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Mughals and Backwardness of Indian Women

By Adv. Irfan Engineer

26 June, 2007

The Presidential nominee of the UPA made an unnecessary statement linking the ghunghat of Hindu women to the Mughal rule. School text-books in South Asia are full of such unverified "wisdom". The authors of the text-books are paid low remuneration which does not attract accomplished academicians to write the school text-books. The text-books reflect the beliefs and perceptions of their urban upper caste male authors, which may not always be factual. In fact text books in Rajasthan even glorify fascism as more efficient than democracy and therefore preferable in many respects. Even after passing school, the impressionistic information imparted to school students through the text books persist if not critically examined by them in pursuit of higher academics or for better understanding. However, presidential nominee should be careful while making such unverified statements. Such statements of a presidential nominee may be misused by communal elements.

Renowned Historian Harbans Mukhiya opines that the practice of ghunghat pre-dated the Mughal rule. Purdah worn by Muslim women in the South Asian sub-continent is not seen in any other country or region. Covering head by wearing a head scarf or chador is more in practice in other countries. In fact, the purdah or burqa worn by Indian Muslim women is modified and adopted form of ghunghat worn by Hindu women. When I was in Central Asian Country Kyrghystan, the region from where the Mughal Rulers have originated, I didn't find a single women wearing anything like purdah or a veil. Women were dressed more like their European counter parts. If the ghunghat of the Hindu women were under Mughal influence, then Muslim women outside South Asia also should have been burqa or veil. However, this is not the case. Whether burqa influenced ghunghat or the other way round is anybody guess.

The argument that ghunghat was a protective mechanism of Hindu women against the atrocities of Mughals will also not take us very far. The power wielding male aggressor out to satisfy his lust seldom respects burqas or ghunghats. Power wielding elite exploit helpless victims to satisfy their lust without any respect for dress code of any woman. The argument that ghunghat protected women from sexual lust of power wielding men will logically lead us to the conclusion that victims of rape are themselves responsible for the crime and invited the sexual assault as they were not properly clad. How do you explain rapes in police custody and sexual harassment at workplace in that case? Can one imagine a dalit landless labourer sexually assaulting an upper caste woman from a land owning family in a village however she may be dressed? Not because dalit males respect the individuality of the fairer sex but they know that the consequence of such a misadventure. What matters is, who is vested with power and social sanctions and not how one is dressed.

The ideology of right wing Hindu communal elements popularizes the belief that the only oppressors of Hindu women in medieval period were the Mughal aggressors. Otherwise everything else was hunky dory for the Hindu women. No doubt all monarchs have oppressed peasants, landless, lower castes and women and the Mughal Emperors were no different in that respect. Mughal rulers, as all monarchs head an oppressive social structure unprivileging the peasants, artisans and women vesting social sanctions and authority in the hands of local rulers or rajas, landlords, upper castes and male members of the society. Sexual assault on women was just one of the way women were exploited, and sexual exploiters of women were privileged sections of male, irrespective of their religion. The Mughal rule was not without the consent of Hindu rulers and elites of the time, which included the upper caste males, landlords and the priests who gave social sanction to unprivileging women in general and lower caste women in particular, making them vulnerable to sexual assaults. The right wing Hindu ideology absolves the responsibility of the Hindu male elite, the landlords and the upper caste males in oppression of women.

Renowned Historian Uma Chakravorty has studied the oppression of women in ancient India by examining records, documents and analyzing ancient stories. Oppression of Hindu widows and segregation of upper caste women in ancient India has been well documented now. In fact women listening to recitation from religious scriptures were to be punished by putting molten lead in her ears. Tulsidas equated women with objects like drums and animals which deserve to be beaten. Feudal system always considered wives as dasi (slave) and even today many women consider their husbands as their devta (face of god). Rajputs in Rajasthan defend sati with pride as their ancient tradition. There is therefore a basic fallacy in the argument that backward traditions in one community are due to influence of other community. Women across religion, caste or ethnic origins have been oppressed. Comparing or even blaming another community for the plight of women belonging to one's community will only communalize the cause of women's emancipation.

Islam was one of the first religions which recognized the independent existence of women. The Holy Quran does not address only men it addresses both the genders. Women are entitled to inherit half the share inherited by her brother. Muslim women can also enjoy her property and even her husband may not interfere with her right. The holy Quran also calls upon the Muslim men and women to learn and acquire knowledge and wisdom and to go to China if need be to acquire knowledge. In fact there are many Hadith (Prophet's pronouncement) which prove that women would not only participate in religious and social affairs but would also argue with the Holy Prophet. However, as Islam spread far and wide outside Arab territories, feudal traditions and practices got better of Islam and the feudal elites justified the old feudal practices as Islamic. Muslim women are amongst the most oppressed and subjugated today. Oppressive traditions are product of certain socio-economic system. The feudal values and traditions of the past still continue and women continue to be oppressed irrespective of the religion they follow. Invoking name of god grants far more legitimacy to patriarchy.

Communalizing the cause of women's empowerment will do a great disservice to the cause of empowerment of women. It will segregate and divide the women along community lines pitting them against each other. The need of the hour is that women of all communities, castes, and nations together should lead a war on patriarchy and be assisted in their efforts by men who are for gender justice. Whether women wear burqa or ghunghat by itself is not an issue. What is important is that no woman should be dictated any dress code. Jack Straw's lecture to Muslim women in UK that their veil was an obstruction to good communal relations Christians and Muslims was equally impolite. What is important is that women, irrespective of the dress they chose to wear, including ghunghat or burqa should enjoy all the rights enjoyed by men equally and without any discrimination and that it is their constitutional right to be independent and individual, and the same should be respected by one and all.

Irfan Engineer
Institute of Peace Studies and Conflict Resolution,
603, Silver Star, Next to Omkar Building, Near Railway Bridge, Prbhat Colony, Mumbai, India. PIN: 400055.




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