The Begums of Bhopal: A symbol of female empowerment
Updated: Feb 16, 2020
From 1757 to 1947, India was under the British imperial regime (Szczepanski). In this extensive colonial period, the northern state of Bhopal managed to maintain peace between its Muslim and Hindu populations while cultivating various freedom movements against Britain during the fight for Independence (Bukhari). These peacekeeping negotiations can be accredited to the fearless rule of an all-female lineage, which extended for over 107 years of the state’s history. Under the successive leadership of four women known as the Begums of Bhopal, the state functioned seamlessly and underwent a massive cultural revolution (Bukhari). During their reign, these inspirational women fought against entrenched gender norms while reshaping the public’s perception of women, especially in the religious context of Islam.
Following the assassination of her husband in 1819, Qudsia Begum took over the leadership role in the state of Bhopal as there was no male heir (ICJP). A generous character, Qudsia was known for the exemplary care she took of her employees, ensuring that everyone that worked for her was fed before her at meal times (Raj Bhavan MP). She challenged tradition by refusing to observe purdah, the belief that women ought to remain out of sight completely, often being made to appear behind curtains or wear clothing that covered their entire body (Bukhari). Due to her husband’s unexpected passing, Qudsia Begum only had one daughter, whom she trained to take over as ruler, thus beginning a lineage of women leaders (Bukhari). Qudsia Begum defied the belief that Muslim women were incapable of being rulers, even establishing the legitimacy of her reign by negotiating for the signing of a document acknowledging women’s right to rule by the state’s qazi, judge, and mufti, juriconsult (Shaikh). Qudsia Begum’s reign inspired a cultural revolution in Bhopal, creating what became known as a golden age that would be carried on by her daughter (ICJP).
Sikander Begum, daughter of Qudsia, followed in her mother’s footsteps and came to power in 1844, becoming a driving force for the military and even personally fighting in multiple battles (ICJP). She was known to be a woman of tough caliber and seen as a fearless leader, even surviving an assassination plot orchestrated by her own husband (Shaikh). Additionally, she was a key figure in working with the British to keep peace between Muslim and Hindu populations (Bukhari). She continued the cultural revolution of Bhopal by investing in art and architecture, making the city a center for various art forms and schools (ICJP). Sikander Begum not only trained her own daughter as a ruler like her mother had done years before, but she also secured with the British government the right for her granddaughter, Sultan Jahan Begum, to rule afterwards (Shaikh).
Shahjehan Begum ruled from 1868 to 1901, the longest reign of her lineage (Shaikh). She served as a strong administrator, notably building many mosques, encouraging art and improving the state’s tax system (Shaikh). Her passion for education led her to write a manuscript, Tahzib un-Niswan was Tarbiyat ul-Insan, which served as an educational encyclopedia for women, addressing various subjects and the women in these respective fields of academia (Shaikh).
The last of the Begum was Sultan Jahan Begum, who struggled to gain power due to her mother’s longtime rule (Bukhari). She furthered her family’s contributions to the arts and overall education, funding a multitude of programs and emphasizing the importance of academia (Shaikh). She also continued to negotiate with the British in order to strategically remain in power and mould politics in the interest of her state (Bukhari). The lineage of the Begums ended when Sultan Jahan abdicated the throne to her only surviving son, Hamidullah Khan after 25 years as ruler (Bukhari).
The Begums of Bhopal are inspiring figures as they challenged religious notions and history itself, creating a long-standing lineage of female rulers who refused to abide by purdah. Their reign focused on improving education and other social services for their state while trying to preserve some form of autonomy from British imperial rule. Their funding of mosques and educational facilities, especially schools for girls, was unprecedented. Women have long been underrepresented in history, especially when it comes to their massive contributions to their countries and influential legacies, many of which have shaped the path for women in power today. The Begums of Bhopal are a prime example of strong women changing the political climate that have long been forgotten by many in the history of the Islamic world.
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