Feminism during the Mughal era

The BJP-RSS, which often maligns Mughals as invaders, could take a leaf out of their book on gender equality

 Feminism during the Mughal era
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Murtaza Ali Khan

Ira Mukhoty’s book Daughters of the Sun couldn’t have come at a better time. For, among other things, it puts to rest the scandalous claims that the Mughals saw India as a place of plunder. Today, it is fast becoming a regularity to hear reports of the governments in BJP-ruled states trying to fiddle with history text books, even to the extent of altering the course of historical battles in the favour of Hindu rulers and portraying Mughal rulers as marauders and mass murderers, perhaps in a bid to alienate the Muslim population living in the country. But, Mukhoty’s well-researched book proves to be a real eye-opener.

“The ambition of the Mughals of India, from the time of Babur himself, was to found an empire worthy of their glorious ancestors. Hindustan, for them, was never a plunderous foray. It was a homeland to be created and claimed, at a time when anything less than blistering confidence meant instant death,” explains Mukhoty. Babur’s relentless efforts to make India his perennial abode find a testament in how his Mughal successors, including Akbar, Jehangir and Shahjahan, would embrace India’s cultural milieu in the years to come.

For her book, Mukhoty chooses to look beyond the European sources as her main material, often relying on the under-utilised Persian texts such as the accounts of Babur’s daughter Gulbadan, or Akbar’s out-of-favour biographer Badauni, or the writings of Shahjahan’s beloved daughter and Aurangzeb’s respectable elder sister Jahanara. When these texts are interpreted along with the popular European texts as well as the official accounts of biographers like Abul Fazal, it allows for a far more comprehensive understanding of the state of affairs during the Mughal period. Also, Mukhoty often uses the accounts of women like Gulbadan, Jahanara, and Mrs Meer Hasan Ali, a nineteenth century Englishwoman married to an Indian man, which allows her to present a feminist take on Mughal history, furthering the great progress made by Professor Ruby Lal’s pioneering work Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World.

So, when Mukhoty talks about the Mughal zenana she is able to break free of the European fascination for the “Oriental harem”, which Mukhoty describes as “a lurid and sometimes fantastical mix of bazaar gossip, stray gleanings of fact and sexual fantasy.” Mukhoty explains, “Most of the women of the Mughal harem were, in fact, not wives at all; they were mothers, like Hamida Banu and Harkha Bai, unmarried sisters, like Zeb-un-Nisa and Zeenat-un-Nisa, aunts like Gulbadan, distant relatives like Salima Sultan, elderly dependents, etc. They were not sexually available women at all. And yet, they all had a role to play, a duty to perform, and they were respected, and paid, for these crucial jobs.”

Daughters of the Sun introduces us to Mughal matriarchs who commanded great respect right from the days of Babur and Humayun. Among them, perhaps the most fascinating account is reserved for one Khanzada Begum who, at the age of 65, rode on horseback through 750 kilometres of icy passages, battling unforgiving weather, to negotiate a deal on the behalf of her nephew, Humayun

Mukhoty’s accounts offer interesting insights about the liberal Timurid tradition of educating their girls in mathematics, history, physics, poetry, astronomy, etc just as boys, which ensured that the Timurid women were among some of the most educated of their age. Daughters of the Sun introduces us to Mughal matriarchs who commanded great respect right from the days of Babur and Humayun. Among them, perhaps the most fascinating account is reserved for one Khanzada Begum who, at the age of 65, rode on horseback through 750 kilometres of icy passages, battling unforgiving weather, to negotiate a deal on the behalf of her nephew, Humayun.

Earlier, at the age of 23, she was forced to marry the ferocious Uzbek warlord Shaybani Khan in order to help secure a safe passage for Babur, her younger brother. A decade later when the mighty Shah Ismail, the founder of the Safavid dynasty, beheaded Shaybani Khan, he respectfully escorted Khanzada to Babur along with a jewelled drinking goblet made out of the dead warlord’s skull. Babur was overjoyed to reunite with his sister. No stigma was ever attached to her. “They [Mughals] were pragmatic about women who fell to an enemy,” asserts Mukhoty.

Several accounts in Daughters of the Sun point towards the irrefutable influence that the Mughal women enjoyed in the royal court, whether Khanzada Begum, Akbar’s foster mother Maham Anaga, the beloved wife of Emperor Jehangir, Nur Jahan, Shahjahan’s chief consort Mumtaz Mahal in whose memory he commissioned the construction of the Taj Mahal, or his eldest daughter Jahanara. It often baffled the Europeans present at the court.

Mukhoty explains, “In Christian Europe at this time, ideal women are expected to be entirely subservient to their fathers and then to their husbands. Extensive lists are published, explaining how women are meant to serve men faithfully, and detailing their expected characteristics: ‘modesty, courtesy, gentleness, affability and good government’. The ideal woman, it is stated, ‘obeyed the commandment of the apostle who bideth women be silent and learn of their husbands at home’. Silence in a woman is valued almost above all other virtues except, perhaps, chastity.”

Mukhoty’s accounts offer interesting insights about the liberal Timurid tradition of educating their girls in mathematics, history, physics, poetry, astronomy, etc just as boys, which ensured that the Timurid women were among some of the most educated of their age

Mukhoty ends her book with a sad chapter in the history of Indian subcontinent: the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar’s exile to Burma after the failed uprising of 1857. What happened to Zafar was certainly unfortunate but the fate of the royal women was worse. According to William Dalrymple, there was widespread rape of the Mughal women by the British troops. In the words of the legendary Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib, “The female descendants, if old, are bawds; if young, are prostitutes.”

As per the then British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston’s direction, Akbarabadi Begum’s grand mosque was destroyed along with Jahanara’s caravanserai in the middle of Old Delhi. “Apart from the buildings that were destroyed, the entire upper echelon of Muslim nobility was also swept away from Old Delhi, either killed or banished. All Muslim property was confiscated, the mosques deconsecrated and the madrasas locked up… Manuscripts were burnt, libraries despoiled, Urdu and Persian abandoned, and a fortune in artefacts and exquisite objects stolen and removed to Britain,” regrets Mukhoty.

At a time when India is witnessing the vilest form of majoritarian fundamentalism ever recorded in history, Ira Mukhoty’s Daughters of the Sun, despite the author’s self-indulgence and occasional ramblings, not only succeeds in finally bringing the Mughal women in the much-deserved limelight but it also manages to put in the right perspective the Mughal influence on India’s socio-political history. How the Timurid Muslim rulers from Central Asia, by the virtue of making India their home perpetuated the intermingling of the Islamic and Hindu cultures, what would come to be known as the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb, the syncretic ethos binding India’s diverse socio-cultural fabric that today feels threatened, more than ever, by the rise of right-wing Hindutva politics.

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