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Islam, Women and Feminism ( 3 Jun 2019, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Kabul's Women Find Power and Liberation in the City's Vibrant Cafes

New Age Islam News Bureau

3 Jun 2019

Photo: Only a few cafes in Afghanistan allow women to mingle with men (Getty )


 Saving Grace: Woman’s Viral Post Shows How Islam, Catholicism Co-Existed In One Home

 How Will Austria’s New Headscarf Ban Affect Muslims?

 Arab Israeli Woman Charged With Joining Terror Group In Syria

 ‘Celestial Bodies’: The Man Booker International Prize Winner Helps Highlight Writings By Arab Women

 Inside Islamic State: Meeting Umm Sayyaf, The Most Senior Female Isis Captive

 The Remarkable Begums Who Defied Patriarchal Norms To Rule Bhopal For More Than A Century

Compiled by New Age Islam News Bureau



Kabul's Women Find Power And Liberation In The City's Vibrant Cafes

David Zucchino KABUL, Afghanistan

Fatima Faizi

In 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

On some days, life as a young woman in Kabul can feel suffocating for Hadis LessaniDelijam, a 17-year-old high school senior.

Once, 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.

“She called me things that are so terrible I can’t repeat them,” Delijam says.

For solace, Delijam retreats to an unlikely venue – the humble coffee shop.

“This 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.

Trendy new cafes have sprung up across Kabul in the past three years, evolving into emblems of women’s progress.

The 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.

These 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 delegation.

“We 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.”

“When we come to cafes, we feel liberated,” she added. “No one forces us to put on our headscarves.”

Many 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 patriarchal society.

I don’t want to be recognised as someone’s sister or daughter, I want to be recognised as a human being


The 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.

FarahnazForotan, 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 line.

“Going 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.”

But those freedoms could disappear if the peace talks bring the Taliban back into government, she said.

“I don’t want to be recognised as someone’s sister or daughter,” she said. “I want to be recognised as a human being.”

Beyond cafe walls, progress is painfully slow.

“Even today, we can’t walk on the streets without being harassed,” Forotan said. “People call us prostitutes, westernised, from the ‘democracy generation.’”

Afghanistan is consistently ranked the worst, or among the worst, countries for women.

One 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 other relative.

In 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.

In 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.

Afterward, the government forced a host of cafes and guesthouses to shut down for fear they would draw more violence.

Human instinct is as powerful as religion – the need to connect, to share and love, to make eye contact, is instinctual

For 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.

Still, 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 children.

That is why the Kabul cafes are so treasured by Afghan women, who seek kindred souls there.

A handwritten message on the wall of the Young Women For Change internet cafe (Getty)

“Human instinct is as powerful as religion,” said FereshtaKazemi, an Afghan-American actress and development executive who often frequents Kabul coffee shops.

“The need to connect, to share and love, to make eye contact, is instinctual,” she said.

After 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.

Mina 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 men.

“Women make the culture here, not men,” she said.

She gestured to a table where several women, their headscarves removed, sat laughing and talking with young men.

"Look at them – I love it,” Rezaee said. “It’s the Taliban who needs to change their ideology, not us. That’s my red line.”

TahiraMohammadzai, 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.

“I 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.”

I wish there was a cafe full of male politicians who had one priority — peace


Her 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.

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“If they come back, I’ll be the first one to flee Afghanistan,” Mohammadzai said.

Forotan, 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.

“I wish there was a cafe full of male politicians who had one priority – peace,” she says.

© New York Times



Saving Grace: Woman’s Viral Post Shows How Islam, Catholicism Co-Existed In One Home

By Coconuts Manila Jun 3, 2019

Most 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 harmony.

ArizzaNocum, 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.

Her Catholic heritage was inherited from her father, she said, a Zamboanga native and a former seminarian who always reminded her to fear God.

“[But] 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.

She 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 Manila.”

She 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.”

On 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 day.”

As 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 the kids.

“No 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.”

She 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.”

She said that in sickness and in death, Filipino families always “support and keep each other strong.”

Nocum said that she posted the photos as an appeal to peace and empathy as the Islamic month of Ramadan comes to a close.

“Every 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.

“The 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.

“Because 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.”

Speaking 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.”

She 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.

When 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.

Since 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.

“Through 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.

Nocum 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.

Since 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 have.

WinstoniuttiMaizog 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.”



Arab Israeli woman charged with joining terror group in Syria

22-year-old accused of traveling to war-torn country to die as a martyr for the al-Nusra Front out of extremist ideology


The 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 2018.

Rania Shenawi, of the Arab town of Makr, was arrested on May 7 upon her return to Israel from Syria, the Shin Bet said.

Last 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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According 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.

Rania Shenawi, an Arab Israeli woman accused of joining the al-Nusra Front terror group in Syria. (Shin Bet)

In 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.

“The 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.

According 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.

“Shenawi agreed to this offer out of a desire to die ‘a martyr’s death,'” the Shin Bet said.

A 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.

Shenawi was returned to Israel on May 7 and arrested at the airport.

While in police custody, on May 21, Shenawi attacked a police interrogator, stomping on his foot and kicking him repeatedly, according to the indictment.

The 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 Syria.



‘Celestial Bodies’: The Man Booker International Prize winner helps highlight writings by Arab women

Arab Gulf women only really began publishing their writings in the second half of the 20th century.

‘Celestial Bodies’: The Man Booker International Prize winner helps highlight writings by Arab women

Omani author JokhaAlharthi poses after winning the Man Booker International Prize for the book 'Celestial Bodies' in London on May 21, 2019. | Isabel Infantes/AFP

It 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.

“I 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.”

Celestial 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.

Celestial 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.

But 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.

But 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.

Modernity and nostalgia

One 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.

Although 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.

A 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).

You 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.

Rich literary tradition

Celestial 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 beforehand.

In an interview published on the Man Booker International Prize website Alharthi says this about her book:

“I 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.”

Alharthi’s 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.



How will Austria’s new headscarf ban affect Muslims?

By AalaAbdelgadir and

VasilikiFouka June 3

On 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.”

This 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.

In 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.

What do we know about the effects of headscarf bans?

To 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.

On 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 ban.

We 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.

This 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.

Why do headscarf bans negatively affect Muslim women?

Such 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.

Muslim 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 schools.

The 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.”

Until 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.

Some 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.

What are the lessons for Austria?

Our 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.

Austria’s 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.



Inside Islamic State: meeting Umm Sayyaf, the most senior female Isis captive

Mon 3 Jun 2019

Martin 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

Martin 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.

Chulov 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.

And: writer Johny Pitts, the Sheffield-born son of a white English mother and African American father, spent five months travelling around Europe exploring Afropean identity.



The remarkable Begums who defied patriarchal norms to rule Bhopal for more than a century

These women embodied feminism long before it became a part of the zeitgeist.

PriyaNaikUpdated about an hour ago

The 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.

Abida 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 royal lineage?

This 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.

Unlike 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.

Related: The poetry of HabbaKhatoon, a Kashmiri peasant-queen, still resonates nearly 500 years later

Archival 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”.

Fringes of history

Women 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.

Nothing 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.

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Against 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.

The 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.

In 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.

The 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.

Sultan 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.

‘Magical island’

The 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 tigress.”

Muharram in the 19th century: Indian paintings, British imagination

This “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.

Qudsia 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.

Balance of power

The 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.

Their 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.

The 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 of themselves.

Shah 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.

Like 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.

Many 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 otherwise.

This piece was originally published on Scroll and has been reproduced with permission.

PriyaNaik teaches at Zakir Husain Delhi College, University of Delhi, and writes on the princely states of pre-independent India.