Dr Masuma Hasan: Akbar and the Women in his Empire

As a child Akbar (1542-1605) was deprived of the love and care of his parents and was brought up by nurses in the not too friendly homes of his uncles in Kandahar and Kabul. His father, Humayun, the favourite son of the Mughal emperor Babar and his mother, Hamida Banu Begum, abandoned him and his little sister Bakhshi Banu to his uncles, when he was only one year old. They ran from pillar to post in pitiful conditions as Humayun tried to win back the kingdom he had lost to Sher Shah Suri (1486-1545) and to his own brothers. Humayun captured and lost Kabul more than once and Akbar remained a hostage and prisoner with his uncle, Kamran Mirza, until his father decisively won Kabul in 1550. He had had a brief re-union with his parents in 1545.

Akbar’s parentless childhood should have left many scars on his personality. But he grew up to become a fierce and fearless warrior, a passionate hunter, a trainer of elephants and cheetahs, a fine polo player, a remarkable administrator, a conciliator of different interests, a lover of books and music, a man of many talents and, above all, a forgiver. He could get towers built with the skulls of those he vanquished and get rebels trampled under the feet of elephants but he often reinstated those who rebelled against him if they sought forgiveness.

If he ran through four tutors during his childhood, it is difficult to believe, as is often claimed, that Akbar was utterly unlettered. He had a library of 24,000 books in Arabic, Persian, Sanskrit, Hindustani, Latin and Greek and was read to every evening. Although he tilted towards orthodox Sunni Islam at the beginning of his reign, he eventually became famous for his religious tolerance and fusion of ideas. His teacher and protector, Bairam Khan, his celebrated court historian Abul Fazl, were Shias and five of the Nine Jewels at his court were Hindus.

Akbar was only 13 years old when he became emperor of India and many of his earlier conquests took place when he was very young ― in his twenties. He always led from the front. One wonders from where an “untutored” ruler got his wisdom and intellectual curiosity. He was expanding his empire in a land which was as unfamiliar to him as it had been to his elders. He learnt as he conquered and ruled.

How would a woman activist, today, view Akbar’s attitude to women and his social reforms which touched the lives of women in his empire, more then four centuries after he passed away? Far more than today, women then lived in a man’s world. In peace time they existed within the constraints of religious dogma and ritual, accentuated among the Hindus by the rigid caste system. In war, if they were not slaughtered ― and sometimes they were ― they became the bounty of the victor or were taken into slavery.

First, there was Akbar’s harem, said to comprise hundreds of women, some taken in war like gold, silver, jewels, elephants and horses. Others were members of the harems of the men whom Akbar had defeated, like that of poor Baz Bahadur of Malwa, whose beloved Roopmati was a celebrated beauty who poisoned herself when Malwa fell. Still others were women he had admitted to his harem in order to cement political alliances, particularly with the Rajput rulers or were sent to wait on him by the princes ― Hindu and Muslim ― who had made peace with him. Above all, there were his mother and his royal wives.

Akbar loved his mother, Hamida Begum, respected her and sought her advice on important mattes. After all, she was only 15 years older than him, having been married to Humayun when she was only 14 years old. His respect for her can be gauged from the fact that, on occasion, he helped to carry her palanquin himself. When she was dying, he abandoned his journey towards his rebellious and incorrigible son, Salim (later Jahangir) to be at her bedside. After she died, in 1604, Akbar was devastated and stricken with grief. “He shaved his hair, moustaches … and cast off his turban and donned the garb of woe”. (Muhibb Ali, quoted in Francis Robinson (2007) The Mughal Emperors and the Islamic Dynasties of India, Iran and Central Asia, 1206-1925.) Also, he held his aunt, Gulbadan Begum in high esteem, sending her on a well-endowed pilgrimage to Mecca and holding a celebration, when she returned after seven years, in which he participated. He admired her learning and ability and encouraged her to write an account of his father, Humayun’s life and reign, which resulted in that remarkable book, Humayun Nama.

The Mughal princesses were very accomplished women. In 1551, when they were both only nine years old, Akbar was married off to his first cousin, Ruqaiya Sultan Begum (1542-1626). Perhaps she was the only woman he truly loved. Although she was childless, Akbar always showed her regard and affection and she played an important role at his court. His second royal wife was Salima Sultan Begum (1539-1612), another first cousin, whom he married in 1561. She was the widow of Bairam Khan and was three years older than him. She maintained her own private library and was a poet who wrote under the pseudonym of Makhfi (the hidden one). Akbar valued her intelligence and wisdom and consulted her on matters of state.

And then there was Heer Kunwari, or Harka Bai (1542-1623) the eldest daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amer (Jaipur) whom Akbar married in 1562 and who has been glorified wrongly as Jodhabai and as the great love of Akbar’s life. She is also said to have been an accomplished woman. Certainly, she was a clever businesswoman, who engaged actively in trade in silk and spices, owned ships which carried pilgrims to Mecca and amassed a vast personal fortune. The Rajput princesses and other women who were admitted to Akbar’s harem were allowed to retain their religious faith and practice, though some of them converted to Islam. He is credited to have married seven times.

Akbar seems not to have had reservations about a woman holding public office. After he got rid of Bairam Khan, he was advised at court by his wet nurse, Maham Anga. When he defeated his half brother, Mirza Muhammad Hakim, who rebelled against him several times, he left Kabul in the hands of his half sister, Bakht-un-Nisa Begum, in 1581. Though he pardoned his half brother, she remained official governor of Kabul until the death of Mirza Hakim.

What about the ordinary women in Akbar’s empire? First, all communities in his empire, including women, were effected by his economic and social policies. He took landmark decisions to withdraw the tax levied on pilgrimages made by non-Muslims which used to yield millions in earning to the empire and later also abolished jizya, the tax levied on non-Muslims by almost all Muslim rulers.

As women activists, today, we are still fighting to ameliorate the plight of widows in our societies for which we have established national and international networks. Widows are particularly cruelly marginalized in Hindu communities in India and Nepal. Vrindavan, in India, the legendary birthplace of Lord Krishna, is called the city of destitute widows, women who have been abandoned by their families and sing bhajans or beg in the streets in order to survive. Aurat Foundation’s partner in India, Guild for Service, has given them help and succour. In other South Asias countries, also, which used to form part of Akbar’s empire, widows are mistreated and deprived of their inheritance. Akbar encouraged widows to remarry and many of his own wives were widows. Similarly, he raised the age of marriage. He and Ruqaiya Sultan Begum had been mere children when they were married off by their parents but his later wives were older women.

thThe Mughals must have been astonished at customs and rites like Sati, at which Hindu widows were compelled to burn themselves on their husbands’ funeral pyres. Equally astonishing may have been the Rajput custom of Jauhar whereby women burnt themselves to death rather than be captured, dishonoured or enslaved after a defeat in war. Akbar was too closely allied to the Rajput rulers, the most diehard enforcers and defenders of Sati, to abolish that custom altogether.

However, on the other hand, it has been argued – see G.B. Malleson (2007 reprint) Akbar and the Rise of the Mughal Empire, p. 162 – that:

Such deeds were abhorrent to the merciful mind of Akbar, and he discouraged the practice by all means in his power. 

But he issued an order that if any woman was unwilling to perform Sati, the sacrifice was not to be permitted. He also tried to enforce this decree. For example, when he heard that after a favourite Rajput, Jai Mall, had died and his wife was not willing to mount her husband’s funeral pyre but was being pressurised to do so by her own son, Udai Singh, he sent a force to stop the immolation and saved the woman’s life. The British eventually banned the rite but reports of Sati still trickle out from some parts of India.

Considering that Akbar got married so many times and had so many concubines, he had few children. Later in life, he recommended monogamy and is reported to have said (quoted in Robinson, The Mughal Emperors, p. 133):

To seek more than one wife is to work one’s own undoing. In case she were barren, or bore no son, it might then be expedient. 

Women all over the world face discrimination and violence at many levels, even in developed countries. Women’s movements and civil rights institutions have gathered statistics of violence against women which are frightening and frightful. Barbaric customs like “cleansing” of widows in some African countries, female genital mutilation in Africa, Egypt and some Arab countries are not known to have existed in Akbar’s realm but we have to contend with them today. His concern for women was surely not a great priority but it is not a sincere concern in many countries even today. The policies which favoured women, directly or indirectly, could not have touched the lives of too many women in his vast and far-flung empire. But they reflected his compassion.

The Indian feature film, Jodha Akbar, and the Indian drama serial, Jodha Akbar, have done a great disservice to history by portraying Akbar’s Rajput wife, Heer Kunwari, daughter of Raja Bharmal of Amer as Jodha, which she was not. Unfortunately, India’s film-loving population will take this as a historically correct version of those times and events. In spite of this tremendous historical aberration, however, for me, Rajat Tokas, you will forever be the Emperor Akbar.

*Dr Masuma Hasan is the Chairman of The Pakistan Institute of International Affairs and President of the Board of Governors of Aurat Foundation – email, pakistanhorizon@hotmail.co.uk


Filed under Aurat Foundation, Discussion, India, Mughal Empire, Pakistan Horizon, Politics, Widows, Women

2 responses to “Dr Masuma Hasan: Akbar and the Women in his Empire

  1. Pingback: Dr Masuma Hasan: Qaimkhani Family | Pakistan Horizon

  2. Pingback: Lagi Baccan Mughal | geoabbasid's Blog

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