Women’s role in politics in the medieval Muslim world
By Yasmin Hilloowala
Masters Thesis, University of Arizona, 1993
Abstract: The objective of this paper will be to demonstrate in what ways medieval women (the upper-class women) of the Middle East made themselves visible and wielded influence or power over affairs of the state. Because of the limiting aspect of the thesis, the area that I will discuss will be limited both in geography and time. This paper will concentrate on the eastern area of the Islamic world from approximately the eighth century to the thirteenth century. The main body of the paper will deal with this time period. However, first, I will need to discuss the situation of women before Islam, Islam’s rise and the changes it brought to women in the early years of its existence. And then I will cover Islam’s spread into other areas, how it changed there, and thus how women were able to exert their influence within the framework of these changes.
Introduction: In recent years there has been an increasing focus in the West on the Middle East because of the high profile this region has received in the news. One of the most dominant topics has been about Islam and its ideology dealing with women. I chose the topic of women in Middle Eastern history because in studying the medieval history of the region, the role of women is scarcely mentioned in an average history class.
Up until recently, little effort was devoted to the women’s contribution to Islamic society. In the past few years there has been a growth in the amount of research done on this topic. Much of this research deals with the modern situation of women and the contemporary women’s movements in the Islamic world. Very little has been written on the role of Muslim women in the medieval period. This is perhaps due to the lack of information in the primary sources and not to the lack of interest on the subject.
In this paper, I will be relying mostly on secondary sources, such as Nabia Abbott’s Two Queens of Baghdad and some primary sources translated into English, such as a translation of Nizam al-Mulk’s Sivasat-Nama. The reason that I will be depending mostly on secondary sources is that much of the information available on women of this period has not been translated into English. It remains in its original Persian or Arabic texts, and as of now, I do not have a sufficient knowledge to utilize these sources directly.
In this paper, I would like to counter a couple of misconceptions about women and the Islamic world. The first misconception is the idea of the harem. The prevalent image in the West about the history of the Islamic world was one based on Hollywood’s image of the harem and the things that were often associated with it, such as polygamy and the veil. Accounts of Western men who visited the Islamic world in the nineteenth century talk about the harem despite the fact that they were forbidden access to it. The narratives related that the confinement of harem life led to such behavior as women having sexual relations with each other and parties of uncontrolled orgies. These are some of the views of the Muslim women’s world that spread to the West.