The Mughal Aviary: Women’s Writings in Pre-Modern India

by Sabiha Huq (Khulna University, Bangladesh)

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“Sabiha Huq’s 'Mughal Aviary' will go a long way in filling a gap in recent scholarship in women’s writings in the pre-modern and pre-colonial India in bringing to light four forgotten women writers of the Mughal period, engaged in a struggle to find a place alongside the more prominent male writers of their time. With painstaking research, compassion, and refreshing insights into their personal and social lives, Huq investigates the reasons why each should be studied in their own right for their powerful work in hagiography, biography or poetry. The book shows quality scholarship in four particular areas: in its analysis of how the women writers appropriated the male language and undercut its dominance and power by bringing into play female sensibility and the subtle use of female language; its emphasis on the need to place these writers against the complex political, social and gender issues of their time for an understanding of how they fought for their creative autonomy; its rejection of the western stereotyping of Asian women as historically muted and as inferior sexed subjects by showing the strength of the women in rising above their limitations, and its success in presenting a more rounded portrait of these women as trailblazers, achievers, fighters and creators of a countercanon which influenced many later writers and scholars.”

Syed Manzoorul Islam
University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh

“The book should appeal to anyone interested in the Mughal period of Indian history, aristocratic Muslim women’s lives in the period, and Indian women’s writing and feminism in general. It will undoubtedly attract readers interested in reading about women who transcend the limitations imposed on them by the age in which they live and write. While the work is original in conception, individual chapters reveal Huq’s conscientious dependence on pertinent scholarship.”

Fakrul Alam
UGC Professor, Department of English, University of Dhaka

The publication of Sabiha Huq’s “The Mughal Aviary: Women’s Writings in Pre-Modern India” (henceforth, The Aviary) coincides with the deletion of important chapters on early Islamic history from school syllabi in India. Huq’s monograph stands between the interstices of parochial ramifications of such deletions and the general problem of mainstream history as a politicised field.
[…] as a literary study that challenges mainstream history, the monograph has potential to redefine South Asian feminism by foregrounding the perseverance and autonomy that these authors exhibit. Their writings signal an unfaltering path to authentic representation of their characters.

Srideep Mukherjee
NetajiSubhas Open University, India
[Book review appearing at 'ASIATIC: IIUM Journal of English Language and Literature'. Vol. 16 No. 1 (2022): June.

*Winner of the 2023 'Literary Encyclopedia' Book Prize

This volume delves into the literary lives of four Muslim women in pre-modern India. Three of them, Gulbadan Begam (1523-1603), the youngest daughter of Emperor Babur, Jahanara (1614-1681), the eldest daughter of Emperor Shah Jahan, and Zeb-un-Nissa (1638-1702), the eldest daughter of Emperor Aurangzeb, belonged to royalty. Thus, they were inhabitants of the Mughal 'zenana', an enigmatic liminal space of qualified autonomy and complex equations of gender politics. Amidst such constructs, Gulbadan Begam’s 'Humayun-Nama' (biography of her half-brother Humayun, reflecting on the lives of Babur’s wives and daughters), Jahanara’s hagiographies glorifying Mughal monarchy, and Zeb-un-Nissa’s free-spirited poetry that landed her in Aurangzeb’s prison, are discursive literary outputs from a position of gendered subalternity. While the subjective selves of these women never much surfaced under extant rigid conventions, their indomitable understanding of ‘home-world’ antinomies determinedly emerge from their works. This monograph explores the political imagination of these Mughal women that was constructed through statist interactions of their royal fathers and brothers, and how such knowledge percolated through the relatively cloistered communal life of the 'zenana'. The fourth woman, Habba Khatoon (1554-1609), famously known as ‘the Nightingale of Kashmir’, offers an interesting counterpoint to her royal peers. As a common woman who married into royalty (her husband Yusuf Shah Chak was the ruler of Kashmir in 1579-1586), her happiness was short-lived with her husband being treacherously exiled by Emperor Akbar. Khatoon’s verse, which voices the pangs of separation, was that of an ascetic who allegedly roamed the valley, and is famed to have introduced the ‘lol’ (lyric) into Kashmiri poetry. Across genres and social positions of all these writers, this volume intends to cast hitherto unfocused light on the emergent literary sensibilities shown by Muslim women in pre-modern India.


Introduction - by Sonia Nishat Amin

1 The Mughal Aviary and Women In/Out

2 Humayun’s Biographer Gulbadan Begam: A Quiet Observer of the Aviary

3 Jahanara’s Hagiographies: The Mind of a Matriarch

4 Dissenting Songbird in the Aviary: The Poetry of Zeb-un-Nissa

5 The Plaintive Songbird beyond the Aviary: Habba Khatoon’s Lol

6 Where to Conclude?



Sabiha Huq, PhD, is Professor of English at Khulna University, Khulna, Bangladesh. Her fields of specialization are modern drama, translation and Henrik Ibsen; and women’s subject position in literature is her primary interest. Dr. Huq takes great interest in women’s literature, and has published on several South Asian women writers. She also translates and writes stories, poems and features in books, newspapers and magazines. Dr. Huq is currently a member of the International Ibsen Committee.

Indian feminism, Islamic cultural history, modernity in India, aviary, zenana, dissenting voice, patriarchy, Kashmir