Thursday, October 2, 2008

Women of the past

I have been reading William Dalrymple's White Mughals. In one of the chapters, he describes the lives of Muslim women in the Mughal aristocracy in the eighteenth century. His description is largely based on the travelogue, written by an Iranian man, Mir Abdul Lateef Shushtari, called Tuhfat al-Alam. In the book, Shushtari continuously expresses his disgust at the great freedom that Muslim women in India enjoyed. They mixed with men more easily and tended to have more political and financial power than their counterparts in Iran and the Middle East. In fact, the position of women in Mughal society appears to be even more advantageous than the position of women in our society today, three centuries later. Pakistanis seem to have rejected the liberal spirit of the Mughals – with whom Pakistanis so like to identify – in favor of the puritanical social and religious codes of the Middle East. Below is an extract from White Mughals that underscores my point:

"Muslim women in India have always played a more prominent role in politics than their sisters in the Middle East. Indian society, both Hindu and Muslim, was certainly very patriarchal and hierarchical; yet there are nevertheless several cases of very powerful Indian Muslim queens: Razia Sultana in thirteenth-century Delhi; or Chand Bibi and Dilshad Agha, the two warrior queens of sixteenth-century Bijapur, the first of whom was famous for her horsewomanship, while the latter was renowned for her prowess as an artillerywoman and an archer, personally shooting in the eye from atop her citadel Safdar Khan who had the temerity to attack her kingdom.

"Moreover Mughal princesses tended to be richer, and to possess far greater powers of patronage, than the secluded Iranian noblewomen Shushtari would have been familiar with in Iran: half the most important monuments in Shah Jehan's Mughal Delhi were built by women...

"Aristocratic Mughal women also tended to be much better educated than their Iranian cousins: almost all of them were literate, and were taught at home by elderly male scholars or 'learned matrons'; the curriculum included ethics, mathematics, economics, physics, logic, history, medicine, theology, law, poetry and astronomy. As a result there were many cases of highly educated Indian Muslim princesses who became famous writers or poetesses." (168-9)

No comments: