Photo: Only a few cafes in Afghanistan allow women
to mingle with men (Getty )
Grace: Woman’s Viral Post Shows How Islam, Catholicism Co-Existed In One Home
Will Austria’s New Headscarf Ban Affect Muslims?
Israeli Woman Charged With Joining Terror Group In Syria
Bodies’: The Man Booker International Prize Winner Helps Highlight Writings By Arab
Islamic State: Meeting Umm Sayyaf, The Most Senior Female Isis Captive
Remarkable Begums Who Defied Patriarchal Norms To Rule Bhopal For More Than A
Compiled by New
Age Islam News Bureau
Women Find Power And Liberation In The City's Vibrant Cafes
Zucchino KABUL, Afghanistan
an Islamic culture that still dictates how they should dress and interact with
men, women can express themselves freely in the Afghan capital’s coffee shops,
find David Zucchino and Fatima Faizi
some days, life as a young woman in Kabul can feel suffocating for Hadis
LessaniDelijam, a 17-year-old high school senior.
a man on the street harangued her for her makeup and western clothes; they are
shameful, he bellowed. A middle-aged woman cursed her for strolling and
chatting with a young man.
called me things that are so terrible I can’t repeat them,” Delijam says.
solace, Delijam retreats to an unlikely venue – the humble coffee shop.
is the only place where I can relax and feel free, even if it’s only for a few
hours,” Delijam said recently as she sat at a coffee shop, her hair uncovered,
and chatted with two young men.
new cafes have sprung up across Kabul in the past three years, evolving into
emblems of women’s progress.
cafes are sanctuaries for women in an Islamic culture that still dictates how
they should dress, behave in public and interact with men. Those traditions
endure 18 years after the toppling of the Taliban, who banned girls’ education,
confined women to their homes and forced them to wear burqas in public.
days, conversations at the cafes often turn to the Afghan peace talks in Doha,
Qatar, between the United States and the Taliban. Many women worry their rights
will be bargained away under pressure from the fundamentalist, all-male Taliban
are so frightened,” says Maryam Ghulam Ali, 28, an artist who was sharing
chocolate cake with a friend at a coffee shop called Simple. “We ask each other
what will happen to women if the Taliban come back.”
we come to cafes, we feel liberated,” she added. “No one forces us to put on
young women in Kabul’s emerging cafe society were infants under Taliban rule.
Delijam had not yet been born. They have come of age during the post-Taliban
struggle by many young Afghans to break free of the harsh contours of a
don’t want to be recognised as someone’s sister or daughter, I want to be
recognised as a human being
women have grown up with mobile phones, social media and the right to express
themselves freely. They cannot imagine returning to the puritanical dictates of
the Taliban, who sometimes stoned women to death on suspicion of adultery – and
still do in areas they control.
26, a journalist and coffee shop regular, has created a social media campaign,
#myredline, that implores women to stand up for their rights. Her Facebook page
is studded with photos of herself inside coffee shops, symbols of her own red
to a cafe and talking with friends brings me great happiness,” Forotan said as
she sat inside a Kabul coffee shop. “I refuse to sacrifice it.”
those freedoms could disappear if the peace talks bring the Taliban back into
government, she said.
don’t want to be recognised as someone’s sister or daughter,” she said. “I want
to be recognised as a human being.”
cafe walls, progress is painfully slow.
today, we can’t walk on the streets without being harassed,” Forotan said.
“People call us prostitutes, westernised, from the ‘democracy generation.’”
is consistently ranked the worst, or among the worst, countries for women.
Afghan tradition dictates that single women belong to their fathers and married
women to their husbands. Arranged marriages are common, often to a cousin or
the countryside, young girls are sold as brides to older men. Honour killings –
women killed by male relatives for contact with an unapproved male – still
occur. Protections provided by the Afghan Constitution and a landmark 2009
women’s rights law are not always rigorously enforced.
2014, the Taliban launched a series of attacks against cafes and restaurants in
Kabul, including a suicide bombing and gunfire that killed 21 customers at the
popular Taverna du Liban cafe, where alcohol was served, and Afghan men and
women mingled among westerners.
the government forced a host of cafes and guesthouses to shut down for fear
they would draw more violence.
instinct is as powerful as religion – the need to connect, to share and love,
to make eye contact, is instinctual
the next two years, much of westernised social life in Kabul moved to private
homes. But in 2016, new coffee shops began to open, catering to young women and
men eager to mingle in public again.
except for urban outposts like Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e-Sharif, there are few
cafes in Afghanistan where women can mingle with men. Most restaurants reserve
their main rooms for men and set aside secluded “family” sections for women and
is why the Kabul cafes are so treasured by Afghan women, who seek kindred souls
handwritten message on the wall of the Young Women For Change internet cafe
instinct is as powerful as religion,” said FereshtaKazemi, an Afghan-American
actress and development executive who often frequents Kabul coffee shops.
need to connect, to share and love, to make eye contact, is instinctual,” she
the Taliban fell in 2001, those instincts were nurtured as girls and women in
Kabul began attending schools and universities, working beside men in private
and government jobs, and living alone or with friends in apartments. The Afghan
Constitution reserves 68 out of 250 seats for women, at least two women from
each of 34 provinces.
Rezaee, 30, who opened the Simple coffee shop in Kabul a year ago, makes sure
no one harasses her female customers for wearing trendy clothes or sitting with
make the culture here, not men,” she said.
gestured to a table where several women, their headscarves removed, sat
laughing and talking with young men.
at them – I love it,” Rezaee said. “It’s the Taliban who needs to change their
ideology, not us. That’s my red line.”
19, was an infant in the southern city of Kandahar, the Taliban headquarters,
when the militants ruled Afghanistan. Her family fled to Iran and returned
seven years ago to Kabul, where she is a university student.
heard stories from my mother about how different life was then,” she said at
the Jackson coffee shop, named for Michael Jackson. “It’s impossible now to go
back to the way things were.”
wish there was a cafe full of male politicians who had one priority — peace
red line? She said she would rather continue living with the war, now in its
18th year, than face a postwar government that included the Taliban.
free-thinking journalism and subscribe to Independent Minds
they come back, I’ll be the first one to flee Afghanistan,” Mohammadzai said.
the #myredline founder, said she was determined to stay no matter what happens.
Relaxing inside the coffee shop, her short dark hair uncovered, she longed for
another type of cafe.
wish there was a cafe full of male politicians who had one priority – peace,”
New York Times
Coconuts Manila Jun 3, 2019
Filipino households — solidly over 80% to be exact — grow up knowing one faith,
Christianity, but a woman whose own upbringing was spent with devout Catholic
and Muslim parents is showing how the two worlds can co-exist side by side in
a senior marketing executive at a public relations firm, took to Facebook early
last week with a pair of pictures — one with her hair covered in a hijab, one
with her hair down — and a message.
Catholic heritage was inherited from her father, she said, a Zamboanga native
and a former seminarian who always reminded her to fear God.
in another world, I wear this hijab in a tradition passed down from generations
from my mom, my grandmother, my grandmother’s mother. In the small town of
Siasi, Sulu where my mom grew up, Islam commingled with Tausug customs to
create a culture that respected faith, bravery, and compassion,” she said.
said that as both her parents wanted to keep their own religions, they decided
to start a family that identified with both, respected both, and lived with
both. “As a result, I had a very odd childhood growing up in Zamboanga then in
shared that on one side of the family, she had Catholic relatives who strictly
observed Lent and “did not even allow us to laugh during Good Friday.”
the other, she said she had cousins bringing in Tausug delicacies during Muslim
holidays, and aunts and grandmothers she “would silently observe as they would
lay down their mat in our house and get ready for Salat (prayer) five times a
for her own family, home was neutral ground, with no religious symbols of any
kind inside their house. Mom’s prohibition on pork, however, was the rule for
one was allowed to eat pork — except my dad. And, when I get into big trouble,
I would sometimes have two lectures from my parents — one based on what Jesus
taught and another on what is written in the Quran.”
said that what she loved most about growing up in these two worlds “was the
fact that I saw more of the common humanity across these two religions rather
than their differences.”
said that in sickness and in death, Filipino families always “support and keep
each other strong.”
said that she posted the photos as an appeal to peace and empathy as the
Islamic month of Ramadan comes to a close.
Filipino can do a better job at remembering that the Philippines is a country
of many faiths and cultures – each one as vibrant and worthy of admiration as
the rest,” she wrote.
next time we think of stereotypes, belittle or ostracize, or label a person
because of what we see in the media, I hope we can think twice.
of the way I grew up, I learned that Muslim or Christian, the same stories –
stories of poverty, success, failure, sadness, happiness, hope – bound us
together. And this makes us only stronger as a country.”
to Coconuts Manila via Facebook, Nocum said that she didn’t expect her post to
go viral as it was just her personal reflection on what the month of Ramadan
meant to her. “What I wanted to explore through my post is what this whole
period can mean for both Muslims and non-Muslims in the country.”
added that the photos she posted were graduation shots from 2016, when she
earned a degree in Industrial Engineering at the University of the Philippines.
asked if she had always wanted to share her story, she said the viral Facebook
post itself was spontaneous, but the idea behind it is something she’s been
hoping to promote widely for the past seven years.
her college days, Nocum has led an organization called the Kristiyano-Islam
Peace Library or KRIS Library, which builds libraries and provides scholarships
for young people who live in communities affected by conflict and poverty.
KRIS and our projects, we have been striving to promote peace using education.
Our main message is that our country will not find peace if only those affected
by conflict or if only specific areas invest in the process; all Filipinos
should be in involved in big and small ways,” she told Coconuts.
said that they’ve built six libraries in Zamboanga, Davao, Rizal, and Manila,
and gave more than 400 scholarship grants to students. She added that, at present,
the organization is focusing more on peace education.
her Facebook post went up last week, it’s been shared more than 11,000 times,
with netizens saying they were inspired by the commonalities the two religions
said: “Great. May this inspire us to apprrciate (sic) and avknowledge (sic) our
commonality and pass together the same bridge that unites and connects us with
one another. Holding hands together, let’s move forward to where peace and
progress await all of us.”
Israeli woman charged with joining terror group in Syria
accused of traveling to war-torn country to die as a martyr for the al-Nusra
Front out of extremist ideology
JUDAH ARI GROSS
Shin Bet security service last month arrested a 22-year-old Arab Israeli woman
suspected of having joined the al-Nusra Front terror group in Syria in March
Shenawi, of the Arab town of Makr, was arrested on May 7 upon her return to
Israel from Syria, the Shin Bet said.
Friday, Shenawi was charged in a Haifa court with contacting a foreign agent,
attempting to join a terror group, illegally leaving the country and theft. She
was also charged with attacking a police officer while in custody.
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to the security service, Shenawitraveled to Syria last April, having crossed
into the war-torn country from Turkey using a counterfeit identity card. In
order to fund her trip, Shenawi stole approximately NIS 10,000 ($2,750) from
her father, according to the indictment.
Shenawi, an Arab Israeli woman accused of joining the al-Nusra Front terror
group in Syria. (Shin Bet)
Syria, she allegedly joined al-Nusra Front, which has been connected off and on
over the years to both the Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State terror groups.
findings of the investigation of Shenawi show that she held an extreme
ideological worldview, mostly in supporting the Islamic State terror group and
in a deep hatred of Jews,” the Shin Bet said.
to the security service, she had made contact over the internet with a Syrian
national who invited her to come to the country and join al-Nusra Front.
agreed to this offer out of a desire to die ‘a martyr’s death,'” the Shin Bet
month after arriving in Syria, she was arrested by al-Nusra Front officers on
the suspicion that she was an Israeli spy. Shenawi was held in prison in Idlib
until March. A month later, she was dropped off at the border with Turkey,
where she was arrested by Turkish security officers.
was returned to Israel on May 7 and arrested at the airport.
in police custody, on May 21, Shenawi attacked a police interrogator, stomping
on his foot and kicking him repeatedly, according to the indictment.
Shin Bet security service has in the past estimated that several dozen Israeli
nationals had fought for Islamic State and other terror groups in Iraq and
Syria. Most were either killed in action or returned to Israel, where they were
arrested. Many willingly returned, despite knowing they would be indicted, due
to the abysmal living conditions in the Islamist-controlled areas of Iraq and
Bodies’: The Man Booker International Prize winner helps highlight writings by
Gulf women only really began publishing their writings in the second half of
the 20th century.
author JokhaAlharthi poses after winning the Man Booker International Prize for
the book 'Celestial Bodies' in London on May 21, 2019. | Isabel Infantes/AFP
says something that the winner of the 2019 Man Booker International prize for
Literature, JokhaAlharthi, is the first woman from her country to have a novel
translated into English. Alharthi – from the Arabian Gulf state of Oman – who
won for her novel Celestial Bodies, shares the £50,000 prize with her
translator Marilyn Booth. The book has the distinction of also being the first
novel translated from Arabic to win the award.
am thrilled that a window has been opened to the rich Arabic culture,” Alharthi
told journalists after the ceremony in London in May. “Oman inspired me but I
think international readers can relate to the human values in the book –
freedom and love.”
Bodies revolves around three sisters from a middle-class background in the
small Omani village of al-Awafi. The novel is a fragmented collection of past
and present events in Oman as they pertain to particular characters in this
small village. These intricate storylines come together to shape the broader
narrative of the novel, of a village going through remarkable change.
Bodies gives the reader a glimpse into a society that isn’t often spoken about
in terms of its literature, culture and traditions. And a woman’s perspective
is particularly rare – Arab Gulf women only really began publishing their
writings in the second half of the 20th century. It’s a trend that is
intimately connected to the introduction of girls’ education – spanning half a
century between 1928 and 1970 in different Gulf states.
this doesn’t mean that Arab Gulf women weren’t producing literature before then
– they were particularly well known for the tradition of oral storytelling and
were especially esteemed for their poetry – the works of Kuwaiti poet Suad
al-Sabah and Bahraini poet HamdaKhamis are particularly worth checking out.
it was the explosion of oil wealth, which forced the Arabian Gulf out of
isolation and into the international arena – leading to the establishment of
schools and newspapers and media outlets that allowed for literary creativity.
Since the 1970s, Arab Gulf women’s writing has evolved – now Arab Gulf women
write in a whole range of genres that reflect different themes and issues
through their storylines, especially those issues which pertain to the specific
experience of women in Arab Gulf society. But the novel is still something of a
recent genre for Gulf women.
common theme in Arab Gulf writings is nostalgia for a simpler past, which is
often used in contrast to the remarkably fast growth these countries have
undergone with the discovery of oil. The narrative of Celestial Bodies draws a
connection between the slave trade in Oman – the backdrop of the story – with
the way Omani society started to change with the introduction of oil wealth
into the region.
Alharthi positions her story within this narrative of tradition versus social
change, she does so in a way that offers an objective outlook to the practices
and history portrayed in the novel. She does this by portraying neither a
romanticising of the past nor an overly optimistic focus on the positive
aspects of oil revenue in the present. Instead, Celestial Bodies presents an
honest portrayal of change and how it has affected different members of the
village she is writing about.
defining feature of Omani literature is that Oman, in particular out of the
Arab Gulf, has remained a traditional society in many aspects, which is
oftentimes reflected in the writings produced in the region. The novel makes
use of specific cultural and religious features of Oman and the Arab Gulf
region, such as references to supernatural spirits – or jinn – as well as the
all-important date harvest – as well as allusions to classical Middle Eastern
literature and poetry such as Iraqi poets al-Mutanabbi (915 - 965 AD) and Ibn
al-Rumi (836 - 896 AD).
don’t need to be intimately familiar with Arab Gulf customs, literature and
traditions to appreciate Celestial Bodies – but to fully grasp the impact of
these references and the beauty they add to the text, it’s worth doing some
background reading. This literary technique invites the reader to become
immersed into Omani culture – and, in turn, play a role in the interpretation
of the text itself.
Bodies is emblematic of the fact that Arab Gulf women are actively producing
remarkable works of literature that are very much worth exploring. Worthwhile,
not only to offer a glimpse into this society, but also in order to discover a
rich literary tradition that has not been accessible to a wider audience
an interview published on the Man Booker International Prize website Alharthi
says this about her book:
hope this helps international readers discover that Oman has an active and
talented writing community who live and work for their art…They take on
sacrifices and struggles and find joy in writing, or in art, much the same way
as anywhere else. This is something the whole world has in common.”
novel offers a glimpse of the world being experienced by women in the Arabian
Gulf. I hope that Celestial Bodies will encourage more translations of works
from the region, encouraging readers to experience for themselves the cultural
riches on offer.
will Austria’s new headscarf ban affect Muslims?
May 16, Austria’s parliament approved a law banning headscarves in public
primary schools. While the ban does not explicitly mention headscarves, it
prohibits “ideologically or religiously influenced clothing which is associated
with the covering of the head.” Representatives of the conservative governing
coalition have even gone so far as to frame the law as “a signal against
political Islam” and an effort to “free girls from submission.”
is the most recent prohibition of Islamic clothing, a burgeoning trend across
European countries. Austria is the eighth European country to ban headscarves
in a government setting and the fourth country to prohibit pupils from covering
their hair in schools. Other governments, including Germany’s North-Rhine
Westphalia state, are considering similar laws. Despite the increasing ubiquity
of headscarf bans, there is little systematic evidence of their impact.
a recent study, we evaluate the effects of headscarf bans, studying the
landmark 2004 French law banning conspicuous religious symbols in public
primary and secondary schools. Independently of normative or political
motivations for such laws, our research suggests that outlawing headscarves in
schools actually hinders the economic and social integration of Muslim women.
do we know about the effects of headscarf bans?
study the effects of the French law, we focus on two groups of women: those
born before 1986 who thus completed secondary school before the law was enacted
in 2004; and those born 1986 and later who were in school during the ban’s
implementation. For these pre- and post-ban cohorts, we compare Muslim women’s
educational and economic outcomes with those of their non-Muslim peers (using
France’s labor market survey). Then, we assess the change in the difference in
outcomes between Muslim and non-Muslim women for cohorts in school during the
law’s enactment compared with cohorts in school before the ban.
average, Muslim women in France have been worse off than their non-Muslim
counterparts. We observe a gap in educational attainment (and other outcomes)
between Muslim and non-Muslim women for all cohorts in our data. But if the ban
had no effect, the difference in outcomes between Muslim and non-Muslim women
would remain unchanged between cohorts born before 1986 — who were not exposed
to the 2004 ban — and cohorts born from 1986 onward — who were exposed to the
find that the gap in secondary school attainment between Muslim and non-Muslim
girls more than doubled after the ban. This was partially because of Muslim
girls leaving the school system. Their differential rate of dropping out of
secondary school increased by 6 percentage points after the ban. Affected
cohorts of Muslim girls also took longer to complete secondary education,
further depressing their attainment.
negative educational shock dampened long-term outcomes. After the ban, the
employment gap between Muslim and non-Muslim women widened by a third, while
the gap in labor force participation widened by a half. Muslim women were also
less independent after the ban; on average, they have more children and are
more likely to live with their parents.
do headscarf bans negatively affect Muslim women?
bans increase perceptions of discrimination. The French law singled out Muslim
schoolgirls who chose to veil and subjected them to differential treatment
because of their mode of dress. Public debate accompanying the passage of the
law moreover reinforced Muslim girls’ difference.
girls felt targeted by the direct changes in schools and the broader
anti-Muslim sentiment. Our qualitative fieldwork reveals that this perceived
discrimination placed Muslim girls under considerable psychological stress and
disrupted their ability or willingness to perform at school — thereby impairing
their educational and long-term economic outcomes. Using the social attitudes
survey (known as Trajectories and Origins), we show consistent evidence that
Muslim women in cohorts affected by the 2004 ban are significantly more likely
to report experiencing racism in school and to report lower trust in the French
second explanation for the negative effects of religious bans is that they cast
religion and national identity as incompatible. The French law defined the
Muslim headscarf as what Joan Wallach Scott calls a “violation of French
secularism, and by implication, a sign of the inherent non-Frenchness of anyone
who practiced Islam.”
that point, French Muslim girls could readily identify as members of both their
religious community (by wearing the headscarf) and their country of birth
(France). After the ban, they received the signal that their two identities
were incompatible and that one could not be French without embracing the
principle of secularity as enshrined in the law.
Muslim women were thus alienated from broader French society and chose to
retreat into their religious communities. Indeed, we use the Trajectory and
Origins survey to show that Muslim women affected by the ban are more likely to
identify with their father’s country of origin than with France.
are the lessons for Austria?
analysis of the 2004 French law provides causal evidence that prohibiting
religious dress can hinder the social and economic integration of the affected
religious community. While religious bans may succeed in their narrower goals
(French Muslim women took off the headscarf in the schools, after all), the
broader consequences seem to be negative.
ban may have an even worse impact on Muslim women because it is more explicitly
discriminatory relative to the French ban. The Austrian law explicitly
prohibits religiously driven hair covering rather than religious symbols more
broadly. Moreover, the Austrian government has stated its intention to exempt
Sikh turbans and Jewish kippahs, whereas the French law also impacted Sikh and
Jewish students — which is a more credible signal that the French government
more broadly sought to rid schools of all religious dress. It is possible that
by explicitly targeting Islam, Austria’s law may more significantly hinder
Muslim women’s economic and social trajectories. At the very least, the
negative consequences of France’s law offer a cautionary tale for Austria and
other governments considering a headscarf ban.
Islamic State: meeting Umm Sayyaf, the most senior female Isis captive
3 Jun 2019
Chulov, the Guardian’s Middle East correspondent, tells Anushka Asthana about
meeting Umm Sayyaf, who described her role in helping the CIA hunt for the Isis
leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. And: Johny Pitts on how an ice bath with pop duo
Jedward prompted a journey around Europe exploring Afropean identity
Chulov, the Guardian’s Middle East correspondent, tells Anushka Asthana about
meeting Nisrine Assad Ibrahim, better known by her nom de guerre, Umm Sayyaf -
the most senior female Islamic State captive. Sayyaf, 29, is a controversial
figure who has been accused of involvement in some of the terror group’s most heinous
crimes, including the enslavement of the captured US aid worker Kayla Mueller
and several Yazidi women and girls, who were raped by senior Isis leaders.
describes the central role Sayyaf played in the hunt for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,
helping identify safe houses used by the fugitive terrorist leader. Chulov was
the first journalist to interview Sayyaf since she was captured in a Delta
Force raid in Syria four years ago.
writer Johny Pitts, the Sheffield-born son of a white English mother and
African American father, spent five months travelling around Europe exploring
remarkable Begums who defied patriarchal norms to rule Bhopal for more than a
women embodied feminism long before it became a part of the zeitgeist.
about an hour ago
heiress apparent to the throne of Bhopal, Abida Sultan, wore her hair short,
played the saxophone, had her own band, sped around in a Daimler, and when her
husband announced that he’ll assume custody of their son, threatened to kill
him with the pistol she kept in her pocket. All the while, she remained pious
and committed to Islam.
Sultan’s autobiography, Memoirs of a Rebel Princess, was unabashed and far from
removed from the stereotypical picture of an oppressed Muslim woman. In the
book, she wrote frankly about her conjugal life and her inability to be the
good, dutiful wife. But could one expect any less from the child of a feminist
matrilineal reign, which began in 1819, lasted more than a hundred years, with
the lone interruption in 1926, when Sultan Jahan Begum abdicated in favour of
NawabHamidullah Khan. Hamidullah Khan’s daughter Abida Sultan was to succeed to
the throne, but when she chose to leave for Pakistan after the Partition of
India, her younger sister Sajida became the Begum of Bhopal.
the Queen-Regent of Travancore, whose brief radical rule ran only till her son
came of age, these women ruled for unexpectedly long periods, facilitated by
the absence or death of male contenders to the throne, and through sheer grit.
A photograph taken in 1872 of Nawab Shah Jahan Begum, Abida Begum’s
great-grandmother, shows a booted woman staring straight at the camera, much in
the manner of a Vogue cover shoot. The Begums of Bhopal practised feminism much
before it gained prominence. They were interesting, headstrong and opinionated,
but their wars weren’t fought on the battlefield.
The poetry of HabbaKhatoon, a Kashmiri peasant-queen, still resonates nearly
500 years later
records are filled with the Begums exhibiting their commitment to Islam:
donating money to build a mosque in Basra, Iraq, funding the Muslim University
at Aligarh, and opening a school for girls in Delhi in the early 1920s. At the
time, it was unusual to have a ruler devote time and money to women’s education
— even a progressive thinker like Syed Ahmad Khan was focused on Muslim men
getting Western education — but to do so outside their state was truly
remarkable. So much so that when Lord Edwin Montagu, the British Secretary of
State for India, met Begum Sultan Jahan in 1917, he noted in his diary that she
was “frightfully keen on education, and jabbered about nothing else”.
and their assumption of political power have always been sidelined in Islamic
history, though there is reason to believe that Aisha, the Prophet’s wife, had
a role to play in the establishment of the first Islamic state. Razia Sultana’s
brief reign as the Sultanah of Delhi in the 1200s and her killing demonstrated
the near impossibility and legitimacy of a Muslim women ruler.
changed over the centuries. Though it was a young woman, Queen Victoria, who
reigned over the hundreds of Indian monarchs at the start of the Paramountcy,
assuring them gently of their territorial sovereignty, this mattered little in
India. Indian monarchies have been patrilineal and patriarchal, guarding the
male and natural right to ascend the throne.
12 months, 12 inspirational Kashmiri women
this background, to have four Muslim women successively rule a state is
unprecedented in world history. But what makes it all the more remarkable is
that these women administered a state dominated by feudal warlords accustomed
to male privilege over the throne.
modern city of Bhopal was founded in the early 18th century by Dost Mohammad
Khan, an OrakzaiPathan from Afghanistan, and it soon became the second-most
important Muslim princely state after Hyderabad. Its geographical location — in
Central India — was vital for the suppression of the 1858 War of Independence.
North India, there were several Muslim princely states — such as Bahawalpur,
Mahmudabad, Tonk, Pataudi and Rampur — which were supported by the British
under the Paramountcy. Under this policy, while nearly 500 princely states were
autonomous and maintained internal sovereignty, their foreign policy and right
to wage wars was controlled by the British.
reign of the Begums began in Bhopal in 1819, when the ruling Nawab, Mohammad
Khan, died without an heir and the British decided to crown his young wife
Qudsia till her daughter Sikandar came of age. Sikandar Begum’s husband too
died in 1844, and she proved to be a competent ruler and a worthy ally to the
British, playing a vital role in the First War of Independence in 1857-1858.
This compelled the British to make a provision that the Begum was a sovereign
in her own right. Three years later, in 1861, she was invested with the Exalted
Order of the Star of India, making her, at the time, the only female knight in
the British Empire besides Queen Victoria. She was succeeded by her daughter
Shah Jahan Begum and then by Sultan Jahan Begum.
Jahan Begum went on to have a 25-year-long reign, marked by a commitment to
progress, education and women’s health reforms. She was the last Begum of
Bhopal as the heiress apparent, Abida Sultan, abdicated the throne in 1948.
first and foremost among them, Qudsia Begum, set the template of the ideal
ruler. Spartan, and shunning jewellery, she refused to take loans and made sure
that any money spent would be solely for education and philanthropy. As the
British agent Lancelot Wilkinson in Bhopal noted: “She rides and walks about in
public, and betrays her determination to maintain herself in power by learning
the use of the spear and other manly accomplishments. At times she became quite
frantic; and as one of the soldiers observed, more terrible to approach than a
in the 19th century: Indian paintings, British imagination
“magical island”, as at least one commentator called it, was as rare as it was
difficult to create. Like all figures of power, the Begums too attracted people
who wanted to manipulate them — and in their case, this meant both the British
and the ruling clan.
Begum and her daughter, early inheritors of an uneasy throne, responded to the
tugs and pulls by quickly learning traditional masculine skills like fencing
and hunting. Shah Jahan Begum embraced the Purdah, asserting notions of
orthodox Islamic femininity. She withdrew from public life into strict
seclusion and refused to meet the British Viceroy in 1875. Her daughter would
later recount in her autobiography that “even as a young girl, she preferred to
meet with other girls of her age to discuss ‘a thousand little points of
household duties and of domestic management than to perform outdoor
activities’.” None of this though got in the way of being a good ruler, and she
proved that a veiled woman could rule as competently as anybody else.
Begums carefully navigated the multiple demands of power by ingeniously playing
around with tradition and modernity. They would sometimes opt to let go of the
burkha and at times wear it to demonstrate a different modernity. In their
writings, the Begums constantly acknowledged their mothers and grandmothers,
paying obeisance to the strong women who shaped their lives and characters.
commitment to austerity and Islam set them apart from the wasted royal lives
that were given to overindulgence and dissipation. They constantly drew upon
the Quran and respected Islamic scholars, reinforcing the idea that Islam
speaks of equity between the sexes. Their spartan lives struck Mahatma Gandhi
too, when he visited the state in the late 1920s, on invitation. He was
suspicious that the Begum’s cotton clothes and thin mattress had been “put on
as a show”, till his travelling companion Sarojini Naidu assured him otherwise.
Begums of Bhopal, who styled themselves as “Nawab Begums”, were radical and
unconventional (the term 'Nawab Begum' itself was ingenious as there is no word
for queen in the Islamic political imagination). Nonetheless, with consummate
ease and success, they proved they were no less. Keeping in line with the
Islamic tradition of maintaining a diary, like the founder of their state used
to, the Begums invested much energy in maintaining records — of the state and
Jahan Begum, the third in the line, established a History Office, along with a
system for retrieving and maintaining records of important characters in her
family. Abida Sultan’s son, Shahryar Khan, a former career diplomat in
Pakistan, has carried on this family tradition by writing an authoritative
account of the dynasty, The Begums of Bhopal.
a host of other wealthy Muslim ashraf women, the Begums travelled to Europe and
to West Asia as part of the obligatory hajj. And despite the seriousness of the
occasion, they never failed to display flashes of their chutzpah. There are
anecdotes of Sikandar Begum not disembarking from the ship to Europe without
her bottles of pickle. And upon reaching London, she mistakenly wore a dressing
gown to meet King George V and Queen Mary, a realisation made only owing to the
headlines in the newspapers the next morning.
princesses have ascended to power in democratic India by contesting and winning
parliamentary elections. The Begums of Bhopal, however, are remarkable for sustaining
a determined succession of women monarchs, despite hostility to their gender
ruling — the very first Begum, Qudsia, had declared that her infant daughter
would succeed after her. Despite the religious and political odds against them,
their reign was marked by benevolence and modernity, a radical openness to
change, like women’s education and medicine, while maintaining a steadfast
commitment to the tenets of Islam. The Begums are icons for women, Muslim or
piece was originally published on Scroll and has been reproduced with
teaches at Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi, and writes on the
princely states of pre-independent India.