Trading in the veil for a sword

The Begums of Bhopal
September 28, 2001

Before the latter half of the 20th century, women rulers of Muslim states were a rarity; Shajar al-Durr of Mamluk Egypt (1258-60) and Razia Sultana of Sultanate Delhi (1237-41) are the only names that come to mind. This makes the record of the begums, who ruled the central Indian state of Bhopal for most of the years from 1819 to 1926, remarkable. Here is the first book to examine their achievement as a whole.

Four women were centrally involved. The first, Qudsia Begum (reigned 1819-37), achieved power in a crisis. She was only 19 when her husband, the ruling nawab, was accidentally shot. By dint of personality, she dominated the subsequent emergency gathering of family and court, arguing that her daughter Sikandar should succeed her father and that in the meantime she would act as regent. For 18 years she demonstrated that a Muslim woman could rule as well as any man. She came out of purdah, learnt to ride and led her forces into battle. She defeated opposition from her relatives and from the British; she was devout and conducted herself prudently throughout the 45 years remaining after she laid down the reins of power.

Her daughter, Sikandar Jahan (reigned 1847-68), was even more remarkable. Described as the most "aggressive and charismatic" of the begums, she rode, played polo, went tiger-hunting, and was expert with the sword, gun, bow and lance. Before coming to power she survived, while six months' pregnant, an attempt by her husband to hack her in two when she was asleep, which did not stop her loving him until his death from drink. She proved an enlightened administrator, introducing a consultative assembly, schools for girls, streetlighting, hospitals and so on. After the Mutiny, she restored to public use Delhi's Jama Masjid, which the British had closed, washing the courtyard floors with her own hands.

Sikandar's daughter, Shah Jahan (reigned 1868-1901), was very different. Coquettishly feminine and sensual, and a widow at 29, she fell head over heels in love with one of her civil servants, Saiyid Siddiq Hasan Khan, whom she promoted to chief minister. This led to the estrangement of her relatives and troubles with the British because her lover, a leading radical Islamic reformer, was thought to be dangerous.

Shah Jahan was, nevertheless, a great patron of the arts and of architecture. Indeed, her grand-scale building nearly ruined the state. She was also a patron of women's education and female artists. Her guide for women, Tehzib un-Niswan , still awaits proper scholarly attention.

With the fourth begum, Sultan Jahan (reigned 1901-26), we return to earlier values: she was devout, frugal, an excellent administrator and much respected by the British. She continued the dynastic tradition of asserting women's rights, being the key patron behind the foundation of a women's college at Aligarh and abandoning the veil as an example to Muslim women.

Against the odds, these women succeeded as rulers. In large part it was the outcome of the extraordinary talent and personalities of Qudsia and Sikandar who coped with opposition both from within and from the British. Their achievement created the momentum that took women's rule through the difficult moments of Shah Jahan's reign to the safe hands of Sultan Jahan. The author is the grandson of Sultan Jahan and a distinguished Pakistani diplomat. His book is much more than a work of familial piety. It makes a fascinating read for those with a general interest in India as well as being of value to historians both of gender and of the region.

Francis Robinson is professor of the history of South Asia, Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Begums of Bhopal: A Dynasty of Women Rulers in Raj India

Author - Shaharyar M. Khan
ISBN - 1 86064 528 3
Publisher - I.B. Tauris
Price - £25.00
Pages - 6

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