Thursday, January 24, 2008

Searching for Muslim female leaders

A topic I'm not familiar with-;

Sociologist Mernissi comments: "There have been many Muslim historians who have viewed the presence of females on the political stage as a harbinger of the [end of] the Muslim world. In fact, Seceret ud-Dur's sultanate heralded the end of the Abbasids, as well as the sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols." Yes, it's true that the Mongols burned and pillaged Baghdad; but it's also true that following the Mongol invasions was what could be characterized as a period of literal explosion in terms of the number of females coming to power in Muslim states. What's more, all of the female leaders enjoyed the privileges of having Friday prayers read in their names, as well as having their own currencies printed. Two such women were Turkan Hatun (also known as Kutluk Hatun), from the Kutluk Han dynasty and her daughter Padishah Hatun (also known as Safeddin Hatun). Mongol rulers accepted Islam degree by degree, in stages, though they never leaned toward making much in the way of concessions on women. Thus many princesses and female leaders were actually able to use the possibilities presented by Islam, which did not forbid the presence of women in the political arena, to their advantage in the Mongolian world. After Turkan and Padishah Hatun, a variety of female leaders from a number of different dynasties, including such figures as Ebesh Hatun, Devlet Hatun and Sati Bek, enjoyed positions of power with the consent of Mongol princes. One woman, Tendu (Dondu), who came from one line of the Ilhan dynasty, even managed to uphold her sultanate in Baghdad.

Writer Bahriye Üçok talks about the existence of a female sultan, Fatma Begum, who was known among the Russians as Hanım Sultan Seyyidovna and who led the Ilhani state of Kasem between the years of 1679-1681. Mernissi says, however, that Fatma Begum did not enjoy enough power to have Friday prayers read in her name, or to have coins printed and thus does not include her in the group of six female leaders she says were in power during this era.

The fact that the Mongols, who have gone down in history as a group disposed to violence, gave this much space to women in their political arenas is not something which can be understood according to today's political standards. Thus it is possible to point to the fact that the Mongols simultaneously granted women power but were not scrupulous and peace loving as proof that the correlation that some feminists say exist between these two stances is not necessarily true.

One of Ibn Battuta's many journeys brought him to the Maldives during the rule of Hatice, the daughter of Sultan Salahaddin Salih Albengali. His descriptions of this part of his journey are marked by words expressing his amazement at what he saw: "One of the most wonderful aspects of the Maldive Islands is the presence of female rulers." After Hatice, who maintained the sultanate for 33 years, came Meryam (1383), and after that, Meryam's daughter Fatma Sultan (1388). Hundreds of years after Ibn Battuta's travels to the Far East, women became rulers in Indonesia. In the 17th century, four princesses came to power one after the other in the Ache state in what is now Indonesia. Following female Sultan Tac el-Alem Safiyeddin Shah (1641-1675), who was the 14th ruler of Ache and came from the Cayadiningrat dynasty, came Hanim Sultan Nur el-Alem Nakiyeddin (1675-1678). She was followed by Inayet Zekiyet ed-Din (1678-1688), who was herself followed by Kemalat Shah (1688-1699). Despite the fact that political enemies of these female rulers brought with them from Mecca the proclaimed religious law that "it is not religiously permissible for a Muslim woman to lead a state," these four princesses continued their rule

Writer Bahriye Üçok, who produced the book "Female Leaders in Islamic States," points to 16 different women she says led states in the Muslim world. The first she points to was the ethnically Turkish Mamluk Raziyye Sultan, who came to power in 1236 in Delhi. The last one, says Üçok, was Zeyneddin Kemalat Shah, who enjoyed a sultanate in Sumatra between the years of 1688-1699. Üçok, noting that all 16 of these female leaders were Asian in their roots, maintains that there was never a single Arab female in power. As for Mernissi, in her book "Hanım Sultanlar" or "Forgotten Queens of Islam," she points to two Arab female leaders who she says have been strangely forgotten by almost everyone. These two women are Asma and Arwa, who ruled once in Yemen.

There seems little doubt that both Asma and Arwa have been "forgotten" mostly because they were female and because they were Shiite. It is also notable that the existence of both Asma and Arwa is denied by those who, like Bernard Lewis and others, deal with discrimination against women as a racial issue and proclaim as loudly as religious authorities that "there have never ever been any queens to emerge from the Arab world in history, Arabs have always viewed the existence of female rulers as a humiliating concept." To the contrary however, Yemeni historian Abdullah El-Tavr talks clearly and openly about how the period during Arwa's sultanate was, for Yemen, one of peace and fortune.

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