too long ago, even as they were, as modern feminists term it ‘doubly bound’, as women, and as subjects of the British colony in a Hindu majority region.

The Begums of Bhopal, as the line of queens are popularly known as, rose with an interesting turn in the history of the state. The overconfident ruler of Bhopal known as Nazar Mohammad Khan, after signing an unpopular treaty with the British, died of a mysterious bullet, leaving an eighteen-year-old widow, Qudsia and their infant daughter, Sikander.

Reign of powerful Begums who embodied feminism long before it became a part of popular culture

Earlier, Qudsia Begum was kept under deliberate illiteracy and strict purdah, but as a seed that only grows if buried, she ascended to the throne after singlehandedly wresting power into her hands from the male relatives, who would have succeeded her husband under such circumstances.

As a ruler, she had to tackle the unruly, warring Mughal descendants but also keep abreast of the other male contenders for the throne. As a mother with an infant daughter, she had to ensure her daughter’s future and safety along with that of the land.

In showing her fitness to rule, she disregarded her veil and took riding lessons and learned about the art of war. She became a successful administrator and also trained her daughter, Sikander to follow suit.

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It was not the first time that Bhopal had a woman leader, from its inception itself, the Rajput wife of Yar Mohammad Khan was the power behind the throne. One of the reasons behind the century-long line of ‘Begum Nawabs’ was the absence of a male heir. There was more than one enemy for these women rulers to fight off.

Often those enemies rose on their own hearth as abstract customs and traditions handed down across ages to devalue their authority as women. However, each generation of these women freed their thresholds of these obstructers little by little.

Fearless Sikander Begum was an icon of women empowerment during the colonial rule

Sikander took up martial arts and cleared the state off its existing debts and excelled at her dealings with the British to be able to remain in power as the rest of the country was getting increasingly consumed by chaos.

Sikander’s daughter Shahjahan Begum had a significant contribution toward the architecture of this time. Similarly, Begum Shahjahan’s daughter Sultan Kaikhusrao Jahan had chosen education as her cause.

Indeed, it is ironic, to say the least, that after funding several schools and colleges, Aligarh University where she had served as the first chancellor, would consider limiting the library time for female students about a hundred years later. The line of Begums ended in 1926, with Sultan Kaikhusrao Jahan’s son Nawab Hamidullah succeeding the throne.

The Begums of Bhopal smashed patriarchy since time immemorial

A reason why historians or authors neglect this dynasty is probably that they had submitted to the superiority of the British rule in the region. However, that was also the only way in which they could maintain order in the state. Had they not submitted, one or the other male relative would have dethroned them to acquire power with the help of the British as it had happened in several other states.

While the Begums not only contributed towards the building of schools, roads and postal systems in the state, they were also much loved by their subjects. If not as female subjects of a nation which they had no claim on, then at least as individuals who fought against and held their space against odds that topple us to this day, this generation of women should be looked upon as examples.

The Begums of Bhopal stood as an example for not only India but to the Western world as well

The importance of the knowledge of history, or what we know or remember as history in shaping who we are today and how we act cannot be overstated. Our interaction with history, beyond school, is largely through cultural texts that surround us permeated by the media.

Unfortunately, both schools and mainstream media fail to propagate the nuances of any period and events. Instead, they express narratives and characters in neat binaries which instead of integrating us for a better future, make us prolong our bitter pasts.

The fact that a population and a community accepted them at a time when larger India was debating whether educating women is good for the health of a country, should find expressions in current times through different mediums.

Picture Credits: Wikimedia Commons 

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About the Author

Sreejata Roy

Teacher, dabbler in arts, free-time writer read more...

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