Begum Sarbuland Jang

بیگم سر بلند جنگ
Hyderabad, India
1864-1930

Begum Sarbuland Jang belonged to the highest society of her time. Born into an elite family from north India, she subsequently married the Chief Justice of Hyderabad, Hamidullah Khan Sarbuland Jang (r). This relationship is foregrounded in her name, for though she was known privately as Akhtar un-Nisa, she identified herself publicly using only her husband’s title, Sarbuland Jang. Because she avoided the public eye, much of what we know about her life can only be gleaned from writing by and about her male relatives, who belonged to the most influential families of early twentieth century India. She remains largely in the archival shadows, only rarely mentioned by name. Her only publication is a travel journal, which she kept during a trip to the Middle East and Europe in 1909-10. She published the work only after the passing of her husband in the 1930s.

The travel text transalted here, Duniya Aurat ki Nazar me.n, is exceptionally rich in detailed observations of the everyday lives of women and what it meant for Begum Sarbuland to meet them as an ‘Eastern’ woman. Throughout her travels, Begum Sarbuland befriends women from a range of backgrounds, sharing in both their public and private lives. She, in turn, invites the female reader particularly to weigh her own experiences against the author’s observations and reflections on the lives of the diverse women she encounters. For her own part, Begum Sarbuland writes that the greatest lesson she learned in her travels was that the mindless pursuit of “freedom” as practiced in “the West” would destroy the comfort and peace of Indian life, exchanging outward liberation for a spiritual void:

Unfortunately for India, Western culture is spreading here and the women of India are charging forward recklessly toward the freedoms of the West. What stood out to me most strongly after completing my travels abroad was that the very same blind freedom that was destroying India had already plundered the tranquility and true repose of the West. This blind freedom and their foreign culture has made their lives appear outwardly to be very attractive and pleasant indeed; but their internal life is not so pleasant at all, rather, it seems to be devoid of any spiritual contentment.

This is not, however, meant to be a blanket assertion of ‘Eastern’ superiority, for she also laments the circumscribed lives and limited educational opportunities of Indian Muslim women. Reflecting on her experiences both at home and abroad, she ultimately concludes:

the best life for women is that which was lived by the Muslims women of the earliest centuries [of Islam]. The women of the first Islamic centuries did not remain shut up in their houses chewing paan, frittering away their time in useless chatter. And nor were they, like Western women, the objects to be enjoyed by men. They appear, rather, as responsible women in their homes, women who raised their children and maintained the household. But they were also women who, like Hazrat Ayesha, went out to the battlefield to tend to the wounded. There were no excesses then, as there are today. And this is why the generations that they raised in their own laps would go on to become victorious over half of the world.

Although Begum Sarbuland is particularly interested in womanhood abroad, her account is wide-ranging and moves from the deeply personal to the anthropological, as she draws attention to the many social practices she encountered over several months abroad. She also considers her own role in these settings and discusses what form of purdah best suited at a given moment. For instance, what type of veil to wear at a dinner at sea attended solely by European guests.

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The World in the Eyes of a Woman

Begum Sarbuland Jang
1909
Damascus (Original Language: Urdu)

City life in Damascus Two-horse carriages can be had very cheaply here, and can also be found at any time. Phaeton carriages and other vehicles are also widely available. In our India, the common people use simple yakkas and tongas, while here fine carriages are the norm. We finally arrived at the doors of the [Umayyid] …