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Dr Sabera Bhayat

I am a social and cultural historian of modern South Asia. I completed my PhD at the University of Warwick and am currently an Early Career Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Warwick.

My PhD research was supervised by Professor Sarah Hodges and was kindly funded through the History Departmental Doctoral Scholarship. My PhD thesis was titled: ‘The Problem of Polygamy in Modern India, 1861-1947’ and explored the interlinking legal and cultural history of polygamy in modern South Asia. It examined the discursive invention of the ‘problem of Muslim polygamy’ in late nineteenth century India and its consolidation as a social 'common sense' of Muslim marriage and sexuality. It 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
  • Early Career Fellow, Institute of Advanced Studies, University of Warwick, 2021-2022.
  • PhD History, University of Warwick, 2016-2021
    '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


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 2021Link opens in a new window, 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 AsiaLink opens in a new window, 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,Link opens in a new window 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 PerspectivesLink opens in a new window, University of Leicester.

June 2017 - Changing Landscapes of Gender In/equality: Theories, Policies and Mobilisations,Global Research Priorities, International Development Postgraduate Conference 2017Link opens in a new window, 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 WorkshopLink opens in a new window, 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 2017Link opens in a new window, 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 2016Link opens in a new window.


'Using Urdu Periodicals to Uncover Women's Voices in IndiaLink opens in a new window', Endangered Archives Blog, The British Library, Jan 2020.

'Victim Blaming: The Patriarchy of Sex CrimesLink opens in a new window',, Oct 2019.

Memberships and Associations
Skills in South Asian Languages

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

Additional Responsibilities and Experience

2021-22 - Research Assistant on the project 'What's at Stake in the Fake? Indian Pharmaceuticals, African Markets and Global Health'

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.


Dr Sabera Bhayat 





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


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

shah nawaz

Begum Jahanara Shah Nawaz, a Muslim feminist, social activist and Pakistani politician.


Indian Muslim women of the Bharatiya Muslim Mahila Andholan continue to demand the reform of personal laws.