Sedulous Subversion: Gail Minault and the Muslim Woman

Sabrina Datoo

Hidden Histories is a fFestschrift for Gail Minault, longtime professor of history at The University of Texas at Austin, known primarily for her ground-breaking work on the social and cultural history of Muslim women of the north Indian service gentry (ashraf).[i] This anthology contains thirteen13 essays largely on this service gentry against the backdrop of its historical transformation from ‘ashraf to middle-class’.[ii] It also includes a tribute to Minault by the Urdu poet Ishrat Afreen, translated by Max Bruce and Imran Khan. The book concludes with a complete list of Minault’s publications from 1969 to 2013, comprising seven books and over three dozen articles. The volume includes essays by renowned scholars, including Barbara Metcalf, David Lelyveld, Syed Akbar Hyder and C. M. Naim, all of whom have produced now classic studies of ashraf cultural history. One of the great merits of this collection, like the work of its celebrated contributors, is its sensitivity to the historical situatedness of meaning-making and the consequent disavowal of the cultural essentialism that has long produced the ‘Tthe Muslimwoman’ as a discursive object.[iii]

The editors have grouped these essays sequentially according to the leitmotifs of Minault’s work – ‘Indo-Muslim’ religious identity, gender, and educational reform. The treatment of reform in most of these pieces, however, moves beyond the usual contrast between mimetic liberals and culturally authentic revivalists that has been noted elsewhere.[iv] Drawing on untapped archival sources, these interventions largely eschew institutional religion – the education of ulama, canonical texts, or shrine-based practices – and focus instead on the manner in which religious sensibilities are mediated at multiple sites within vernacular public spheres. This is particularly salient in the essays that foreground women’s voices negotiating authorship in various forms – the advice manual, the television program, and the philanthropic campaign. Given the public activity of these women, perhaps what is most noteworthy about their stories is how the conventional interests and archives of South Asian historiography have left them hiding in plain sight. Their stories are a fitting tribute not only to Gail Minault’s work, but to the women about whom she wrote, whose reforms entailed the creative and sedulous subversion of scripture and custom as well as their appropriation for new ends.

Muslim Women in the Public Sphere

Studies of Muslim social reform cannot be separated from the history of the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh (est. 1875), which is evoked in many essays here. Its founder, Sir Syed Ahmad Khan, is the subject of Lelyveld’s piece which points to the frictions between the liberal language of reform that Khan deployed, and the limited horizon within which he imagined its applicability to women of his own kin group and community. The essay is offered as an explanation of Khan’s irritation at one of his protégés, Mumtaz Ali (1860-–1935), whose book entitled, The Rights of Women, he found too radical. Although Lelyveld’s earlier work has explained that Sir Syed himself was considered heretical for leavening Islamic scriptural exegesis with liberal categories, this piece tries to excavate a near psychological explanation for his conservatism towards his female coreligionists. In this, he was unlike his contemporary, Nazir Ahmad (1830-–1912), who encouraged the broader education of women in his fiction. The expansiveness of Ahmad’s vision of reform is perhaps more vividly depicted in his untranslated Bannat un-nash, than in his better known novels, although these are discussed by Shahzad Bashir with great sensitivity to matters of comportment and domestic space.

Several pieces address an aspect of the ‘Wwoman Qquestion’ in South Asian Studies. Namely, how does one characterize the emergence of women’s agentive action in vernacular public spheres when it entails the transformation of domestic piety into a public religious sensibility? Both Metcalf and Asiya Alam narrate stories of women who were able to arrogate to themselves a new kind of religious authority enabled by commercial print publishing. Metcalf’s study of Nawab Shah Jahan Begum (1838 – 1901), elucidates how she deployed scriptural hermeneutics to point to emancipatory futures beyond the constraints of custom – a practice for which there is much evidence beyond South Asia.[v] Most notably, Metcalf demonstrates how Shah Jahan Begum grounded her advice on facilitating the ideal companionate marriage and living with greater autonomy within classic traditions of Islamic scholarship. Her erudite, thickly sourced interpretations were motivated by her own experiences of marriage and family life, making her voice, in the midst of male reformers, quite original. Alam’s essay is centered on conjugal advice and examines an advice manual of Muhammadi Begum (c. 1878-–1908), suggesting that the emergence of women as producers and consumers of Urdu texts about love and intimacy necessitated a departure from classical discussions of these subjects. However, this discursive shift also points to the ambiguities of reformist writing which, Alam notes, created some spaces for women’s autonomy while simultaneously re-asserting certain constraints.

The equivocation about women’s juridical and economic autonomy amongst the ashraf has left a long legacy, which is apparent in Azfar Moin’s critical appraisal of the broadcasts of Farhat Hashmi, the public face of Al Huda International, an Islamic education network founded in Pakistan in 1994. Moin compares Hashmi’s self-proclaimed ‘Islamic feminism’ with that of the scholar Riffat Hassan and the human rights activist Asma Jehangir in order to differentiate the varying discourses and transnational networks that claim this label. Unlike the scholar and the activist, Hashmi, the televangelist, leverages a Saudi exegetical strategy to cultivate an audience of middle class housewives who seek some validation of their piety in light of their practices of consumption. By contrast, Aarti Bhalodia’s essay on the ruling family of Gondal, a state in western India, traces how the early twentie20th century philanthropic projects of its aristocratic women expanded conceptions of female piety, deploying the term seva to include patronage of educational institutions for girls and women. Although these women were not Muslim, Bhalodia remarks on the reciprocity of patronage between Rani Nandkunvarba and the local Muslim mercantile communities, who named a hospital after her in recognition of her patronage of their madrasas. This piece hints at the shared inter-confessional language of reform, and one would have liked to have read more about this, especially in the context of Gujarat’s Muslim communities whose religious imaginaries are so closely tied to this region’s languages.

Being Schooled

In addition to essays that foreground women’s voices, the volume includes several pieces on educational reform. These contributions dispense with the east-–west binaries, and attend to conflicts within and across schools of reformist thought and practice. Leah Renold’s piece on the establishment of Banaras Hindu University, for example, traces the omissions in the myths of miraculous land acquisition that swirl around the institution’s origin story. These omissions include the conflicts with local villagers during the university’s construction, and the generous patronage it received from Muslims, most notably the Nizam of Hyderabad, Mir Osman Ali Khan (1886-–1967). Sylvia Vatuk’s investigation into Muslim education in the presidency of Madras helpfully extends the discussion of reform to south India and to the earlier half of the nineteen19th century. Here we learn that local aristocrats and families of religious scholars resisted English education for a variety of reasons. Vatuk suggests, for example, the distastefulness of earning a living, as well as profiting from education, may have more deeply motivated the antipathy to new forms of knowledge, and English language instruction, than any perceived religious prohibition.

The contributions of Amber Abbas, Francis Robinson, Naim and Hyder move beyond formal schooling and address the circulation of religious sensibilities within scholarly and literary networks. Both Naim and Abbas address the inter-generational loyalties and memories of men in Aligarh’s Old Boy network of alumni. Abbas employs the methods of oral history to examine how these men recalled the experience of India’s Partition compared to those who did not attend the prestigious institution. Robinson’s contribution similarly employs interviews with a scion of the Farangi Mahall family of scholars to reveal the endurance of his cross-border commercial ties in the immediate aftermath of Partition. Naim’s piece, by contrast, employs a broad swathe of textual material. It documents a dispute between an alumnus of Aligarh and a non-Aligarian public intellectual. Over the course of their exchange across several genres of Urdu print, including a novel, newspapers, and literary magazines, they deploy tropes of sacred figures and battles to cast aspersions on one another. In addition to illuminating the grip of intergenerational loyalties amongst Aligarh’s alumni, it also gestures at their deep engagement with the dense literary and political networks of non-Aligarians, and their continued participation in a shared imagination of religious history. Hyder investigates skepticism towards public expressions of religious sentiment by thinking through the figure of the detached insider, who simultaneously holds what he considers to be an Islamic ethics while also being a ‘reprobate’. Hyder locates this figure in two sites: in the life of the poet Yas Yaganah Changezi (d. 1956), who was critical of the veneration of literary figures such as Ghalib and their deployment for nationalist mobilization; in characters in the oeuvre of Sadat Hasan Manto (d. 1955) that problematize the sanctimony of religious nationalism without disavowing religious commitment – such as a bisexual man ‘Tapish Kashmiri’, and a bordello madam, ‘Mummy’.

Lastly, the final essay in the volume is a departure from these questions of reform and turns instead to animal-–human interactions. The inclusion here of Julie Hughes’ work on the relationships between tigers and their owners in colonial and post-colonial India, a pleasing outlier, speaks to Minault’s generosity as a mentor and colleague, something attested to throughout the volume, and which complements the intellectual rewards to be found in it. The most compelling of these is the attention to Muslim women’s strategies of scriptural interpretation that subvert a liberal imaginary of secular public space while simultaneously grounding women’s freedom in canonical religious texts. As the intellectual heirs of these women continue their bold pursuits one can imagine their subversion not only of the constraints of custom, but of the deep structures of capitalism that are equally inimical to their flourishing.

[i] Minault is best known for her monograph Secluded Scholars: Women’s Education and Muslim Social Reform in Colonial India, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. On ‘service gentry’ see C. A. Bayly, Townsmen, and Bazaars: North Indian Society in the Age of British Expansion, 1770-1870, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012 [1983].
[ii] Margrit Pernau, Ashraf Into Middle Classes: Muslims in Nineteenth-century Delhi, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2013.
[iii] For the term Muslimwoman see: Miriam Cooke et al., Roundtable discussion: Religion, gender, and the Muslimwoman, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 24(1), 2008: 91-119.
[iv] Sumit Sarkar and Tanika Sarkar (eds), Women and Social Reform in Modern India: A Reader, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008, 10.
[v] For an overview see Lila Abu-Lughod, Do Muslim Women Need Saving?, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013. For a theological investigation into the ontological equality between men and women in scriptural Islam see Amina Wadud, Qurʼan and Woman: Rereading the Sacred Text From a Woman's Perspective, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. For colonial India see: Gregory C. Kozlowski, Muslim women and the control of property in North India, in Sarkar and Sarkar (eds), Women and Social Reform in Modern India: A Reader.