For several days now, you have been paying visits in this garden, and on no one day have you been to our house. Thorns have not been planted in the way to it.” This complaining and rather tart remark was made 500 years ago by Bega Begum to her husband, when she grumbled that he spent too much time visiting his aunts. That these rather frank statements were articulated by a woman so long ago was already a revelation but that the husband in question was the Mughal Padshah Humayun, son of the great conqueror and warrior Babur, forced me to reassess some of the lazy and tainted preconceptions I had about the women of the Mughal empire.
These unsettling conversations between Bega Begum and Humayun, which often ended in Humayun having to absent himself for a bracing dose of opium, were carefully noted down by Humayun’s sister, Gulbadan, when she was asked much later by her nephew, Akbar, to write a biography of his father.
Here, then, was a 16th century Muslim woman, who was educated and respected, recording a history which included the voices of women who appeared to have strong personalities, were unafraid of speaking their minds, and accompanied husbands and brothers across dangerous terrains and, moreover, lived in loosely-circumscribed tented spaces. This was an altogether different zenana to that of popular memory, which is not surprising as most of that recording is through the lens of European travellers to India in the 17th and 18th centuries.
All subtlety and nuance fade away in the deep, dark abyss that is the “oriental harem” of popular imaginings. In this fantastical space, Mughal women are shadowy and illicit. Noor Jahan is an aberrant exception and Mumtaz Mahal is subsumed by Shah Jahan’s building of the Taj Mahal in her memory. Of the living, breathing women, there is a scandalous absence. And in that space between assumptions and implications, are casual but dangerous generalisations; Mughal women and all Muslim women, therefore, were poorly educated, servile, sequestered and voiceless.
When I set out to write about the lives of these Mughal women, it was with a desire to “renew” them in the eyes of people today. To remove some of the musty layers of prejudice that had consigned them to a space of either fetishised exoticism or simple neglect. To create a sparkling new identity for these women.
I needed to look at new sources, previously neglected ones. The brightest voices were those of the women themselves such as, for example, Jahanara Begum. The eldest daughter of Shah Jahan wrote two biographies, challenging the notion that, as a woman, she was a less perfect being in her search for the divine; “When a woman becomes a man in the Path to god,” she wrote, “she is a man and one cannot anymore call her a woman.”
The irrepressible Hamida Banu, future mother of Akbar, is recorded by Gulbadan as saying — “Oh yes, I shall marry someone, but he shall be a man whose collar my hand can touch and not one whose skirt it does not reach.” Hamida Banu resisted Humayun’s determined courtship for 40 days, claiming a mismatch in their status.
A 19th century Englishwoman married to an Indian Muslim nobleman, Mrs Meer Hassan Ali, describes her experiences of living in a zenana and writes of the women being “naturally gifted with good sense and politeness, fond of conversation, shrewd in their remarks and their language is both correct and refined.” Through these many remarkable voices I caught a glimpse of a zenana that was vibrant and industrious and talented, each woman playing a clearly defined role. They are influential and powerful too, speaking their mind to the padshah in private, or in the open durbar, from behind a jaali. When Salima Sultan Begum, Jahangir’s step-mother, speaks up on behalf of a harem favourite, the turbulent Mirza Aziz Koka, she calls out from behind the screen, “Your Majesty, all of the Begims are assembled in the harem for the purpose of interceding for Mirza Aziz Koka. It would be better if you come there, otherwise they will come to you.” Suitably warned, Jahangir acquiesces.
In the earlier, more fraught days of the Mughal empire, it was not grizzled warriors or strapping noblemen who were sent as ambassadors to rebellious princes, it was elderly matriarchs, such as Khanzada Begum, beloved and respected by all. Through the remarkable story of Khanzada Begum, I discovered that the Mughals were pragmatic about the sexual chastity of their women, encouraging widows and divorced women to remarry. And so another tenaciously held belief was found to be of dubious origin.
Unlike what is sometimes assumed, history is not a static event. It is a fluid and dynamic thing, which changes with new discoveries and techniques, and reflects ongoing attempts to understand our past and our present. We need to continually question past preconceptions and preoccupations. Regional histories, the stories of the dispossessed, the histories of women, these are all gaping absences that need to be addressed.
With each new tome that is produced we gain in complexity and texture. Old binaries are found to be faulty and imprecise. Muslim generals fight alongside Hindus soldiers and Hindu Rajas patronise Muslim artisans, women decide the fate of empires by bolstering princes, and the old symbols of legitimacy are found to be gaudy fakes, negligently borrowed and then discarded. With each layer of complexity added to our history, we renew our pledge not only to our turbulent and chaotic past, but hopefully to a more compassionate and robust future.