Beyond the veil

Print edition : July 08, 2016

At the walled city in Delhi, a 2014 picture. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Departing from the usual narrative of history from a male perspective, where women are but shadows, Sudha Sharma offers glimpses into the world of Muslim women in medieval India.

AT the Jaipur Literature Festival some four years ago, a Turkish author told this writer how muta, a form of temporary marriage, was still prevalent in Iran and Egypt. She explained that youngsters reached a tacit understanding on how the marriage would end after a given period, usually not more than six months, and the wife would have no share in the husband’s property following the divorce. They fixed a token mehr, which is given to the girl at her wedding to fulfil the Islamic injunction.

Muta, incidentally, was banned after Islam became the predominant religion in West Asia. Yet, the pre-Islamic practice became rampant some 1,400 years after the Prophet’s time. Worse, its proponents used Islamic injunctions to hoodwink clerics and further their own ends.

The Turkish writer’s words came to my mind as I picked up Sudha Sharma’s The Status of Muslim Women in Medieval India. Early in the book she talks of pre-Islamic Arabia, where a variety of marriage practices were prevalent; “the more common were marriage by agreement, marriage by capture, marriage by purchase, beena marriage, baal marriage and muta marriage”. With regard to muta, the book says: “It was a totally personal arrangement for a temporary fixed period between the two parties, without any intervention from woman’s kin. At the end of the period, both the parties were free to depart, without any further ceremony, provided the woman had received the dower or the fee due to her.”

The one thing that chapter after chapter of the book reinfornces is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Talking of the veil, Sudha Sharma outlines the difference in the attire and approach of rural and urban women in the Arab world. Sample this: “Closely linked with the subject of marriage is the veiling and seclusion of women. Regarding veiling, customs appear to have varied between the Arab nomads and the city dwellers. While women of desert dwellers were unveiled, associating themselves freely with men, women in cities were veiled.... Possibly, a reference of this also appears in a passage of the Quran where Muhammad exhorted his wives to remain in their houses and not to go out decked in public as in the ‘time of barbarism’.”

This is a practice that continues today in the walled cities of medieval India, be it Lucknow, Ahmedabad or Delhi. Here, it is the age-old city that is the shehar proper for its residents, and the urban landscape outside is the wilderness. So women from these parts often take off their veil when they step out of the old city and wear it when they enter the walled city after work.

Bridge between past and present

This bridge between the past and the present comes through at every other step in Sudha Sharma’s book as, for example, when she talks of toilets and adornments of medieval Muslim women. Cultural exchange marked the dealings of Muslim women who followed many of the traditions of their Hindu counterparts.

The luxury and the pleasure-driven life of the wives of medieval kings and nobles have many parallels in the contemporary world. Noor Jahan is said to have worn a necklace of 40 beads, each bead costing Rs.40,000. The travel writer Niccolao Manucci is quoted in the book as saying that the wife of a subedar of Lahore, Khalilullah Khan, had shoes with precious stones embedded in them.

The author’s ability to weave seemingly disparate incidents together shines through in the book. When she talks of Meena Bazar specially set up for royal women or about special celebrations like Nauroz, it seems as if yesterday never died. In medieval times, bazaars were set up in the women’s quarters, or the zenana. In parts of central and eastern Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, even today bangle-sellers, henna artists, cloth merchants and darzis go to age-old havelis so that women from well-to-do families can shop in the privacy of their residence.

Yet, the book is not a tale of material riches or endless celebrations. The women, as portrayed here, were a denied lot. With many kings keeping thousands of women in their harems—Akbar had 5,000 women in his harem—it was but unavoidable. Little wonder, royal women sneaked men into their chambers. There are reports that the Mughal princesses Jahanara and Roshanara took in slave men. Incidentally, contrary to the image of the Mughals being focussed on administration and war in the first 200 years or so, we have legends around Jahanara and Roshanara taking to a life of wine and pleasure. Interestingly, the princesses, with their bold ways, preceded Mohammed Shah Rangeela, said to be the epitome of hedonism, by many decades.

Palace intrigues

If the stories around Jahanara and Roshanara help demolish the stereotypes of brocade-draped, bejewelled but docile and bored women, the chapter titled “Political Platform” tells us that medieval women were wont to conspire with or against their male counterparts, much like in modern times. This practice started not with Noor Jahan but much before the Mughals set foot here, during the early days of the Delhi Sultanate. The earliest woman to have a say in the politics of the age was Shah Tukran, wife of Iltutmish. Iltutmish was ahead of his times to such an extent that he nominated his daughter Razia Sultan as his heir apparent. Shah Tukran wanted her son, the ill-equipped Rukn-ud-Din, to be the next in line and conspired with the nobles to manipulate his succession. Sudha Sharma writes: “Rukn-ud-Din Firoz was totally incompetent. Shah Tukran concentrated all political authority in her hands and issued royal commands. She utilised her authority for settling her personal scores and exterminating her son’s opponents. She tortured the inmates of the harem and executed some of them. She got Qutb-ud-Din, another son of Iltutmish, blinded and ultimately killed. She conspired to eliminate Razia.”

But Razia rose to power, having been groomed for the job by her father. Interestingly, contrary to many modern-day clerics who take recourse to religion when it comes to a Muslim woman ready to assume power, there was no such problem in 13th century India. Only those drunk on patriarchy took exception to it. Sudha Sharma sums it up well: “Theoretically and constitutionally, the Turks were not opposed to Razia’s nomination and nor did any Muslim jurist question the legality. However, they were men of the Man’s age and did not like a lady to rule them. They represented against this nomination to the sultan. The sultan silenced them explaining the incapability of his sons and the competence of Razia.”

Yet, when Iltutmish passed away, it was Rukn-ud-Din who was foisted on the people. Soon he was eliminated, and his mother’s rule by proxy ended. Razia then assumed power, having addressed the army from the Jama Masjid and reminded her subjects of her father’s will. Unfortunately, today, her tomb in the walled city of Shahjahanabad lies in a state of neglect.

It is with such anecdotes that Sudha Sharma’s book comes alive. The incidents, ranging from the niceties of femininity and freedom of choice to the unscrupulous world of politics, lend a distinct colour to the work and provide a glimpse into medieval history otherwise not handled in any great detail by historians. Often, history is written from a male perspective where women are but shadows, never quite in the limelight. Sudha Sharma’s straightforward narration without any claims to profundity seeks to fill that gap. She does not stop to stare and take in a full view of things, preferring instead to string together the narrative with seemingly unrelated characters and actions. The destination she takes the readers to may not be so fulfilling, but the journey provides nice glimpses of the world of Muslim women in medieval India.

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