state of women
The State of married Women among the Mahommedans. By Abu Taleb Khan,
a native of Lucknow, from “Tennant’s Indian Recreations.”
Of this important part of domestic economy, among Asiatics, Europeans are, not withstanding all that has been written upon the subject, worse informed than of any other. The very name of the apartments destined for the residence of married women, harem, (forbidden), implies the exclusion of all strangers, particularly males, from their abodes. Our medical gentlemen, (and even with them the occurrence is very rare), are the only persons ever suffered to approach the dwelling of a married woman of rank: when, in case of any dangerous illness, a physician is applied to, he is only permitted to approach the door of the apartment, which is covered with a screen, and there he must prescribe without seeing her, according to the replies he receives to his enquiries, relating to her complaint. Having the various relations, regarding the privileges, customs, and employment of Asiatic females, are generally the offspring of the narrator’s vanity, and may be regarded a destitute of truth and accuracy, since the writer enjoyed no opportunity of better information. Of the general fact, only, the seclusion of all females of rank, and European can decide; and when he urges the advantages of a freer intercourse on the female character, he can speak on no subject on which he is less likely to persuade. To a Mussulman, our notions regarding the treatment of females, always appear absurd and ridiculous; and he seldom seems more satisfied with his wisdom, than when he expatiates on the bad consequence which are sometimes the result of them.
It was to a conversation on this subject, with a learned Mussulman, who lately visited England, that we are indebted for “A Vindication of the Liberties of Asiatic Women,” written in Persian, by Abu Taleb Khan, a native of Lucknow, in the province of Owde. This paper, the production of a learned Asiatic, upon this interesting subject, is a more authentic document, then, perhaps, the public are yet in possession of, relating to the married state of the Orientalists.
“ One day,” says Abu Taleb, “in a certain company, the conversation turned upon liberty, in respect of which the English consider their own customs as the most perfect in the world. An English lady addressing herself to me, observed, that the women of Asia had no liberty at all, but live like slaves, without honour and without authority, in the houses of the husbands; and she censured the men for their unkindness, and the women also, for submitting to be so undervalued. However much I attempted, by various ways, to undeceive her, by observing that the truth is exactly the reverse (for it is the European women who do not possess so much power), yet it did not bring conviction to her mind. She, however, began to waver in her own opinion, and falling into doubt, requested me to write something on the subject, the purport of which she might comprehend at one view, and be enabled to distinguish the truth from falsehood.
“ Since the same wrong opinion, is deeply rooted in the minds of all other Europeans, and has been frequently held forth, I considered it necessary to write a few lines concerning the privileges of the female sex, as established both by law and custom, in hero, and noticing what is peculiar to each, in the manner of comparison, that the distinction may be the more easily made, and the real state of the case become evident to those capable of discernment.
“ It must first be laid down as a general maxim, that, in social order, respect to the rules of politeness, and forbearance from injury, is a necessary condition; for otherwise, the liberty of one would be destructive of the liberty of another to his own house what may endanger the safety of his neighbour’s this must be in direct opposition to the liberty of that neighbor; or it, in order to free himself from the inconvenience of the hot weather, he should visit his friend in his dressing-gown, or night shirt, although it would be sowing the seeds of ill-breading; therefore, the observance of these rules is essential.
“Those things, which make the liberty of the Asiatic women appear less than that of the European are, in my opinion, six:
“First.---The little intercourse with men, and concealment from view, agreeable to law and their own habits; and this has been chief of the whole: for it has been the cause of those false notions, entertained by European women, that the inclination of the Asiatic females leas them to walk out in the street, and market-place, and that their husband keep them shut up, and sat guards upon the door. It may be observed, that the advantages of little intercourse, which prevent all the evils from the admittance of strangers, and affords to much time for employment and useful-work, are so very manifest, that they need not be enlarge upon: the practice in London of keeping the doors of the houses shut, and the contemptible condition of the Dutch, at the Cape of Good Hope, are sufficient proofs. If, notwithstanding this, the custom of the intercourse of the sexes is allowed in England; it is owing, both to the force of custom, and good morals among the English, and to the apprehension of greater inconveniences in the contrary practice. The chief of these inconveniencies are four; first, the high price of all things, and the small number of servants, and rooms; for were there a separate house and table, and equipage for the wife, the expense would be too great to be borne; and therefore, of necessity, both husband and wife eat their food with their guest in one place, sleep together in the same chamber, and cannot avoid being always in each other’s company; whereas, in Asia, where, by the cheapness of the work, the women have separate apartments for themselves, they have not to make their time and convenience suit that of their husbands. When their particular friends are with them, they do not desire their husband company for several days, but send his victuals to him in the Murdannah (men’s apartment) and, in like manner, which the husband wishes to be undisturbed, he eats and sleeps in the murdannah.
“ A second reason for this intercourse in England is, the coldness of the climate, which requires exercise and walking, and the husband to sleep in the same bed with the wife: but concealment from view is incompatible with walking; and as for the second case, the want of room is the cause: for it is natural for mankind, when under distress and affliction of mind, to wish frequently for retirement and privacy, by sleeping alone.
“ A third cause is, the people here being all of one race; for in this kingdom, places in a corner of the globe where there is no coming nor going of foreigners, the intercourse of the sexes is not attended with the same consequences of a corruption of manners as in Asia, where people of various nations dwell in the same city; and to allow the women such a liberty there, where there is such danger of corruption, would be an encroachment upon the liberty of the men, which (as shown in the beginning) is contrary to justice. That a corruption of manners must ensue, where various kinds of people mix together, is too evident to need demonstration. Before the Mussulmans entered Hindostan, the women did not conceal themselves from view; and even now, in all the Hindoo villages, it is not customary: and it well known how inviolable the Hindoos preserve their own customs, and how obstinately they are attached to them: but now so rigidly do women in the great towns observe this practice of concealment from view, that the bride does not even show herself to her father-in-law, and the sister comes but seldom into the presence of her brother.
“ A fourth cause of the custom in Europe is, the necessity which the women there have to acquire experience in the affairs of the world, and to learn various arts, on account of the duty laid upon them of taking part in their husband’s business. This experience could not be obtained by keeping in concealment; whereas the duties of Asiatic women consisting only in having the custody of the husband’s property, and bringing up the children, they have no occasion for such experience, or for laying aside their own custom of concealment. What has been just said, was to show that the Asiatic women have no necessity to expose their persons; but it must also be observed, that they have many reason for preferring privacy. One is the love of leisure and repose from the fatigue of motion; a second, a desire of preserving their honour by not mixing with the vulgar, nor suffering the insults of the low and rude, who are always passing along the streets. This feeling they have in common with the wives of European noblemen, who, to preserve their dignity, ate never seen walking in the streets; and also with ladies in private life, who, when walking out at night, and even in the day, are always attended by a ale friend, or servant, who pro “The notion which the European women have, that the women of Asia never see a man’s face but their husband, and are debarred from all amusement and society, proceeds entirely from misinformation: they can keep company with their husband’s and father’s male relations, and with their old neigbours and domestics present; and they can go in palankeens (palanquin) to the houses of their relations and of ladies of their own rank, even though their husbands are unacquainted; and also to walk in the gardens, after strangers are excluded, and they can send for musicians and dancers, to entertain them at their own house, and they have many other modes of amusement besides those mentioned.
“The second cause why the liberty of Asiatic women appears less than that of Europeans, is the privilege of the husband by law, to marry several wives. This, to the European women, seems a grievous oppression; and they hold those very cheap who submit to it. but, in truth, the cause of this law and custom is the nature of the female sex themselves, which separates them from the husband the several last months of pregnancy, and time of ducking; and, besides these, the Asiatic women have many other times of being separate from their husbands. This privilege, not being allowed by the English law, is, indeed, a great hardship upon the English husbands; whereas the Asiatic law, permitting polygamy, does the husband justice, and wrongs not the wife; for the honour of the first and equal wife is not affected by it: those women who submit to marry with a married man, not being admitted into the society of ladies, as they are never of high or wealthy families, no man of honour ever allowing his daughter to make such a marriage.
The mode in which these other wives is this:---those who are of genteel extraction have a separate house for themselves, like kept mistresses in England; and those who are not, live in the house with the equal wife, like servants, and the husband, at times, conveys himself to them in a clandestine manner.---Beside, these wives cannot invade any rights of the equal wife; for although they and their children are, by law, entitled to inheritance, yet, since the equal wife never marries without a very large dowry settled upon her, all that the husband leaves goes to the payment of this dowry, and nothing remains for his heirs. The opinion, that the men of Asia have three or four wives, is very ill founded; for, in common, they have only one; out of a thousand, there will be fifty persons who have from one to two, and ten out of these from one to two, and ten out of these who have not more than two. The fear of the bad consequences of polygamy makes men submit with patience to the times of separation from the equal wife, as much the better way; for, from what I know, it is easier to live with two tigresses than two wives.
“The third cause is the power of divorce being in the hands of the husband. This is ordained by law, but not practiced; for if a great offence be the motive to divorce a wife, and if it be proved against her, she receives punishment by the order of the magistrate, or from the husband, with the concurrence of all her relations; and if the offence be a trivial nature, such as a difference of temper, and unsociability, the husband punishes her by leaving the female apartment, and living in his own. But the reason for divorce, being at the will of the husband, lies in the very justice of the law, and the distinction of the male sex over the female, on account of the greater share they take in the management of the world; for all the laborious work falls to their lot, such as carrying heavy burdens, going to war, repulsing enemies, &c. and the women generally spend their lives in repose and quiet. Nevertheless, if a wife establish a criminal offence against her husband, such as an unfair distribution of the necessaries of life, she can obtain a divorce, in spite of him.
“The fourth is the little credit the law attaches to the evidence of women in Asia; for, in a court of justice, every fact is proved by the testimony of two men---but if women be the witnesses, four are required. This does not arise from the superiority of the one over the other, but it is found on the little experience and knowledge women possess, and the fickleness on their disposition.
“ The fifth is, Asiatic women having to leave off going to balls and entertainment, and wearing shewy dresses and ornaments, after the death of their husbands. This is owing to the great affection for their husband’s memory, and their own modes and habits; for there is nothing to prevent a women from doing otherwise, or marrying a second husband, but the dread of exposing herself to the ridicule and censure of women of her own rank.
“ The sixth is, the Asiatic daughters not having the liberty of choosing their husbands. On this head nothing need be said; for in Europe this liberty is merely nominal, since, without the will of the father and mother, the daughter’s choice is of no avail; and, in its effects, it serves only to encourage running away, (as the male and female slaves in India do) and to breed coldness and trouble among the members of a family. But, granting that such a liberty does exist in England, the despair and misery it must always entail are very evident. The choice of a girl just come from the nursery, and desirous, by nature, to get a husband, in an affair upon which the happiness of her whole life depends, can neither deserve that respect nor consideration which is due to the choice of her parents, who have profited by experience, and are not blinded by passion.
“ But what the Asiatic women have more than the European, both by law and customs, may be ranked under eight heads:---First, their power over the property and children of the husband, by customs; for the men of Asia consider the principal object of marriage, after the procreation of their own species for the worship of God, two things---the one, to have their money and effects taken care of, and the other, to have their children brought up, so that they themselves, being entirely disengaged of these concerns, may turn the whole of their endeavours to the attainment of their various pursuits. The chief part, therefore, of whatever wealth they may acquire, they in charge of they wives, and thus the women have it in their power to annihilate, in one day, the product of a whole life. Although this seldom happens, who has amassed a large fortune in youth and power, and has delivered it in charge to his wife, when he demands it back, in old age and necessity, she does not allow him more than daily support, and lays the rest up in a place of security, for the sake of her children; and so great is the power they possess, as to the disposal of their children, that frequently they are brought up without any education, or die in childhood; for the women, on account of their little sense, are never pleased to part with their children, by sending them to school, and to acquire experience by travelling; and when they fell sick, they give them,