Knowledge of Female Historical Figures and its Effects on Women’s Empowerment.

Claire Kim

Claire is passionate about gender issues. She interned with MSK, a non-profit in India past summer.

Discussions on Gender at the MSK office


Women’s Empowerment

Women’s empowerment is a vital component of global development. Empowering women furthers basic human rights and is essential for the development of a society.[1]Experts have shown that development, typically defined as a “change for the better” that is unique to a society, is dependent on women’s participation in all social, political, and economic domains of a community.[2]Women’s empowerment also increases “both the quality and the quantity of human resources available for development.”[3]Women are typically more likely than men to spend large amounts of time raising children, which typically means that future generations are heavily reliant on women. Therefore, many experts regard women’s status as a reliable indicator of a society’s advancement.[4]The Indian government has been particularly attentive to the necessity of gender equality in order to promote social and economic growth. The government has implemented programs, with mixed success, to promote women’s empowerment. However, these programs have marked shortcomings, especially due to a failure to understand the struggles of the common woman.[5]A deeper connection with the experiences of everyday Indian women, such as the bravery required to combat the adversities that many women face, may be a particularly useful approach to furthering women-led community empowerment.

The term “empowerment,” in its most literal sense, means “to invest with power,” but has been defined in various ways according to different academic literatures.[6]Despite the lack of clear definition, this word is often used as a universal catchphrase in both public and academic discourse.[7]Jugal Kishore Misra, a political scientist, chooses to define the term as a process aimed at “felicitating the abolition of gender-based discrimination” and “the participation of women in policy and decision making processes.”[8]This definition seems to imply that the most pressing issue involved in women’s oppression is discrimination that leads to a lack of women’s participation in political and governmental decisions. However, scholar Naila Kabeer uses the term to mean the “ability to make strategic life choices,” which emphasizes the aspect of personal agency in empowerment.[9]Yet, Catherine Koggel, a philosopher, separates empowerment and agency because empowerment “endorses a focus on individuals as relational and interdependent.”[10]Similarly, scholars Gupta and Yesudian believe the importance of this interdependence in empowerment as a process from the state of non-equality to a state of equality.[11]The interpretations of “empowerment” are vast and vary highly between literature, creating a need to establish a unified definition. For this purpose, the working definition of “empowerment” in the current paper emphasizes the interdependence between both women and society but also acknowledges the importance of women’s social agency. Our definition most closely aligns with Gupta and Yesudian’s.

History & Story

Stories have powerful effects on people’s ability to shape their personal vision; thus, history in the form of stories or narratives may have the same effect at a community level. Friederich Kratochwil claims that history “is not simply a storehouse of fixed data, but a product of memory, which in turn is deeply involved in our constructions of identity and of the political projects we pursue."[12]Therefore, a community’s history does not encompass all things that have passed; rather, it entails what a society has chosen to remember and teach–– history is selective, collective memory rather than a perfect record of past events. This definition of history stresses the importance of how people remember and see themselves in a dynamic community. In most societies, men have typically decided which histories are shared and remembered, particularly in the cultural context of India, which often perpetuate the cycle of women’s subordination. History plays a role in the oppression of women and the struggle for empowerment when a community’s role models, folklore, tradition, and history are devoid of the representation of women and girls. Women’s knowledge of stories in which womenhave demonstrated positive qualities may be an important component of empowerment efforts.

According to Misra, even the most powerful Indian female figures within Indian religion and folklore are second to another male.[13]For example, the Goddess Laxmi, one of the most powerful females in Hindi tradition, is victimized in her story, and, “if Goddess Laxmi can be victimised, no mortal women of India can be and is immune from patrilineal, patrifocal, and patricist hegemony.”[14]Additionally, Gerard DeGroot, an American historian, further claims that in history, “extraordinary women were freaks”–– that is, the majority of women are unable to relate to these extraordinary women.[15]For instance, Draupadi, a woman with five husbands in Hindi tradition, walks through fire each year to regain her virginity. The normal woman instinctively separates herself from Draupadi and her personality–– having five husbands is virtually unheard of. Furthermore, other women, such as Uma, the wife of god Shiva, merely perpetuate the subordinate role of women. She claims that a woman’s husband is her god, and the woman’s role is to talk sweetly. Unfortunately, some influential female figures advocate for the subordination of women rather than their empowerment.

Understanding how women understand their own empowerment in Bhopal may be an important component of empowering women in the area. Specifically, the strategies women use to overcome obstacles to their empowerment, such as bravery or courage, are worthy of investigation. Bravery can be communicated through history and stories. Peterson and Seligman consider bravery, or, “the ability to do what needs to be done despite fear,” to be a part of the broader classification “courage.”[16]This definition conceptualizes bravery as not exclusive to physical bravery; non-physical projections are just as valid. Tkachanko and colleagues found that courage is an indicator of higher job performance.[17]If career success, which is a component of empowerment, is reliant on bravery and courage, embodying these characteristics may give women tools that further their empowerment. However, while bravery is widely regarded as positive, the word itself is typically stereotyped as masculine. “Bravery” is often associated with terms such as “fighting” and “aggressive,” deterring women from being characterized as such by themselves or others. DeGroot further explains that it is “still widely believed that women are genetically programmed for a caring role and cannot therefore summon... aggressive impulses,” which further separates women from the idea of “bravery.”[18]Yet, bravery is a crucial virtue that has the potential of empowering more women should its association with masculinity and aggression be abandoned.

Women, Oppression, and India

Women’s oppression is a pressing issue around the world. In India, misogyny remains a large problem. One way misogyny is manifested is through violence against women. In fact, “in 2013, about 40 per cent of married women between the ages of 15 and 49 experienced physical or sexual violence committed by their husbands” in India.[19]Because this number does not include the number of women who choose not to report abuse, in actuality, experts estimate the actual numbers to be much higher. Additionally, one-third of child brides reside in India, and child marriage results in higher rates of violence and mistreatment of women and girls.[20]Men in many areas of India are able to view and treat women as objects, often without consequence. However, throughout India, women’s oppression varies substantially. For example, Mizoram has a 17.80 reported cases of rape per 100,000 people, whereas Bihar has 2.32.[21]There is also variation in the number of women who regularly drive cars in India. In some parts of the country, women regularly drive and have autonomy over their whereabouts, whereas in other parts, women rely on male family members for transportation. While many women face considerable barriers to their advancement throughout India, it is important to note that not all women face identical challenges.

A particular area of interest in India is Bhopal, a city in the state of Madhya Pradesh, India. Here, women have played a major role in the city’s history and development . In fact, in an unprecedented event, Qudsia Begum of the city of Bhopal became the first, and at the time, only, woman in South Asia to successfully assert the right of women to legally rule a Muslim state in 1819. Bhopal provides an interesting case study, then, as it has a particularly rich history of female influence on typically male- driven domains such as architecture, policy, and affairs. Yet, despite its deep history of women’s leadership, indices of empowerment fail to indicate this history; there appears to be no difference in women’s status in Bhopal than other areas of the country. Most citizens ofBhopal are unaware of Qudsia Begum’s revolutionary rule, and female influence seems no longer present. Their influence and stories now remain unheard. Most Bhopal women are unaware of this unique aspect of their community’s history.

Understanding the rich history of Bhopal’s female-led influence on society may be important for empowerment efforts. For example, other Begums who succeeded Qudsia Begum were Sikhander Jehan, Shah Jehan, and Sultan Jehan. Qudsia, who gained her power as regent, took off her veil to address her rightful place as heir after her husband’s death. This was an unprecedented act that spoke to her character. She was the first woman in South Asia to successfully assert her power over the state, showing that Islam did give women the right to rule. Her legacy would continue throughout the line of the Begums. Qudsia’s daughter, Sikhander Jehan, also rose to power as regent for her daughter. She built a school and proved her capability as ruler by engaging in public life. Sikhander’s daughter, Shah Jehan, and granddaughter, Sultan Jehan, both also ruled successfully. Another example of strong female leaders is that of Rani Kamlapati, who is considered the founder of Bhopal. She was considered the power behind her husband and the story of her suicide in the Bhopal Lake in 1723 still creates excitedment in children, who dive in search of her jewelry. Her story is perhaps the most well- known female story in Bhopal. These stories, and many like them, weave a rich tapestry of female influence into the city’s history and culture.

Bhopal lays at the heart of the state of Madhya Pradesh, home to the third- largest number of dowry- related deaths in India.[22]The index of education is lower than the national average and the poverty ratio is higher.[23]Here, 12.11 cases of rape are reported for every 100,000 people, which is high compared to other Indian states.[24]Madhya Pradesh seems to fall at neither extreme in its statistics. Women are not any more empowered there than the rest of India. In December 1984, a chemical leak occurred in what is now known as the Bhopal Disaster, and the aftermath of this leak demonstrates current attitudes towards women in Bhopal. Women affected by the leak reported a multitude of health problems, including those that likely affected their reproductive systems.[25]Due to fears of an unhealthy child or the inability to conceive, men asked for a larger dowry when marrying women who were affected, implying that they are more of a burden and that the sole purpose of women is to bear children.[26]Additionally, one woman expressed grief at the death of her son in this disaster, lamenting that she would have preferred if one of her daughters has passed instead.[27]The preference for sons is apparent in the sex ratio, which, for the district of Bhopal, is 857- 970 females per 1000 males.[28]

The Current Study

Current literature does not explore the association between women’s knowledge of their community’s histories and women’s empowerment. Although researchers have studied empowerment extensively, to our knowledge there is no research on the importance of history in either promoting or inhibiting empowerment. Perhaps there is a relationship between what figures are considered “brave” in a society and the extent to which women of that society are empowered. We interviewed a group of women in the city of Bhopal before and after teaching them about the city’s brave female figures. These interviews serve as a case study to understand this topic more fully.


We interviewed 11 Bhopal women before and after facilitating a history sharing session. Participants answered questions prior to any knowledge of female historical figures in Bhopal. Interviews were conducted as a large group rather than individually, where the women had the opportunity to elaborate, contradict, or respond to other participants if they deemed necessary. Interview protocol questions prior to the presentation included, but were not limited to: “What does ‘brave’ mean to you?” “Can you name some brave women?” “Can you name a brave woman in Bhopal and in your family?” and “What characteristics determine bravery?” A translator translated participant’s responses to the researchers from English to Hindi and vice versa.

After this initial interview, the research team presented several stories about female figures in Bhopal through a slideshow format. The five stories, discussed in a lecture- style, followed an influential woman through her life. For example, Qudsia Begum was characterized as a woman who was brave and participated in unprecedented acts that allowed her to gain power. We also discussed other achievements of the Begums and their characterizations. Stories included four Begums of Bhopal (female rulers) and Rani Lakshmibati (credited with the founding of Bhopal). These stories placed an emphasis on the bravery of historical figures. After the presentation, researchers facilitated a discussion about participant’s takeaways, gauging to what extent, if at all, their sense of self and empowerment had been affected. By encouraging conversation and asking general questions, such as “Is there anything you took away from this presentation?” women enthusiastically responded. Participants’ responses indicated how “brave” these women categorized themselves before and after historical knowledge and whether knowledge increased empowerment. Additionally, we asked the women how much they knew about these stories previously.

Data Analytic Plan

To analyze data, we used a traditional qualitative thematic analysis in order to document development and differences in participant’s responses before and after intervention. Interviews revealed such themes and development. The most prominent themes were (1) the disconnect between the definition of the term “bravery” offered by participants and their examples of everyday bravery and (2) bravery as a masculine concept. The first theme, the disconnect, was evaluated by comparing examples to definitions that were given before and after. Interviews and phrases revealed the extent to which the second theme played a role. By understanding how prevalent these ideas were and the extent of the role they played before and after the history sharing session, we may see a change in attitudes and perception of empowerment. We transcribed the interviews verbatim and gauged a sense of themes throughout the interviews to conduct this case study.


Pre-intervention results

Before intervention, we asked questions about the women’s understanding of the word “brave” and if the value was incorporated into their lives. When asked the definition of the term, one participant responded, “to fight somebody.” Others elaborated, stating that “you can protect your own self.” Others added that “you can do anything” and “face any challenges” before reiterating that to be brave, “you can fight anybody.” They agreed that “its gives a lot of encouragement,” but did not expand on this idea.

In order to see how closely these women attributed bravery to a masculine context, researchers asked the women to name a brave woman they know. Responses also showed their knowledge of historical women. Women replied with Rani Kamlapati and Rani Lakshmibai. The former is attributed with the founding of Bhopal, and the latter was, as the translator explained, a very famous woman who, by fighting the British, would be known by all of India. Her bravery was attributed to her fight and ultimate sacrifice of her child. The women continued to name more mythological women. They also mentioned Mother Teresa and a female prime minister. Participants also did not mention brave women in their own lives, choosing instead to describe those they had heard about. One participant stated that “very few ladies were brave.” One of the women answered with the Begums. However, the translator explained that she remembered about the Begums from a tour the previous day, where they were mentioned in passing.

When asked what characteristics made a person brave, participants replied that “they had the guts to face all the obstacles that were coming to them.” Researchers then asked participants to name any brave person, male or female, in her own family. One participant mentioned her husband, stating that her reasoning was that he donated blood whenever possible. Another participant stated that her mother-in-law loved to help others out, no matter the situation. Although this participant did not give a particular example, it seems clear that the mother-in-law goes “out of her way to resolve the conflict,” which closely aligns with their definition of overcoming obstacles. Yet another commended her elder brother for being brave by bringing her up and looking after her while studying. The last response was one participant’s parents, for they told everyone that they “should promote your girls and get them educated and tell them to get out into the world and earn a living.” Next, we asked participants to name a historical figure from Bhopal specifically. They mentioned Rani Kamlapati and the Begums again. Then they mentioned a film actor, who apparently was from Bhopal but “obviously did nothing for [Bhopal],” according to the translator. The last answer was the ex-chief minister, who championed girls’ education.

The question, “can you relate to any of these people?” seemed to have been slightly misunderstood through translation. One participant responded that she would like to adopt Mother Teresa’s characteristics in her life by unconditionally helping out other people without care of her image. Another responded that she would like to, if she earns enough money, donate money for the education of a few underprivileged girls, like the ex-chief minister had done.

Finally, researchers asked if the women considered themselves “brave women.” All who answered said that they did. One said that she was brave because she travels a long distance to go to work (at MSK) every day, which she described as a “huge achievement.” Another said that she traveled alone at night, which made her brave. Additionally, one said that she travelled with her children by train for two days. All seemed to agree that, if something were to happen, they would be ready to fight and fight well.

Post-intervention results

After the intervention, one participant remarked that they “have deteriorated so much that we just only think about our house and children and listen to our husbands.” Another said that, keeping in mind the fact that Bhopal was the only city that was ruled by the Begums, they should also show some bravery in their lives. Researchers then asked if any of them would rule the city, and this question was met by laughs and the answer that none of them would–– they merely would like to “rule our houses now.” On the topic of their households, one participant stated that if her husband found out what they learned, he would say that “‘they are learning too much at the center; you should go home.’” This response was again met with laughs and nods of approval. The participants also added that they had never heard about all these stories about the Begums, and that it was an “eye-opener.” They would like to see the places that the Begums helped build and influenced. Finally, we asked what qualities they would like to adopt into their own lives. Responses ranged from one participant saying that she would like to help lower-income women get more resources, to another stating that she would like to be as smart as some of the Begums.


Pre-intervention discussion

This intervention serves as an interesting case study. Women seemed to have a slightly changed outlook after the intervention, emphasizing slightly different themes in their narratives before and after. The first major theme was the disconnect between the participant’s given definitions of the word “bravery” and their examples. For example, pre-intervention, although one of the definitions given for the word “bravery” was that one could “face any challenges,” an example given for a brave person was one’s husband because he donated blood often. Although a meritorious act, the participant did not elaborate on what specific obstacles he would have to overcome in order to perform this act. Additionally, one woman gave her mother-in-law as another example. However, her reasoning was that she “loves to help out other people.” The definition of “brave” and the women’s examples did not always align. Perhaps this disconnect occurred in a search to name brave women, who seemed to be more rare. This belief that women appear brave less often than men can be seen in the statement that “very few ladies were brave,” which implies that difference virtues apply to the different genders, with certain virtues being more common in one than the other.

The second theme was the association of “bravery” with masculinity. The word was associated with being able to protect oneself, not only physically, but also as a means to “face any challenges” and fight. The more physically oriented responses aligns closely with ideas of masculinity, as culturally, and shown in current literature, more “feminine” virtues are those deemed “gentle,” not physical. Although other answers attempted to encompass the mental tenacity of bravery, the physical aspects were mentioned more often. The word “fought,” “fight,” and “fighting” appeared more often than other words to describe the word “brave.” This closely attributes the idea of bravery to physical toughness.

Post-intervention discussion

Post- intervention, participants stated that they felt inspired to empower girls after receiving this new knowledge. Because female historical figures are rarely mentioned, they are not regarded as a part of history. They remain unknown and unable to change stereotypes towards women as long as society keeps this history hidden. Perhaps this knowledge will be beneficial for women and their success and empowerment, as this case study showed. One participant noted that Bhopal is “the only city which the Begums have ruled… keeping that in mind we should also show some bravery in our lives.” This takeaway, however, extended only to “ruling their houses,” and joking suggestions to rule the city was met with laughs and shaking heads.

Additionally, the women seemed to be confined to their household by their husbands. One participant states that, if her husband found out what she was learning, he would probably have her stay back at home. Although empowerment is crucial in the advancement of women, it is also necessary that culture is shifted towards a society more accepting of women in different roles.


We sought to understand the effects of knowledge of female historical figures on women’s ideas of empowerment and self. The literature revealed that women were considered less aggressive, which our results confirmed. We performed a historical knowledge intervention that served the purpose of fostering knowledge of female historical figures to see if this affected Bhopal women’s perception of themselves and bravery. Results showed that knowledge of female historical figures encouraged women to think critically about agency within their homes and communities in ways that were both transgressive and empowerment-promoting. Future researchers might be able to elaborate further on our results by extending the study to more areas and conducting a study with individual interviews over a greater amount of time to further understand the long-term effects of historical intervention.

[1]Kamla Gupta and P. Princy Yesudian, "Evidence of Women's Empowerment in India: A Study of Socio-spatial Disparities," GeoJournal65, no. 4 (2006): 365,

[2]Hugo Slim, "What Is Development?," Development in Practice5, no. 2 (1995): 143,; Sunita Kishor and Kamla Gupta, "Women's Empowerment in India and Its States: Evidence from the NFHS," Economic and Political Weekly39, no. 7 (2004): 194,

[3]Sunita Kishor and Kamla Gupta, "Women's Empowerment in India and Its States: Evidence from the NFHS," Economic and Political Weekly39, no. 7 (2004): 694,

[4]Gopa Samanta and Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, "State initiatives for the empowerment of women of rural communities: experiences from eastern India," Community Development Journal37, no. 2 (April 1, 2002): 138,

[5]Ibid., 152

[6]Kishor and Kamla Gupta, "Women's Empowerment," 693.

[7]Elisabeth Porter, "Rethinking Women's Empowerment," Journal of Peacebuilding and Development8, no. 1 (2013): 3,

[8]Jugal Kishore Misra, "EMPOWERMENT of WOMEN in INDIA," The Indian Journal of Political Science67, no. 4 (2006): 867,

[9]Naila Kabeer, "Resources, Agency, Achievements: Reflections on the Measurement of Women's Empowerment," Development and Change30, no. 3 (December 16, 2002): 435,

[10]Christine Koggel, "The Ethics of Empowerment," Development53, no. 2 (June 2010): 176,

[11]Gupta and Yesudian, "Evidence of Women's," 366.

[12]Friederich Kratochwil, "History, Action and Identity: Revisiting the 'Second' Great Debate and Assessing its Importance for Social Theory," European Journal of International Relations5, no. 29 (March 1, 2006): 5,

[13]Misra, "EMPOWERMENT of WOMEN," 868.


[15]Gerard J. DeGroot, "A few good women: Gender stereotypes, the military and peacekeeping," International Peacekeeping8, no. 2 (2001): 26,

[16]Christopher Peterson and Martin E. P Seligman, Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification(Washington, DC: New York, 2004), 199.

[17]Oleksandr Tkachenko et al., "Courage in the workplace: The effects of organizational level and gender on the relationship between behavioral courage and job performance," Journal of Management and Organization, May 10, 2018, 1,

[18]DeGroot, "A few good," 23.

[19]Jean Chapman, "Violence against Women in Democratic India: Let's Talk Misogyny," Social Scientist42, no. 9/10 (2014): 52,

[20]Graca Machel and Mary Roinson, "Girls Not Brides," in The Unfinished Revolution, ed. MINKY WORDEN, Voices from the Global Fight for Women's Rights (n.p.: Bristol University Press, 2012), 290,

[21]Karp, Marwah, and Manchanda, Unheard and Uncounted, 11.

[22]Aaron Karp, Sonal Marwah, and Rita Manchanda, Unheard and Uncounted(n.p.: Small Arms Survey, 2015), 9,

[23]Jandhyala B.G Tilak, Education and Development in India: Critical Issues in Public Policy and Development(Puchong, Selangor D.E.: Springer Singapore, 2018), 98.

[24]Karp, Marwah, and Manchanda, Unheard and Uncounted, 10.

[25]"Bhopal Women Survivors," Off Our Backs16, no. 1 (1986): 1,



[28]Annual Health Survey 2010-11, 1, 2011, accessed June 19, 2019,

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