March was Women’s History month. With that in mind, in my last column, I wrote about the lesser-known histories of medieval women entrepreneurs, drawing on instances of Mughal noblewomen involved in global trade. While these women were extraordinarily enterprising, they also had the advantage of access to massive capital. Elite Mughal women controlled immensely valuable assets and were engaged in the luxury goods trade – their dealings made up of indigo, silks, and precious stones.

I had intended to follow this up with another piece on the obscure yet affirming stories of less privileged women who stepped outside their traditionally assigned roles and, like their royal counterparts, impacted trade and commerce before the “modern” era.

In the intervening period, the coronavirus pandemic has quarantined more than half the globe, and turned the world as we knew it upside down. To cite a meme that has been doing the rounds: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen”. These words, attributed to the Russian premier, Vladimir Lenin, certainly seem apt.

It was hard not to think about the present upheavals in light of women’s histories. Women have battled varying degrees and kinds of “lockdowns”, to borrow a term from the pandemic lexicon, through much of the human past. Even the highly-privileged Mughal women, as I had written, had to work within the constraints of parda, or the institution of seclusion, and consequently relied on agents and middlemen to conduct their business activities.

In the ongoing lockdown, the situation for women remains grim. World over, the stay at home orders have meant increased workloads for women and dramatically more domestic violence, raising perhaps a legitimate fear of a massive turning back of the feminism clock.

In India, even before the coronavirus crisis, the proportion of women in the workforce had dropped over the past decade. Despite sustained economic growth from the 1990s, women’s participation in the labour force declined to 20.5% in 2019 from 26.8% in 2009, according to World Bank data.

In other words, the richer India gets, the more restrictions there appear to be.

When it comes to considering women outside of traditional roles, the very definition of work is fraught with conceptual and ideological problems. It is not this column’s purpose to resolve this intellectual puzzle. Still, it is worth noting some of the complexities. For one, the fact is that all women work but this work is most often without any formal compensation. Work at home in the form of domestic chores or childcare is the most common form of unpaid work that falls in this category. This kind of unpaid work is hardly recorded as such by historians, or for that matter even by economists measuring a country’s output.

On the other hand, historically, a lot of women served, not always with their consent, in royal and wealthy households and performed “traditional” duties like nursing or looking after children. How then might we classify or understand women’s “work” when the boundaries are so blurred?

Begum Samru

Far away from that definitional quagmire, into the mid-18th century, a woman variously known as Begum Sombre, Somre or Samru, presents a rare instance of someone who was to acquire, manage, and grow into wealth during the course of her life. Begum Samru whose personal name was Farzana, was most likely sold as a slave in her youth to become a courtesan. However, in the years that followed, she emerged as an independent holder of a 621-square km estate of Sardhana, 136 km Northeast of Delhi.

Begum Samru. Credit: Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Begum Samru inherited these lands and the armies that supported them from her late consort, a Catholic Christian European mercenary, but sustained her power over them through her own accomplishments.

As a skilled diplomat, the begum brought under her sway her consort’s Indo-European family and was able to maintain, to her advantage, relationships with diverse groups in her immediate social setting, including the imperial Mughals, the local Catholic Church, and various Britons associated with and independent of the East India Company.

This remarkable woman, herself brought up in a Muslim milieu, was – as Michael Fisher, Robert S Danforth Emeritus Professor of History at Oberlin College, has noted – able to convince the local Hindu agriculturalists to “recognise her authority over them, to pay their taxes to her, and to develop Sardhana’s potentially rich agricultural lands”.

By the end of her life, Begum Samru “had elevated herself from a relatively powerless youth to an effective ruler” and all of this without any source of conventional patriarchal relationships to back her. She was never actually married to her European consort, nor did she have any known biological children. When she died in 1836, Begum Samru, left in her will a grand sum of Rs 50 lakh to her adoptive son and generously gave away Rs 7.5 lakh to other dependents.

Jibhabu of Gujarat

If Begum Samru was someone who we might today call self-made, another context in which women had the possibility of breaking out was through claims on family businesses. In Gujarat, women from trading families, Hindus and Muslims, were often involved in managing these enterprises and investing the family’s capital in productive ways. While we don’t have the names and details of many individuals, there are some of who stand out in the historical record.

Jibhabhu, a late 18th/early 19th-century agricultural entrepreneur from Bharuch, is one such notable figure. Her story has only recently come to light through historian, Samira Sheikh’s research.

Jibhabu’s husband, Lallubhai, was the head of a successful family-owned firm that assessed, extracted, and speculated in land revenue. Knowledge of local conditions was therefore crucial. This kind of firm, as Sheikh, associate professor at Vanderbilt University, writes, was a peculiar feature of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Among other things, firms like these would collect taxes from different landowners and make them over to the Mughal authorities. As the East India Company made inroads into this avenue of profit making in the 18th century, these firms started to make the payments over to Company officials.

In the 18th century, the East India Company made inroads into the lucrative land revenue business. Credit: Wikipedia (Public Domain)

In 1794, Lallubhai, despite being the most prominent man in the district, was jailed in case of debt default, and died a few years later in 1799. It was around then that Jibhabu appears to have got the English East India Company officials to acknowledge her as the head of the family firm, over other male contenders. And even in the face of a very real competition from other men in the family, hers was not a simple claim to a hapless widow’s rights to inheritance.

With persistent and effective petitioning, Jibhabu convinced the East India Company officials that she had all the same expertise and local knowledge as her husband to meet their revenue requirements. She also managed to retrieve the lands the Company had confiscated from her husband, and even got their word to stall any legal action against her from her debtors.

She was not only successful in regaining her family’s material wealth, but the East India Company officials also acknowledged her importance by allowing her to maintain her and her firm’s accoutrements of local prestige. This meant that Jibhabu could travel around on a palanquin – a rare privilege at the time.

Public donations

A third kind of non-traditional role for women that survives the historical record is women’s sponsorship of various forms of architecture. For centuries, women of means and of all spiritual persuasions in South Asia made donations to religious and other kinds of public structures including shrines, monasteries, mosques, or water tanks.

Their names and details of their donations are often inscribed on stone or metal plaques on or around the buildings they sponsored. The one thing that the limited details inscribed on these tell us is that many women in the subcontinent – single, married or widowed – did have the ability and inclination to support projects of their choice.

Such buildings are significant in their own right but they also reveal a great deal in terms of women’s roles as propellers of commerce and capital, as Indrani Chatterjee, professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin, explains in an essay on women’s investments in monasteries in Eastern India between 1600-1800 CE.

Monastic and other constructions like water tanks were not merely symbolic gestures of piety – they were often located on trade and travel routes and had an energising impact on the economies of the areas that surrounded them. Take for instance, the story of the zamindar of Burdwan’s grandmother – just one of many varied examples that Chatterjee records. This lady, it seems, had made a journey from Burdwan in Bengal to the temple of Jagannath at Puri in Odisha. Noticing a lack of potable water for her attendants on the trip, she decided to send money towards excavating a water tank on this route on her return, a convenience that benefited subsequent travellers.

Missing gaps

The worlds of these women are usually dominated by men in the historical record. Retrieving their stories is not only a way of restoring their place in this past but also a way to get a sense of the much broader missing piece in the archive.

The very fact that these women have had their names, and to an extent their individual work, mentioned is an indicator of some privilege.

When it comes to the contributions of a vast majority of women, for example those in small-time trade – women like our present-day neighbourhood vegetable or fish vendors for instance – we do not know much at all. The labours and contributions of multitudes of Dalit women, and men, are completely erased out of our picture of the past. Even for the present, we can only hope that the stories of the thousands of women workers – from health care professionals to daily wage labourers – are not just mentioned as a statistic, and their individuality is not lost to history.

Aparna Kapadia is a historian of South Asia at Williams College in the US. She is the author of In Praise of Kings: Rajputs, Sultans and Poets in Fifteenth-Century Gujarat.