Women’s Absence in History as Historical Actors

Atia Sanjida Sushoma: 

A miniature of Jahanara Begum (Wikimedia Commons)

Humans want to have knowledge about everything at a time. But unfortunately, they become biased towards a certain category without even knowing. We can understand it by using a speaker as an example. Speakers are used to provide us loud sounds. Now, through a speaker, we can hear clearly certain news that has been said in the speaker in a louder voice but at the same time, it refrains us from hearing the other forms of sound around us. Similarly, concentration on a particular sector may lead us to have a limited understanding which will enable us to neglect other aspects or to even forget that they actually exist. The representation of men and women in history has a similarity with this. Before introducing gender history in the mainstream literature, there was a silent norm among all scholars that they will write about men and they have represented only men as human, men as the inventor of the technology, men as the contributors to the nation, and all that. Feminists picked up this point and asked questions critically about why such happened. Joan Wallach Scott first introduced gender history in the mainstream study in 1986 to get a complete understanding. Feminists focused on Scott’s strategy to get a complete picture. They found that for many years, women are taken as the minor group but in reality, they constitute actually half of the population. The earlier scholars gave much information about men but at the same time, this strategy refrained from having a complete understanding of women.  This article will look forward to, for a biasing nature of the scholars, how women got neglected all over history as historical actors and later how the strategy of gender history changed the situations.

Is Western Art History only a Man’s Tale? 

When we talk about artists, a picture of a male artist prevails before our eyes. But why such happens? We know about da Vinci, Michaelangelo but none of us know can’t even imagine that there can be a female artist. So were there no female artists in the previous time? If we think like this, then we are definitely wrong. Women were always significant contributors to art history. But how many of us know about them? Now, let’s go through some of the historical writings about women’s contributions to art. ‘According to a story by Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer from the first century C.E., the first drawing ever made was by a woman named Dibutades, who traced the silhouette of her lover on a wall.’ (Gajewski. C, 2015) Women were not represented as artists in art history, rather they are seen as playing the supportive roles for male artists. Da Vinci got famous for his astounding works ‘Monalisa’ which is a portrait of a woman but what about a woman artist? Women got silently covered in art history by the male artist’s contribution.

Women in Nationalist Movements and warfare, and the Politics of Historians in Siding their Contributions:

Lakhs of people died and oppressed in our liberation war and other renowned movements. We will never be able to forget their sacrifice for our country. The women played a great role in the Language movement of 1952 and the liberation war of 1971 in Bangladesh.  We know about the language movement martyrs Rafiq, Shafiq, we know about the martyrs of our liberation war but how many of us know about the women who took part in these struggles directly and indirectly? Even today their role still remained in the silent position. ‘In the Bangla Language Movement in 1952, it was women who first went to the streets during the curfew. They broke section 144, avoided police barricade, assembled at Amtola on Dhaka University campus, and joined the movement.’ ( Babul. P, 2014).  And what about our liberation war? Before that, we need to at first think that what are the standards that actually define the participation in war by the historians? Only taking a weapon in hand not consider as participating in the war. ‘The role of women is largely ignored, denied, and misconstructed in mainstream history. War heroes include those women who have supported the valiant freedom fighters with food, shelter, funds; who have nursed the wounded and hid weapons risking their own lives. They also include those who have willingly given their sons to war,…been subjected to sexual abuse and still survived to tell the stories.’ ( Amin. M. A, Ahmed. A. L & Ahsan. S, 2016).  The discussions of the historians on the freedom fighters distracted us from the contributions of female freedom fighters.  

The Forgotten Shahzadis of Mughal Empire:

The Mughal dynasty in the Indian sub-continent was famous for its luxuries, cultures, and artworks throughout the world. There are some famous Mughal emperors whom we all more or less know but do we know that there were some renowned women (Shahzadis) in the Mughal dynasty who were famous for their talents and artistic works? Even when the Mughals were defeated by the British, many historians talked and wrote about the sufferings of the Mughal emperor and other male members, none of us know where actually Mughal women have gone and what happened to them? Like Mughal men, women were also engaged in artistic works. ‘The first lady who seems to pay higher attention towards construction was Haji Begum (the wife of Humayun). She built the tomb of her husband Humayun with great care. She also built an Arab Sarai for the accommodation of Arab travelers and merchants’ (Op.cit, 1938: 317). ‘Khusrau Bagh in Allahabad was built by one of the daughters of Jahangir in 1620 A.D’ (Op.cit, 2002: 200). ‘Taj Mahal a building was constructed by emperor Shahjahan for his beloved wife Arjumand Bano Begum (Mumtaz Mahal). This Mughal building has the influence of different buildings constructed earlier by the Mughal queens.’ (Iftikhar. R, 2010). On one hand, the historians wrote about the heroism of Mughal men and on the other hand, it leads to not having a clear understanding of Mughal women and cornered them in history. So, it is known that how history can play an important role in giving a message about the role of men and women in society. We always say that women should be given this and that to help them have their voices, which is a totally wrong concept. Women already have their voices from a very early period, the problem is we actually don’t let women use their voices to be empowered. Women were never actually absent in the past events, they were the active members in the past events, but the historians failed to point out their contributions for getting an understanding of man. Since history failed to show the contributions of women, it has become a norm that women are naturally passive which they are not. Though I am not ignoring the contributions of the mainstream historians, they did a great job in portraying the past events before us in a clear way, but the debatable issue is that was actually the history of men, not for women. So, I want to conclude here by saying that historians should try to make a balance between the contributions of men and women. The best solution is to include gender history and view everything through the intersectional lens. So if now, we go through more cautiously, I think many such contributions of women will come into the light.   


  • Burke. K, 1988, Epstein
  • Kelly-Gadol. J, 1976, The Social Relation of the Sexes: Methodological Implications of Women’s History.
  • Hart. H. Michael, ‘The 100’, 2011, Rabeya Book House.

About the writer:

The writer is a student at the Department of Women and Gender Studies, University of Dhaka.




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