Ira Mukhoty is an Indian writer who writes about forgotten heroines of Indian history.
Two of her books—Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History and Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire—are about women who played outstanding roles in history but have not made it into textbooks as their male counterparts have.
In this interview, we discuss these female heroines of the Mughal Empire, from Babur’s mother and grandmother; to Gulbadan Begum, who wrote the biography of Emperor Akbar; to Sultan Raziya, the first and only female Sultan to ascend the throne of the Delhi Sultanate.
An interview with
Ira Mukhoty is an Indian author. She studied natural sciences at University of Cambridge. Her book Heroines: Powerful Indian Women of Myth and History (2017, Aleph Books: ISBN 978-9384067496) tells the tales of mythical heroines including Draupadi and Radha, and “six real women who played extraordinary roles but who weren’t written into textbooks as were their male counterparts”, including Jahanara Begum, Rani Laxmibai and Hazrat Mahal.
Her second book Daughters of the Sun: Empresses, Queens and Begums of the Mughal Empire which was about the disappeared women of the great Mughals, was published by Aleph Book Company on 25 April 2018. In 2020 she published Akbar: The Great Mughal (Aleph Book Company, ISBN 978-9389836042). A reviewer in the Asian Review of Books described it as “an ambitious work crafted with great imagination about how the past and the present intersect”.
In 2021, her debut novel Song of Draupadi was published. The book reimagines Mahabharata through the narration of its women characters, particularly Draupadi.
How did you start researching female heroines of the Mughal Empire? How did it all begin?
My first book was a result of my thoughts. I had two small daughters, and I was just thinking of stories to tell them, and I was reading all the popular books that we have in India. I was looking at female role models and I realized that in our culture, a lot of the women are presented in a particular stereotypical, patriarchal way. They have to fit within the mold of being very good women according to the Indian system, which means getting married, having sons, and sort of propagating the male line. Somehow the end result is always that story. If we think of Sita from Ramayana, that is what is held up to us—that is the perfection of Indian womanhood. So that was troubling me a little bit and I thought there must be other women from history or maybe from the epics that are culturally Indian symbols, but a bit different from the ones we are normally shown.
That’s how I started looking at these women. My idea, when I was speaking to a publisher, was to find Indian women across a large span of time—maybe 2,000 years. The first woman I talked about was in the sixth century BC, the time of the Buddha; she was a courtesan who later became a nun.
I thought if we were to write about different sorts of Indian women and the different ways in which they had been able to live out their passions, fulfill their ambitions, become rulers or do something worthwhile, then maybe we could find a different model for being an Indian woman. Maybe we could show that you do not have to be like Sita—that obeying your husband’s commands and being sexually chaste is not the only way to be a good Indian woman. And that’s really how the idea started and that’s how I found Raziya Sultan, one of the great Indian women that we do not talk about enough considering how extraordinary she was.
Your books deal with women in Indian history in the pre-Mughal and post-Mughal periods. Generally speaking, how were women viewed in these periods? Did anything change with the arrival of Mughals?
I think throughout recorded history, in most societies, women have been constrained within patriarchal systems. From the age of the Buddha, we can note that it was with great reluctance that women were allowed to join the Sangha and become nuns. Even then, there were great strictures on them: they had to submit to male monks even if the monks were younger and less experienced than they, etc. With the rise of Brahminical Hinduism, women’s role was further circumscribed. Married women were respected in society, no doubt, but their role was to bear children so as to honor the memory of their ancestors. They were not educated or encouraged to do anything other than marry and have children. Then by the fifteenth century, Rajput women began to be put into purdah, because men’s honor was heavily dependent on the chastity of their women. And because the Rajput tribes were constantly warring with each other and with invaders from the north-east from the fifteenth century on, elite men encouraged a strict purdah for their women. With the arrival of the Mughals, and especially from the time of Akbar onwards, this system of purdah became de rigueur among elite women, Hindu and Muslim alike, because Akbar married into Rajput houses. These ideas also reinforced Mughal notions about women in purdah.
How are strong women depicted in Indian epics? Sita from Ramayana was a very tragic yet strong character. What other myths surround strong women in pre-Mughal India?
Besides Sita in the Ramayana, the other great Indian woman from the epics is Draupadi, from the Mahabharata. I am very interested in her story, because if we examine the writings on her, it is clear that unlike Sita, Draupadi rails against her fate and voices her anger with the men in her life very powerfully. I think this is important to remember, because female anger is very frightening to the patriarchy, and it is rare to come across such examples in the ancient texts. But Draupadi is acknowledged to be learned (she is called a pandita) and virtuous but also argumentative, dismissive and critical of her husbands, and volatile.
The heroines of the Mughal Empire come from Central Asia, and it was customary—at least in the Chingisid Empire—for women to be active in politics. But the women of the Mughal Empire are not only strong and political but also intelligent and knowledgeable. How did they become so educated?
The Mughals were not only Chingisid, but also Timurid. In fact, it may be said that they claimed their Timurid legacy more visibly than their Chingisid one. Timur himself put a great deal of emphasis on education, on culture, on architecture, and on urban etiquette, since he was adopting some of the Persianate culture. And so we have a legacy of highly educated Timurid women, including the mother (Kutlug Nigar Khanum), grandmother (Aisan Daulat Begum), and sister (Khanzada Begum) of Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty. The Mughals greatly revered these famous matriarchs, who enabled Babur to retain his throne and empire even when he was vulnerable and in great danger. As a result, generations of women would continue to receive a thorough education similar to that given to male Timurid elites.
Could you provide us with more information about these women? What do we know about their personalities, their bravery, and what set them apart?
On Babur’s mother and grandmother, I think he would probably not have managed to do what he did in India without the help of these women. The following story is told about his grandmother. She was married to a nobleman and they were always engaged in battle, and one day her husband lost and she was captured by the enemy. So the enemy captured her and the ruler gave her to one of his noblemen to be his wife. She spent one night waiting and she pretended to be very happy and accepting of all of this—and then when that man entered her room, she and all her maidservants got hold of him and threw him out of the window, and he hit the ground and he died. And the ruler was really shocked; he said, “What have you done?! You have killed my nobleman.” And she very proudly said, “I am already a married woman! You can kill me if you want, but I am already married.” And this ruler was so impressed that he sent her back with an entourage and made sure that she was returned to her husband.
So we see the physical bravery of these women, in addition to the fact that they understood their own value and they put a worth on their own value—they were not just there to be slaves or to be passed from man to man. I find that self-belief to be quite extraordinary.
Khanzad Begum, who was Babur’s sister, had a similar thing happen to her. She was captured by Shaibani Khan Uzbek. Shaibani Khan married her, then divorced her and married her to somebody else. For over 10 years, she lived in the court of Shaibani Khan. Then after 10 years, Shaibani Khan was killed in another battle, and Khanzad Begum was sent back to India, to Babur’s court. And amazingly, after all these years, Babur took her back into his court and he made her Padshah Begum—that is, she was the most senior woman of the Harem and she was the one who controlled the administration and the running of the Harem. And that was a position of power that showed great respect for the woman who she was. It almost came as a shock to learn this because in Indian society we usually view divorced and widowed women as somehow not deserving of the same respect as married women. That is just kind of an Indian/Hindu tradition, unfortunately.
And to see that the Mughals were so pragmatic about the fact that women could be captured in battle, married off against their will, and widowed, but that it was not their fault and there was no blame laid upon them—there was no unnecessary value placed on their sexual chastity—I thought that was a very powerful message to bring to India, as we often put too much emphasis on Indian women’s sexual chastity.
The fact about Gulbadan is also huge—we see that a lot of importance was accorded to women because they were educated. It was expensive to educate people—you had to call tutors, you had to get people in to teach them—and these women were extremely educated. For example, Gulbadan Begum wrote a biography. She was not just educated and literate, but she was able to write. So Akbar asked her to write a biography that could be included in a larger biography of his life by Abu’l-Fazl. She started writing it and she wrote all her memories of Humayun and Emperor Babur. I think it was one of the only cases of a Muslim woman of that century writing a biography from within the Harem. This is a woman who lived in a Harem, who lived a long life; she wrote from within that structure and was able to give us her insights into that life.
It is a unique document and very little use has been made of it. Historians tend not to use it as much as all the male sources of writing. Yet we know that these women were educated and were able to produce works like this. So this was also something that I thought was very important to talk about: that all this effort was made to educate these women.
In Central Asia we learn only a little about Sultan Raziya, the first and only female Sultan to ascend the throne of the Delhi Sultanate, and the only one of Turkic origin. What can you tell us about her?
Raziya ruled during a time of extreme effervescence in Hindustan in North Northern India. It was the time of the Slave dynasty. Her father was Iltutmish, and before him there was Qutb ud-Din Aibak. They came with Muhammad of Ghor from Central Asia. Muhammad of Ghor had brought his Turkish slaves with him, and in time these Turkish slaves rose to become kings. So there was a lot of turmoil at this time. There were always competing factions. After all, these were men who had come from Central Asia. There were other, local men who were opposed them. There were other Freeborn Turks and Persians who opposed them. So it was a time of great uncertainty and it was incredibly difficult to rule for any length of time because you had to balance all these different factions and manage to keep everybody more or less happy.
The first extraordinary thing Raziya Sultan did was to put her claim forward. So when her father, Iltutmish, died—he was on the throne for 25 years and then he died—his second son became the ruler automatically, his eldest son having already died. But he was a very bad ruler and his mother started playing politics in the Harem and all sorts of things. So Raziya appealed to the military: she said, “I would like to be king now that my father has passed away.” And I think that it is extraordinary that she was not limited by her gender. All the biographers who wrote about her in her time said that she was a great ruler, a just ruler—she brought justice, she brought stability and peace to the empire—and that it was just unfortunate that she was not a man.
I think the fact that she came from this nomadic background—from this Turkish slave background—is very important. It was this semi-nomadic background that made Timurid and Mughal women so, in a way, brave about being on an equal playing field with the men. They do not seem to find their gender to be any restriction because when you are a nomad or semi-nomad and you travel from place to place for most of the year, you are on horseback, or you are walking, or you are traveling with the king’s entourage—and under those circumstances, it’s very difficult to keep women completely hidden in purdah.
Even when Babur came to India for the first time, his mother and grandmother were extremely important sources of advice. I think he was 14 years old when his father died, so he was extremely young, very vulnerable, and anything could have happened at that time. But his mother and grandmother gave him military advice and accompanied him physically—went from place to place. So these women had that strength of character that came from their nomadic steppe background. They brought that to Hindustan, and I think that’s why we suddenly find these examples of strong women in the middle of Indian history. I mean, Raziya Sultan is the only Islamic woman to have ruled in India. She is remembered, but with not a great deal of detail. The same is true of Gulbadan—the early Mughal women were completely unknown. When I wrote Daughters of the Sun, I don’t believe there was another book on the Mughal women. We had heard about the men, of course, the men were extraordinary, but the women were completely ignored, especially the early ones like Gulbadan and Hamida Banu Begum. Only the more recent ones were remembered. But now there is more interest. A scholar called Ruby Lal, who is based at an American university, is bringing out a biography of Gulbadan this year. So I am very excited. She has already written a book on Nur Jahan, she has written an academic book on early Mughal women, and now she is releasing a biography of Gulbadan. So I am hoping that now people are more excited to find out about the feminine side of Mughal rule, as well as the men who are so well known.
What are your favorite heroines of that time? Can you share some of the unknown stories?
I am very partial to the story of Jahanara Begum, who was the daughter of Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan. After the death of her mother, she became Padshah Begum (head of the harem) at the age of 17, and from that moment onwards became a very wealthy and influential woman. She left behind a great legacy in architecture—she built a caravanserai, the Chandni chowk, and the hammams of Shahjahanabad (old Delhi)—wrote Sufi texts, considered herself the soul mate of her brother Dara Shukoh, and experienced Sufi trances. She was, in the seventeenth century, arguably the wealthiest and most powerful woman of her time. All the European traders had to negotiate with her if they wanted to carry out trade in India. When her father was imprisoned by Aurangzeb, she gave up all her privileges and followed her father into exile in Agra. And yet today, her legacy is almost forgotten, her buildings having all been destroyed by the British following the uprising of 1857.
Generally speaking, how were women viewed in each of these periods? Did anything change with the arrival of the Mughals?
I think with the arrival of the Mughals, women were given more freedom. They were very used to this sort of nomadic lifestyle, they were used to being part of the political structure, and so we see this in the early women. Later on, especially from the time of Akbar, things started changing because he married a lot of Rajput women. Also, a lot of his courtiers and his main noblemen were Rajput men.
The Rajput system had already introduced the system of Zenana and putting women in purdah because Rajasthan is in the northwest of India, and there were a lot of raids from people outside of India into Hindustan at that time. So the Rajasthan clans felt the need to protect their women, and so they brought in purdah. So this system of keeping women veiled was already there with the Rajput, and then Akbar married these women and it became, in a way, crystallized in the Mughal Empire. It became part of the social structure for elite women to be kept in purdah. It became something to emulate. All the elite clans of India wanted to do the same thing. And they also started increasing the level of women’s seclusion. So unfortunately, even though Akbar himself very much promoted the education of women and had a lot of sympathy for the women that he saw, it became much more normal to keep women in purdah. And then with the coming of the British later on, they brought in their own Victorian values: European women of that era were very much kept at home and did not have much independence at all. Thus, things became very rigid in India in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as these Victorian values became part of our culture. So we lost a lot of the freedom that women maybe enjoyed in earlier centuries.