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The Mughal Empire established approximately two hundred years of history, yet recordings of this history have been focused on the lives of the Emperors and have depicted women as merely partners to produce and raise heirs to the throne. The domestic life was thought to be exclusive to private, family matter. However, in reality, the domestic life blurred the line between a public and private setting. The unfamiliarity with the domestic life of the Mughal era stems from the people chosen to record history. In her book, ‘Domesticity and Power in the Early Mughal World’, Dr. Ruby Lal notes that Abu-I-Fadl’s Akbarnamah is considered to be authentic “because it was written by a man who was fully familiar with official policies and actions of the government and enjoyed not only the confidence but actually the friendship of the emperor”. However she also questioned the authenticity of solely focusing on official empire actions. As the daughter of Babur, sister of Humayun, and aunt of Akbar, Gulbadan Begum recorded history from a completely different perspective. Gulbadan Begum focused on situations, family, and the life of women. However, historical recording like that of Gulbadan Begum are rare. Because empire officials have generally recorded history, much of the known history comes from a male perspective who is merely praising their ruler. Gulbadan Begum’s writings through different leaders and obstacles has allowed for a raw understanding of the domestic and the empire from the perspective of a woman. An understanding of the ‘domestic’ affects the way in which one interprets the changing public presence and the political role of women, which, in turn, alters how one understands the history of Mughal India.
First, comprehension of the ‘domestic’ allows for greater appreciation of the changing public presence of women during the Mughal era. One of the most notable settings for the women was the haram. Many accounts of the haram have discussed it as a place where “pleasure (in all its forms) was the main competitive commodity”. However, contrary to popular belief, the haram grew to become a “well-structured physical quarters” under Akbar’s regime. It is this ‘structure’ that established a hierarchy amongst the women and allowed some to be closer to the Emperor than others in, both, the private setting of the chamber and the public setting of the royal court. One example of this hierarchy is earning the title of Maryam-uz-Zamani if a wife gives birth to the heir. Outside of already being mother to the heir, earning a new title provides a sense of superiority within the haram which translates in raising the heir publicly and engaging with the Emperor at a greater level. The exclusivity of the haram made it unavailable to strangers which allowed for stereotyped assumptions of the domestic life to overshadow much of its reality. As a result, the role of women was forced to appear far less important than it was. However, subtle stories of women making valuable assertions against the emperor or making their presence publicly known began to reveal how the domestic life was far less private than initially assumed. The dynamic role of noble women throughout Mughal history had expanded far beyond the walls of the haram. Arguably, the most important woman in the life of an Emperor is his own “visible God”, his mother. Despite the fact that the haram became more institutionalized under Akbar’s regime, his mother broke barriers for female involvement outside of the haram. When Prince Salim had plotted to kill Abu-l Fazl, very few people chose to support him. However, Akbar’s mother, Hamideh Banu, and Akbar’s aunt, Gulbadan Begum, sought forgiveness from the Emperor on behalf of Prince Salim and Akbar forgave Salim. While one may argue that a woman voicing her opinion in family matters is not rare, it is important to note that Hamideh Banu successfully stopped the Emperor from punishing a crime. Hamideh Banu’s presence was noticed by the ‘public’ as well. A jesuit priest, Father Rudolf Aquaviva, noted Hamideh Banu as the emperor’s mother or the “Queen Mother” on multiple occasions. The fact that the Father Rudolf Aquaviva only mentioned one woman, Hamideh Banu, and otherwise mentioned the Emperor and princes indicates that Hamideh Banu held a large presence publicly. It can also be inferred that her presence was much greater than any other female because no other woman was mentioned.
Overall, as the role of the haram changed, the presence of women beyond the walls of the haram did as well. Generally the women who held a public presence also held a high value to the Emperor and were amongst the top of the hierarchy formed within the haram. The establishment of a domestic institution played a large role in who would have a greater influence externally and indicated a growing sense of public involvement by important women. Thus, an in-depth understanding of how domesticity developed with a formal haram explained how the hierarchy in the haram mirrors the power given to some women over others in the eyes of the Emperor and, in turn, his decisions and politics.
Second, greater familiarity with the ‘domestic’ allows for greater knowledge on the changing political role of women during the Mughal era. The most common political role for women was “. . . the forging of political partnerships” through marriage. An Emperor may want to marry the daughter of another leader in hopes to gain territory or an Emperor may agree to marry the daughter of another leader to provide protection. The Rajput queens who married Akbar are a key example of a woman’s political benefit. By “accommodating the entire world through a marital grid”, Akbar was embracing new cultures and creating alliances with new domains. These alliances made Akbar more sensitive to his non-Muslim constituents. Moreover, his multiple marriages caused a debate about the religious legality of his multiple alliances. Unknowingly, every queen who entered the life of Akbar shaped his approach as a leader to his constituents and created some conflict with his religious advisors. Through the nature of many Emperor’s marital alliances, it is inevitable that political interests drive domestic relations. However, these very domestic relations have also changed political approaches and discussions for the Emperor as well.
Alongside the political alliance of initiating marriage, the nature of the marriage itself can also indicate a relationship between the domestic and politics. The traditional, domestic role of a wife is to support and provide for her husband and family in times of need. Following this role, Nur Jahan provided a great deal of support to run an empire, while maintaining her family’s needs, when Jahangir was lost in opium and alcohol addiction. The Emperor had recalled a story of Nur Jahan fulfilling her domestic responsibilities as her “skill and experience was greater than those of the physicians” when understanding his dietary needs or prescribing his medication. While technically fulfilling the responsibilities of a wife and mother, Nur Jahan became directly involved in politics. Through actively hunting, through minting coins with her face and name, and through becoming “increasingly responsible for governing”, Nur Jahan expanded the idea of domestic. She even challenged the idea of domestic by establishing herself as a sovereign leader by publicly revealing her first official order, “an irrefutable sign of sovereignty”, with her own seal. Moreover, some would consider Nur Jahan minting her own coins as a way of establishing herself as equal to Jahangir. She laid the foundation for women to be accepted in the political arena. Daughter of Arjumand and Shah Jahan, Jahanara, was noted to further Nur Jahan’s legacy. Jahanara took over her mother’s role as the “lady of the realm” and “handled imperial duties to enhance “her father’s authority and the Islamic face of the empire”. Having an understanding of the domestic allows one to better understand the drastic change that Nur Jahan introduced to the Mughal Empire. Because individuals can appreciate the shift from public involvement to direct political involvement that Nur Jahan initiated, they can also better understand the change in Mughal history when it comes to women from before Nur Jahan to Jahanara.
Overall, understanding the domestic hierarchical organization and traditional expectations allows for one to better comprehend the history of Mughal India, first, through mirroring the haram hierarchy to women who were valued and influenced the Emperor and, second, through appreciating the shift from the role of a wife and mother focusing on the future of the empire to the role of a leader focusing on the present stability and growth of the empire.
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