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What a Mughal Princess Can Teach Us About Feminist History

9 minute read
Lal is an award-winning historian of India and professor of South Asian history at Emory University whose works restore erased female figures and their histories. Her latest book is Vagabond Princess: The Great Adventures of Gulbadan

In 2001, four rigorous graduate years into honing my scholarship as a feminist historian of Mughal India, I stepped in to help build the Program for the Study of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Johns Hopkins. On my first day, as I waited to grab a coffee in Gilman Hall, a prominent male historian congratulated me and then asked a question. “Tell me: why do we still need this program? I included a chapter on women in my recent book.” The assumption that “women” might be separated out from the story of time, place, and wider landscape of desires and summarily relegated to a single chapter is exactly why this program was needed. It’s also exactly why feminist history is needed, too.

At its core, feminist history is embedded in the idea of excavating otherwise expunged experiences, dissociated from our worldview, of non-dominant people such as women, queer people, enslaved persons. The trade of the feminist historian is the practice of looking where we habitually don't look—or have been told we can’t look. A feminist scholar knows in their gut that digging up erased subjects, cardinal in the fabric of history, can turn history upside down. It is a forceful intellectual and political praxis that will continue to have power always because the universe is manifold and so are its inhabitants, past and present.

The power of feminist history rests in precisely politicizing the richness of multiple ways of being. Let’s think back, for instance, to another era, to 1587, nearly seven decades before the Taj Mahal was built. Behind the harem walls of the sprawling Mughal fort-palace in Lahore, 64-year-old Princess Gulbadan Begum was intensely writing a commissioned work.

Akbar, the third Mughal emperor, a man with a keen sense of his own importance, had just then ordered the first written history of his empire. In this venture, he requested the help of many men and an unusual author: a woman, his aunt, the Princess. Bright-eyed Gulbadan was an esteemed memory holder, a skilled prose writer at a time when most royal women wrote only poetry, and Akbar trusted her. She had lived in the peripatetic royal household through decades of travels and political pursuits. A close witness of her dynasty as it established itself into a great power in India, Gulbadan would be vital in recounting and recording the celebrated achievements of Mughal men.

The book that was produced was unparalleled in form and content. A Mughal Jane Austen, she broke from the traditional male-dominated focus and instead, narrated jaw-dropping events of her own life, and of the women she had come to know. The result is the only account of abundant female Mughal life from that time: filled with quotidian, playful, daring, and eccentric occurrences. I can only assume that Akbar was not pleased with the result. He wanted a document of grand male undertakings. Now housed in the British Library in London, the lone surviving copy of Gulbadan’s memoir cuts off abruptly mid-sentence on folio 83.

Nearly 300 years later, in 1899, a deaf, 57-year-old Victorian woman, Annette Beveridge, was hard at work on a vast property in Surrey, 39 miles outside London. What preoccupied this sharp-nosed woman was not the pastoral views of her land, but her English translation of Gulbadan’s memoir. In January 1901, as Queen Victoria was dying, Beveridge made a pioneering contribution by completing her translation from the Persian and publishing Gulbadan’s account.

You’d think scholars would have been enthralled by this singular work—the only remaining piece of prose by a woman of her era. But no. Gulbadan's stellar book was sidelined by modern historians, who shared Beveridge’s publisher’s belief, conveyed in a letter accepting the publication, that it was “A little history. . . it is but a little thing.”

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I first encountered the fabulous Gulbadan Begum in 1996 via Beveridge’s English translation. A year later, I began graduate school in Oxford, Soon, I was obsessed with Gulbadan’s glorious Persian memoir and spent a large chunk of my research at the British Library where it is housed. The pages of the Princess’s work animate the gritty and fabulous adventures of being alive, subversive women, brilliant eunuchs, cross-dressers, enslaved people and the precarious lives of children. Thanks to her memoir, I was inspired to write the first feminist history of the Mughals, which I filled with dynamic women and ordinary harem denizens as key players, along with their richly granular actions, tastes, and passions. As I began my research for that book, a senior male colleague asked me: “How are you going to write this history? There are no sources for it.”

All feminist scholars have heard this question or some version of it.

My sources are the ones that historians had made irrelevant, such as the Princess’s memoir. I also went to the ones they considered legitimate and official, but with a different practice. I asked, what is “fact” and who gets to decide what counts as evidence, and therefore as history? How does a source become “official,” “classic,” “little”? Scholars themselves are complicit in the way facts, and therefore history, is designed and preserved. My first book garnered praise for disturbing this so-called “lack” of records. But my sources continued to be questioned.

The unique and unprecedented work of Gulbadan, a chronicler of untold histories of movement and migration, could have contributed unusual feminine perspectives to decades of scholarship. Since 1902, even though it had been in the public domain in the form of Beveridge’s English translation, nonetheless, it was ignored. Like many historians, Mughal scholars deemed man as the key human subject. The big man elicits histories: emperors, bureaucrats, warriors, sages. State-sanctioned records, statistics, taxation, armies, and conquests are the “fact” and “objective” ground and the source for exhaustive answers. The result is everything you’d expect: dry, distanced, women-less histories. To purveyors of such histories, historical materials that are intimate, female-and-small-moments-oriented, or anything that mentioned feelings—found in poetry or non-state art or women’s works—cannot be the legitimate source for history. Feelings do not prove a point.

For decades, Gulbadan’s rich memoir lay tucked in footnotes or occasional essays. Written in conversational style, her book originated from shared stories. Events do not always appear sequentially. She would reflect on older times as she wrote about new ones. At once magnificent and murky, it is suffused with emotion as Gulbadan recounts stories of children killed in war, unfulfilled desires, anticipation in love and marriage, the simultaneity of war and peace. Marriage, desire, and sovereignty illustrate not just a female experience, but a collective, universal experience.

The persistent male disbelief on woman-oriented sources reappeared as I plumbed the history of Nur Jahan, the only Mughal woman ruler, whose work was soaked into abundant documents. As I worked on her biography, a distinguished scholar, again male, asked: “But doesn’t Nur Jahan appear only in representation?” He was puzzled that Nur didn’t order or write her own story. She did not write a memoir, though much can be said about the complexities of memory. But he was ignoring that there are official sources: imperial orders with her signature and stamp. She is the only woman in whose name Mughal coins were struck. She commissioned unprecedented gardens, caravansaries, as well as the mausoleum of her parents that inspired the Taj. Her second husband, the fourth Mughal Emperor, brought her to life in quite unprecedented ways in his very personal — and very public—memoir. Courtiers and diplomats wrote zealously about her. The court painter laureate produced an oeuvre-bending portrait of the Empress. She appears even in those places where we might not expect to find her. All I had to do was to bother to look, which entailed looking around the heavy figures of men.

“There are no sources” and “Isn’t this representation?” are underpinned by a fear of asking questions and a fundamental male disbelief in the veracity of feminine encounters and thinking. This is true not only of Mughal history, my area of study, but of much of women and queer-oriented histories across the world.

Beveridge had looked for another, better-preserved edition of Gulbadan’s work, but she never found it. Instead, she used what she called a “defective” manuscript. Gulbadan had detailed the textures of the lives of an entire group of people who historians knew almost nothing about, and it mysteriously broke off mid-sentence, but somehow this document never intrigued specialists. A few years before writing her memoir, Gulbadan had returned from an unheard-of adventure of her own — a four-year pilgrimage to Arabia, in which she led a group of harem women. Their travels home had included a dramatic shipwreck near Aden.

Ultimately, the Princess and her party had caused such a sensation in Arabia that Sultan Murad III of Turkey, custodian of the Holy Muslim cities, ultimately evicted them. Is the remainder of Gulbadan’s work lost to history, or might it be that the pages of her work were redacted by officials who did not want her to have her say?

Books and chronicles from centuries past are precious gifts. Holding onto their words, we can delve into the beauty and torments of human life. With such rare possessions, we come close to another time; watch her creation, her uncertainties, her discoveries, the stuff of history. But uncovering feminist history is a slow process, and too often, women historians are the only ones willing to do that work. Beveridge taught herself Persian to reveal Gulbadan’s history. I have spent years combining hundreds of documents to assemble the adventures of daring and imaginative Mughal women.

Who decides what is history? Whose interpretation accords a book an elevated status or discards it as marginal? The politics of asking questions is feminist work, and it is vital. This is the slow work of feminist history—a demanding work that is done, above all else, by looking where others don’t look.

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