Razak Khan, Free University Berlin
Purdah Politics: Narratives of Princely Zenana women
The category of ‘Muslim Community’ remains the dominant paradigm to understand selfhood in South Asian Islam. However, ‘Muslim’ selfhood is shaped by many other aspects such as gender, class, caste, space and other markers of identity and not just by religion. Local contexts are of critical importance for understanding the formation of self. This paper explores the issue of gender and class in shaping selfhood in autobiographical literature from princely state of Rampur. Rampur was the last Muslim ruled princely state in colonial United Provinces. It remained a major centre of politics and cultural patronage after the decline of Awadh state. This paper approaches the issues of lives of ‘Muslim women’ in princely state context of Rampur.
I will examine the autobiographies of Begum Jahanara Habibullah and Princess Mehrunissa. In what ways these narratives of life help us to understand ‘Muslim woman’ selfhood. Can we claim that Islam is the central issue in these lives? I argue that while rooted in a ‘Muslim milieu’, the privileged princely cultural context remains the focal point in these lives . These texts are not articulations of pious private selves rather they are governed by cultural and public concerns. I differ from the dominant argument that women autobiographical writing in south Asia is more personal than public and more about relationships than accomplishments. I intend to explore the salience of class, family and publicness in the lives of the privileged princely women. I will attempt to show how the princely state milieu of zenana (women’s apartments) life as ‘secluded’ is incomplete and fails to identify the public life of zenana women. This paper will question the generalizations about zenana narratives and show the difference of class, family and power as central issues. The princely zenana was remembered nostalgically as well as critically. These narratives allow us to rethink diverse experiences even within the limited gendered spaces of zenana. How was the private life of zenana connected with princely state politics? In what ways marriage and family shape their life stories and where indeed lies their own self amidst changing times? These narratives provides different answers to such questions and renders the issue of self and community more contested then understood so far.