To what extent did women exercise political power within the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Dynasties?

Within the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires, it is a common belief that women were subject to ‘widespread oppression and subordination.’[1] However, this view can be deemed reductive It is within the dynastic setting that women were able to exercise a degree of political power even if they did not always have full autonomy. By examining the harem, their relationship with the sultan, marriage, rare examples of queenship, patronage and education, it can be ascertained that women within the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal dynasties wielded political power to a moderate extent. Their degree of political power was only moderate as it rarely allowed them to affect political policy directly, and even when they had the chance to do so, their political power was limited by their gender and established role at court, which was usually tied to the family.

The royal harem was an area in which women could exercise political power within the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal dynasties. During the Ottoman empire, the sultan’s mother was at the ‘apex’ of the harem and had considerable influence within it.[2] As she was close to the ruler of the Ottoman empire, she could still indirectly influence the goings on within the empire. This was aided by her strong influence within the harem, and her high status as the mother of the sultan.[3] Women would partake in ‘harem intrigue,’ the goal of which was to elevate the position of their husbands.[4] This involved making connections with men of high status, to increase the status of their own family. This demonstrates that women did exercise a moderate degree of political power within the Ottoman empire, albeit behind closed doors. Fanny Blunt supports this, and observes that many viziers gained influence within the Ottoman court due to the influence of their wives within the harem.[5]

Similarly, within the Safavid empire the harem was seen as an ‘internal power structure,’ in which women could exert political power.[6]

It appears that with the advent of the Mughal empire, the harem began to directly exert political power. Akbar left his mother, Hamida Banu Begum, in charge of the empire when he had to deal with unrest in the north, placing political power directly into the heart of the harem.[7]  However, when looking at the harem across all three dynasties it is clear that women were only able to exercise a moderate degree of political power. The fact that their influence mainly occurred behind closed doors emphasises the fact that, despite this influence, they did not have the means to enter into mainstream political decisions.

Through analysis of the women’s’ relationship with the ruling sultan, it can be learned that women wielded a moderate degree of political power. Lisa Balabanlilar recounts that within the Ottoman court, females were removed from power and that the purpose of women within the court centred around the family.[8] After giving birth, women were supposed to educate and protect their sons, which would have given them the opportunity to forge a strong relationship with their child, and perhaps influence them at a young age in political matters.[9] Despite this influence, it is still clear that their relationship to the sultan was one that depended on their ability to produce children, which took precedent over their political agency.

The Mughal ruling dynasties emphasised the importance of the female role within the family and household. Elderly women would intervene in familial and political crisis’ which is demonstrated in Jahangir’s use of female diplomats.[10] Shah Jahan, the fifth Mughal emperor, relied heavily on his daughter Jahanara to run the household,[11] and even left her in control of finances.[12] Audrey Truschke, noted that royal women were involved in succession struggles.[13] This is true of Jahanara, who failed to quell the war of succession between her two brothers, Aurangzeb and Dara Shukoh, despite her attempts via letters.[14] The fact that she was not a competitor for the throne herself demonstrates that she only had a moderate degree of political power. This emphasises that a women’s primary role within court was one that was allied with the family and the household.

Within the Safavid dynasties, marriage was used to consolidate power.[15] This would have allowed women to further the political course of the empire through an advantageous marriage. By intermarrying with military and civil dignitaries of Turkic and Iranian origin, more local states were incorporated into the Safavid empire.[16] Women were therefore instrumental, and were frequently married more than once.[17] It would be through their mother that the children of Safavid princesses would inherit, giving the latter a degree of political power as through marriage they could secure their place within the Safavid court through their son’s inheritance.[18] An example of this is Shah Abbas I’s incorporation of Mazandaran into the Safavid state, due to familial connections from his mother’s side at the end of the 16th century.[19] This provided women with a moderate degree of political power. Although they were not able to directly wield it, they were still able to secure their place, and the place of their children, through an advantageous marriage.

There are rare examples of queenship across all three empires. Within the Ottoman dynasties, female sultans were privileged not with political power but with freedom.[20] Within the Safavid empire, Khayr al-Nisa Begum governed the Safavid state from February 1578 to July 1579.[21] She was the wife of Shah Mohammed Khodabanda, and it is recorded that ‘no affair was conducted without her advice.’[22] She had a considerable influence within the Safavid court, and held administrative roles, made military decisions and approved royal decrees.[23] However her constant quarrelling with the Qizilbash amirs prompted the comment that the Shah should ‘rule by himself and not delegate his power to a woman.’[24] This power struggle climaxed in July 1579, when Khayr al-Nisa Begum and her mother were strangled in the royal harem by the Qizilbash.[25] Judging by the Qizilbash’s response, it appears that it was the gender of the Shah’s wife that should have halted her ability to wield political power. This gives the impression that in society, female rulers were not accepted. Despite her high political influence, her power could not be maintained and was thwarted by other men within the Safavid empire. This leads to the conclusion that across the dynasties, women only wielded a moderate degree of political power.

Women wielded power through their patronage, and although this cannot be considered as a direct political influence, it would have enhanced the legitimacy of their ruling families. Within the Ottoman empire, status would be conveyed by the number, location and the designs of buildings that were commissioned by patrons.[26] Princess Mihrimah had two mosque complexes built in Üsküdar and Edirnekapi, the inscriptions of which proclaimed her privileged status.[27] She was also the first princess to commission a monumental mosque complex in Istanbul, in memory of her deceased brother.[28] Building mosques styled the ruling dynasty as Islamic, increasing its legitimacy to rule. Within the Safavid empire, princess Gawhar-Shad Begum was recognised as the largest patron of charities and the arts.[29] She also was a recognisable figure on the political scene in the first half of the 15th century, demonstrating that her political power was tied to her patronage. Many Mughal women acted as the patrons of shrines, such as Nur Jahan, who was married to Jahanghir.[30] She built several ships and independent palaces, using her political influence to impact the culture of the Mughal empire.[31] She was seen as an ‘exceptionally powerful woman,’ and considered to be a co-regent to her husband.[32] Patronage can be seen as an example of indirect political influence, as through her status in the Mughal Court Nur Jahan was able to affect the culture and appearance of the Mughal empire. This cements the idea that women possessed political power to a moderate extent, as although they could use this power to influence patronage there were still limits as to how they could influence political policy directly.

Mehmet II established a Palace School in order to educate young women of the Ottoman empire.[33] They were taught feminine arts, such as sewing and embroidering.[34] This tells us that women were educated in the domestic sphere and were not intended to exercise political power within the Ottoman empire.

In contrast, during the Safavid empire, young women were subject to the same curriculum as young boys, and were encouraged to study the Qu’ran and principles of the Shari’a.[35] Both sexes were taught about rules of civility and social behaviour.[36] Judging by this curriculum it could be argued that children within the Safavid ruling families were subject to greater gender equality than in the Ottoman empire.

The Mughal’s ensured that royal women were educated in many subjects including Maths and astrology, with some learning the Qur’an.[37] Emperor Akbar styled himself as the moral centre and exemplar in the empire, and it is conceivable to think that both men and women were answerable to his high standards.[38] If one were to take this as true, both men and women were supposed to follow the example and rules of Akbar, creating an empire which encouraged equal education. Despite this equality, it appears that this did not impact the female ability to wield political power in their adult life, as women only wielded political power to a moderate extent, as outlined above.

This leads one to the conclusion that women of the ruling dynasties of the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires only wielded political power to a moderate extent, as their attempts at exercising power were not enough to secure their direct political influence at the royal courts. Their main function within court was rooted in the production of children and the family, which, although this would give them a degree of power, it still would not allow them to direct political policy themselves.

Thanks for reading!

[1] N. R. Keddie, B. Baron, Women in Middle Eastern History: Shifting Boundaries in Sex and Gender (Yale, 2008), p. 13.

[2] F. Davis, The Ottoman Lady: A Social History, 1718-1918 (Contributions in Women’s Studies) (Conneticut, 1986), p. 1.

[3] Ibid., p. 9.

[4] Ibid., p. 171.

[5] Ibid., p. 171.

[6] M. Szuppe, ‘Status, Knowledge and Politics in Sixteenth-Century Safavid Iran’, in Guity Nashat and Lois Beck (eds.) Women in Iran from the Rise of Islam to 1800 (Urbana 2003), pp. 140-169, p. 142.

[7] L. Balabanlilar, ‘The Begims of the Mystic Feast: Turco-Mongol Tradition in the Mughal Harem’, Journal of Asian Studies 69, 1 (2010), pp. 123-147, p. 135.

[8] Ibid., p. 137.

[9] Ibid., p. 137.

[10] Ibid., p. 140.

[11] Ibid., p. 140.

[12] Ibid., p. 141.

[13] A. Truschke, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India’s Most Controversial King (Stanford, 2017), p. 25.

[14] J. Mikkelson, “The Way of Tradition and the Path of Innovation: Aurangzeb and Dara Shukuh’s Struggle for the Mughal Throne,” in Hani Khafipour (ed.), The Three Empires of the Near East (New York, 2019), pp. 240-263, p. 243.

[15] Szuppe, ‘Status, Knowledge and Politics in Sixteenth-Century Safavid Iran’, p. 144.

[16] Ibid., p. 144.

[17] Ibid., p. 144.

[18] Ibid., p. 148.

[19] Ibid., p. 148.

[20] Davis, The Ottoman Lady, p. 14.

[21] Szuppe, ‘Status, Knowledge and Politics in Sixteenth-Century Safavid Iran’, p. 158.

[22] Ibid., p. 159.

[23] Ibid., p. 159.

[24] Ibid., p. 160.

[25] Ibid., p. 160.

[26] C. Isom-Verhaaren, ‘Mihrimah Sultan: A Princess Constructs Ottoman Dynastic Identity’, in Christine Isom Verhaaren and Kent Schull (eds.) Living in the Ottoman Realm: Empire and Identity, 13th to 20th Centuries (Bloomington, 2016) pp. 150-165, p. 157.

[27] Ibid., p. 157.

[28] Ibid., p. 157

[29] Szuppe, ‘Status, Knowledge and Politics in Sixteenth-Century Safavid Iran’, p. 142.

[30] Ibid., p. 142.

[31] Ibid., p. 143.

[32] Ibid., p. 143.

[33] Davis, The Ottoman Lady, p. 47.

[34] Ibid., p. 47.

[35] Szuppe, ‘Status, Knowledge and Politics in Sixteenth-Century Safavid Iran’, p. 149.

[36] Ibid., p. 149.

[37] Balabanlilar, ‘The Begims of the Mystic Feast: Turco-Mongol Tradition in the Mughal Harem’, p. 142

[38] R. O’Hanlon, ‘Kingdom, household and body: history, gender and imperial service under Akbar’, Modern Asian Studies, 41 5 (2007), pp. 889-923, p. 898.

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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