Arab women: The bold and the brilliant

An -American may have put beauty on the western map, but let's also recall all those Arab women of courage and talent.

It surprised me that my previous article was the most read on CiF on the day of its publication. But equipped with the wonders of hindsight, I should've realised that it had all the ingredients of a ripping yarn: a dastardly conspiracy (theory), beautiful but dangerous undercover (or is that uncovered?) double agents armed with sexy bombshells, and mad neo-cons hatching far-fetched plots.

Quite a number of readers found that Miss USA, , dependent as she is on her looks, was not the most rousing role model for Muslim female empowerment and asked why no similar attention was accorded all those successful and inspirational Muslim women who have made inroads into what is still largely a man's world.

So, in tribute to the many remarkable women in the Muslim world (including non-Muslims) throughout the centuries – both remembered and forgotten, loved or ridiculed – here's a list of 10 mould-breaking women. They appear in chronological order.

1.      Mother of the faithful

Khadijah bint Khuwaylid (555-619), “Ameerat Quraysh” (the Princess of Quraysh), Mecca's wealthiest and most powerful woman, was Muhammad's first wife. She has the distinction of being the world's first convert to .

2.      Battle of the sexes

The battleground is one oft-forgotten theatre of the battle of the sexes. Although women have fought alongside men ever since the earliest days of Islam right down to the modern struggle for Algerian and Palestinian independence, their direct contribution to the defence of the community is regularly overlooked because it does not conform to the subdued image of the woman as wife and mother.

Muhammad's youngest wife Aisha bint Abu Bakr (died 678) is a controversial figure, particularly in the west, because of the young age at which she appears to have been betrothed to the elderly prophet. Less well known is that she was not only a central figure in spreading Islam after his death, earning the title Mother of the Believers, but that she also led  an army into battle.

But the title of the fiercest Arab woman of all must go to Hind bint ‘Utbah – despite her demonisation and unfounded rumours of her commiting cannibalism on the battlefield – who was as daring in her opposition to Muhammad before her conversion as she was in his defence after it. 

3.      Universal woman

At 12 centuries old, the University of  al-Qarawiyyin in Fes (Morocco) is reportedly the world's oldest academic degree-granting university in the world. This esteemed establishment was set up by Fatima al-Fihri (died 880) in 859.

But medieval Muslim women were not only patrons of academic establishments, they were also prominent scholars. According to the 12th-century Sunni scholar Ibn Asakir, girls and women could study and earn ijazahs (academic degrees), and qualify as scholars (ulema) and teachers. He, himself, studied under 80 female teachers. In the 15th century, the Egyptian scholar al-Sakhawi devotes an entire volume of his 12-volume of his biographical dictionary Daw al-lami – an early Who's Who – to over a thousand female scholars.

However, things got progressively worse for women until the modern emancipation movement began in the late 19th century. Today, female enrolment in universities is as high, or even higher, than male enrolment. However, the number of top women scientists is relatively small due to the ‘glass ceiling'. Nevertheless, there are award-winning women scientists who are at the top of their field.

4.      Around the throne in 80 days

From modest beginnings as a slave of probable Turkic origin in the royal household, Shajaret al-Durr (died 1257 ), whose name means Tree of Pearls, rose to become the wife of the Ayyubid Sultan as-Salih Ayyub. When her husband died at the most inopportune moment possible – during the landing of the Seventh Crusade in Damietta on the Nile Delta – she decided to conceal his death until the successful completion of the campaign to repel the crusaders. 

Amid the political turbulence that ensued, the former slave girl was chosen by the elite slave warriors known as “Mamluks” as 's Sultana, the first and only female ruler of Egypt in Islamic times. After only 80 days as queen, she passed the throne to her new husband, but continued to rule by proxy, despite her husband's better efforts to contain her. After she had him murdered, she was confined to a tower and then brutally murdered herself.

Shajaret al-Durr left a profound legacy on her adoptive land: she not only helped defend it against the crusaders but she also established the prosperous and dynamic Mamluk era of Egyptian history when the country underwent the unique experiment of being ruled by elite slaves.

Another prominent woman ruler and contemporary of Shajaret al-Durr – who also happened to be a former slave of Turkic origin – was Razia Sultana who sat on the throne in Delhi from 1236-1240. 

In modern times, many Muslim-majority countries – including Pakistan (Benazir Bhutto), Indonesia (Megawati Sukarnoputri), Bangladesh (Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina) and Turkey (Tansu Çiller) – have been led by women.

5.      Forgotten feminist pioneer

Hoda Sha'rawi is widely considered to be the founder of the modern feminist movement in Egypt and probably the entire Arab world. Given how she rebelled against the male order and placed women at the forefront of the struggle for Egyptian independence, she certainly deserves her place in the history books.

However, she was by no means the first, and she has plenty of predecessors who have been lost to the mists of time. Thanks to the posthumous efforts of her younger brother, the memory of one of these early ‘unknown soldiers' was rescued from, quite literally, the ‘no man's land' of collective oblivion. History, after all, is not only written by the victor, but usually by men.

Malak Hifni Nassef (1886-1918) scored a number of impressive firsts in Egypt: the first woman to get a degree from a government school, the first woman to lecture publicly, and the first to publish poetry in a mainstream journal – and at the age of only 13. We know little about her life, but the list of major figures at her funeral attest to the esteem she was held in during her lifetime. And, in contrast to other early women reformers who tended to be from the upper class, Nassef was from the middle class.

Inspired by events in Egypt and the Egyptian Renaissance, women in the Levant also took up their cause. One prominent figure was May Ziade (1886-1941), a Palestinian-Lebanese Christian poet, essayist and translator. 

 6.      A mighty pen

Despite being a physician and psychiatrist by training, Nawal el-Saadawi (born 1931) describes herself as “a novelist first, a novelist second, a novelist third”. She  has, in more than 50 novels, revolutionised the treatment of Egyptian women in fiction, and wielded her pen as her mightiest weapon in the battle for female emancipation.

Her writings have covered numerous controversial feminist themes, including women's inferior position in religion and female genital mutilation, and their author has endured imprisonment, death threats and attempts to forcibly divorce her from her husband.

Luckily for Egypt, which is in danger of seeing certain gains scored by women reversed, the fight has not died in Saadawi, despite being almost 80. “I am becoming more radical with age,” she recently told the Guardian.

 7.      Bright and constant star

Known as ‘Ambassador to the stars', Fairuz is not only the national pride of Lebanon but is the most famous living singer in the Arab world. She was born with the name Nouhad Haddad into a poor Maronite Christian family in 1935, and Arabs may have been deprived of her beautiful voice had her conservative father not relented and allowed her to attend the Lebanese Conservatory, albeit with her brother as chaperon.

Her breakthrough into the big time came in 1957 and throughout the 1960s she was the “first lady of Lebanese singing”, although she was overshadowed on the Arab stage by the giant Umm Kalthoum. Widely regarded as the enchanting voice of Arab nationalism, her output has been prolific and has included hundreds of songs and musical operettas.

Throughout her long career Fairuz showed enormous courage: she refused to give private concerts to Arab leaders (for which she once got banned) and never left her country during its tumultuous civil war.

 8.      Across enemy lines

Everyone recalls, whether approvingly or critically, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's audacious trip, in 1977, to Jerusalem to talk peace at the Israeli Knesset. But he was actually beaten there by a fellow Egyptian woman, though history has condemned her to oblivion.

More than three years earlier, at a time when the only Arabs and Israelis who met were soldiers or spies, Sana Hasan, a PhD student in her mid-20s, went to Israel as the Arab world's first, albeit unofficial and ostracised, peace envoy and probably its most unusual. Her six-week trip turned into a three-year sojourn, from 1974 to 1977, in which she seems to have met, well, just about everyone in Israel, in an attempt to understand her people's enemy and build bridges to peace.

9.      Scholar and state-builder

When it comes to the Palestinian struggle, one should not forget Hanan Ashrawi (born 1946), who played a pivotal role in the First Intifada and subsequent peace process, where she served as the Palestinian delegations spokesperson.

She has also been elected numerous times to the Palestinian Legislative Council and established the Department of English at Birzeit University. She currently runs Miftah, the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy.

10.  The right fight

Across the Arab and Muslim world, courageous women are active as human rights activists. One prominent example is Asma Jahangir (born 1952), the prominent Pakistani lawyer who has built a career defending the rights of women, children and religious minorities. 

During her long career, Jahangir has put herself in the firing line defending Muslims and Christians who have fallen foul of Pakistan's controversial and intolerant ‘Hudood‘ ordinance and blasphemy laws which were put in place as part of Pakistani dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq's ‘Islamisation programme‘.

Jahangir is currently the UN's Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in The Guardian's Comment is Free section on 25 May 2010. Read the related debate.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil . Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the , and has lived in , on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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