Monday, 10 March 2008

God's Whores: Mughal Courtesans

By Irfan Yusuf
June 25th 2003
Published at Muslims Wake Up: http://www.muslimwakeup.com/main/archives/2003/06/gods_whores.php


Back in the days when I was young and innocent, mum would regularly seat me in front of the VCR and force me to sit through a 3-hour Urdu/Hindi movie. It was mum’s way of getting her ‘piyara beta’ (allegedly beloved son) to brush up on his language skills. It was also her attempt to immunize me from totally assimilating into local ways (which in my white Protestant sectarian retro-Aussie neighborhood meant ensuring I did not hate Catholics too much).

After 10 of these awful sessions, I knew the drill. I could predict the story, the actors, even the playback artists. I knew that Muhammad Rafi was dead, and that chances were his amazingly sweet and versatile voice would be replaced with that of Kishore Kumar, a gentleman mum often referred to as the dude with ‘avaare ki avaaz’ (the voice of a lecher). I could even measure how far the fist of the ‘ghunda’ (gangster) was from the victim’s face during a fight scene. And up which trees the orchestra was hiding when the couple were dancing and singing in the park.

But then one day mum showed me a movie whose story line still haunts me. It haunted her when she first read the novel as part of her undergraduate studies at Aligarh Muslim University. The story was yet another illustration of what an awful deal corrupt and violent men dish out to women. And that includes Muslim men.

Umrao Jan Ada (Umrao Jan’s Tale) is said to be a masterpiece of Urdu literature. It is set during the eve of the East India Company’s move out of Bombay and across the rest of northern and central India. These were the last days of the decaying and decadent Mughal Empire. Yes, they were tolerant (apart from Aurangzeb who mercilessly massacred the followers of sufi-inspired Guru Nanak and pushed them beyond the fringes of the Indian Muslim community). Yes, they were cultured. Yes, they were rich. Yes, they were my ancestors.

And yes, they were decadent. Many a courtesan entered the Mughal court. Religion and religiosity did not seem to matter when it came to sexual pleasure. But I guess the Mughals were just following what everyone else did.

Visiting courtesans and prostitutes was a gentleman’s game. The great nawabs and princes would gather at the ‘mahkhana’ (glorified brothel) where they would marvel at the poetic skills, the linguistic masonry and the sheer intelligence of girls who were usually kidnapped from their families at a young age and trained by poets and musicians and other cultural technicians on the art of being a respectable courtesan.

Of course, my semi-drunken Mughal ancestors weren’t just interested in the great minds and sweet words of these highly cultured women. For a few bags of gold, they had access to other treasures. Although the men had to prove themselves worthy, and this was not just an issue of money.

Umrao Jan Ada has been cinematized in both Pakistan and India. Mum reckons the Pakistani version has better ghazals (lyrical songs), but the Indian one is more true to the novel. I beg to differ. But that is not the point of this article.

The point is that the character of Umrao Jan is so typical of the hypocrisy many have toward women (and in some cases, men) who work. Yes, it is true that this is a most oppressive and exploitative industry. Yes, women are often physically and psychologically abused. But they are still women. They have made their choice. And some may not have even had a choice.

Umrao Jan was kidnapped in her early teens. She had just been engaged to a young chap. Her dad had an argument with someone who had Umrao Jan kidnapped and sold to a ‘randi’ (female pimp) to be raised as a ‘thawaa’if’ (courtesan). Umrao lived in this brothel environment for some 6 years, during which she was taught classical music, poetry, etiquette and other culturally seductive arts.

Eventually, Umrao was unleashed upon an unsuspecting community of male admirers who had never seen anything like her. She was a princess. And like all princesses, she attracted a prince. He wooed her, seduced her, promised her his heart and then dumped her when his mummy found him a more ‘decent’ girl (ironically one of Umrao Jan’s friends who grew up with her in the brothel but who never appeared as a courtesan).

The town where Umrao stayed was attacked by the British, and she joined a convoy of refugees. One night she found herself in a town that looked ever-so-familiar. Some of the refugees asked her to sing for them. She sang of the familiarity of the place. In the audience was a young handsome man whom she felt she had seen before.

After the performance, Umrao went walking and found a house she recognized and an old frail woman who she had seen many years ago. The old woman recognized Umrao as her own daughter. She told Umrao of her father’s death from the grief of her kidnapping. Then the young handsome man in the audience appeared. The old lady said to him: “Look, son! Your sister has returned!”

The boy looked at her scornfully and said words that represent the attitudes many of us have. “She cannot be my sister. She is Umrao Jan. She is just a prostitute”.

Umrao Jan left after hearing these words. The Indian version of the movie ends by showing Umrao looking at herself in the mirror and touching the mirror. The novel says that she committed suicide.

So how should we see Umrao. How should we allegedly pious and spiritually astute people view someone like Umrao Jan? I guess the first step will be to declare that prostitution is haram (legally forbidden) and that prostitutes will go to hell. And that society should reject and shun prostitutes.

But let me ask all you mullahs and mullettes this. Why do prostitutes exist? Why is there a plentiful supply of sex-on-tap? Simply because there is plentiful demand. And who are the clients? Usually the respectable people, the judges and politicians and businessmen and lawyers and doctors. And priests and rabbis and maulanas also.

So why are the customers, the clients, the real reason for prostitution to exist let off the hook so easily? And why are the workers, the service providers, the women with often multiple mouths to feed condemned?

And why is it that a prostitute is so dirty and awful whilst a girl who sleeps with some dude she just met at a bar or club and who bought her a drink so clean and wholesome? It reminds me of this female stand-up comedian I once saw who had this to say: “I cannot understand you men. Like, I go to a bar. And I sit there and one of you comes and buys be a drink. And then he expects me to sleep with him. Now tell me this – which prostitute would sleep with you for four dollars and twenty five cents?”

Among those of you reading this will be people who claim to believe in Jesus (peace be upon God’s Noble Messiah). And some who even claim to be following him. Now I ask you this. Who was Jesus’ closest female companion? Who was the one who went to the Garden where his tomb was to rub herbs on his body in accordance with Jewish custom? Who was the one who spent so many hours and days with him? Who was the one who shared his own blessed mother’s name?

Jesus had two Mary’s in his life. One was his mother, the one who miraculously conceived him whilst she was still a virgin. The one about whom the Qur’an says that she was chosen over and above the women of all nations. And the other Mary?

She was a prostitute.

Real Islam, indeed real religion is designed to rid us of the pomposity and self-righteousness that plagues so much religiosity. The prophets of God sat with and made time for those whom society pushes away. Christ spent time with tax collectors, fishermen and prostitutes. Christ did not go to King Fahd of his day and seek a few measly riyals in return for loyalty.

We know that the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings of God be upon him) was known to spend time with a woman in Madina who suffered from schizophrenia. He also had a close friend Julaybib who had no known ancestry and apparently suffered from some physical deformities. And he was so fond of a black woman whose name has not come down to us but whose place in paradise is assured since she spent so much effort sweeping the Prophet’s mosque. And where did the great sufis come from? They originated from those poor starving semi-naked People of the Bench (‘ashab as-suffah’), the equivalent of today’s street people.

We don’t look up to street people or schizophrenics or cleaners. We look up to scholars and philanthropists and martyrs. Yet the Prophet told us that a person from each of these honored categories will be amongst the first to be dragged into hell.

He also told us about the prostitute. The one who finished her shift and went to the well. She saw a dog that was dying of thirst. She took pity on it, dropped her shoe into the well and dragged it out full of water for the dog. For showing kindness to a dog, the prostitute earned God’s mercy and forgiveness.

During his recent tour to Sydney, Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller referred to this incident. And he made a comment to this effect: “How I wish I was that prostitute. We should all wish we could have been her. She understood the reality of things. May God give all of us the understanding possessed by this woman”.

Yes, God created whores too.



2 comments:

  1. Your article really touched me.
    It's nice to hear (more exactly to "read") this point of view on prostitutes... Of course, i'm not saying that they have the purest job in earth, but peope sometimes forget they are humans too.
    And even when a person is considered to be bad, or dirty, etc.. we forget to look at the good things that same person has done in his or her life; like the prostitute that gave water to the thirsty dog. How many like her has people condemned, when they themselves hadn't even helped a little animal..?
    It's all about how many people have a double morals...

    Have you read this poem of Sor Juana? she was a mexican nun and wrotte this:

    You Men (English)
    Silly, you men-so very adept
    at wrongly faulting womankind,
    not seeing you're alone to blame
    for faults you plant in woman's mind.

    After you've won by urgent plea
    the right to tarnish her good name,
    you still expect her to behave--
    you, that coaxed her into shame.

    You batter her resistance down
    and then, all righteousness, proclaim
    that feminine frivolity,
    not your persistence, is to blame.

    (This is just part of it, i can't remember the entire poem.. perhaps you'd like to read it later.)

    Have a nice day!
    And i -hoped- that there were more understandig people like you, from all of the other religions as well.

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  2. well written

    Slight correction though. You said:

    "apart from Aurangzeb who mercilessly massacred the followers of sufi-inspired Guru Nanak and pushed them beyond the fringes of the Indian Muslim community"

    The truth is that Aurangzaib's grandfather Jahangir had Guru Arjun killed following the war of succession because the guru had supported trhe wrong brother. following that, the sikhs became a militarised entity, which is what Aurangzeb ought against.

    Additionally, Muslims have traditionally been more forgiving of prostitutes than the west. for example the female saint Rabbiyya al-basri was sold into prostituion before buying her freedom, and went on to be one of the most inspiring women who rote sublime poetry.

    ReplyDelete