Nicholas Abbott

Making and Negotiating an Inter-Polity Legal Forum in Early Colonial India: Female Was̤īqadārs in the Court of the Awadh Residency, c. 1840–50

One of the most distinctive facets of the tumultuous alliance between the British East India Company and the North Indian polity of Awadh (c. 1722–1856) was the legal-cum-financial institution of the was̤īqa. Comprising permanent investments in Company securities, was̤īqasprovided hereditary, interest-funded pensions—as well as certain guarantees of British protection and legal immunities from the Awadh ‘state’—to designated recipients and their heirs.

As historians have noted, by placing pensions and protections under the control of the Company and its local resident, and by funneling massive sums into British coffers through often coercive means, the was̤īqa spurred the expansion of indirect rule in North India and provided critical support to the Company’s public finances. However, as this paper also contends, the was̤īqa was not simply a product of unilateral British pressure. Rather, it was fundamentally shaped by gendered fissures within the Awadh ruling dynasty, and by the aims and aspirations of female elites as they maneuvered within a narrow, ‘inter-polity’ legal space between the courts (darbārs) of Awadh’s male rulers and the Company’s resident in the capital of Lucknow.

Focusing on an inheritance dispute between female pensioners (was̤īqadārs) and the king of Awadh in 1844, the paper uses Persian, Urdu, and English wills and petitions to chart how women in Awadh envisioned and engaged a burgeoning legal order oriented around the court of the British resident in Awadh. In so doing, it illustrates not only how female elites were integral to the creation of colonial institutions like the was̤īqa. It also demonstrates how they repurposed precolonial concepts and strategies for the colonial court, thus helping to transform what has recently been termed ‘Mughal law’ Anglo-Islamic jurisprudence.

Raziuddin Aquil

Women’s Roles in Mughal Imperial Household (Gulbadan Begam’s account)

This paper offers details and inferences drawn from a fresh reading of Gulbadan Begum’s Humayun-nama, with a focus on women’s roles in the Mughal household mainly during the volatile period of the Mughal-Afghan encounter. As Babur’s daughter, Humayun’s sister, and Akbar’s aunt, Gulbadan Begam knew Mughal political practices inside out for the major part of the sixteenth century – from early struggles of empire-building to establishing the Mughal system on a firm footing in the large parts of the Indian subcontinent. Her book was primarily written as a source text for the early period to be covered in the Mughal official account, Abu’l Fazl’s Akbarnama, which was commissioned in late 1580s. Gulbadan Begam’s work presenting a gendered perspective on Mughal tents, camps, courts and forts in the early sixteenth century has been valued in modern studies. A renewed discussion focusing on her narrative, presenting a close and critical account of the workings of the Mughal family and the place of women in it, whether private or public, will be a fruitful exercise. The paper will especially examine Gulbadan Begam’s account of the presence of women during Humayun’s troubles with his brothers during the period of his struggle with Sher Khan/Sher Shah: Bengal, Chausa, Kanauj, and after. It will look at Hindal’s rebellion, Humayun’s request to Gulbadan Begam and her mother to bring Hindal to his presence. It will also discuss Kamran’s suspicions, rebellion and chastisement. Gulbadan Begam takes different positions in the troubles within the extended family, depending on the gravity of offence and the nature of relationship such as full brother or half. Gulbadan also provides interesting details regarding Humayun’s marriage with the reluctant Hamida Banu Begam, whose family descended from the Iranian Sufi scholar and reformer Ahmad-i Jam. This was presented as part of a prophecy of the birth of Akbar, descending from his mother and paternal grandmother who belonged to the high saintly lineage of Ahmad-i Jam. The Safavid Shah Tahmasp’s sister’s fine rapport with the fugitive Mughal family adds another dimension to the saga of exile. Refashioned and recharged, Humayun was able to undertake the victorious and sometimes brutal march to reconquer the Mughal kingdom of Hindustan. This involved pacifying anxieties and politics within the extended Mughal harem also.

Blain Auer

Hindu-Muslim Political Marriage Alliances and the Formation of the First Indo-Islamic Empire

In the late medieval period, marriage alliances were generally created within the royal family household to protect the privileges of the ruling dynasty, reinforce political relationships, and maintain the social hierarchy. A major change in political marriage alliances occurred at the end of the 13th and beginning of the 14th centuries under the reign of the Delhi sultan ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Khaljī (r. 1296 – 1316). He was the first Muslim ruler of India to establish marriage alliances with Hindu rulers of vassal courts. He first achieved this when he married the daughter of the Seuna king Rāmadeva (r. c. 1271 -1309), following his conquest of Devagiri. Later he married his son Khizr Khān to Deval Rānī, the daughter of Karṇadeva (r. c. 1296 – 1304), the last Vaghela ruler of Gujarat, a marriage that was celebrated in Amīr Khusraw’s poem ʿAshīqa (The Beloved). These marriages radically influenced the course of history during the reign of ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Khaljī. While later marriage alliances between Mughal and Rajput courts are well-known, the transformative alliances of the Khaljī period are much less studied. This talk considered the impact of Hindu-Muslim marriage alliances under ʿAlāʾ al-Dīn Khaljī and their consequences for Indian history.

Nadia Cattoni

Imagining the Court of Amber: Space as Women’s Networks

In the second half of the seventeenth century, at the court of Amber, the courtesan Mohan Rai wrote a panegyric to her king, Ram Singh I (r. 1667-1689). The text, a poetic work written in Brajbhasha, is titled Krīḍāvinoda, “The pleasures in sports”. It is a collection of short poems in the style of a praśasti, describing various moments in Ram Singh’s life, from Holi festivities to the celebration of his birthday. Mohan Rai’s descriptions are framed within a discourse of legitimising sovereignty by merging Ram Singh’s reign into Krishna’s mythological realm. In addition to poems about the king himself, the work also includes poems about women living at the court: a new bride, a co-wife, a woman in love, the queen, etc. They are described in specific emotional states. This paper argues that the poems about palace women are not only illustrations of courtly poetry. They are also a way of giving a voice to the women of the Amber court. Placed alongside descriptions of the king’s life, they show women’s involvement in and perceptions of court events. Taking advantage of the codified poetry of her time, Mohan Rai invites her audience to enter women’s lives, emotions, and experiences. By revealing networks of women, by showing relationships building among women of the court and by including herself in her writing, she offers alternative imaginaries and definitions of the space of the court.

Mehreen Cheeda-Razvi

Re-claiming Imperial Geographies of Power: Nur Jahan Begum’s Place in the Mughal Court

Nur Jahan Begum, the last and favourite wife of the Mughal emperor, Jahangir (r.1605-27), was granted rights and powers by him that no Mughal queen previously had, including some that overtly proclaimed her as co-sovereign. In Nur Jahan we therefore see, for the first time, a Mughal consort acting as a co-ruler. In doing so, she reformulated what passed as sovereign authority, decentring what we commonly understand as the concentration of power in the person of the emperor.

This singularity of her position at the Mughal court, however, is lost in the historical record. Character assassinations carried out in contemporary histories memorialised Nur Jahan as a cunning, manipulative woman who rendered Jahangir a puppet-ruler while she took control of the reins of government. The contemporary writers who claimed this, however, were writing for patrons who disliked, even hated, Nur Jahan, and so went out of their way to vilify her.

This paper will re-assert Nur Jahan’s position of authority in Jahangir’s court through what might seem a surprising medium: architectural space. In the Mughal context, royal patronage of built space was rife with symbolic meaning, and like Jahangir, Nur Jahan commissioned buildings to project her own political power. I will argue that she also intended to project the power of the state, and, by doing so, further legitimised her role as co-sovereign. By mimicking Jahangir’s imperial mode of architectural style and decoration, including symbolically visualising aspects of Mughal imperial ideology on her buildings, Nur Jahan equated her architecture with Jahangir’s. The discussion will centre on two of Nur Jahan’s architectural commissions, the Sarai Nur Mahal and Jahangir’s mausoleum. 

Furthermore, in building Jahangir’s tomb, Nur Jahan equated herself with previous Mughal emperors who patronised the imperial mausoleums of their predecessors, for her construction of a Mughal emperor’s tomb remains a unique undertaking. An act of architectural patronage laden with political, dynastic, and imperial symbolism, it certainly was intended to convey her power and longevity.

Rohit De

Sisters-in-law: Legal Biography and the Women’s Question in Postcolonial Courts

What can lawyer’s lives tell us about the how legal innovations, procedures, ideas, and cultures evolved across South and Southeast-Asia? Moving away from legislative or jurisprudence centered studies of legal change, this paper will focus on the lawyerly lives of women civil liberty lawyers in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Malaysia tracing how their legal practice and politics evolved from the moment of decolonization through to the early 1990s, with the emergence of international human rights organizations. Histories of the legal profession in Asia have shown how native elites emerged as interpreters between colonial state and society and were well positioned to take leadership after independence. These narratives often leave out new demographics within the legal profession, such as women lawyers, who remained a minority with limited access to postcolonial power. The emergence of women civil liberty lawyers created forms of female public citizenship and allowed the use of new legal vocabularies to make and shape claims. Following the careers, a generation of women litigators and jurists,  as they navigated colonial emergencies, postcolonial authoritarianism, majoritarian ethnic politics and patriarchies, the maps how a common mode of insurgent lawyering emerged that centred gender inequality as a question that was central to the courts. 

Heena Heena

Female Servants and the Court of Awadh: Sustenance and Hierarchies in Pre-Colonial North India (1720s-1850s)

This research article delves into the historical intricacies of female servitude system at the Court of Awadh during the pre-colonial period in North India, spanning from the 1720s to the 1850s. It aims to shed light on the lives and experiences of female servants within the socio-political structure of Awadh, offering insights into their sustenance and complexities of hierarchies which they navigated. Drawing upon an extensive analysis of Urdu, Persian and English archival documents, including historical records, court chronicles, travellers’ accounts, and official correspondence, the article explores diverse functions that female servants performed within the court’s complex service hierarchy. These roles encompassed tasks as diverse as caregiving and safeguarding duties to more prominent positions that afforded them direct access to the royal family and the power structures of the court. Through careful examination of social norms, economic conditions, and political frameworks, it explores how the court’s structure both facilitated and constrained the agency of female servants, and how their experiences varied depending on factors such as class, caste, and the preferences of the rulers they served. The article contributes to the historiography of servitude, labor, and gender in South Asia. It shifts our focus away from Awadh’s royal women (begums) and courtesans (tawā’if) and brings into light the history of women servants who worked in domestic and non-domestic spaces but remained on the margins of scholarship.

Melina Gravier

Challenging Authority: Islamic Law and the Court in Women’s Periodicals

This paper examines how Urdu women’s periodicals might be interpreted as an archive for accessing ordinary women’s engagement with Islamic law. With the expansion of the modern state, print technologies participated in rising an Islamic legal consciousness in people’s daily lives (Lhost 2022).  In the context of colonial legal pluralism, discussions over the practice of khul’ led to the enactment of the Dissolution of Muslim Marriages Act in 1939, thus placing the Islamic Law as the safeguard of Muslim women’s rights (De 2009). Alongside histories of Personal Laws legislation, recent scholarship has shown how legal discourses and imaginaries were constantly produced in everyday encounters (De 2018). How did Muslim women make sense of Islamic law in their daily experiences? It is in this context that contemporary women’s periodicals came to reflect and shape women’s legal consciousness. Women’s magazines such as Āwāz-e-Niswān, Sahelī and Tahzīb-e-Niswān created spaces for Muslim women to engage in legal discussions about their rights in family laws. This contributed to forging their own understanding of “justice” (insāf) and “rights” (huqūq) in Islamic law, but also to question the role of the court (‘adālat). This paper asks how such magazines challenged religious and legal authorities by defending women’s right to khul’. The legitimacy of court decisions in relation to Islamic law – particularly in the case of khul’ – was fiercely disputed. Women’s periodicals helped undermine the court’s authority. This paper studies how they provided a space for women to reimagine the court and negotiate its infringement of family intimacy.

Elizabeth Lhost

Getting Stuck and Making Do: Women’s Appeals to Justice across Venues in Colonial South Asia

Appealing to justice is hard work. For women, who in many cases are disenfranchised by the institutions from which they seek redress, the process of making principled claims can be even more arduous. Yet, it’s no secret that women were (and are) frequent and vociferous advocates across legal fora. Surveying examples from multiple legal sites, this paper explores the language women use in their appeals to justice, the frustrations they express, the limitations they encounter, and the solutions they attempted to secure as they navigated and negotiated legal obstacles. Rather than presenting women as hapless victims of an unfair system, however, this paper suggests that women were skilled and clever complainants, who used their knowledge of legal rights to nudge the courts in their favor.

The paper begins by introducing several venues where women brought their complaints and presented their cases. Drawing from published and unpublished records spanning several legal venues in the twentieth-century Indian princely states of Hyderabad and Tonk, the paper outlines why women brought their claims to these seemingly informal and unofficial venues and how these venues could address their concerns. It then analyzes the narratives women presented, focusing on how they framed their complaints, presented their evidence, and made their appeals for intercession and support. Taking a pragmatic and practical approach to the language women employed and the requests they made, I argue that women carefully and critically employed specific phrases to support their cases and persuade the courts. Finally, the paper concludes by critically assessing the role of gender in approaches to legal history and histories of the courts. By framing venues frequented by women as informal, unofficial, or quasi-legal, historians belittle and diminish their legal (and historical) value. Recovering and preserving archives and records from these seemingly insignificant institutions therefore provides an opportunity to rethink and reframe the historical narrative.

Sumaira Nawaz

Respectable Ladies’ Quest for Justice: Narrating Sexual Transgressions in Ablāoñ ka Insāf 

This presentation examines the struggle between respectability and sexual agency in Sphurna Devi’s account Ablāoñ ka Insāf (Justice for Helpless Women, 1927). Originally serialised in the Hindi women’s journal Chānd, the text offers crucial insight into social history of change beyond the purview of the colonial state and enlightened elite. Ablāoñ ka Insāf was part of a wider range of popular fiction comprising scandalous-yet-reformist ‘confessional narratives’ that favoured societal reform while justifying the domain of ‘dangerous’ female desire (Orsini 1998). AI recalled life-stories of eight savarna Hindu widows who had gathered at the court of Bhagwan Dharmraj to seek compassion and mercy after breaching norms of sexual propriety. The widows were not ‘ideal victims’ (Mont et al 2003), they had wilfully pursued illicit relations outside of wedlock and, by doing so, defied strī-dharma (women’s moral-religious code). But their testimonies effectively mounted attacks against Hindu society at large that simultaneously hyper-sexualised them at a young age only to later deny them a fulfilling erotic life after early widowhood. Published at a time when Hindi literati was anxiously attempting to discipline the arena of print, AI comprised ‘titillating’ romances that entertained readers while simultaneously re-affirming morally accepted and settled boundaries of Hindu nationalism and masculinity (Orsini 1998; Gupta 2001). To this end, I will focus on savarna widows’ defence of their ‘right to feel’ as a way of re-defining dharma (Orsini 2002). In what ways did the text respond to or differ from Hindu nationalist discourse premised on protecting Hindu women from the ‘lusty’ Muslim (Gupta 2009)? And finally, how do we see these attempts of re-orienting sexual desire at the centre of widow remarriage in the context of nationalist legislative discourse? 

Francesca Orsini

Seeking Dramatic Justice: Women in Courtroom Dramas 

Scenes in which women seek justice from a ruler or a judge nicely bring together the two meanings of darbār and ‘adālat, a ruler’s court and a court of law, and interrogate gendered notions of law and justice, qānūn and inṣāf. In such scenes, women go beyond their immediate complaint to question fundamental rules governing the political, social, and religious status quo and posit alternative valuesfrom the wronged Jewish girl Rahel appealing directly to the Roman emperor against his own son in Agha Hashr Kashmiri’s Urdu play Yahūdī kī laṛkī (1913, a remake of Eugene Scribe’s 1835 French libretto La Juïve, rewritten in English by Stuart Moncrieff as The Jewess and very popular throughout the nineteenth century) to Anarkali challenging Emperor Akbar in Mughal-e Azam. Such scenes may also make visible the whole apparatus of social control that bears down upon women, as in the mock trial in Shantata! Court Chālū Āhe!(1967), Vijay Tendulkar’s play inspired by Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s story “Die Panne” (1956). Nor are women solely positioned as bold and outspoken claimants or crushed victims: in courtroom scenes in Hindi films, women play quite different roles and occupying quite different positions.  This presentation will explore the dynamics, rhetorical strategies, and real and alternative imaginaries that such courtroom scenes featuring women afford. 

Heidi Pauwels

The Role of Women, Real and Imagined, in Performativity of Kingship: Challenges and Assertions at Kishangarh Court During the First Half of the Eighteenth Century.

This paper focuses on the performativity of kingship, foregrounding the role paintings and poetry play in challenges and assertions at Rajasthani courts, particularly the portrayal and agency of women, both imagined and real. This case study follows the evolving role of Rādhā-Krishna worship in musical concerts of poetry and paintings during the reign of Rāj Singh (r. 1706–1748).

The Kishangarh house is well-known for its elegant school of Rajput painting that was expressive  of Rādhā-Krishna devotion, but also of kingship style under Rāj Singh. Within the same visual frame as the other, better-researched Rajasthani principalities, Kishangarh yet differs markedly in outlook, not at least in the symbiosis with poetry authored by both royalty and courtiers, both men and women. The ups and downs of Kishangarh’s politics are related to the way both divine women and real palace ladies figured in the new equations.

Internally to the kingdom too, imagery played a role in challenging and asserting new styles of kingship. Two of Rāj Singh’s sons were successively put forward to be his successors, and in both cases, paintings depicting the candidates as worshipers of Krishna and his ladies featured prominently in staking their claims. There are indications that the second candidate, Sāvant Singh, as he became secure in his position as crown prince, mounted a challenge to his father’s style of kingship, yet after his father’s death he was in turned challenged and eventually superseded by a third brother. The paper unravels the evidence of how a woman-performer, known as Banī-ṭhanī played an important role, based on both the visual record, as well as poetry as it has emerged through manuscript research, including a newly discovered document of her performance diary.

Sophie Schrago

Reclaiming the Adjudication of Religious Family Law: An Ethnography of the Women’s Shari’a Courts in India

The phenomenon of ‘women’s courts’ in India goes back to the development of alternative dispute-resolution forums (ADR) by the Indian state, which shortly after Independence in 1947, had to address problems of inefficiency, slowness, and corruption along the many other shortcomings of India’s courts that left people sceptical and mistrusting of the judicial system. In order to reach out to these marginalised citizens and offer them greater access to justice, the state set up new types of dispute resolution bodies as alternatives to the state-sponsored judiciary, modelled upon original rural community or caste panchayats. It soon became a system of ‘people’s court’ (lok adalat), envisaged as venues that would be more accessible and less intimidating to the poor and uneducated, as well as more effective than the official overburdened courts. A few decades later, ‘women’s courts’ were created in a similar vein as women from the lower strata had trouble accessing civil courts, for reasons of financial and mobility constraints.

Feminist movements throughout the 1970s and 1980s pushed for a model of family court that would deal with divorce, alimony, adoption, and custody cases and where women could voice their complaints and have more empowered access.

It is within the framework of the ADR system that the Indian Muslim Women’s Movement (BMMA) launched its women’s Shari’a courts (ʿadālat) in 2013 with the objective of improving Muslim women’s lives by reclaiming Islamic tradition for the purpose of emancipation. In an attempt to reform the Muslim Personal Law, which has remained uncodified since colonial times, BMMA has trained women to become Shari’a law judges (or Qazi) and to work toward reshaping legal and cultural norms within the community. Through an ethnography of BMMA women’s Shariʿa courts and their everyday experiences, this presentation will examine the ways Indian Muslim women activists have challenged the clergy on their own turf by reclaiming the adjudication of religious family law, and how they have carved out space for the creation of gender-just laws within the Islamic framework. It will further discuss the way these women’s Shariʿa courts create new modes of governmentality beyond the fracture between the religious and the secular, thus offering insights into the interplay of secular ideals of gender justice and Islam.

Sarah Waheed

Warrior Queen between Court and Battlefield: Islam, Gender, and Sovereign Space in Early Modern India

This paper examines space and sovereignty in relation to the sixteenth century Queen Regent of Ahmadnagar and Bijapur, Chand Bibi (1550-1600), widely regarded as “Queen of the Deccan.” This paper is from a chapter of my book in progress, In Search of Chand Bibi: Gender, Sovereignty, and Islam in Premodern India, a feminist revisionist history. It is the first book about not only Chand Bibi, but about women of the Deccan— a vast south-central region covering a quarter of India’s landmass. In the sixteenth century, the Muslim ruled dynasties—the Deccan Sultanates—commanded territories that extended from the eastern and western coastlines of India, and deep into the southern peninsula. In 1595, Chand Bibi united these sultanates and defeated the great Mughal, Akbar, the most powerful emperor of India. She regularly gave audiences in open durbar, commissioned large-scale public works projects, while skilled in organizing armed resistance, and navigating court intrigues.

I argue that Chand Bibi was an exemplary, rather than anomalous, figure. The Deccan produced more female sovereigns than any other region of India. Elite Muslim women exerted tremendous political power, belying myths about women in the zenana as passive and immobile. The book also challenges the north-centric perspective of Mughal imperial development that have long dominated histories of Islam in India. Moreover, it delves into Chand Bibi’s afterlives, grappling with the multiple accounts of Chand Bibi’s demise: by murder, suicide, and escape respectively.

In this paper, I examine the motif of the falcon in relation to Chand Bibi. In paintings from the 18th century onwards, Chand Bibi is almost always depicted outside, hunting with a falcon. Why has flight been so closely associated with Chand Bibi? Drawing on sources in Persian, Urdu, and Marathi, I turn to 1) how the mythology of an immobile harem or zenana is belied by the context of mobility within sixteenth century Deccan whose sultanates were characterized by a much more peripatetic zenana than in the Mughal north as well as political transitions in the eighteenth century that intensified mobile networks between courts; 2) a long history of “spiritual ornithology” within the Sufi Islamic tradition; and finally 3) how the narrative of Chand Bibi’s legendary escape and flight through secret tunnels along with her female companions, which first occurred in 1620, persisted for centuries in Ahmadnagar, promising Chand Bibi’s miraculous return.

Richard Williams

Music and the Maharani in Mehrangarh: Female Composers in Nineteenth-Century Rajput Courts

The nineteenth century was a significant period for Indian debates around women’s involvement in music. Older notions of prestige and propriety became entangled with new concerns about the sexual connotations of the performing arts, propelled by morality campaigns targeting courtesans. While we have a growing sense of how these conversations and contentions gained traction in emergent public spheres, and impacted the involvement of middle class women in music, less is known about how these debates informed the life of music in the prestigious yet enclosed settings of Rajput courts. How were royal women who intimately engaged with music understood by their peers and audiences? Who, in fact, were their audiences? How was musical labour divided between elite queens and their lower status, yet highly trained attendants? How far did the musical contributions of women in pardah influence larger social movements oriented towards the public life of music?

In this paper, I will explore these questions by examining the lyrics of Jarechi Maharani Pratap Kumvari (1834-1917?), who composed under the penname “Daughter of the Jam” (Jāṁma Sutā, referring to her father, the Jam Sahib of Nawanagar). As the ninth wife of Takht Singh (r. 1843-73), the Maharaja of Marwar, she had access to the resources of a vastly musical royal court. Examining her lyrical poetry, which ranges from bhajan to bārahmāsā, offers clues to how the women’s sphere of music making intersected with religious communities, art music, and literary culture.