The veil as a tool to impose “modest behavior” on women during the Mughal period

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In all cultures, women have been regarded as the standard bearers of honor and respect for families. Social structures are built in such a way that they confer on men the full or partial authority of women’s action. In order to articulate this authority, a set of rules and laws has been put in place to enforce “modest” behavior. Various tools have been deployed to ensure this. Religion, which formed the basis of social conduct in ancient and medieval society, was transformed in a way by those in power that it was used as a sanction for oppression. India has a long history of deploying tools such as the practice of Sati, the use of the veil, the denial of rights to education, among others. This article focuses on the veil as a tool to ensure modest conduct by women in late medieval India.

There is a story that tells how Yunus Khan and Aisan Daulat Begum, parents of Babur, were taken captive by Sheikh Jamal-ud-din Khan. As a reward for his capture, the sheikh offered Aisan Daulat Begum to one of his officers. The begum, however, had the officer assassinated. When asked why she had done this, she informed the Sheikh that “I am the wife of Sultan Yunus Khan; Sheikh Jamal gave me to someone else; it is not allowed by Muhammad’s law, so I killed the man, and Sheikh Jamal Khan can also kill me if he wishes. ‘ But the sheikh, recognizing an indomitable adversary, returned her with honor to her husband.

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The important thing to note here is how graciously the Begum was accepted by her family and what an important role she played in the political and personal life of Humayun and Akbar as mother emperor and grandmother emperor. This incident shows the stoic and practical view the Mughals took towards women captured in wars and battles, an overall indication that little attention was paid to sexual “purity” alone.

Gulbadan Begum’s biographer observed various cases when the women organized feasts in the royal gardens and went without a veil to hunt. This changed rapidly as notions of chastity and modesty became associated with the righteousness of women.

The biographer of Gulbadan Begum observed various cases where women organized parties in the royal gardens and left without a veil to hunt. This changed rapidly as notions of chastity and modesty became associated with the righteousness of women.

Chester beatty holi library in mogul court.jpg
Figure 1, Copyright: Trustees of Chester Beatty Library, Dublin

A painting (figure 1) from the Chester Beatty Library shows the celebration of Holi in Akbar’s courtyard. This gives a fairly clear picture of the situation of women’s clothing. Regardless of their general attire, which could be a Persian dress with trousers or a Rajput skirt and blouse, women had their heads covered with either a veil or a turban.

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As the Mughals became more established as rulers of Hindustan, the Persian rituals and way of life became diluted, especially when it came to how women were viewed. It can be observed that the notions of purity and chastity were adopted by Akbar. The Harem has become a formidable fortress and even a glimpse of royal women has become “inaccessible to the sight of man,” as Bernier notes.

An important thing to keep in mind is that only the individuality of women should be hidden. However, the Royal Women, as a faceless collective, lived a life idolized in terms of beauty and “virtue” was well popularized and known. Paintings and court literature only mentioned women with the highest consideration, but more often than not these paintings and literature were only used as tools to show what a “modest” woman was supposed to look like and to be. The question here is therefore not whether women were portrayed in paintings and portraits or not, but how were they portrayed.

Paintings and court literature only mentioned women with the highest consideration, but more often than not these paintings and literature were only used as tools to show what a “modest” woman was supposed to look like and to be. The question here is therefore not whether women were portrayed in paintings and portraits or not, but how were they portrayed.

The Floral Empire: Flowers in the Arts of Mughal Southeast Asia - Plinth et al
The paintings showed women in a very sensual posture: in a garden waiting for the rendezvous with their lovers, often holding the very suggestive narcissus flower. Image source: Plinth et al

The paintings of women in Mughal courts were also not shy with sexual inclinations. We can find the image of Gul Safa begum, a woman from the harem of Shah Jahan, whose chest is relatively open to view. Other paintings also show women in a very sensual posture: in a garden waiting for the rendezvous with their lovers, often holding the very suggestive narcissus flower, looking at themselves in a mirror with admiration in their eyes, reading a book by poetry, holding a cup of wine. With the exception of the extremely rare depiction of a royal mother or the queen herself, the contours of the bodies of young women are revealed to the viewer through expensive transparent clothing. The representation more covered with female bodies begins much later, approximately during the reign of Akbar II. While paintings cannot be the only indicator of the standards of modesty royal women were expected to adhere to, it is interesting that painters had the freedom to observe and paint royal women along their sultry contours.

On the Rajput side, it was another story. It is rare to find portraits of women, royal or not. Painters of the time preferred paintings of women to portraits. Even when portraits of royal women were painted, they were based on inscriptions rather than facial features to denote individuality: the rules of the purdah system and the desire to restrict the individuality of women in the Rajasthan region. were so strict that a 17th century painting of Isarda heroine described as “humara padsah ki 5” or “our King’s no. 5”.

While Abu’l Fazl and Badauni did not discuss a series of questions and accounts, a common narrative in their two accounts of Akbar’s reign is how the women, who were found insufficiently veiled on the markets, were considered obscene. in shaitanpura on the outskirts of Fatehpur Sikri. This shows two things. One, that the agents of the Empire reserved the right to govern the modesty of women. Although one can find various instances where Akbar respected the position of women and tried to get rid of systems like Sati, encouraging monogamy and education for all, it is interesting to note how the dress code for ordinary women was something on which even a “liberal” emperor like Akbar offered no concessions.

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While one can find various instances where Akbar respected the position of women and tried to get rid of systems such as Sati, encouraged monogamy and education for all, it is interesting to note how the dress code of ordinary women was. something that even a “liberal” emperor like Akbar offered no concessions on.

Second, that there was a direct link between the uncovered heads and the perception of their characters, as they were not fined or brought to court but were sent straight off to shaitanpura. Whether there were laws governing the behavior of men in brothels is a separate matter.

While there was an observable difference in the notion of modesty in the early stages of Mughal rule, this soon changed and a more pleasant position to the Rajputs was adopted. Even though the early writers and rulers despise and mock Rajput traditions such as Jauhar, later they felt a sense of reverence towards him.

Thus, the Emperor assumed the role of protector of the modesty of women. In his family, Akbar exercised more strict supervision of the harem; Abu’l Fazl was ordered not to mention Harka Bai’s real name to Ain I Akbari and that she was not to be called Maryam Uz Zamani. For ordinary women, he also made head covering practically compulsory. Thus, the veil fulfilled, as it still does, two functions: on the one hand, it became a tool for the depersonalization of a woman’s individual identity and on the other hand, it “protected” her from the male gaze. It is then easy to observe the flow of the rules of modesty. One wonders what impact the sending to Shaitanpura would have on the woman and her family.

As notions of modesty spread from the Rajput Rajas to the Mughal emperors, what happened to ordinary women? One aspect of this question has been dealt with previously. The other aspect lies in the hypothesis proposed by historian Rekha Mishra that the common people tried to imitate the Mughal rulers. It is thus proposed that the women of the “upper class family of the two communities” adopt the practice of purdah “because of their situation” because “naturally, in a foreign country like India, there was greater pressure on her “. That said, it is essential to note that strict purdah practices had been observed and applied by the Mughals after the percolation of Rajput traditions and that the main accounts which are used to justify the aforementioned proposition all date from the post Akbar era.

However, if the imitation proposal were to have any substance, then it would be easy to observe the flow of the rules of modesty: the notion of controlling the individuality of women was adopted by the Rajputs which then infiltrated in Mughal traditions. These strict rules regarding the invisibility of women were imitated by common people.


Vaani is passionate about history, pursuing graduation in the subject from the University of Delhi. She is passionate about the feminist movement and enjoys reading and writing about it. Through her writings, she wishes to make feminism more understandable and acceptable to all. You can find her on Instagram.

Featured Image Source: Mojarto

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