By Sumna Sadaqat
Muslim women are often perceived as oppressed entities to be rescued from the clutches of Islam and patriarchy, which has allegedly made them oblivious to politics and society. Besides the political factors for the current distorted image of ‘the subjugated and exploited Muslim woman’, and the grim media portrayal, limited theological understanding of the role of women in politics and the lack of historical knowledge have popularized such ideas. Looking at the vast Islamic history of over ten centuries approximately, the role of women shaping politics across geographical boundaries comes out to be surprisingly vibrant and diverse despite preponderant male presence.
Muslim women are trying to challenge the stereotypical image of a ‘victim of Islam’ by relying on the Islamic discourse itself. Islamic feminist scholars like Fatima Mernissi refuse the hypocritical narrative of the West that Muslim women must be first extricated form Islam, to get anywhere close to the idea of liberation and emancipation. Muslim women are elbowing their way into politics and society by adopting an alternative approach to feminism, which is closer to exploring the interplay between religion, politics, society and gender. They rely on Islamic texts and the example of the Prophet Muhammad’s society to bring about a positive social change with regards to women.
Quite rightly Islam cannot be discredited from bringing about a radical revolution by providing a platform to women to identify themselves as humans, share their opinions and represent themselves as equal members of the community. Women who were hitherto insignificant in politics and were only restricted to household chores, now rebelled against their families, migrated independently to a new state and registered their political orientation openly. Amongst such women who abandoned their families were, Zenab, daughter of the Prophet, Umm Sulaim and Umm Kulthum Uqbah bin Abi Muait to name a few. Besides, Prophet Muhammad, also allowed women to participate in wars voluntarily and provide logistical support. The examples of illustrious personalities like Nusaybah Bint Kab, who fought at the Battle of Uhud alongside Prophet Muhammad ﷺ to protect him, Prophet ﷺ’s aunt, Safiya who saved the women’s fort by killing the enemy during the Battle of Trench and Ayesha RA, leading at the Battle of Camel are best to highlight active participation of women in wars in an ideal Islamic society.
Soon after the collapse of the Islamic political structure and establishment of monarchies political participation of elite women became more prevalent. Queen Khayzuran, originally a slave was responsible for introducing the custom of sons of slaves succeeding as heirs to the throne. Both her sons became rulers and she continued to influence the political affairs throughout her life. At a time when women still struggle for basic economic rights, powerful women at the time used their position and wealth for public works. Zubayda, the wife of Harun Rashid built wells, aqueducts and water reservoirs for people in the desert lands of Mecca and Medina to solve the problem of paucity of water. Today, the study of the Mughal era is often surrounded by many concreted communal prejudices, but the engagement of their women in welfare activities cannot be brushed aside easily. Maham Anga, the foster mother of Akbar used her position to commission the building of the Khairul Manazil mosque which later served as a madrasa. While Nurjahan, the influential wife of Jahangir is well remembered for her political dexterity, various traveller’s inns or serais are attributed to her. Besides, her aesthetic sense and interest in architecture led her to build gardens like the Noor Afshan and Moti Bagh in Agra and Shah Dara in Lahore. Her descendants followed suit, with Jahanara Begum, the daughter of Emperor Shahjahan who was entitled as the Padshah Begum (First Lady) commissioning caravanserais and a canal in the bustling city of Shahjahanabad.
The theological debate over women in leadership roles is quite often spurred by elements within the community and outside. Those who consider it permissible prove it through the Quran, which in Surah Namal refers to the Queen of Sheba, a contemporary of Prophet Solomon and how she ruled over Yemen. This is coupled with the example of Shifa Bint Abdullah being appointed as an officer (hisbah) over the market by Caliph Umar who is mostly known as a staunch advocate of strict veiling laws and attempted to stop his wife from offering morning and night prayers at mosque.
Despite diverging clerical and community opinion on the matter, Muslim women across continental boundaries proved their metal by serving as efficient rulers of kingdoms during testing times. The Muslim history remarkably records 34 such women rulers who reigned over kingdoms and empires fearlessly. Sittul Mulk, who was initially a slave rose to power after her husband’s death. She hid this news from the officials for three months, issued coins in her name and tried to pacify the kingdom. Ultimately, she played a key role in establishing the slave or Mamluk dynasty in Egypt which ruled for over two centuries.
Indian history also entails such examples of women empowerment and emancipation during Muslim rule. Mamluk dynasty’s reigns were held by the much-known figure, Razia Sultana, who ruled for over three years from 1236-40, succeeding her brother. She proved to be an efficient and only woman ruler of the Delhi Sultanate and adopted a gender-neutral attire by giving up the veil for which she was criticized. But the four renowned Begums of Bhopal who are feign in public memory ruled for a much significant period lasting for more than a century (1819-1926). Amongst an array of achievements of the Begums, the contribution of Sultan Jahan Begum and Shah Jahan Begum, to preserve Buddhist stupas at Sanchi is eminent. Their reign ensured to impart education especially to girls which is why Sikandar Begum founded the Victoria School for providing basic academic education and technical training to girls in Bhopal. Sultan Shah Jahan Begum built the Sultania Zenana Hospital, exclusively for women, run by women doctors and nurses, which encouraged women to attain medical education. The Begums were empowered enough to administer, deal with the British and carve a stable state where 90% of subjects were Hindus.
Moving further east to southeast Asia, four Aceh Queens ruled from 1641 to 1699. The queens received the silent approval of their rule by the orangkaya (nobility) including scholars such as Nuruddin ibn Ali ar-Raniri and Abdurrauf al-Singili. Though their era was tumultuous due to rising colonial power of the Dutch, the existence of Aceh as an independent state, thriving as a centre of trade cannot be disregarded. A rich Malay Islamic scholarship emerged under the queens as books like Mir’at Al Tullab Fi Tashil Ma’rifat Ahkam Alsyar’iyyah Li Al-Malik Al-Wahhab, Mir’at Al-Tullab, Hidayat Al’iman Bi Fadhli’l Mannan were produced, especially under the patronage of Queen Safiyyat al Deen (1641-75).
The modern world has also seen Muslim women leading from the front with Ghaliya al Bakmiya, the Arabian princess of the early 19th century defying Ottoman rule, siding with her Wahabi and Bedouin allies, and boldly defeating her adversaries. Women today are serving the army of countries like Turkey, Indonesia and Pakistan though their representation is limited. But the Algerian women’s military role in the revolution against French colonial powers has been most prominent in the modern world. In the 20th century, women continued to engage in politics and participated in nation building fearlessly with figures like Leila Khaled becoming the poster girl of the militant Palestinian liberation movement against Israel while Meena Keshwar Kamal, the later assassinated founder of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan is recalled for her efforts in demanding rights for women and democracy in Afghanistan. They are asserting themselves in the religious domain with equal vigour and courage reflected in the struggles of Amina Wadud to break from tradition, and lead men and women congregation, Kalsoom Bashir, a face of women empowerment in Bristol, Farhat Hashmi, an Islamic scholar encouraging women to read the Qur’an directly, Tawakkol Karman, entitled as the mother of the revolution in Yemen in 2011 and Muslim Woman Masjid Project run in India to reclaim places of worship for Muslim women.
These struggles for practicing and interpreting faith have furthered their role in society to which the recent agitation led by women in Iran, and the Shaheenbagh movement in India are a testimony. These movements well prove the enthusiasm and enlightenment of the Muslim women beyond religion, as they are debating issues of national and community interest. The 21st century is uniquely witnessing the rise of Muslim women as a collective group, eyeing on being a part of decision making rather than dispersed, isolated anomalies of singular resistance against national governments, misogyny and religiously biased stereotypes as in the past. Besides, viewing political activism amongst Muslim women as something new represents either lack of knowledge or biased and intentional misappreciation. But the nuanced study of historical legacy of the community evidently shows that Muslim women have always been actively involved in politics and society, despite clerical and external scepticism.