- Between West and South:Asianist Women's History and Islam
It looks as simple as one-two-three. One year, 1540–1541, in the life of a substantial Ottoman town. Two registers of documents. Three women—a child-bride demanding a separation from her affines, a teacher charged with heresy, and a pregnant peasant woman. But the rich and layered history that Peirce reconstructs from these materials could potentially disable all overly general applications of Western liberal feminist epistemes to the investigation of pre-Enlightenment and non-Western pasts. That is enough cause to celebrate this book. Peirce's earlier historicization of the Ottoman Sultanic harem had inspired me to rethink the conjunction between slavery and state-making in South Asian pasts. Peirce's current work invites another comparativist interrogation by scholars interested in amplifying the historical dialectic of sharia and kanun, normative religion and imperial prerogative, prescriptions of Islamic legal procedures and the flexibility of Islamic legal practitioners. In attending to all these in the current work, Peirce contributes substantially to two scholarly feminist traditions simultaneously. The first explicates the piety of women living within Muslim-majority societies in the modern non-Western world.1 The second seeks to explain the erosion of the libertarian and gender-sensitive potentialities of Islamic law within the histories of colonization in Muslim-minority and -majority populations alike. So, even though Peirce positions her work self-consciously within an Ottomanist and Europeanist tradition, modeling it as a social microhistory based on legal records on the pattern of Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms, her findings are more helpful for feminist scholars living in, and working on, Muslim populations in Asia and Africa. It is within a dialogic frame which retrains Peirce's work for an Asianist audience that I situate the discussion that follows.
Let me begin with the flourishing sixteenth-century town of Aintab, located at the crossroads of nomadic settlement and mercantile routes. Such a frontier town was common to other regimes in the period. In South Asia, the Mughal administration inherited from preceding sultanates the task of governing societies containing substantial non-Muslim populations. Like the Ottoman Islamic jurists espousing Hanafi doctrine, South Asian jurists and emperors also treated the zimmi (non-Muslim) subjects on an equal legal footing. Peirce's insight that those who resorted to the Ottoman courts did so because they already shared concepts from a composite [End Page 192] legal-ethical universe and would have expected to find "resolution" of disputes helps to explain the ready adoption of Islamic legal courts and processes in early modern South Asia as well. So, from the perspective of a documentary study of qazi's records,2 the most obvious question that is then thrown up for Peirce is one about the direction of cultural translation, or the absence of dialogue between and across Islamic jurisprudence and zimmi social and ethical concepts. Clearly, a great deal of social and intellectual information of local lifeways had to be translated and compressed into Islamic jurisprudential terms before and during the universal extension of Islamic law to non-Islamic groups. This explains the success with which women of non-Muslim groups in seventeenth-century Gujarat submitted disputed property claims (arising from inheritance, marriage, and divorce) to local sharia courts. Similarly, in the eighteenth-century Panjab, the "Brahman, khatri, goldsmith and Hindu carpenter" frequented the qazi's court alongside the Sayyed and Muslim mason.3 While Peirce is attentive to the different confessional groups (Armenian Christians and Jews) who adhered to Islamic legal principles and processes, she is less attentive to the linguistic-cultural translations that might have also occurred as the ethical and social practices of zimmis were drawn into the consolidation of Islamic jurisprudence itself. Perhaps Peirce's records circumscribe such an investigation. But glimpses of such processes appear in sections of her work, especially when the social-cultural practices of semi-nomadic Turkmen are translated into the legal category of settled urban folk as zina (wrongful sexual conduct) (362–71).
Such translations are crucial to highlight in any study of long-lived imperial formations. Hitherto, the analysis of cultural translation has been limited to studies in Roman...