Veiled might of the harem

Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World - Before Homosexuality in the Arab-Islamic World, 1500-1800
June 9, 2006

In the mind of a Western reader the word harem conjures up exotic images of a host of idle odalisques, tended by female slaves and eunuchs, imprisoned in palaces with high walls and guarded by fierce janissaries. To break such "Orientalist" notions, fostered by European artists and writers of the past centuries, Ruby Lal uses instead the original and correct Arabic word haram throughout her book, which denotes the sacred and inward, such as the inner chamber of a temple or a shrine, as well as the idea of seclusion from the profane. (Harem, like most words of Arabic or Persian origin, entered the English language via its Ottoman Turkish pronunciation.) Similarly, she avoids using "public/private life" because of the connotations of these terms today, and prefers "domestic life" to indicate a changing multifaceted domain "without very clearly marked boundaries".

Her area of exploration is India in the l6th century under the first three Mughal rulers, from the beginning of the conquest by Babur, through the expansion of the empire by Humayun, to its apogee under Akbar the Great. She proposes that domestic life was more diverse, intricate and dynamic than has been presented by historians, and that changes in the power and political structures were reflected in the domestic sphere: the role of women as wives, mothers, queens and elders.

She is critical of Mughal historiography, in particular since the l950s, for concentrating on the political, administrative and trade institutions, featuring women in relation only to clothes, ornaments and festivities. As an example of the "sketchiness" and superficiality of historians' assessment of Mughal women, Lal cites the example of Nurjahan, the ambitious and powerful wife of Jahangir, who ended up running the empire in place of her drunk and dissolute husband, and was then banished by his successor Shahjahan. But Nurjahan was not "a bolt from the blue" - influential and powerful women abound in the diversity of the Muslim world, in particular at the Mughal court.

Lal builds her thesis on the earliest sources and eyewitness accounts. Among the most remarkable is Ahval-i Humayun Badshah , the memoirs of Golbadan Banu, Babur's daughter and Humayun's sister, which begins with Babur's birth in Central Asia, through his first battle in 1526 and later wars, and his conquest of India. The text is written in Persian, "the language of the King", although the author was Turkish-speaking. It was "remarkable for its complexity" and gives a vivid account of "home life" - marriages and wives and relatives, especially the senior women of the harem - against the sweep of historical events. Golbadan tells of the itinerant life of Humayun and his queen Hamideh Banu, the harsh conditions of Akbar's birth and how senior women were called on to perform political tasks: Humayun sends his aunt Khanzadeh Begum to Kandahar to negotiate successfully with his half-brother and prevent him from taking the city for himself. These women's wisdom, status and authority were less as queens - there were far too many of them for that - than as advisers and transmitters of tradition. The memoirs draw attention to the "importance of the quotidian in the making of Mughal court society".

Another important document is Babur Nama , Babur's account of his life, "unique in its freshness and informality". He recalls nostalgically his childhood in the gardens of Kabul, his relatives, "women who remember and women who are remembered". The latter are ancestors of exceptional moral qualities: "Few among women will have been my grandmother's equals for judgment and counsel... for tactic and strategy... she was very intelligent and a good planner; most affairs were done by her counsel."

He recounts his battle-bound life during the conquest of India, collecting wives as he went along - diplomatic deals to establish his power. His son Humayun's life was not very different from his father's - it took years to subdue his rivals and become the Padshah of Hindustan. Compared with his ancestor Timur's 18 wives and Babur's 16, Humayun, with only four, seems ascetic.

By the time we reach Akbar at the height of his power, the number of women in his harem has reached hundreds. Most of his marriages were political, to make peace and consolidate his dominance.

The earliest documents relating to his reign are Akbar Nama and A'in-i Akbari . They describe the making of the monarchy by Akbar - "the idea of monarch, household and empire as homologous domains", the elaborate women's quarters at Fatehpur Sikri, the city Akbar built as thanksgiving for the birth of his son Salim. With Akbar, the harem returned to its original meaning of a sanctum sanctorum, and also referred to the women collectively.

Lal concludes that Muslim societies developed in different ways - the Mughals in India, the Safavids in Persia and the Ottomans in Turkey based their legitimacy on different ideas. The Mughals were perhaps more ecumenical, due to the variety of their dominions. They all secluded and veiled their women in harems, where these women often wielded more power and influence and inspired more respect and fear than we think.

It has long been assumed that the Arab-Islamic societies have always been more tolerant of homosexuality than the West. In the pre-modern era, Western travellers were amazed to find Islam "a sex-positive religion" and men openly expressing their love for young boys in words and gestures, while Eastern visitors to Europe were perplexed by the taboos surrounding human sexuality. But what do we mean by homosexuality?

Khaled El-Rouayheb proposes that the word as we understand it today had no equivalent among the Muslim Arabs and is "anachronistic". His purpose is neither a Kinsey report nor a general survey of the subject, but a more nuanced and limited study of "how homosexuality was perceived" in a particular period in the Arab parts of the Ottoman Empire before modernity.

Arab poets from the celebrated Abu Nuwas (d. 815) onwards wrote in praise of "beardless" or "downy-cheeked" boys. But the love of boys did not mean the act of committing sodomy - liwat in Arabic - which in Islam as in Christianity and Judaism was considered "an abomination". Just as in the West it was permissible to express ardent love for a woman without committing fornication, in the East one could sing the praise of ideal beauty incarnated in a young boy without meaning physical intercourse.

El-Rouayheb examines the two schools of homosexual discourse: the "constructionist" approach of Michel Foucault who considered homosexuality a construct of historical conditions, and the "essentialist" view that whatever word we may use, the "fact" of homosexuality has always been the same.

Despite his academic objectivity and even-handedness, the author tends to agree with Foucault. In the Arab world there was a great deal of difference between the active and the passive partners in homosexual relationships.

The "active" man was called luti - in reference to Lot - and no opprobrium was attached to his fondness for "beardless" boys. Desire for passive intercourse, ubnah , was regarded as "sick" and "perverse", and various remedies were recommended to "cure" it. "That an adult man... should actively prefer fully developed adult men to teenage boys is an idea that seems not to have been seriously entertained."

Homoerotic feelings between teachers and their adolescent students were accepted: it "induced older men to take care of younger boys", but it was predicated on the platonic ideal and "the total absence of lust... for the exclusive purpose of teaching". Thus some highly regarded jurists, such as the rector of Cairo's Al-Azhar University, wrote ardent love poems to a student reminding him of their time together while condemning liwat absolutely.

The author gives a detailed account of various schools of jurisprudence and the tedious minutiae of their arguments, which never quite settled a legal problem. Meanwhile, mystical and profane poetry referred to the beloved as masculine: the praise for the beauty of the beloved led to exclamations of praise for the creator. From the beginning of the 19th century and the increasing contact with Europe and European ideas the perception of homosexuality began to change. But that is another story.

Shusha Guppy's latest book is The Secret of Laughter: Magical Tales from Classical Persia .

Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World

Author - Ruby Lal
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 243
Price - £45.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 0 521 85022 3and 61534 8

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