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Fyzee, Atiya [married name Atiya Fyzee-Rahamin; known as Atiya Begum, and Shahinda] (1877–1967), author, social reformer, and patron of the arts, was born in Constantinople on 1 August 1877 into the prominent Tyabji clan, which was at the forefront of Bombay's Sulaimani Bohra Muslim community. Her father, Hasanally Feyzhyder (1838–1903), was a merchant in the Ottoman empire, where he was also known as Hasan Effendi. Her mother, Amirunissa, was the daughter of Shujauddin Tyabji, eldest son of the Tyabji clan's founder, Tyab Ali. Atiya had two elder sisters, also authors and social reformers, Zehra Fyzee (1866–1940) and Nazli Fyzee (1874–1968), the latter born on 1 March 1874. She also had four brothers: Ali Akbar (1861–1923), Ali Asghar (1863–1937), Ali Azhar (1879–1962), and Ali Athar (1883–1963). The three daughters were known collectively in India's reformist circles of the early twentieth century as ‘the Fyzee sisters’. Their brother Ali Azhar trained as a medical doctor in Britain where he remained to compete as a professional tennis player at Wimbledon and in the Davis cup. Another brother, Ali Asghar, was the father of Asaf A. A. Fyzee, a renowned commentator on Islamic law. Hasanally Feyzhyder later took a second wife, Amina (or Emine), and then a third in the form of her sister. The second union produced two children, Murad and Ahmad Kamal.

At their mother's insistence the Fyzee sisters were raised, not in Constantinople with their father, but in Mazagaon in south Bombay under the influence of their famed great-uncle, Badruddin Tyabji. With his daughters they attended a local convent school set up by the Zenana Bible Medical Mission, where they followed a highly academic curriculum. They also received tutoring outside school in Urdu, Persian, and the Koran, as well as art and music. In their youth Atiya, Nazli, and their cousin Surayya Tyabji also set up a ladies' club to serve Tyabji women, called Akdé Suraya (or ’Aqd-e Surayya, meaning ‘The necklace of Pleiades’). Beyond sport and entertainment it also offered training in organizational methods, debate, and charitable endeavours that was later put to use when the Fyzee sisters participated in some of the first Muslim women's associations in India. In 1905 Zehra presided over a historic women's gathering in Aligarh held in connection with the Muhammadan Educational Conference. Atiya, Zehra, and Nazli also collaborated with the ruling nawab begum of Bhopal, Sultan Jahan, to organize high profile women's events within her princely state. In 1914 the three sisters were also delegates to the inaugural All-India Muslim Ladies' Conference (or Anjuman-i-Khawatin-i-Islam) in Aligarh, with Zehra being elected to the working committee.

The Fyzee sisters' participation in these national organizations was facilitated at least in part by Badruddin Tyabji's controversial stance on purdah, or seclusion. He maintained that Muslim women were not required by Islam to maintain ‘strict’ purdah, but should be able to move about freely in public with their hands and faces uncovered if they wore modest clothing. Atiya and her two cousins, Zubeida Futehally (also the wife of Atiya's brother Ali Akbar) and Ameena Tyabji, thus became some of the first élite Muslim women to appear in public unveiled. The Fyzee sisters advocated wearing a modified form of the Turkish charshaf, consisting of a long cloak worn with sewn head-covering and gloves—or what became known in India as the Turkish-style burqa. This form of dress enabled the Fyzee sisters to travel widely in the Indian sub-continent and abroad. Atiya was the first to go abroad when she spent a year at Maria Grey teachers' training college in Britain in 1906–7 before returning to India via France and Germany. Later she and Nazli also made lengthy and repeated visits to Britain, Europe, and the Ottoman empire, and also toured the United States and Japan.

The Fyzee sisters expressed their reformist opinions not only at women's gatherings, but also in print. From a young age they had been encouraged to contribute short pieces to a set of unusual Tyabji family diaries known as Akhbar ki Kitab kept by each branch of the family. Subsequently they played an important role in Urdu journalism by writing for a number of women's magazines, including Tahzib un-Niswan (Lahore), Khatun (Aligarh) and ’Ismat (Delhi). Their articles were usually on reformist themes such as education, health, marriage, and language, though they also wrote travel pieces. Of the three Zehra was the most prolific, with her many articles eventually being compiled in a book called Mazamin (‘Significations’), published in 1921 at the same time as her play, Mal-i-khatun (‘Women's Riches’). In 1934 she also produced a collection on women's health, Tandarusti Hazar Naimat (‘Health is wealth’). Zehra was also responsible for assembling her mother's Urdu poetry into two small books, Yadgar-i-Amira and Amin, and editing the travel diaries of her two sisters.

Atiya's lively account of her year studying in Britain, Zamana-i-tahsil (‘A time of education’), was first serialized in Tahzib un-Niswan from January to November 1907 before being published in book form in 1921. As her travel diary attests, Atiya's year in Britain may have been unsuccessful from the point of view of formal education—she returned home without finishing her two-year course—but it did enable her to boost her intellectual profile and make important connections that would sustain her on her return to India. Facilitated by the National Indian Association and other educational organizations, she attended numerous events at the Imperial Institute and elsewhere at which she met many prominent Britons and Indians. Among them were retired civil servants, nationalist politicians, social reformers, princes, and industrialists, including Syed Ameer Ali, Dr M. A. Ansari, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Ratan and Navajbai Tata, Flora Sassoon, the maharaja and maharani of Baroda, and Princess Sophia Duleep Singh. As an educated Indian woman Atiya also attracted the attention of the British press, publishing in a local magazine and being interviewed and photographed by the journalist Mary Billington and the Lady's Pictorial. At Maria Grey she also made friends with girls of different social backgrounds who introduced her to local sports, religious practices, and entertainment.

While in London, Atiya also developed a close friendship with the poet and philosopher Muhammad Iqbal (1877–1938). He is evoked only briefly and formally in Zamana-i-Tahsil, but Atiya later published a book of their correspondence, entitled Iqbal (1947), that included an account of their frequent meetings in Britain and Germany in 1907. Though the exact nature of their attachment is unknown one gets a sense from his love poetry dated to this time and their regular and impassioned correspondence up until 1911 that there may have been a degree of intimacy. Either way their association brought Atiya a sense of notoriety in literary circles that was only compounded by her friendship with another well-known male intellectual, Maulana Shibli Numani. From 1908 until his death he corresponded regularly with Atiya and Zehra on reformist topics, including language, education, and purdah, while also writing Persian poetry perhaps inspired by Atiya. The possibility of an illicit relationship between them erupted into scandal after Shibli's letters were published first in a women's magazine, Zill us-Sultan, in 1922 and then in book form in 1930. Decades later in 1946 Atiya made a formal statement in an Urdu journal protesting her innocence while insinuating that the long-deceased Shibli may have acted inappropriately.

Nazli's Sair-i-Yurop, charting a more formal tour of Britain, Europe, and the Ottoman empire, was written in 1908 (and published by the Union Steam Press, Lahore, at an unknown date). In contrast to Atiya's travel record Nazli's Sair-i-Yurop reads as a sad reflection of the breakdown of her marriage to Sidi Ahmad Khan Sidi Ibrahim Khan (1862–1922), the nawab of Janjira. In 1886, at the age of just twelve, she had been married to this ruler of a small princely state on India's west coast, apparently with the aim of improving the social standing of her newly moneyed family. When their marriage failed to produce the necessary heir the nawab took a second wife, leading Nazli to initiate their separation in 1913. Zehra, similarly, was married to her cousin Hyder Tyabji, but the relationship soon ended in divorce. Atiya's dissatisfaction with her two earlier relationships and her sisters' unhappy marriages may have inspired her own choice of a rather unconventional spouse. In 1912—at the age of thirty-five—she married an established artist and writer, Samuel Rahamin (1880–1964), who had studied in London under the celebrated painters John Singer Sargent and Solomon Joseph Solomon. Though Samuel hailed from a Jewish community in Pune he was art adviser to the maharaja of Baroda, Sayaji Rao III, by the time he met Atiya. On their marriage he converted to Islam and they both took the hyphenated name Fyzee-Rahamin. He was perhaps best known in India for painting two domes of the Imperial Secretariat in New Delhi, but his work is also preserved at Tate Britain and the Manchester City Art Gallery. He later wrote a novel entitled Gilded India (1938), which, in describing the forlorn and desolate life of a nawab's wife, may have been based on Nazli's experiences.

Atiya and Samuel Fyzee-Rahamin had no children, but formed a close partnership and acted as a creative team. Their first collaboration was a book on Indian music, variously entitled Indian Music (1914), The Music of India (1925), and Sangīt of India (1942), which combined her text with his illustrations. In 1914 they also travelled to Europe for exhibitions of Samuel's work in London and Paris during which Atiya gave lectures on Indian music, recorded at the Sorbonne, and performed at private salons. On their return to India she continued to pursue her musical interests by participating in the All India Music Conference, being named as president in 1919. Later she also established a private salon at the homes in Bombay and Karachi that she and Samuel shared with her sisters. Called the Three Arts Circle, it offered patronage to dancers, actors, poets, artists, and scholars. In 1918 the couple travelled to New York for an exhibition of Samuel's paintings during which Atiya gave speeches on Indian women and, with Nazli, put on an exhibition of Indian art that was later replicated in smaller displays in Bombay and Karachi. In the late 1930s two of Samuel's plays, Daughter of Ind and Invented Gods, were staged in London with music and choreography by Atiya. Public reception of their artistic endeavours was often no more than lukewarm, particularly in India, but their combined contribution to music, dance, theatre, the visual arts, and literature was considerable.

The partition of the Indian subcontinent in 1947 caused a major rupture in the lives of the Fyzee sisters. The eldest, Zehra, had already died, on 23 December 1940, but Atiya and Nazli, along with Samuel, decided to leave Bombay for Karachi in Pakistan in 1948. Their reasons for migration are unclear, but they appear to have had more to do with financial troubles, enmity among their family, and personal ambition than any sense of political ideology or religious idealism. Their move represented a break with the rest of the Tyabji clan, many of whom were devoted Gandhians who had made important contributions to the Indian nationalist movement. In Karachi they were allotted land on which they built a replica of their original house in Bombay, but it was only a few years before they were evicted when Atiya offended a government official. The remainder of their lives was spent in penury, relying on the goodwill of relatives. Atiya and Nazli died in Karachi on 4 January 1967 and 19 September 1968 respectively. In recognition of their cultural contributions Atiya and Samuel's extensive personal collections of art, jewellery, and textiles were exhibited with their other belongings in their former home in Karachi until the house was demolished in the mid-1990s, when the items were archived.

Siobhan Lambert-Hurley


A. Fyzee, Zamana-i-tahsil (1921) · Nazli Rafia Sultan Nawab Begum Sahiba of Janjira, Sair-i-Yurop (Lahore, [n.d.]) · S. Sharma, ‘Atiya Begum and the mystery of the beloved's identity in Shibli Numani's Persian ghazals’, Poetry's voice, society's norms: forms of interaction between Middle Eastern writers and their societies, ed. A. Pflitsch and B. Winckler (2006) · S. Lambert-Hurley and S. Sharma, Atiya's journeys: a Muslim woman from colonial Bombay to Edwardian Britain (2010) · A. Begum, Iqbal, ed. R. Parekh (2011) · S. Lambert-Hurley, ‘Forging global networks in the imperial era: Atiya Fyzee in Edwardian London’, Only connect: India in Britain, ed. S. Nasta (2012) · S. Sharma, ‘Delight and disgust: gendered encounters in the travelogues of the Fyzee sisters’, On the wonders of land and sea: Persianate travel writing, ed. R. Micallef and S. Sharma [forthcoming]


Aiwan-e-Riffat, Karachi, Fyzee-Rahamin archives · University of Mumbai Library, Mumbai, Fyzee collection |  BL, National Indian Association, India Office Private Papers, MSS. Eur.F.147 · Brunel University Archive, Egham, Surrey, Maria Grey collection


group photographs, repro. in S. Lambert-Hurley and S. Sharma, Atiya’s journeys · group portraits, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, India · portrait, repro. in A. Begum, Sangīt of India (1942), frontispiece