The role of women in medieval Andalusian Arabic story-telling

DeJong02The role of women in medieval Andalusian Arabic story-telling

By Arie Schippers

Verse and the fair sex : studies in Arabic poetry and in the representation of women in Arabic literature, ed. Frederick de Jong (Utrecht,1993)

Introduction: Our aim in this paper is to collect anecdotes about women whose existence is well established in history, and to determine why they have been considered worth mentioning in literary or historical works. The material often presents a mixture of imagination and reality. Sometimes a mixture of prose and poetry of which – contrary to the famous adage – the poetry is a more reliable testimony than the prose which tries to explain or locate the poems. I have limited my subject to a choice of Andalusian women from the eleventh century of our era onwards, but I start with a short survey of earlier Eastern Arabic literary sources, in which we find the same types of women which appear later on in Andalusian Arabic literature.


Among the most conspicuous sources about women are the Kitab al-Nisa’ by Ibn Qutayba and the chapter of the same title in Ibn ‘Abd Rabbih’s ‘Iqd al-Farid. In the chapter by Ibn ‘Abd Rabbih anecdotes are mentioned about marriages and divorce, anecdotes about conjugal fidelity even after the death of the husband, such as in the case of Na’ila bint al-Farafisa who was married to the caliph ‘Uthman, or even frustrated conjugal fidelity as in the case of Fatima bint al-Husayn which is recorded because of her marriage to ‘Abdallah ibn ‘Amr following the death of her husband ‘Abdallah ibn al-Hasan. Famous as well as painful divorces are mentioned such as the case of al-Farazdaq and Nawar or an-Nawar. Although he divorced her, his heart kept following her.

Other sources are the Kitab al-Aghani which contains separate sections about the pre- and early Islamic poetess al-Khansa’ whose real name was Tumadir bint ‘Amr. Separate entries are devoted to the previously mentioned Na’ila bint al-Farafisa, and to the ‘Abba sid princess ‘Ulayya bint al-Mahdi’ and the female singers ‘Arib and Shariya. About the latter two singing girls akhbar collections were composed during their lifetime. Collections of letters composed by ‘Arlb herself also existed. Other important women from the earliest Islamic times, such as Sukayna, have no separate entry, nevertheless they are frequently mentioned in the akhbar about other people.

Click here to read this article from the University of Amsterdam


Sign up for our weekly email newsletter!