Empowering Women Through History: The Begam's Bhopal

Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Nafhesa Ali | 6 March 2020

Gender History | Asian History | Public History | Modern History | Local History

Women from MSK with the authors at the Taj ul-Masajid in Bhopal. 

Bhopal in central India is celebrated as a city of lakes, but it also has a unique history.  For four generations, it was ruled by a dynasty of Muslim female rulers: Qudsia (1801-81; r. 1819-37), Sikandar (1816-68; r. 1844-68), Shah Jahan (1838-1901; r. 1868-1901) and Sultan Jahan (1858-1930; r. 1901-26).  Historical chance may have brought them to power – Qudsia became regent after her husband died in a shooting accident after which three generations produced only daughters – but administrative savvy enabled them to hold on to it.  These Nawab Begams have left an indelible mark on the fabric of the city – from the palaces and mosques that structure the old capital to the roads, parks, hospitals and neighbourhoods that still bear their names.  And yet, in Bhopal today, they are rarely commemorated or even remembered.  Could their inspirational life stories be used to empower contemporary women?

To test this principle, we undertook a pilot study in January 2020.  The academic team brought together historian Professor Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and sociologist Dr Nafhesa Ali from the University of Sheffield with applied education researcher Dr Radhika Iyengar from Columbia University to collaborate with local women’s organisation, Mahashakti Seva Kendra (MSK).  The latter is a government-sponsored initiative founded by local activist Indira Iyengar in 1992 in the wake of the city’s infamous Union Carbide disaster.  On its website, MSK identifies itself as an ‘all women’ organisation operating for the ‘social and economic upliftment’ of Bhopal’s women.  Working to the north of the city’s railway station, it aims to train women in practical skills that will enable them to contribute to the family income.  Now led by the founder’s daughter Pooja Iyengar, MSK serves a core of around 25 adult women, primarily Hindu, from the local area, most of whom have not received formal education past the age of twelve.

Figure 1: The project group at MSK’s workshed 

Lessons in basic sewing skills mean MSK’s women usually spend afternoons – after children are at school and housework is complete – at the organisation’s workshed preparing items for sale.  Recent commissions include shopping bags made from old banners for the municipal corporation and stylish gifts for a local eco-friendly wedding.  During our visit, plant pots made from cowdung (gobar gamlas) were also drying in the cool winter sun.  Work is sometimes halted for visitors – with recent talks on single-use plastics and basic nutrition.  In the last month, MSK has also opened a computer centre in response to a local needs survey undertaken by students from Columbia University. 60 girls and women will receive training in computers, English and ‘soft skills’ over a three-month period.

Our visit promised something a little different.  Over the course of a week, we undertook a series of historical activities and discussions with MSK’s women.  These activities included a tour of local historical sites associated with the ruling Begams led by local heritage enthusiast and inveterate storyteller, Sikander Malik.  Among the locations visited were several nineteenth century palaces and the city’s largest mosque, the Taj ul Masajid.  On another day, Lambert-Hurley gave a talk at the workshed, highlighting the Begams’ contributions to architecture, education, health and literary culture. As highlighted by Figure 2, simple text and historical images featured alongside contemporary photographs taken on the group’s own tour to link past and present.  Informal group conversations – recorded as audio for our academic research and as video for a forthcoming documentary – proved rich in historical reflection on contemporary women’s issues.

Figure 2: Presentation slide on Shah Jahan featuring a historical image of the ruler alongside a photograph from MSK’s own tour at the Taj ul-Masajid.  Image accessed through Wikipedia Commons 

Friends in Bhopal outside our partner organisation were often bemused by our project. These ‘poor women’ wouldn’t be interested in history, they pronounced with certainty.  In reality, the opposite proved to be true: MSK’s women overwhelmed us with their vigour and generosity as they participated in planned activities and interacted as a group.  Though our first day was a local holiday (makarsankranti), fifteen women bustled out of seemingly too few auto rickshaws at our first destination, smiling and laughing as they met the project team.  Decked out in bright saris and laden with snacks and sweets, the women gave their rare outing the air of a picnic.  Yet they listened intently to stories about Qudsia’s reign, exemplified by subtle architectural details in her nineteenth-century lakeside palace, Gauhar Mahal. Recapping the next day, we were surprised by how many of these anecdotes and historical details they recalled: from the circumstances around Qudsia’s ascendancy to the symbolic representations of her French Bourbon advisors

Figure 3: Women from MSK touring Qudsia’s palace, Gauhar Mahal, with Sikander Malik 

During the historical talk at the workshed, an unexpected visitor – the wife of the former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh – stopped by to listen.  Standing at the door of the small office in which we were gathered, she probed the participants on what they had learned.  Were they not impressed, she asked, by the particular architectural designs of the many grand palaces – now dilapidated or in severe disrepair – built by the third Begam, Shah Jahan?  One woman spoke up to capture the general view: the last Begam, Sultan Jahan, was more interesting to them.  A hundred years before their own educational initiative, she had founded and patronised schools for Bhopal’s girls and women, as well as a library, a museum and a women’s club.  Among the schools was the Asfia Technical School that had instructed those who needed to earn a living in practical skills, like spinning, weaving, embroidery and beadwork.  At MSK, they still do the gold embroidery, or zari work, that featured in this curriculum. 

Figure 4: The project group enjoying the view to Shah Jahan’s palace, the Taj Mahal – now in a state of advanced decay – from the Taj ul-Masajid 

When we first met MSK’s women, they admitted to knowing little or nothing of Bhopal’s dynasty of female rulers.  Why had no one taught them in school, they asked, that Bhopal had been ruled by women?  To learn this history changed their interaction with the city.  There was a pride in knowing that Sultania Hospital – in which many of them had given birth to their children or stayed for an operation – was named for a nawab begam who had put a qualified female doctor at the helm, introduced training for local midwives and furnished it with the most modern equipment. They were eager to visit more of the city’s historical sites, and expressed an ambition to share their newfound historical knowledge – especially precious because it had come to them before their husbands or relatives – with their own children. Give us simple books about our city’s begams, they instructed, and we will take them to our local schools to pass on this legacy.  Our new computer skills, they agreed, may be used to gather more knowledge and prepare this history for a website or app – to be used by locals and visitors alike. 

Figure 5: European visitors to the Lady Lansdowne Hospital (now the Sultania Zenana Hospital) during the reign of Sultan Jahan (second from left). Image accessed through Wikipedia Commons

One of the first questions we asked the women from MSK was how they identified a ‘Bhopali woman’.  The cumulative answer focused on traditional dress, limited mobility and simple dialect.  By the end of our short visit, the answer had changed unequivocally: Bhopali women were fierce, bold and brave! Our participants recognised that the challenges facing Muslim royalty were very different than their own, and remained somewhat pessimistic about their own futures – but, if these historic women could overcome their many trials, there was a lesson for them there.  Empowerment is a hard concept to define and measure, but we came away overwhelmed by the study’s impact and potential – in these women’s engagement with history and their understanding that they too might have agency in matters of education and health.

We will be holding two public events linked to this project in June 2020:

Radhika Iyengar, ‘Life-long learning opportunities a missed chance for young women in India: A gendered perspective’ (10 June 2020, 16:00-18:00, Jessop West Seminar Room 8, University of Sheffield): more information and tickets available on Eventbrite here

‘Advancing Female Literacy and Empowerment in Pakistan and India through Life Writing’ (11 June 2020, 17:00-19:00, Humanities Research Institute Conference Room, University of Sheffield): featuring talks and exhibits by our academic and NGO partners, including a short documentary on this pilot study, directed by Pooja Iyengar.

Siobhan Lambert-Hurley is Professor of Global History at the University of Sheffield.  Her latest book is Elusive Lives: Gender, Autobiography and the Self in Muslim South Asia (Stanford University Press, 2018).

Nafhesa Ali is Co-Investigator on ‘Advancing Female Literacy and Empowerment in Pakistan and India through Life Writing,’ at the University of Sheffield.  She is author of Asian Voices: First Generation Migrants (University of Huddersfield, 2011) and co-editor of A Match Made in Heaven: British Muslim Women Write About Love and Desire (HopeRoad, 2020)

Additional Resources

On the Begams of Bhopal:

Siobhan Lambert-Hurley, Muslim Women Reform and Princely Patronage: Nawab Sultan Jahan Begam of Bhopal (Routledge, 2007).

On our partner organisation:

‘Education for Sustainable Development, Mahashakti Seva Kendra, Bhopal’ [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=inxIOV7GzAM]


This project is funded by a Sustainable Development Grant awarded from QR GCRF, University of Sheffield.