Engy Abdelkader: Using the Legacy of Muslim Women Leaders to Empower
Muslim women are steeped in stubborn stereotypes as meek, oppressed and in need of rescue. Recurring images beamed into our homes and phones from abroad of Muslim women being denied access to education, the ability to drive or even the right to cast a vote or run for political office only serve to reinforce such widely held misconceptions; examples of empowered Muslim women (particularly those donning the hijab) living here or overseas seldom enjoy the same quality air time. As such, our views remain skewed on the subject.
Further, such pervasive generalizations about Islam’s inherent oppression of Muslim women are not only offensive but ultimately also unhelpful to the female subjects they purport to describe. This is because secular Western feminist notions, often viewed as the cure-all remedy for alleged misogynistic practices in the Muslim world, are frequently met with suspicion and rejected by Muslim men and women alike. They may view such ideas as unwanted foreign intrusions into their domestic, religious and family affairs.
Where Islam continues to hold political, social and religious currency in society, the human rights agenda can be effectively advanced through re-education initiatives regarding “proper” Muslim women roles through a new yet sound Islamic jurisprudential lens.
Specifically, Muslims can further the human rights agenda by re-examining the lives of the very first Muslim women who lived during Islam’s formative period as more than historical figures but as modern Islamic models to be emulated today. Indeed, these women embody viable political, social and financial models with modern applicability.
This point cannot be overstated.
While many Muslims around the world learn about such Muslim women in grade school, their relevance to contemporary time is frequently overlooked. Yet, by learning about and celebrating their examples, men and women can better understand and build upon notions of “proper” Muslim women roles while using a culturally authentic paradigm.
Indeed, Islam can empower women as is evidenced by numerous instances of religiously observant Muslim women who strive towards and achieve professional, financial and social success in accordance with their understanding of religious strictures. As for those Muslim women who are deprived of similar opportunities, Islamic law can be used to empower them.
Consider, for example, Aisha bint Abu Bakr who was a female scholar of great eminence and a voice of authority in Islamic jurisprudence almost 1500 years ago. By way of background, Aisha was the daughter of Abu Bakr, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s closest companions, one of the first converts to Islam and the first to assume leadership as Caliph over the Muslim community following the Prophet Muhammad’s death. During her marriage to the Prophet Muhammad, the couple developed a close relationship and it was in Aisha’s arms that the Prophet Muhammad died in 632 CE.
This is to say that Aisha bint Abu Bakr is accorded a highly deferential status in Sunni Islam.
Now consider this: Prophet Muhammad fostered Aisha’s education and nurtured her intellectual pursuits. She was considered more knowledgeable than most of her male contemporaries in matters related to Qur’anic interpretation, poetry, medicine and history and men and women alike studied under her instruction. Aisha also rendered legal decisions (fatwa) and delivered speeches publically, powerfully and eloquently.
During the Prophet Muhammad’s lifetime, Aisha participated in the early battles fought by the new Muslim converts against the Arab pagans who persecuted members of the fledgling faith community. During the Battle of Uhud, for example, she distributed water bags to the Muslim combatants on the battlefield.
Following the Prophet Muhammad’s death, Aisha’s role became increasingly important. When the third Caliph Othman ibn Affan was assassinated, the Muslim community’s underlying political system was jeopardized by internal division and conflict. Aisha raised a leading and quite public voice against Ali, the fourth Caliph, in 656 CE. She delivered a public address at a mosque located in Mecca where she swore to avenge the murdered Caliph’s death.
As a result, she garnered the support of many Muslims across Arabia, and eventually led an army into the Battle of the Camel. The speeches she delivered during the battle were noted for their force and candor. Following her ultimate defeat on the battlefield, she engaged in intellectual pursuits and religious instruction.
In point of fact, Aisha’s life represents a powerful model for Muslim women’s excellence in scholarship, political engagement and even military leadership. She excelled in public speaking, commanded an army on the battlefield and instructed both men and women in Islamic jurisprudence.
For those Muslims weary of Western feminism and where Islam continues to hold political, social and religious currency in society, Aisha’s standard provides a culturally authentic paradigm for Muslim women seeking a leading role in the political, judicial or religious spheres. Her standing as the Prophet Muhammad’s beloved wife and the daughter of the first Caliph is incontrovertible among Sunni adherents as is her predominant role in government, academia and the law.
There is also Sumiyyah bint Khabbat: one of the first people to believe in the monotheistic message concerning the One God of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph which was being propagated by the Prophet Mohammed. She did not enjoy the benefit of wealth or political stature. In fact, she lived with her husband and son under the control of an influential pagan family.
As such, her then pagan owners demanded she renounce her newfound faith and she refused. As a result she was systematically tortured and eventually killed by a spear through her heart. The story of Sumiyyah’s sacrifice is well known to Muslims and undermines misconceptions — in the East and the West — of women as weak beings.
We should perhaps reflect upon Ramlah Umme Salim whom the Prophet Muhammad stationed with the army during the early Muslim battles against the Arab pagans. She helped supply water to the soldiers and nursed the wounded. In this manner, she participated in the Battles of Uhud and Khyber.
Further, Nusayba Umme Amara is credited with being the first female Muslim soldier during the time of the Prophet Muhammad. Nusayba fought in the Battles of Uhud, Hunain, Yamama and Hudaibiyah. Initially, she accompanied the Prophet Muhammad to battle to provide assistance in a similar manner as Aisha and Ramlah, described above.
However, during the Battle of Uhud, the Prophet Muhammad’s archers deserted their posts. In response, Nusayba physically defended him with her own sword. In a famous tradition Prophet Muhammad is recorded as saying that when he turned to his left, he saw Nusayba; when he turned to his right, he saw Nusayba. She in fact sustained a deep wound to her shoulder as a result of combat in that battle.
During the governance of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr, Nusayba fought alongside her son in the Battle of Yamama where she lost one of her hands in addition to receiving 12 wounds. Nusayba’s contribution to Islamic history as a capable female soldier on the battlefield is in stark contradistinction to patriarchal assertions that a Muslim woman’s sole rightful place is exclusively within the confines of her home.
Finally one would be remiss to ignore Shafa Bint Adwiya who was an intelligent woman skilled in politics and respected for her wisdom (some 1500 years ago). Prior to converting to Islam, she used to administer medical treatment to patients. Following her conversion, she asked the Prophet Muhammad if she could continue and he encouraged her to do so. The Prophet Muhammad also asked Shafa to teach one of his wives how to read and write.
Thus time and again, the Prophetic position on Muslim women’s education and professional contributions was a positive one. This lesson is particularly relevant for the female population of particular Muslim countries where low literacy rates and poverty continue to be a problem. The Prophetic model also stands in contradistinction to contemporary messaging by certain minority extremist groups against the education of women.
Shafa’s skills were not limited to teaching and medicine exclusively. The second Caliph Umar ibn Khattab, who is accorded great deference in Islamic tradition, highly valued Shafa’s opinion and consulted with her.
Further, he placed her in a leadership position by entrusting her with the administration of the marketplace in Medina. As such, she was responsible for ensuring that all business transactions were in accord with the law. She protected consumers against fraud and other unsavory practices.
It is worth noting that Shafa was so successful in this post that the Caliph decided to appoint another woman (Samra bint Nuhayk) to oversee the market in Makkah as well. The significance of these appointments is underscored by the central role that the market or bazaar played in Arabian economies at that time. Shafa’s contributions create another leadership model for Muslim women today.
That the highly revered Umar ibn Khattab, commonly described by devout Muslims around the world as “rightly guided,” appointed women to leadership posts should serve as a powerful narrative in opposition to those who misunderstand women’s engagement in governance as shameful or improper.
The women described above are representative of many others who lived, fought, learned, worked and led during Islam’s foundational period, and beyond. Their male companions, and the Caliphs who assumed Muslim rule following the demise of Prophet Muhammad, treated them with respect, admiration, appreciation — and, as equals.
Indeed, the Qur’an which is considered by Muslims to be the literal word of God explains that the sole factor rendering one person better than another is her or his character or piety – not, for instance, gender, race or socio-economic status.
Moreover the lives of the first Muslim women represent valuable models transcending time and physical boundaries. Aisha bint Abu Bakr’s life contributions illustrate the tremendous impact women can have in the areas of governance, military, academia, religion and the law. Sumiyyah bint Khabbat sacrificed her life rather than her heartfelt convictions, and as such serves as a steadfast testament of the potential of women’s inner strength. Additionally, Shafa bint Adwiyya presents a leadership model for women in elected or appointed office, government and commerce.
As noted above, such Islamic models can serve as powerful, culturally authentic tools in advancing the human rights agenda towards increased female empowerment in the political, social and economic spheres within Muslim societies and communities.
Notably the contributions of these women to the Muslim community are undeniable and to some may even appear almost mythical. Some may mistakenly subscribe to the erroneous notion that contemporary Muslim women cannot attain such great stature and that these are just the tales of Muslim legends without modern day applicability.
But, they would be wrong.
In marking the one year anniversary of the populist uprisings in the Middle East and in anticipation of next month’s commemoration of women’s contributions to society, it is worth noting one singular fact: from Muslim women’s pivotal roles in the Egyptian, Tunisian, Libyan, and other revolutions to leading American Muslim female voices in U.S. law, religion, medicine, academia and a myriad of professions, a number of contemporary Muslim women are the modern realization of the continuing legacy of strong Muslim female leadership. They may, in fact, include your colleague or neighbor. Indeed, it is past time for us to view Muslim women with new eyes – they are not necessarily the stereotyped victim, they can also be the heroic protagonist much like they were some 1500 years ago.
The first Muslim female pioneers are more than mere history lessons: unlike persistent stereotypes about Islam’s oppression of Muslim women, their lives provide viable tools to help empower Muslim women in so many ways.
Engy Abdelkader is the author of, “From Aisha bint Abu Bakr to Asmaa Mahfouz: The Legacy of Muslim Women Roles in Populist Revolutions,” a forthcoming publication in the University of London’s Yearbook on Islamic Law.