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Saintly_Jinn23

The Curious Phenomenon Of Shi'ite Courtesans

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While some might see "Shi'ite Courtesans," as an oxymoron, in historical Shi'ite societies, the courtesan has occupied a strange and ambiguous place in the cultures of such places as Awadh and Persia. In Safavid Iran, according to Rudi Matthee's essay "Prostitutes, Courtesans and Dancing Girls: Women Entertainers in Safavid Iran(link: http://www.academia.edu/1149024/Prostitutes_Courtesans_and_Dancing_Girls_Women_Entertainers_in_Safavid_iran ) the phenomenon of high class courtesans earning considerable respect in Safavid society for their knowledge of music, dance, poetry as well as their charitable activities is addressed and it is clear that at times such women walked a fine line between the class of ordinary prostitutes (12,000 of which according to European traveler, Jean Chardin, who stayed in Isfahan in 1673, were registered and taxed in the capital city alone) and that of the class of a religiously sanctioned temporary wife. As Matthee, who is the Professor of History at the University of Delaware and who has written on many subjects pertaining to Safavid and Qajari history, mentions in one section of the aforementioned essay:

 

 
 
 
 
Clerical attitudes seem to have been in line with such laxity. Chardin was ambivalent about the position of Islam on prostitution, now calling it a sin and a practice forbidden by religion, now asserting that, though it condemned fornication as improper and infamous, the Muslim religion did not consider it a sin. He left, however, no doubt about the prevalence of the practice, insisting that laymen and clerics alike patronized public women with great frequency. At night, he said, walking through the religious colleges and mosques, one saw public women, veiled, some accompanied by their servants, others alone, enter the small lodgings of preachers and teachers, where they would stay until the following morning. No one, he added, took any offense at this. The same was true in the caravanserais, where foreign merchants would seek sexual relief with women. A great sense of naturalness, even dignity, is certainly conveyed by a rare explicit image of a Safavid prostitute, found in the recently discovered sketchbook of Engelbert Kaempfer. The drawing depicts a prostitute, qahbeh, in a pose of eas and relaxation, with a pensive look, smoking a water pipe while holding a cup of coffee in one hand. Implying that prostitutes and clerics did not live in separate world, the artist juxtaposes the woman to a molla who, while seemingly engrossed in his (religious) text, steals furtive glances at her.
 
The women thus described and portrayed were probably sighehs, women who agreed to a temporary marriage, contracted on the basis of Shi'i law, of a specific and limited duration. Chardin in his description calls attention to this, while suggesting the fine line that existed between outright prostitution and temporary marriage, mut'eh, as reflected in the clever syllogism used by Iranians to justify prostitution. Prostitutes, they argued, lived in a state of sin, from which they could only free themselves by repenting, that is, by leaving their dissolute life behind. At the same time, their infidel state was the reason why they were held to pay tribute. Secondly, they argued, being with an unmarried woman was a sin, from which one could only be absolved by marrying her. That, Chardin explained, was why scrupulous Iranians were in the habit of contracting the women with whom they conversed for an hour, a night, a day, or a week.
 
...
 
Premodern Iran [generally speaking, as far as Matthee's article is concerned, in the 17th century of the Safavid dynasty] seems to have gone to unusual lengths in this exhibiting a fascinating contrast between a form of female seclusion which was as extreme as its counterpart-- an open display of sexual permissiveness.
 
 
 
 
Elsewhere, Matthee writes:
 
The situation in Isfahan, on the other hand, was not representative of the rest of the country, for in provincial cities prostitution does not seem to have been nearly as widespread as in the capital, a situation corroborated by Kaempfer's claim that Isfahan alone accounts for two-fifths of all of Iran's vice taxes. Yet all cities, from Shamakhi in the northwestern region of Shirvan to Bandar 'Abbas on the Persian Gulf and Qandahar on the border with Muhjal India, were sites of taxable prostitution and officially licensed and monitored brothels. The one exception was apparently Ardabil, birthplace of the Safavid order and the site of the shrine of its founder, Safi al-Din. Ardabil hadlong been known for the piety of its inhabitants, and local concerns about an increase in prostitution and other irreligious pracitces go back to the period following the death of Shaykh Safi in 1334. Unlike earlier rulers, who do not seem to have heeded such concerns, Shah Abbas I banned all official prostitution from Ardabil on account of the city's sacred nature. His proscription did not have any lasting effect, however, for (J.J.) Struys in 1670 noted that even Ardabil knew its prostitutes, some of whom were "poets composing poems in praise of Ali and Hosayn."
 
On the subject of dancing girls and courtesans, who may be differentiated from the more low class practicioners of prostitution, Matthee relates these observations of Safavid life:
 
Professional women dancer were organized in troupes each of which was led by an elderly woman who was herself a former member of the troupe. This "madam" would protect the dancers, prevent quarrels and jealousy, take care of their pay and make sure that they looked presentable, while arranging invitations for performances at festivities, diplomatic receptions, and parties organized by officials and courtiers, the typical occasions where such women would show their talents. Top state officials, including the shah himself, had their own troupes. The shah's personal troupe consisted of twenty-four women, who were considered the most famous courtesans of the country and who were followed by their own suite.
 
....
 
 
The sources on Safavid Iran, scant though they may be, compel us to paint a much more complex picture by making a clear distinction between the courtesans attached to the royal court and the households of the elite, on the one hand, and the bedraggled women that offered their bodies for sale in the streets and squares of Iran's main cities, on the other. There is no doubt that the majority of those engaged in the trade in Safavid time were forced into it because of circumstances beyond their will and lived miserable lives. High-class courtesans, the court's dancing girls, and certainly ordinary prostitutes may not all have entered the trade voluntarily-- among the latter non-Muslims, most notably Indian, Armening and Circassian women seem to have predominated. Courtesans, on the others hand, far from living marginal lives, were highly visible in society, enjoyed a measure of respect, and were their own agents, with the wealthiest ones maintaining independent homes. The first to enter Qandahar upon Shah Abbas's conquest of the city in 1622 are said to have been a group of courtesans headed by one Dalleleh Chizi, one of the shah's favorites. This was done, according to della Valle, to humiliate the Mughals by making it look as if the fortess had been taken by women. Courtesans, Don Garcia de Silva y Figueroa insists, were conspicious for their sumptuous clothing. The same author observed how even during Ashura, the anniversary of Imam Hussayn's marturdom, most of them went around unveiled, dressed in yellow or tan adorned with silk and gold thread, instead of the obligatory undifferentiated black. In her attire the courtesan thus loudly and alluringly proclaimed a stark contrast with the uniform and drab clothing of "proper" women. The fact that courtesans often moved about on horseback, thereby signaling their ability to trespass into male space, sent an even more powerful message, for it symbolized their transgression of normative behavior. Those moving in the upper circles were also highly esteemed and enjoyed many privileges. As in Renaissance Italy or nineteenth century Lucknow in India, the courtesan, a woman of some education, familiar with music and of discerning taste, was an integral part of court life in Safavid iran. Della Valle, as an Italian nobleman obviously interested in the phenomenon, gives the example of an older courtesan by the name of Felfel (Pepper), who was much respected by everyone, though she was said to be "old and ugly," because she had been among those who regularly performed for Shah Abbas.
 
...
 
De Silva y Figueroa obliquely refer to ambiguity and ambivalence in the inner world of courtesans by noting that they were engaged in charitable work. These women, he observed:
 
"who went about town, alone or only accompanied by a single valet, well dressed, without mantle and face uncovered except for a gauze veilof gold and transparent silk, which covers their head, face and bosom but through which it is easy to discern all their beauty. In their hands they carry a wooden or a gilded box, and they appraoch men and halt before them without saying a word, with much modesty, with lowered eyes, until they give them an alms, which they subsequently disburse to the poorest and the neediest they know."
 
The purpose of this form of charity may have been the attainment of salvation on the part of those who so clearly contravened religious and moral strictures...There may also have been an element of social redemption in such charitable activities. In his contribution to this volume, Houchang Chehabi argues that the generosity to the poor and the weak shown by some female singers in modern Iran perhaps made their profession more socially acceptable [both Matthee and Chehabi's essays form a part of the collection of essays in the book Iran and Beyond]. By entering a realm ordinarily open only to men, they became "honorary lutis." It is quite possible that the good works performed by the courtesans of Safavid times had a similar purpose and effect.
 
In a further suggestion of the intimate and positive links that existed between the religio political establishment and the trade, Don Garcia informs us that the balcony of the gallery of the great mosque of Isfahan was always reserved for the courtesans and the principal public women, whom "one honors and esteems here more than other women because the King gives them great privileges and considerable exemption, both because of the profit they yield for him and because there are those who follow the army, which would not be able to operate without them.
 
 
As Matthee mentions, there is still little information on the social life of women in Iran during the Safavid period. This is in part due to the scattered nature of many indigenous Safavid records and manuscripts throughout Iran and various museums. Thus, studies of the Safavid period, particularly in regards to the role and lives of women, often are dependent on the contemporary accounts of European travelers, whose window into Safavid and Iranian culture and religion was often limited just to that of the urban upper class of cities like Isfahan and whose worldviews and cultural perspectives may have affected how they perceived and interpreted various customs of the Iranians.
 
However, when attempting to ascertain the lives and role of these Iranian courtesans as well the typical prostitutes, a number of whom seemed to have affiliated themselves with the Shi'ite religion, by examining another Shi'ite culture of which we posses more clear records of the lives of women, namely the class of courtesans, by both foreign observers and native inhabitants, and placing these next to what we can know about such women in similar positions during the Safavid era, we may be able to deduce more about the lives of the Iranian courtesans and what their daily experiences and relation to the other segments of Shi'ite society may have been like. Through this process, we also witness an odd yet seemingly recurring trend where the institution of temporary marriage or mutah has provided a means by which women of the lower castes of society can experience greater social mobility and act as sort of bridge between classes. We also see how many non-Muslim prostitutes may have found conversion to Shi'ite Islam to be in their best interest as it allowed them to continue doing what they did best except within a greater realm of religious sanctity, which also ultimately allowed them, in spite of whatever low class heritage they bore or whatever their past may have been, to become more active participants not only the secular realms of life, but in popular religious piety as well.
 
patnanautch.jpg?w=487
 
The following excerpts are taken from the book Sacred Space And Holy War: The Politics, Culture and History of Shi'ite Islam by Juan Cole ( http://www.amazon.com/Sacred-Space-Holy-War-Politics/dp/1860647367/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1393224470&sr=1-1&keywords=1860647367 ) , who is the Professor of History at the University of Michigan and the editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies. In the Chapter entitled "Women and the Making of Shi'ism," Cole devotes considerable time to discussing the role women have played in Shi'ite religion in Awadh. Much is mentioned about role noblewomen played in organizing the feminine sphere and how women secured a greater sense of independence for themselves within a male dominated society, wielding strong economic and political influence and having a considerable impact on the popular manifestations of Shi'ite piety across both genders. In the section dealing specifically with the courtesans or tawa'if of Shi'ite India, we see that courtesans played an important role in this process and, curiously enough, were often the most devout of Shi'ite women within Awadh. Mostly coming from low class backgrounds, often Hindu converts of lesser caste or born Shi'ites, courtesans found themselves generally responsible for the education of noblemen's children in the arts, literature and sometimes even religion. The institution of temporary marriage made the money earned from their clients religiously permissible, thus allowing them to patronize mosques and religious festivals. Sororities of Shi'ite courtesans became well known and respected for their use of their earnings in the organizing of competing Muharram commemorations and Husayn (as) and his passion at Karbala appear to have been extremely popular with them. Hindu courtesans and prostitutes found conversion to Shi'ism to offer more opportunities for them and appear to have migrated from other parts of India to Lucknow and major Awadhi centers where they could continue their trade through the contracting of successive temporary marriages and potentially move up the social ladder. Hindu and Muslim widows, divorcees and prostitutes (as well as those who were born into the courtesan life) were more or less condemned, if you will, to life as a courtesans in order to survive, being no longer virgins and thus less desirable. There was very little chance any of these women would be able to find themselves a more permanent husband and the most they could look forward to was an early retirement and living off their savings as they grew older and less attractive as they headed a house of new and younger initiates into the courtesan lifestyle as "Madames." but through Shi'ism's practice of temporary marriage, they could perhaps s[Edited Out]e out a better living for themselves by becoming temporary wives of middle class artisans and traders or nobles. The Shi'ite devotion of these Muslim courtesans, as well as those of the trade who were still Hindus but nonetheless carved out places for themselves in Shi'ite society through temporary marriages, even adopting Shi'ite names on some occasions, appears to be rather intense.
 
From Sacred Space...Holy War in the chapter of Women and the Making of Shi'ism concerning the situation of Lucknow in particular we read:
 
Courtesans played an important cultural role in Awadh, with its droves of idle, wealthy nobles, and they often plied their trade in Shi'ite society under the pretext of practiciing a serious of temporary marriages, allowed in Shi'ite law. Courtesans in Awadh came from certain castes, but they tended to become Shi'ite, the same religion as many of their patrons, especially since temporary marriage as an institution did on occasion give them legal benefits. Their cultivation of Urdu poetry and the art of singing gave them an ability to render elegies for the martyred Imam during the mourning month of Muharram, and courtesans often outdid themselves in commemorating Husayn. Given their fallen status, they looked to him for intercession for their sins, and it seems likely that they, as an oppressed and exploited group, identified with the suffering of the Imam and his family during the battle with Yazid's army on the plains of Iraq.
 
The British census of 1891 returned 28,128 coutrtesans (tawa'if) in the North-Western Provinces and Oudh, of whome 21,958, or 85 percent, were Muslim. Many of these women were recruited from particular castes, such as Mirasi, Kabutari (women who flirted like a pigeon). Huruikya (dancers to a drum), and Kashmiri. Some significant proportion of the courtesans were Hindu widows, many of whom apparently converted to Islam when they took up the trade. Scripturalist Hindusim prescribed sati or self-immolation for widows, and even when reformists and the British abolished the practice, widoes faced difficult circumstances. In their community's ideology, often, they simply were not supposed to be there. Others came from castes that generation after generation specializaed in prostitution. They often had an arrangement wherein the men of the caste purchased women from outside, who remained faithful, whereas their sisters became dancing girls. Parents sent the girls to begin their training in singing and dancing at age 8, offering sweetmeats to the poor at the local mosque on this occasion. As note, many of Lucknow's courtesans in the nineteenth century were or became Shi'ites, the religion  of the ruling class until 1856.
 
The chief religious authorities in Lucknow gave rulings concerning the fine line between temporary marriage and prostitution, which even in their condemnation reveal the widespread confusion between the two. Contracting a temporary marriage with a prosititute, Sayyid Husayn Nasirabadi said, was disapproved (but not, apparently, absolutely forbidden or haram) Only the most fastidious would be deterred by this sort of ruling. Chief Mujtahid Sayyid Muhammad Nasirabadi, asked whether it was permissible to marry a prostitute temporarily or permanently, replied that if one has certain knowledge that a woman is an adultress. Another questioner threw it up in a later clergyman's face that in point of fact many Shi'ite ulama have allowed temprary marriage with prostitutes. He replied that most ulama have allowed it but grudgingly.
 
Mirza Rusva's novel, Umarao Jan Ada, depicts the lives of courtesans in nineteenth-century Lucknow. Although it was written by a male early in the twentieth century, the book is related in the first person bythe female protagonist, and Mirza Rusva has clearly depended for many biographical details and historical insightes on conversations with real courtesans in the Chowk district of Lucknow. Umarao Jan Ada may be a construct, but Mirza Rusva himself admitted that he always based his main characters on actual acquaintances.
 
The courtesans on whom he focused received extensive training dance and music, and even in the polite letters. He has Umarao Jan describe her many years of study with a Shi'ite clergyman hired by the Madame of her establishment to teach her Persian and Urdu verse, as well as more arcane subjects such as Arabic logic. The more accomplished of these women, then, were highly literate, rivaling noblewomen in the sophisticiation of their education, even though they often came from poor or middling background and even though they associated a wide range of Lucknow society. (Abd al-Harim) Sharar [Lucknow memorialist] noted that "throughout India, including Lucknow, some courtesans have achieved such status that they participate more or less as equals in the gatherings of refined and polished people." He adds, "the houses of Chaudhrayan Haidar Jan and some other couresands of high status were the clubs of genteel people."
 
Interspersed among the picaresque details of her biography, we find glimpses into the courtesans' religious roles. Umarao Jan describes how her Madame, known simply as "Khanum (Madame)," mounted impressive commemorations of Muharram.
 
"Khanum's Mohurram observances were organized on a more elaborate scale than that of any other courtesan in the city. The place of mourning was decorated with banners, buntings, chandeliers, globes, etc. And whatever there was, was of the very best. During Mohurram, there were daily gatherings for the first tend day. On the tenth day, the faithful who had been on fast and beggars were fed in hundreds. Later there were gatherings every Thursday right up to the fortieth day of mourning."
 
The wealth and social prominence of the Madames, then, allowed them to mount the sort of Muharram commemorations that had a wide impact on the city's civic life. Mirza Rusva has Umarao Jan say that she was for her own songs of lament for the martyred Imam, and was even invited to perform at the palace by an Awadh quen. While this may have been a piece of fiction, we already know from Sharar*** the great popularity of heart-rending songs about the tragedy of Karbala among women, and it makes perfect sense that professional singers would have contributed creatively to this aspect of Awadh culture.
 
The prominence of the courtesans, with their bazaar connection, in  Muharram commemorations was a Lucknow innocation, according to Sharar. He evokes the change of mood when the Delhi dilettante class made its way to the Awadh capital, recounting a conversation recorded between a courtesan named Nuran and an old client:
 
"The nobleman and courtesan were both from Delhi but the conversation took place in Lucknow. Nuran said, 'Welcome Mir Sahib. You are like the Eid Moon, which shows up only once a year. In Delhi you used to come and stay with me until late at night. What has happened to you in Lucknow that you never your face? How I search you recently in Kerbala without finding a trace of you! Do not forget to go there on the eighth day of mourning'...even courtesans were continuously coming to settle in Lucknow and those who once found delight in the Delhi flower shows now found enjoyment in Kerbala and the celebrations of the eighth day of Muharram."
 
The morally marginal possition of the courtesans, along with the scoial prominence, appears to have driven some of their interest in religion. Mirza Rusva depicts Umarao Jan as having gone on pilgrimage to the Shi'ite shrine city of Karbala in Iraq, and has her express a desire to retire there eventually. Late in her life she began saying her five daily prayers. He implies that she hoped that, because her sins were victimless ones, her act of Shi'ite devotion might lead to divine forgiveness.
 
For the scripturalist ulama, a conundrum arose concerning participation the mounring observance mounted by Shi'ite courtesans. Were these fallen women, who fasted during Muharram and spent energy and wealth on commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husayn (the grandson of the Prophet killed A.D. 680)- were they Shi'ites or not? The Lucknow religious authorities, although they condemned prostitution and debauchery, were not actually very hard on the courtesans. The jurists replied that a born Muslim was a Muslim unless departure from Islam could be proved. Shi'ite jurists also permitted believers to pray in a mosque built by a courtesan if the money employed in its construction came from her remuneration as a temporary wife rather than from simple prostitution.
 
The courtesans were integrated into the commemoration of other religious festivals, as well. Although the Id al-Fitr, the day on which the Ramadan fast was broken, was a holy day, it was observed in Lucknow primarily as a day for secular celebration. Although Mrs. (Meer Hasan) Ali [A British traveler in the area during the 1820's] thought that "respectable" Muslims families would not allow a dancing girl in their homes, she admits that on the Id al-Fitr dancing-girls were much in the demand "in the apartments of the gentlemen."
 
 
*** In an earlier section of the same chapter, Cole makes mention of Sharar's recounting of all female Muharram processions at night while camping near a shrine in Lucknow on the fourtieth day after Ashura, Sharar mentioned the incident in his memoirs with a great sense of nostalgia:
 
"I awoke suddenly at about two in the morning and the most entrancing melody greeted my ear. This sound had also aroused my friends and made them restless. We left the tent and saw in the still and silent night in the light of the moon a processon of women approaching carrying tazias [paper models of the shrines of Husain]. All were bare-headed and their hair hung loose. In the centre was a woman carrying a candle. By its light a beautiful, delicately formed girl was from some sheets of paper and chanting a dirge and several other women were singing with her. I cannot describe the emotions that were aroused by the stillness, the moonlight, these bare-headed beauties and the soul rending notes of their sad melody."
 
While Sharar doesn't say, nor does Cole make this observation himself, it is quite possible that the incident of the all female parade mentioned here included not only Shi'ite women of the lower and middle classes, but also noble ladies and courtesans and may have in fact been organized itself by one of the Madames of the city.
 
uttar-pradesh-tourist-attractions-2-chot
 
Elaborating more on the social situation of courtesans in Awadh, the book Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema by Rachel Dwyer mentions:
 
Courtesans [tawa'if] were either born into the trade or young girls sold into it by they their parents or others. Umrao Jan [the fictitious yet reality based courtesan created by Mirza Rusva] was born in Faizabad, kidnapped as a young girl by her father's enemy and sold to a courtesan in Lucknow. They lived in households (kotha) run by a chief courtesan (choudhrayan), who had acquired wealth and fame through her beauty, her music and dancing talents, which she used to set up her own house where she would recruit and train younger courtesans. The courtesan had to leran music, Persian and Urdu poetry, Arabic grammar, and to dance the mujra, a dance where she pays her respect to the assembly rather than offering an erotic spectacle. The best house kept skilled male musicians and were important patrons of music. The sons of gentry were sent to the kothas to learn manners and Urdu poetry, and presumably the art of lovemaking.
 
Courtesans, of both Hindu and Shi'ite religious affiliation, appear to have held a rather ambivalent position in society where on the on the one hand they were looked down upon by some members of the middle class and the clergy but at the same time held a considerable amount of respect among others in the same culture, enough that they more or less freely participate in the Shi'ite religion and possess a sense of authority. On top of this, they found a sense of empowerment and hope in the Shi'ite religion, a faith that in their eyes guaranteed them salvation and forgiveness regardless of their caste or profession and within which they felt like they could "belong," and still have a sense of purpose. And we can also deduce that common prostitutes, among the most reviled members of society, may have converted to Shi'ism and/or joined kothas of their own free will so as to enjoy the social and spiritual benefits that came with the occupation of a tawa'if. 
 
When we consider that the people of Lucknow and the Shi'ites of Awadh were not only influenced by the same religion as the Persians, but also by a mixture of Persian and Hindu cultural customs, we can perhaps look back at things mentioned earlier in the excerpts of Rudi Matthee concerning European travelers' observations on prostitutes and courtesans in Persia. It is quite possible that very similar situations existed for courtesans in Shi'ite Iran as they did in Lucknow. It is also possible that what European travelers perceived as merely debauched social acceptance of prostitution and hypocrisy on the part of the Persians was much more complex. Safavid Iran for a long while permitted normal prostitution legally, regulating and taxing it. In addition, the Iranians at the time observed mutah marriages, which, if Lucknow is any clue, possibly provided some prostitutes, who were mostly poor, divorced or widowed women, more opportunities to survive and obtain something of a better social standing by associating themselves with troupes of more seasoned and educated courtesans who treaded a boundary between the classes of illicit prostitutes and the normal wives. These courtesans would then, like their Indian Awadhi counterparts, form organizations with their earnings from contracting multiple temporary marriages for the purpose of training new courtesans, converting normal prostitutes into (somewhat) more respectable members of society skilled in the arts, as well as collecting alms which were used to help the poor, possibly other poor urban women who had been abandoned by their husbands or families and so had been forced into prostitution (which appears to have been common in Isfahan by the mid to late 17th century when the empire began to encounter more severe economic difficulties). And with the institution of temporary marriage, courtesans likely formed more meaningful and profitable relationships with their clients which went beyond mere sexual relations and could have also been engaged in educating their clients' or other men's children through their permanent spouses.The account of J.J. Struys that some "prostitutes" in Ardabil also composed poetry to commemorate Shi'ite holy figures would imply that these prostitutes in question were more likely courtesans who would contract temporary marriages in order to support themselves, something the Europeans didn't quite understand as being any different in its nature (it may be that when assessing the number of prostitutes in Iran that European travelers like Jean Chardin, aware of the practice of mutah, didn't bother to make any qualitative difference between normal low class brothels or houses for the training of more elite courtesans who preferred to contract temporary marriages with the wealthy artisans and nobles or the shah himself, complete with pension plans). The prostitutes in Ardabil mentioned by Struys may have been seen as engaging in perfectly licit relations by many of their fellow Muslims. And the Iranian courtesans, like the Awadhi ones,  could have been active in the popular religious piety of the urban areas where they plied their trade, using their skills in poetry and music (possibly taught to them by a previous madame of a kotha) to compose odes to the Imams and the holy figures of the Qu'ran. Some of them may have even used money they obtained through temporary marriages to help fund architectural projects or religious centers. We know for example that in Ardabil, nearly 20% of the revenue of the Shrine of  Safi ad-Din, founder of the Safavid Sufi Order and sire of the Safavid Shahs, was donated by women (see the entry 'Economic Activities of Safavid Women in the Shrine City of Ardabil' by Fariba Zarinebaf-Shahr in the journal of Iranian Studies, Vol. 31) and Safavid women, especially in the early period up until the end of Shah Abbas I's reign, often donated money and property from their estates to fund  the building or maintenance of caravansaries, madrases, the arts and shrines.
 
It is not impossible to believe that among the female patrons of artistic and religious establishments that not only were there the regular women, daughters and wives of merchants, physicians, nobles etc. but also the courtesans who had gained some respect for themselves in their communities and amassed something of a fortune through temporary marriages and the gifts and dowries obtained from their clients. For the courtesans who identified themselves as Shi'ites, this probably didn't cause a crisis. Many of these women may have initially come from poor sectors of urban society or have been born into their trades and so there really wasn't much in the way of choice for them. Being poor and outside some of the more self-sufficient rural villages and nomadic tribes, they had little to offer a potential husband. Having often been either divorced or widowed or forced by economic circumstances into prostitution from the beginning, there was little hope they could ever find a permanent spouse since Iranian society placed high value on female virginity. In some cases, they may have been sold away by their own families. And some may have come marginal ethnic communities (such as gypsies). Generally speaking, unless these women could rely on some kind of inheritance from a male family member or a network of feminine support, they were often doomed. For some, becoming a prostitute, courtesan or just a generic dancing girl were among the very few viable options they had.
 
Dancing_girl_percian_hermitage.jpg
 
For some of the courtesans in the Shi'ite world, the temporary marriage institution may have felt like a saving grace and a ship leading away from a marginal existence as one of the despised and unwanted members of the urban landscape to the status of someone who, while perhaps lesser than, say, the permanent wife of the local alim or governor, nonetheless had purpose and allowed them to associated with many sectors of society they wouldn't normally be permitted to associate with. And contrary to the idea that this would cause conflicted feelings in these women over the perceived conflict between their religion and their occupation, this may have in fact created a stronger sense of religious devotion than they would have had living as normal prostitutes. And naturally, with the wages they received and the training they had in the arts, they could actually express this religious piety in more overt ways through charitable works or helping in the organization of religious festivities. As far as a number of these women understood, mostly those who actually identified themselves with Shi'ism and "composed poems in honor of Ali and Husayn,"  while collecting alms either in Iran or most definitely in Awadh, they probably saw themselves as fulfilling an important function in their society and felt they owed this boosted, although perhaps not ideal, social status, as well as the occupation which was providing for them and their fellow women, they owed these to the Imams. And contrary to generating feelings of severe anxiety, being a courtesan, whether it was in the 18th/19th century Awadh or 16th/17th century Iran (both of which may also reflect some of the realities of the Qajar period), and a devout Shi'ite Muslim (again, not to speak of the non-Muslim courtesans and prostitutes active in both societies) probably more often than not generated a sense of hope and a sense that they still were under the umbrella of religious sanctity, even if their place under that umbrella was at the edge of that umbrella's shadow. And with this feeling of hope and belonging in addition to a new and religiously legal means by which they could participate in manifestations of Shi'ite devotion, again, came a feeling that salvation for them was possible and that they could look forward to the intercession of Ahlul Bayt and the other saints upon their Resurrection and that whatever sins they were guilty of before taking on the trade or possibly as a result of the trade itself they would be forgiven.
Edited by Haji 2003
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'Iddah.

 

(wasalam)

 

 

As far as we know, courtesans in the Shi'ite world observed some kind of Iddah between their marriages, which is probably why they could be so much more expensive or were often recruited for long periods of time. In Lucknow for instance, courtesans were sometimes put up for years on end by the same client before moving on to another one and were actually known for their loyalty and faithfulness and during their Iddah periods lived primarily off the pension they received from their last temporary husband. Plus, there was more than one reason to hire them. They weren't just recruited for sex but would often be hired simply to entertain the court or educate someone's son or daughter. Sex was provided for those who wanted it, but unlike a normal prostitute, it wasn't the sole reason they were hired and a relationship between a courtesan and her client might not even be a sexual one at all. Also, due to the fact that when courtesans engaged in sexual relations with a client, it was usually through a temporary marriage contract and could go on for a rather long period of time, the said relationship often had a deeply personal element to it, unlike that which you would find between a normal street walker and her clientele. Shi'ite Courtesans did not engage in mutah contracts with multiple men at a time (not as far as we know) and for the duration of that contract remained loyal to their temporary husband and even after the contract was terminated, a certain degree of emotional attachment still existed between the courtesan and her former client (as we see in Sharar's account of Nuran and her former client from Delhi during their meeting in Lucknow). And again, it's important to understand that many of these women had little choice since it was unlikely they'd ever be able to even experience a normal marriage.

 

While perhaps things are a little different now, in older Shi'ite and Islamic societies, if you had been divorced, illegitimate, widowed or just simply not a virgin, it was very unlikely that you'd ever find someone willing to actually marry you in a more permanent contract, thus severely limiting your ability to survive. This was also true of women born to courtesans. Even if such a product of a courtesan and her client were a virgin, when it came to choices for picking a more permanent marriage partner, men didn't generally consider them because although their mothers may have had some respect in the community, they were not seen to be as desirable for the position as most other women and so it was unlikely they'd have any other fate than having to take over the occupation of their mothers.  :donno:

Edited by Saintly_Jinn23

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While some might see "Shi'ite Courtesans," as an oxymoron, in historical Shi'ite societies, the courtesan has occupied a strange and ambiguous place in the cultures of such places as Awadh and Persia. In Safavid Iran, according to Rudi Matthee's essay "Prostitutes, Courtesans and Dancing Girls: Women Entertainers in Safavid Iran(link: http://www.academia.edu/1149024/Prostitutes_Courtesans_and_Dancing_Girls_Women_Entertainers_in_Safavid_iran ) the phenomenon of high class courtesans earning considerable respect in Safavid society for their knowledge of music, dance, poetry as well as their charitable activities is addressed and it is clear that at times such women walked a fine line between the class of ordinary prostitutes (12,000 of which according to European traveler, Jean Chardin, who stayed in Isfahan in 1673, were registered and taxed in the capital city alone) and that of the class of a religiously sanctioned temporary wife. As Matthee, who is the Professor of History at the University of Delaware and who has written on many subjects pertaining to Safavid and Qajari history, mentions in one section of the aforementioned essay:

 

 

A non-Islamic thing practiced by Muslims does not make them Islamic.

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A non-Islamic thing practiced by Muslims does not make them Islamic.

 

You're missing the point. Please read my entire post. The point made is that the courtesans often operated completely within the boundaries of the religious law of their society because of the institution of temporary marriage, which created a kind of grey area between prostitution and legitimate religious practice. Some of the courtesans may have initially started out as average street walkers, but the institution of mutah as a sanctioned religious practice offered an opportunity to elevate their social status. The more established courtesans likely didn't engage in anything but temporary marriages as far as their sexual relations were concerned. In some cases, they may not have been prostitutes originally, but were simply not virgins or in possession of any wealth or influence and so had no choice but to join a troupe of dancing girls or courtesans. In some instances, due to the values of their society concerning feminine purity, they may have engaged in a temporary marriage at one time, lost their virginity, and thus were compelled to contract temporary marriages for the rest of their life because nobody would have wanted to marry them permanently afterwards. One temporary marriage could result in being forced by the circumstances into life as a courtesan. This probably happened with some poor urban women: some man with money saw them, contracted mutah with them, being in a desperate  economic situation, they accepted, when it became known they contracted a temporary marriage, it decreased their chances of getting married in a more permanent contract and so they were forced to continue contracting successive mutah for the rest of their lives. They then would join with other women in similar situations and use their earnings through this practice to establish kothas to protect and train new courtesans or to help the community.

 

For the men, because contracting temporary marriage was permissible not only with virgins, but also non-virgins, which included the divorced, widows, and even normal prostitutes and because it was even seen as a form of charity, men could contract mutah with prostitutes with a relatively clean conscience. Some of the prostitutes would then use that to their advantage and gradually move towards contracting nothing but temporary marriages.  

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This is to acknowledge the post. Thanks for posting. I have skimmed through it but I'm going to read it in full not least because I'm a keen reader of the history, culture and literatures of the Shia principality of Awadh and generally of the Urdu tradition that developed in Delhi and Lucknow at that time, where learned courtesans played important role in society, from being poets to administrators to teaching etiquette to nobility's children, they held soft power and were an indispensable part of the social fabric.

Edited by Marbles

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This is to acknowledge the post. Thanks for posting. I have skimmed through it but I'm going to read it in full not least because I'm a keen reader of the history, culture and literatures of the Shia principality of Awadh and generally of the Urdu tradition that developed in Delhi and Lucknow at that time, where learned courtesans played important role in society, from being poets to administrators to teaching etiquette to nobility's children, they held soft power and were an indispensable part of the social fabric.

 

No problem. I was researching women in Iranian history and when I stumbled upon the phenomenon of European traveler's accounts of prostitutes in Iran, I was curious to what extent the accounts may have been influenced by the Europeans own limited mobility in Iran as well as their worldview, but like I said, the study of indigenous Safavid records by non-Iranians is still in something of an early stage and largely affected by European biases or the biases of non-Shi'ite Muslim records. As a result, there are often misunderstandings that I think could be rectified by consulting cultures possessing both Persian and Shi'ite cultural influences roughly contemporaneous with Safavid and/or Qajar Iran.  My research into the subject of "Shi'ite courtesans," naturally led me to Lucknow, in which more firsthand accounts of the lives of women in Shi'ite society there by natives is readily available, and I felt that by putting what we know from the study of these sources next to what basic facts we can derive from the accounts of European travelers in Iran in the 16th/17th/18th centuries might yield better clues as to what life was like for women in Iran, particularly the courtesans. What I found was that the Europeans' narratives reveal similar trends, albeit interpreted from their own point of view, in Iran as in places like Lucknow. Although the women in Shi'ite India in the 18th-19th century do appear more assertive than their Iranian counterparts, the Europeans mention the courtesans enjoying similar status and it appears intrinsically related to the Shi'ite concept of mut'ah.

 

I think the study of the courtesans can reveal a much more complex and dynamic reality concering the status of women in Iran and historical Shi'ite societies. Women and their treatment or perception were divided along many cultural, religious and class roles, which also affected the religious atmosphere. When we talk about "women" in historical Shi'ite Iran, whether it's 16th century or the modern period, it's important to be specific about which women since a nomadic woman traveling the countryside, the daughter of a poor or middling artisan or merchant, the courtesan, the dhimmi, and the upper class urban elite were not always held to the same standards of womanhood. Virgin daughters of elites were often well guarded and secluded, but nomadic women and the women of small towns and cities appear more actively involved in daily life, while the courtesans, usually coming from poor urban background appear to travel between the world of an elite woman and a woman of specially lower class than the virgin daughter of the local alim, at times possessing considerably more social freedom than the latter because they weren't held to as high of a standard. Yet they still generally operated within the standard civil as well as religious laws.

Edited by Saintly_Jinn23

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786

This is interesting from a historical perspective for those interested in history and sociology but a comparison to women in similar circumstances within Sunni dominated cultures would provide a very unique perspective on the impact of Mutah, positive or negative from a religious standpoint. Since you have a keen interest in the subject have you considered doing an analysis and comparative study?

Was salaam

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