The Role of Women in Musical Life: The Medieval Arabo-Islamic Courts

The Role of Women in Musical Life: The Medieval Arabo-Islamic Courts

By Suzanne Meyers Sawa

Canadian Women’s Studies, Vol. 8:2 (1987)

Synopsis: Examines the role of women as musicians and composers in the Arab world, focusing on the ninth and tenth centuries.

Introduction: Edward Lane, the great nineteenth century lexicographer of the Arabic language and a skilled observer of Egyptian society, remarked in his book The Modern Egyptians: “The Egyptians in general are excessively fond of music; and yet they regard the study of this fascinating art (like dancing) as unworthy to employ any portion of the time of a man of sense.”‘ This attitude persists to the present day, and is particularly noticeable in the field of music history, a subject to my knowledge not taught in the conservatories of the Arab world. Especially for the medieval period, the “Golden Age of Islam,” the sources available for study are rich and numerous indeed, and indicate an extraordinary amount of cultural activity in the courts. The importance of these sources for the study of the role of women in this cultural life cannot be overestimated. They supply overwhelming evidence of women’s important roles as singers, instrumentalists, composers, educators, and as repositories and transmitters of a vast oral repertoire

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