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Dismantling 'Orientalist' Narratives

Monica Juneja

By Ruby Lal
Cambridge University Press, New Delhi, 2005, pp. 241, £17.99

VOLUME XXXI NUMBER 10 October 2007

More than three decades back feminist historio- graphy had suggested that the devaluation of women in mainstream writings was connected to their exclusion from the public sphere and their identification with the domestic. Since then this in- sight has generated a prolife- ration of studies investigating regions and societies across the globe, studies which have engaged with the powerful ideological concept of separate spheres, explored its underpinnings, questioned its universal validity and sought new frameworks within which the study of women and the domestic domain could be meaningfully located. Yet the expanding field of writings on medieval and early modern South Asia has proved to be frustratingly unresponsive to the challenges and impulses stimulated by research on gender. Ruby Lal’s investigation of the domestic world of the early Mughal empire opens up this unexplored terrain to many pertinent questions. This study sets out to dismantle orientalist narratives—and their postcolonial variants—of precolonial empires wherein women, deprived of power and agency, were constituted as objects of lust and instruments of despotic rule. Challenging the dichotomy between the public and the private that served to explain the separation of the political from the apolitical, the book’s agenda extends beyond a simple exercise in making women ‘visible’, important as this may be in the context of pre-modern South Asia. By fleshing out the ways in which gender relations were central to the shaping of the early Mughal state and its political enterprises, this study calls for nothing less than a need to rethink the notion of politics under the Mughals.   Mainstream historiography of Mughal India continues to lament the ‘lack of sources’ as an explanation for its refusal to address issues of gender. An important achievement of Ruby Lal’s research is to demonstrate how the existing archive could be made to yield insights about the many-layered agency of women in the making of political and social institutions of Mughal India, by asking different questions of the sources, reading them against the grain, and responding through another lens to their prescriptions, observations and silences. This investigation draws upon sources with which every historian of this period is familiar—court chronicles and normative texts (Akhlaqi literature)—and yet writes a new history of the coming into being of the Mughal imperial world. The inadequate attention shown to gender as an analytical concept by the bulk of existing histories of Mughal India, ...

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