Transcending the Stereotypical Portrayal of Mughal Women with Ira Mukhoty

In most books that deal with the life of the Mughals, the 'royal harem' is usually a single chapter, [...] Two hundred years of women in Mughal history are crunched up into a single way of being. [...] There is little in the way of the subtle yet all-pervasive manner in which these women exerted influence and the textured lives they led.

– Ira Mukhoty, Daughters of the Sun

Challenging stereotypes in history (or history-writing) is as much important as challenging stereotypes in the present. Ira Mukhoty, in her book, Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens & Begums of the Mughal Empire, challenges the stereotypical narration of the history of the Mughal Empire as she examines the lives of Mughal women who, in a number of ways, impacted and influenced almost 200 years of the Mughal reign. She reveals the obscure narrative about the Mughal 'harem' or 'zenana', which is in stark contrast to the popular, hyper-sexualized portrayal of it. We had a chance to speak to her about the book, the work that went into it, and the radical perspective(s) it has to offer!

1. Our theme for this month is 'Challenging Stereotypes'. What does it mean to you, especially as a writer of narrative history?

In my work, I have encountered two very important, damaging, and pervasive stereotypes regarding Indian history. The first pertains to women in Indian mythology and history where the accepted wisdom spread by Bollywood and pop culture, and underscored by patriarchal writings, is that the definition of a good Indian woman is a chaste, voiceless, malleable, and acquiescing woman. The second stereotype, institutionalized by the British and then enthusiastically adopted by the Hindutva movement is that India is a society divided along religious lines where there used to be an earlier ‘pure’ Hindu past, followed by ‘one thousand years of Muslim oppression’ and then followed by a Christian period which was only there to bring enlightenment to deluded Indians. The truth is much more complicated. We are and always have been a very plural society where identities relating to region, language, food, trade, etc were all part of who we were and what we belonged to. Religion was only part of many different forces, and not necessarily the most important one either.