ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

A+| A| A-

Women and Empire

rewrite history constructed during colo- Domesticity and Power in the Early nial rule as a part of the new nation build- Mughal World ing exercise. Second, the abundance of by Ruby Lal; received history made it impossible for Cambridge University Press, their attentions to stray further afield. The Cambridge, UK, 2005; parameters of these, however, continued to expand. The focus too began to zoom

Women and Empire

Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World

by Ruby Lal; Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, 2005; pp 260, £ 17.99.


istorians of medieval India continue to investigate roughly the same issues that have involved historians over the last seven centuries. The earliest chronicles concerned themselves with the court, the emperor and the nobility since men at the court wrote history. The colonial historians expanded the scope of their study but they too continued to be interested only in political institutions and administrative and economic arrangements. These interests stayed unchanged when Indians began to write histories for two primary reasons. First, it was necessary to rewrite history constructed during colonial rule as a part of the new nation building exercise. Second, the abundance of received history made it impossible for their attentions to stray further afield. The parameters of these, however, continued to expand. The focus too began to zoom out to include intellectual, social, religious and art history, and many extremely nuanced histories have been written in the last five decades. Unfortunately, almost all of this history writing continued to reflect the patriarchal mindset of historians of the last seven centuries where women were invisible, or irrelevant. Historians have just not been interested in the history of gender and gender relations or in denial of the fact that gender played an important role in history as it does in life.

Invisible WomenInvisible WomenInvisible WomenInvisible WomenInvisible Women

Ruby Lal’s monograph covering the first century of Mughal rule can legitimately claim to be a pioneering work. It breeches

Economic and Political Weekly June 24, 2006 this denial by not just “visibilising” royal women of Mughal India but showing how complex their relations with men as well as between themselves were. It also outlines their role in the creation of the Mughal empire. She sets out to investigate the “domestic” (as opposed to the “private” which she feels carried too much baggage) spaces during the first century of Mughal rule and in the process has written the first gendered history of medieval India.

What is even more remarkable is that she does this not by locating any new sources but by revisiting those very sources that till now have been blamed by the modern historians for their silence about women. She demonstrates how much more these very sources can reveal when the right questions are asked of them. By juxtaposing developments in Mughal India with those of the contemporary Safavid and Ottoman empires, she finds helpful methodological avenues and newer insights. The rigour of her work makes a convincing case that sources that have been read so many times already can still be reread with great profit. In the process she has also initiated the extremely valuable exercise of building up an archive for such studies. The work is bound to encourage other historians to undertake gendered histories and this might turn out to be her most singular achievement.

It is not as if women had been absent in the work of historians of medieval India. Some who departed from the main (read political/administrative/economic) concerns wrote about the private life of the emperors and female space within their courts. The ‘haram’, in these studies, was cast as the replica of all domestic spaces in the Muslim world, frozen across time and space and seemed to be inspired by what can best be defined as the “Thousand and One Nights” mindset rather than historical investigation. The haram was the place where the emperor went to relax, looking for joy and where innumerable young seductresses vied to keep him blissful. “Wine, women and song”, gained the status of a cliché from this image of the haram.

When the emperor wasn’t visiting the haram, the more important of its denizens (those with sons) were supposed to be intriguing, sometimes murderously, for the future of the sons while the younger, less ambitious wives, concubines and slave girls performed fantasy pantomimes around the arcades, terraces, the beautiful gardens with running water, pools and fountains of the Imperial palace. Or they would play games, throw dice or fly kites. Older inmates of the haram in this scheme were assumed to be irrelevant and went unmentioned. This space was zealously and jealously guarded by successive rings of soldiers, armed eunuchs and amazons to prevent any contact with the outside. These studies needless to say were totally ahistorical and orientalist.

From the late 1960s, there have been works that tried to write the history of women of this period and to include them in mainstream political history. Nur Jahan is a good example of how received perceptions continued to dominate. That Nur Jahan did not fit into the stereotype of the young beauty using her seductive charms

Economic and Political Weekly June 24, 2006

to gain power for her child from the emperor was conveniently glossed over when she is portrayed as wily woman who exercised her hold over a besotted, indulgent emperor to gain power which she used to promote family and favourites, create factions and almost cause a civil war in the empire. The histories of other women of the period have been compiled in a tradition very reminiscent of medieval biographical dictionary genre. These were uncritical collection of information of individual women from the conventionally sources. Lal, bravely bells the cat by going on record: “this has come to be seen by male historians as sufficient to its subject (that is women), and there has been little attempt to rethink the longheld assumptions about Mughal court and society.” She points out that this was a familiar pattern of historical studies in other areas by quoting Bonnie G Smith (The Gender of History: Men, Women and Historical Practice) on historical research in the US where “ prestigious professional history based on deep reflection and weighty political topics was for men while “amateurish” women pursued a more “superficial” kind of writing about the past.”

Lal challenges the unquestioned acceptance of the simple binary of the male/ female space – of a male court out of reach of women who were confined to the domestic space of the haram with no influence in matters outside of it. Using numerous examples she shows how they played a public-political role not just from within the domestic space but also “the centrality of this space in the making of the Mughal imperium.” She also highlights the intersecting spaces between the court and the domestic, where women exercised power. The dynamics of these till now unmapped spaces cannot be understood without acknowledging gender relations and how these were negotiated.

Acknowledging the centrality of gender automatically leads to a different kind of history being written, answering some of the questions that have not even been raised as yet. The medieval world was essentially a homosocial world and without dealing with notions of gender identity, the relationship between men who wielded power not only over women but amongst themselves too, can never be fully understood. Nor can the dynamics of the haram where notions of motherhood, wifehood, love, marriage, and filial relationships were constantly reworked.

Royal women, according to Lal, played many roles. They were the crucial agents in the construction of royal genealogies not just by producing heirs themselves but also encouraging production of royal progeny by younger wives, actively participating in the rearing of royal children and even playing proxy mothers for periods of time. They created new royal rituals and had a major say in their staging. They participated in alliance building and reinforcing kinship solidarity. They played peacemakers when kinship members became rebellious and were even left in charge of the capital as in the case of Hamida Bano when her son Akbar left to pursue a rebel.

The royal women created their own hierarchy of power and unlike all assumed notions regarding the haram, it wasn’t the young nubile ones but the senior women who mattered in public as well as domestic matters.

A Crucial CenturyA Crucial CenturyA Crucial CenturyA Crucial CenturyA Crucial Century

Lal’s work is exciting because she chooses to rewrite the history of a very crucial century, a century of dramatic change. It is the period which covers the reigns of Babur, a young ambitious military adventurer with a impressive genealogy but limited resources who managed to establish himself as ‘padshah’, his son Humayun who inherited the padshahi though he lost his empire and had to regain it, and finally his son Akbar who created a not only padshahi over a huge region but also added divine attributes to it. As Lal demonstrates, it is a perfect period to show not only how gender relations worked but also how they evolved in dramatically different circumstances and spaces. She underlines these changes meticulously.

To begin with she buries the notion of the haram as a static female space. She argues what should be obvious to all – that a strictly demarcated domestic space was impossible in the peripatetic times of Babur when it was neither a institutionalised entity nor a regulated physical space. Babur was never at one place for too long and often left his female relatives and wives behind when he embarked on extended military forays. Most of his free time was spent with other men getting drunk, stoned and reciting poetry. Beloveds or successful seductresses had almost no space in his life when he was with the royal women for then he spent time with his senior wives and female relatives. Equally significant is that recaptured or recovered women were not stigmatised but reinstated with honour.

It is not surprising that Lal while studying domesticity should suggest that Babur’s “love for male company could sit by the desire, and recognition of the need, for marriages. Especially the necessity of having children that would enhance the name of the distinguished Timurid line”, and that in a world where neither the all male or all female community was “privileged” over the other, there could still be a moment when the king’s affection for a bazaar boy is elevated to poetic grandeur”.

Under the more settled conditions during Humayun’s reign, the term haram begins to be referred too more often in the sources. A more defined and smaller domestic unit based on close blood relationships and marriages had begun to emerge and attention began to be paid to the organisation of this space. Schemes of how tents within the royal encampment were to be placed were drawn up, as was the protocol that was followed when Humayun visited the haram. The scripted roles that the women played during these visits testify to not just the complexity of relationships between Humayun and the women but also amongst the women themselves. Hierarchy was clearly based on age.

‘Haram’ as Symbol‘Haram’ as Symbol‘Haram’ as Symbol‘Haram’ as Symbol‘Haram’ as Symbol

It was under Akbar that haram became the predominant symbol of the fixed Mughal domestic world when the entire court was conceptually reworked and made an extension of the person of the emperor. It was in his reign when most of the other institutions were either re-conceptualised or created. Unlike his father and grandfather, he was in a position to arrange for grand residential spaces for the Mughal women and the change from makeshift insecure camps to stone palaces built to an imperial plan was naturally accompanied by other changes.

Lal notes how terminology changed as the empire was rebuilt and this reflected in the making of the domestic relations and how a wide variety of reference points began to be used to defining kinship and intimate relationships. Earlier the public and the domestic spaces had not only intersected but also spilt over into each other but in the reign of Akbar the demarcation became strict and moved towards exclusivity based on a hierarchy of power which impacted both the court and domestic spaces. In the court, the appearance of institutionalised private spaces (the diwan e khass for instance) kept average courtiers away from the emperor. Within the domestic and familial

Economic and Political Weekly June 24, 2006 spaces there developed multiple spaces that were flexible and fluid as is indicated in the layout of the Fatehpur Sikri. The conceptualisation and construction of the haram was given the same priority as other political, administrative and military institutions, a fact that no other historian as acknowledged till now.

Akbar was bestowed divine status at the hands of his ideologues. Not only was he the “perfect man” but also hyper masculine. Naturally his female quarters and its inhabitants had sanctity bestowed upon them too. In this scenario, it was necessary to “strictly segregate women for good order and prosperity” of the empire that was akin to a family with Akbar as its unchallenged patriarch.

Veiled women became the icons of the new empire. Chastity was the most common among many adjectives that were strung to give women of the haram to elevate their status. [Some examples: “majestic highnesses”, “veiled ones of the kingdom”, “chaste secluded ladies”, “pillar of purity”, “cupola of chastity, etc]. Yet, as the titles grew more generous, the women themselves began to disappear, not just into veils but even from the pages of history. In the voluminous official court accounts of the period, even the name of the mother of Akbar’s heir is not to be found just as Nur Jahan is not mentioned in the Jahangir Namah.

However, during this very period appears a voice of Gulbadan Begum, the daughter of Babur and Akbar’s aunt with her writing in her memoirs, the Humayun nameh. Hers is the first voice from the “domestic” world and she speaks of not only the empire taking birth but also how, once it was firmly established politically, court decorum was defined to the last detail and the women safely confined, certain women could still take important decisions for themselves and undertake fairly large enterprises. Lal admits to being inspired by her memoirs to embark on this study. Till now considered peripheral and trivial in its concerns, Lal’s diligent reading of this text shows how, read along with the conventional sources, it can reveal aspects of Mughal history which till now had not even occurred to historians.

Lal concludes her study with a discussion of the hajj that Gulbadan Begum and a group of older royal ladies including a wife, cousins, stepsisters and aunts undertook in 1578. A group of elderly royal women travelling by sea (which they saw for the first time) to the holy sites in Arabia, through waters controlled by the Portuguese, accompanied perhaps by one senior male relative (to act as ‘mahram’, the one “forbidden” to the ladies, whose presence was essential for women performing the hajj according to the Prophet so that nothing scandalous happened) was mind-boggling in its audacity. Gulbadan Begum not only thought of the idea but got the emperor’s permission and support, decided on the composition of the group with other senior ladies and even negotiated with the Portuguese to guarantee them safe passage. It was three years before the group returned safely.

As Lal suggests, this journey showed “that the domestic world of the Mughals could not be so easily domesticated after all”. If similar readings of gender relations were to be carried further, we will see a long overdue rewriting of Mughal history.



Fluid Bonds:Fluid Bonds:Fluid Bonds:Fluid Bonds:Fluid Bonds:
ws on Gender andws on Gender andws on Gender andws on Gender andws on Gender and
Edited by Kuntala Lahiri-DuttEdited by Kuntala Lahiri-DuttEdited by Kuntala Lahiri-DuttEdited by Kuntala Lahiri-DuttEdited by Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt

2006 (23x16cm, 464 pp, ISBN 81-85604-70-3) Price: INR 650.00 (US$ 35.00)

Fluid BondsFluid BondsFluid BondsFluid BondsFluid Bonds
makes gender visible in the various ways water is dealt with, and questions how these ways affect gender and how gender affects the views on water. This rich offering of case studies locate the multiple, multifaceted, and changing relationships between gender and water, and provide a powerful critique of the current ways water is envisaged and managed. The streams of hydrofeminisms converging in
Fluid BondsFluid BondsFluid BondsFluid BondsFluid Bonds
create a common terrain for the scholars and experts from the North and the South representing a wide range of methodological approaches, backgrounds and understandings. This ground is one from which to reappraise water as a gendered substance, and to ponder how contestations over it pave the ways for multiple expressions of women’s agency. Collectively, the contributors consider the problematic fluidity and indefinite categories of gender and water, tracing the bonds as well as drawing out some differences, focusing on the gendered nature of water in life, of which women and men, at all times, constitute a part.
Fluid BondsFluid BondsFluid BondsFluid BondsFluid Bonds
is of immediate interest to academics and educators, activists and water experts, development planners and administrators.

Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt is with the Resource Management in Asia Pacific Program, Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies, at The Australian National University. She researches water resources and community issues, and on mining and development. Kuntala is the joint editor (with Martha Macintyre, University of Melbourne) of

Women miners in developing countries: PitWomen miners in developing countries: PitWomen miners in developing countries: PitWomen miners in developing countries: PitWomen miners in developing countries: Pit
women and otherswomen and otherswomen and otherswomen and otherswomen and others
published from Ashgate in 2006.


Margreet Zwarteveen and Rutgerd Boelens, Julie Davidson and Elaine Stratford, Richard Howitt and Sandra Suchet-Pearson, Deb Foskey, Diana James, Franz and Keebet von Benda-Beckmann, Jane Dowling, Michelle Moffatt and Umesh Pandey, Anil C. Shah, Lesley Head and Pat Muir, Fiona Miller, Barbara Earth and Tran Tuan Anh, Margaret Alston, Bhawana Upadhyay, Priyodorshi Banerjee and S. Chandrasekhar, Heather Goodall, Namika Raby, Robin Tennant-Wood, Barbara van Koppen, Tshepo Khumbane, Mama de Lange and Ndileka Mohap, Annie Bolitho and Farhana Sultana

For purchase, please contact:

Ms Mandira Sen, Director, Stree, 16 Southern Ave, Kolkata 700 026, IndiaMs Mandira Sen, Director, Stree, 16 Southern Ave, Kolkata 700 026, IndiaMs Mandira Sen, Director, Stree, 16 Southern Ave, Kolkata 700 026, IndiaMs Mandira Sen, Director, Stree, 16 Southern Ave, Kolkata 700 026, IndiaMs Mandira Sen, Director, Stree, 16 Southern Ave, Kolkata 700 026, India
Email:; Website:
Available also from Gazelle Books ServicesAvailable also from Gazelle Books ServicesAvailable also from Gazelle Books ServicesAvailable also from Gazelle Books ServicesAvailable also from Gazelle Books Services

Economic and Political Weekly June 24, 2006

Dear Reader,

To continue reading, become a subscriber.

Explore our attractive subscription offers.

Click here

Back to Top