Transcending the Stereotypical Portrayal of Mughal Women - In Conversation with Ira Mukhoty

Updated: Jun 17

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.

2. Your book, Daughters of the Sun, introduces the readers to fifteen Mughal women who shaped the history of the subcontinent. We learn that these women were well-educated, they read and wrote extensively, they were respected and influential, did business and were highly wealthy, and were sought to by Emperors for counsel in crucial matters of the Empire. There is so much that many of us never knew. Not even the names of most of them have reached us, let alone their roles, influences, and contributions. What do you think why have these women, so crucial in their existence, been neglected in the recorded history so far?

Quite honestly, the erasing of women’s voices or indeed the outright ignoring of them is a global phenomenon. Recorded histories in all civilizations are heavily skewed towards the male point of view. With regards to Mughal women, this attitude is then exacerbated by our colonial history. European writers in the 16th-18th centuries recording these women’s lives, tainted their narrative due to their own perceptions of Muslim women as degraded and enslaved to men, because of their own ignorance and their experience of the Ottoman Empire. They left a legacy that taught us that Muslim rulers were tyrants and their women oppressed and invisible.

3. Your first book, Heroines, was also about women, of myth and of history. What brought you to write about women? Where did it all begin?

I started thinking about Indian women as role models when my two daughters were growing up. I had cast about for accessible, inspiring women to talk to them about in history and mythology but began to find that all the stories served up to us were about bland, white-washed goddesses or one-dimensional heroic warrior women whose greatest achievement was one defined by male standards - to die in battle. So my first book was a result of this search for complex, nuanced, and vulnerable women, who could be heroic despite their humanity. Who could be realistic role-models to young girls and women today, to present.

4. How did you come to write about Mughal women in particular? What inspired your decision to take up this project?

When I was writing Heroines, the woman whose story most amazed me was Jahanara Begum, daughter of Shah Jahan. Here was a woman, I discovered, who had left a most extraordinary legacy of writings and buildings and trade, almost all of which I was ignorant about. And this while her buildings were made in Shahjahanabad, Old Delhi, in my own hometown. I was so startled by these findings that I decided to dig a little deeper to find out how much was actually known about these Mughal women, and that was when I realized that so much of what we had been told about these remarkable women were often terribly prejudiced stories. This then inspired me to write a history of their achievements over 200 years.

5. How did you manage to access authentic sources and accounts of the women of the Mughal Empire? Since we are often told that there is little or no evidence about women, how difficult was the whole process of researching these women?

One of the myths surrounding Mughal women is that there are no sources about them. This is often claimed about women’s histories in general. Where the Mughal women are concerned, this is in fact not true at all. There are biographies, written by Gulbadan and Jahanara for example. There is poetry, by Aurangzeb’s daughters. There are extensive building works by a great many of the Mughal women in a number of cities across the country and there are records by Persian sources as well as European travelers of the enormous influence and wealth of these women. So these sources exist, but they need determined effort to recover because they are often obliterated and ignored. Almost all Jahanra’s buildings in Shahjahanabad, for example, were destroyed by the British in post-1857 retributions. Her writings remain ignored and untranslated into English and are, therefore, difficult to access for a lay-person.

6. How did the whole process of researching and writing this book impact you? Any key learning, surprising or eye-opening fact that you came across in the course of this project that you would like to share with us?

My key learning has been to never blindly believe anything we are taught about women in history. I continually question the accepted notion that women were subservient to men’s history and complicit in maintaining the patriarchal status quo. I was astonished to learn that Akbar was so respectful of his aunts and his mother, and so wary of the power of their opinion especially when they acted en bloc, that he waited till they were away from the court on a Haj pilgrimage to bring about retribution to some particularly troublesome ulema members.

7. What was the biggest challenge for you in writing this book?

My biggest challenge, because I don’t read Persian, was accessing original documents. I had to rely on translations, not all of which were equally accurate. Moreover, many documents, especially when they concern women, are still un-translated into English. Jahanara begum’s writings, for example, are yet to be translated.

8. Out of the fifteen women about whom you have written, Noor Jahan, Mumtaz Mahal, and Harkha Bai, popular as Jodha Bai (correct me if I am wrong), have made it to the mainstream narrative of history. Whose popular portrayal do you think has been the most problematic, and why?

In the perspective of my work, Harkha Bai’s depiction has been particularly problematic. Because of the movie Jodha-Akbar, the identity of this Rajput princess has been forever confused because Harkha Bai belonged to the clan of the Kacchwahas of Amber, not to Jodhpur at all. Moreover, because the Bollywood version focuses intensely on the so-called love story between Akbar and his Rajput bride, we forget the many complicated and nuanced ways in which Harkha Bai influenced Akbar and the Mughal court. We ignore the cultural, culinary, artistic, and religious impact of this Rajput queen, reducing her instead to the usual, tired trope of a love interest of the central male figure.

9. Of all the Mughal women discussed in this book, who is your favorite, and why?

I have a particular fondness for Gulbadan Begum because she lived such an irrepressible, free life. In her youth, she traveled with Babur and then Humayun, and led a nomadic, adventurous life. Even later on at the court of Akbar, she decided to lead an all-women group on pilgrimage to the Haj, and she was away from Fatehpur Sikri for seven long years. She traveled extensively in the Holy Lands and was an ambassador for the Mughal court at Mecca, where she distributed wealth and robes in her imperial role. When she returned to India, she set about writing her memoirs and those of her brother Humayun, when Akbar asked her to. She is a wonderful, feisty example of a woman who led the life she wanted to, and was also greatly loved and respected by all those around her, including the emperor Akbar.

10. Your book reveals obscure details about the Mughal zenana and sheds light on the respectful and pragmatic attitude of the Mughals towards their women. What, in your opinion, can we learn from the Mughals concerning the issue of just treatment of women in society?

What I was inspired about the most was the fact that the Mughals respected their matriarchs as individuals and never equated them with the circumstances they may have found themselves in. For example, if women were ever captured by an enemy in battle, the women were never blamed for this since warfare and a nomadic existence were a fact of life. The women were always taken back with respect, like Khanzada Begum was, and were never ostracized for having ‘fallen’ to an enemy. Divorce and widowhood were also pragmatically accepted and women were encouraged to re-marry.

11. Your recent book is a biography of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. From writing about Mughal women to writing about the most renowned emperor of the Mughal Empire. What led to this progression? Did in-depth research into the lives of the women of the Empire facilitate you in exploring the life of Akbar from a more nuanced lens?

After having written Daughters of the Sun, it became a logical progression to write a biography of Akbar because he is so very central and crucial a figure in the evolution of the Mughal Empire. His reign also marks the moment when the previously peripatetic Mughal women suddenly disappear into apparent obscurity and anonymity behind exalted titles. This is despite the fact that Akbar was personally very concerned about the well-being of women in general and their status under both Islamic and Hindu law. So I was fascinated by this dichotomy and wanted to understand the multiple dynamics that Akbar was working within.

12. What project are you working on next?

I am currently working on the creation of the Awadh court in the late 18th century and the Begums of Awadh.

The Instagram handle of the author is @iramukhoty

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