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Writing pioneering Muslim women into the Arab narrative

Ruba Saqr
Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.(Photo: Jordan News)
The myth that Arab Muslim women have always been submissive, silent, and stripped of their right to opinion or self-determination is downright false. Middle Eastern and Arab history is rich with examples of strong, independent women who spoke their minds.اضافة اعلان

Al-Wallada Bint Al-Mustakfi. (Photo: facebook)

One quick example is Al-Wallada Bint Al-Mustakfi, an Arab princess and poet who lived in Andalusian Cordoba, in Spain, from the year she was born, 1001, up until her passing in 1091.

Contrary to prevalent myths that frame Arab women as traditionally weak-willed and helpless, she was known for her sharp intellect, witty poetry, and economic independence.

Ignored for ages by historians, both Arab and Western, she is celebrated today on a few feminist websites (and in a 2005 Syrian-Jordanian television series called “Mulouk Al-Tawa’ef”) for holding periodic mixed-gender intellectual salons and poetry readings at her residence, some 1,000 years ago.

Remarkably, Wallada lived (and hosted intellectuals) in a separate home, independent from her family, way before English writer Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) wrote her famous 1929 essay “A Room of One’s Own”, where she advocated for women’s economic independence as a means to realize their intellectual and creative potential.

Woolf’s much-celebrated vision for women came around 900 years after Wallada’s pioneering salons. As a matter of fact, the earliest French salons date back to the early 1600s, with an almost 500 year gap from Wallada’s visionary gatherings.

Woolf is considered one of the mothers of modern-day feminism thanks to a conscious decision by historians (especially those interested in highlighting “her-story” as opposed to “his-tory”) to acknowledge her contributions to the stream-of-consciousness form of writing in modernist literature, as well as her mark on women’s movement – by including her in the narrative about the progression of women’s rights.

But because Wallada was an Arab woman and from an overall culture of rampant misogyny and deep-seated forms of hatred toward the female kind (that pre-date Islam and that can also be seen in various degrees all over the world), she was not given the time of day. History books and Arab and global narratives about feminism and women’s rights left her out of the story line, giving way to less appealing stereotypes that popularized false notions about Arab women’s weak disposition and unfitness for thought leadership.

Because of the systematic exclusion of fleets of inspiring women role models from Arab history, young girls in our part of the world have no historic female figures to look up to. They are often left with the impression women have a long history of assuming limited roles in their societies, which is one of the first steps toward crushing little girls’ self-esteem and drive to aspire for more.

As evident from Wallada’s story, such stereotypes about what women can and cannot do were not always present in Arab Muslim history. Equally true, Walladah’s strong example of self-realization and assertiveness is hardly ever seen in school textbooks or mass-consumption historic productions.

As rare as it may be, including her in the television series “Mulouk Al-Tawa’ef” was mainly thanks to Jordanian-Palestinian scriptwriter Walid Seif’s vision to highlight this part of history for a mass audience. It is probable most viewers treated this sub-plot in the series as fiction, since no “conservative” voices were heard at the time about the inappropriateness of the woman’s lifestyle.

Not only was Wallada’s lifestyle unconventional, but her Andalusian society at large was more forward-thinking than most eras in Arab history, paving the way for an age of Arab Muslim musical and architectural renaissance to take shape.

According to Seif’s portrayal of Wallada, this exceptional woman left the love of her life (then-politician and poet Ibn Zaydun) for injuring her dignity with his never-ending jealousy-driven antics. With a dignified air, she was adamant in her decision to cut him off due to the way he treated her, a foreign concept to many Arab women.

Those glimpses of self-respect and assertiveness could serve as crucial inspiration to Arab women, many of whom are frequently forced to put up with chauvinistic brothers and abusive husbands, fearing to take a stand that could risk ruining their reputations.

The progressiveness of Andalusia and Wallada’s misalignment with present-day stereotypes about Arab women has meant that learning about her in school was next to impossible. Because her story does not qualify as a palatable element in the carefully curated narrative about Arab Muslim history that public sources of knowledge usually allow for, we have at our hands a chronic crisis of self-concept and identity.

From Jordanian school curricula to “national identity” programs, past and contemporary women are often ignored, or, at best, briefly celebrated in obituaries published at the time of their passing. But those women rarely make it into historical accounts that lead to a balanced “collective identity narrative”.

Although Arabs are naturally born storytellers (or at least they were), the severe modern-day deterioration in values and culture, with the prevalence of poor taste at mass level, has resulted in a steep decline in how we tell our story as Arabs.

As a result, fake-looking, scantily clad Arab female performers are all over satellite TV stations, yet no one, conservative or otherwise, blinks an eye – even though such spectacles are far-removed from conservatism.

Conversely, dare propose a change to the Constitution to include the phrase “Jordanian women”, or take a step to introduce a mindful integration of female Arabs in history textbooks to challenge predominant narratives about who we are as Arab and Jordanian men and women – and all hell breaks loose.

We live in a society of contradictions and double-standards, but this should not stop us from forging ahead with a new vision and a new identity, inspired by male and female stories from our past and present, in a way that inspires meaningful change.

Our history, spanning thousands of years, is rich with stereotype-challenging women leaders and trendsetters, from Egypt’s Cleopatra to Yemen’s Balqis. Where are they in our storytelling about who we are?

We can start by reforming our educational system to include more inspirational stories about women leaders from years past. We can also write more books (including children’s books) about female role models from our part of the world, as we have no shortage of women who have left their mark on our lives, like Jordanian human rights lawyer Asma Khader, who passed away a month ago, leaving a true legacy behind.

All we need to do is look within for answers about who we are and where we want to be in 10 to 100 years. To craft our revised story, let us rewrite a more inclusive past so that future girls and women would start seeing a horizon full of promise, new opportunities, and potential.

Ruba Saqr has reported on the environment, worked in the public sector as a communications officer, and served as managing editor of a business magazine, spokesperson for a humanitarian INGO, and as head of a PR agency.

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