Suppressed Histories: Arab and Muslim Women

Max Dashu

Sabaean inscriptionsIn honor of Women’s History Month, let’s look at a little-known group of spirited women: those of Arabia and the Islamic world. We begin by saluting the fearless Samsi, chieftain of the Kidri tribes, who led a north Arabian rebellion against the superpower of her day, the Assyrian empire, back in the 8th century BCE. She was one of many warrior women in ancient Arabia.

A thousand years later, Zenobia of Palmyra (Zainab in Arabic) defended her desert country against Roman invasions. She fought the legions for years, leading her armies on horseback in full armor. She routed the Romans the first time around, and held off a second attack for another four years before Syria finally fell. Taken into captivity at Rome, she married into a senatorial family whose descendents proudly claimed her ancestry.

Zenobia of Palmyra
Roman Coin
  zenobia coin

Arabia had a rich tradition of female poets, like Zarifa of Yemen in the second century. They sang erotic songs in the manner of the Song of Songs, and also made satirical commentary on political events. Poetesses were important figures on both sides during the Islamic revolution: al-Khansa for the Muslims, and Asma bint Marwan for the Pagans. Asma’s verse was so feared that one of Muhammand's followers assassinated her as she lay sleeping with her babies. Another powerful voice for the Pagans was Hind, who roused fighters on the battlefield. Al-Khansa lost all her sons in these wars, and her elegies for them are remembered as exemplars of Arabic poetry.

In later centuries, Islamic empires spread from Morocco to India and beyond. Although Muslim tradition held that women should not rule, some exceptional females managed to overcome this barrier. In the most dramatic instance, a Sudanese captive rose from slavery to informal rulership in Cairo, a thousand years ago. (Male historians did not record her name!) As a concubine in the harem of the Mamluk caliph, she managed to consolidate power by building alliances with the enslaved Black troops of the imperial army. She sealed her authority by placing her son al-Mustansir on the caliph’s throne.

Another ex-slave, this time from Turkey, became sultana of Egypt. Shajarat al-Durr led the defense of Damietta from European crusaders in 1249. She concealed her husband’s death, then ruled for 80 days after their son was overthrown. The caliph of Baghdad made her step down, invoking the rule against female rulership. He sent his own chosen man Aibak to become the new sultan. Shajarat seduced Aibak, convinced him to divorce his wife and marry her, and became the ruler in all but name. Later, when he moved to take another wife, she had him killed. Ultimately, Shajarat lost to the demand for masculine rulership; her enemies had her beaten to death in the harem. She had ruled from 1250-57.

A woman who ascended in spite of all patriarchal convention was queen Arwa of Yemen (1045-1137). She first ruled as regent for an ill husband, continued to govern after his death, and even more amazingly, after their sons died. This displeased the caliph at Cairo, who tried to unseat her. But he failed, because the Yemeni people adored her. Arwa held the throne for half a century, until her death at the age of 92.

Walladah bint al-Mustakfi (1001-1080) was the daughter of an Ethiopian ex-slave and a caliph in Cordoba, Spain. She refused to marry, and like many Moorish women, did not wear the veil or hold back before men. A poet, she hosted salons for writers and artists of both sexes at her villa. She had several male lovers, and tiring of them, commenced a lesbian affair with Muhga bint al-Tayani. Her poetry may be regarded as a starting-point for medieval courtly love.

Another Arab-Spanish poet was Aisha bint Ahmed (circa 975). When a suitor she disliked proposed to her, she declined with panache: “I am a lioness, and will never consent to let my body be the stopping-place for anyone: But should I choose that/ I would not hearken to a dog/ And how many lions have I turned down...” Other great female poets of Moorish Spain were the doctor Umm al-Hasan, Hamda bint Ziyad al-Mu’Addib, and the great Andalusian poet and calligrapher, Aisha bint Ahmad al-Qurtubiya.

razia sultanAt the other end of the Muslim world, in India, was the sultana Razia of Delhi. She was her father’s choice as successor, but her step-brother got the throne as male heir. He was a bad ruler, however. Razia went out dressed in red to speak directly to the people, challenging them to rise up. Popular pressure forced the emirs to put her on the throne in 1236. She took on male dress and the title Imadatun Niwan, “great woman.” She governed for four years, until the men deposed her. That rule again.

<< Razia Sultan

In 1611, the young widow Nur Jahan became one of innumerable concubines of the emperor Jahangir. He was absorbed in his pleasures, and by 1620 she had made herself the de facto ruler of the Mughal empire. She appointed and dismissed officials, minted coins in her own name, collected tariffs, and patronized poets and artists. She was also famous for her prowess in hunting tigers (when they were a danger, not endangered). But when Jahangir died, the queen’s stepson had her confined, then sent her into exile. (This was Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal.)

Closer to our time, the feminist Roquia Sakhawat Hussain founded the first Bengali school for Muslim girls in 1909. Her husband was supportive, but she was soon widowed, which made her task harder. Roquia was also a prolific writer, producing articles, poems, and stories. Her science fiction novel Sultana’s Dream envisioned a world where women were free and men did domestic work. She wrote other books, Woman in Captivity and Essence of the Lotus.

Roquia Begum spoke against oppressive customs, and for women’s right to enter any profession. She founded the Islamic Women’s Association and organized conferences on women’s status and education. She believed that the original Islamic teachings were just toward women but had been lost. She was working on an essay “The Rights of Women” at the time of her death in 1932. Her sister was also an ardent supporter of women’s emancipation.


Max Dashu founded the Suppressed Histories Archives in 1970 to research the brave, creative and wise women left out of textbooks and media. She has created 100 presentations on women’s history in every part of the world, and is a freelance teacher, writer, and artist.