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Sabera Bhayat

Research Overview

I am a final year doctoral student in the History Department, at the University of Warwick. My research is supervised by Professor Sarah Hodges and has been kindly funded through the History Departmental Doctoral Scholarship. My PhD thesis is titled: ‘The Problem of Polygamy in Modern India, 1861-1947’ and explores the interlinking legal and cultural history of polygamy in modern South Asia. It examines the discursive invention of the ‘problem of Muslim polygamy’ in late nineteenth century colonial India and its consolidation as a social 'common sense' of Muslim marriage and sexuality. In turn, my work denaturalises the ‘common sense’ of naturally polygamous Muslims by placing the trope of the ‘polygamous Muslim man’ in a history of sexuality in modern India by which the superficial nature of the ‘problem’ is revealed, as various groups used the practice to deconstruct and reconstruct their own sexual and conjugal configurations. It intervenes with debates in the history of gender, sexuality, religious politics, and law by explaining the often fraught political identity of Indian Muslims, bringing these formal political identities into conversation with the realm of the intimate.

‘Muslim polygamy’ became something of a phenomenon in Muslim reform conversations, the women’s movement, and nationalist and legal debates throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It was articulated as a different kind of problem by different people, from one of civilisation to modernity, patriarchy to demography. Discussions on polygamy thus acquired different characteristics, shed old ones, and evolved as they moved through different cultural, gendered, political, and social locations.

Polygamy has remained a controversial issue in India, and the ‘problem of Muslim polygamy’ still holds contemporary relevance, as Muslim personal law has remained largely unchanged since its legislative enactment by the colonial government in the 1930s. The ‘problem’ thus continues to raise questions of gender inequalities under personal laws, minority rights and nationalism, and has contributed to ongoing discussions on the relevance of a uniform civil code for all cultural groups in India.

Through a close reading of primary literature in English, Urdu and Hindi, including popular periodicals and government documents, my research demonstrates how the problem of Muslim polygamy was mobilised by various groups in response to western notions of a sexual and conjugal modernity. By intervening in a history of sexuality and modern biopolitics, I argue that the problem of Muslim polygamy was implicated through ideas of religious identity, feminism and nationalism by which different groups sought to reconfigure the sexual regime in response to the various socio-political challenges facing modern Indian society. 'Muslim polygamy' thus became a site on which identities were formed and power structures reconfigured through the social governance of bodily practices.

Research Interests

History of modern South Asia, Islam, gender, sexuality, feminisms and cultural nationalism.

Academic Profile
  • PhD History, University of Warwick, 2016-2020
    'The Problem of Polygamy in Modern India, 1861-1947'. Supervised by Professor Sarah Hodges
  • MA History, University of Warwick, 2014-2016.
    Dissertation Title: 'Education and Evangelisation: The Missionary Effect in Indian Women's Social Reform, 1880-1940'. Supervised By Professor Sarah Hodges
  • BA (hons) History, The Open University, 2010-2014
Scholarships and Awards

2016 - Departmental Doctoral Scholarship

2014 - Warwick Taught Master's Scholarship

2010 - The Open University Fee and Maintenance Grant

Teaching

HI153: Making of the Modern World, 2020

Conference Papers and Workshops

April 2021 - 'Muslim Feminism and the Question of Polygamy in Modern South Asia, 1898-1939', British Association of South Asian Studies Annual Conference 2021, University of Edinburgh (Online).

January 2020 - 'The Role of Urdu Periodicals in the Indian Muslim Women's Movement, 1898-1961', Print Unbound: The Making/Unmaking of Newspapers and Periodicals in South Asia, Royal Asiatic Society, London.

March 2019 - 'Christianisation and Civilisation: Colonialist and Missionary Constructions of Indian Muslim Sexuality, 1860-1910', The British Empire: Networks, Mobilities, Culture, University of Warwick.

July 2018 – ‘Wives Talk Back: Muslim Women’s Discourses on Polygamy and Marriage Reform in Early Twentieth Century India’, 25th European Conference on South Asian Studies (ECSAS), Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Paris.

July 2017 - 'The Problem of Polygamy among Women's Groups and Muslim Male Reformers in Late Colonial North India, 1900-1940', Sex, Gender, and Sexuality: Postgraduate Perspectives, University of Leicester.

June 2017 - Changing Landscapes of Gender In/equality: Theories, Policies and Mobilisations,Global Research Priorities, International Development Postgraduate Conference 2017, University of Warwick.

May 2017 - 'Muslim Women and Legal Reform: Polygamy and 'Gendered' Rights under Personal Laws in Twentieth Century South Asia', White Rose South Asia Network Inaugural Graduate Workshop, University of Leeds.

April 2017 - 'Polygamy and Muslim Personal Law: The Legal reform of Muslim Women's Rights in Twentieth Century South Asia', British Association of South Asian Studies Annual Conference 2017, University of Nottingham.

May 2016 - 'Child Marriage and Female Education: Hindu and Muslim Women's Social Reform in Late Colonial India, between the years 1885-1940', University of Warwick History Postgraduate Conference 2016.

Impact

'Using Urdu Periodicals to Uncover Women's Voices in India', Endangered Archives Blog, The British Library, Jan 2020.

'Victim Blaming: The Patriarchy of Sex Crimes', www.saberabhayat.com, Oct 2019.

Memberships and Associations
Skills in South Asian Languages

English (native), Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati (fluent in reading and speaking)

Additional Responsibilities and Experience

2021 - Sprint Programme: Women’s Development for Postgraduates

2020-1 - Member of the Organising committee for the Centre for the Study of Women and Gender Seminar Series, University of Warwick.

2017 - Exam invigilation, University of Warwick.

2015-16 - Student Staff Liaison Committee Member, Student Representative.

2012-13 - History live guide (volunteer) at the Herbert Art Gallery and Museum, Coventry.

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Sabera Bhayat

S.Kara@Warwick.ac.uk

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@saberabhayat

blog


tahzib

Urdu Women's Periodical Tahzib un-Niswan, (Lahore, 1898-1950).


suffragettes

Indian feminists engaged in public activity and campaigned for social and legal reforms in the early 20th century.


shah nawaz

Begum Jahanara Shah Nawaz took the first public and controversial stand against polygamy in 1918.


bmma

Indian Muslim women of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andholan continue to campaign against gender injustice under personal laws.