Before the rise of the Internet and the explosion of social media, I never knew much about the official struggle of my gender although I always felt the social struggle. I didn’t have the language to express all that I was feeling and experiencing growing up, and today I call myself a proud feminist. International Women’s Day, has been an important tradition in my life since I’ve learned of it four years ago. The story is a inspiring one, although the officiated UN date of March 8th, isn’t the original strike day. The first demonstration of women on the last day of February in 1909 were American women who took to the streets in protest of conditions in their garment jobs. Through socialist and suffragist initiatives the day picked up steam and became a platform for anti-war protests and in 1917 Petrograd, Russia the women taking to the streets set off one of the most lasting impacts on our modern world, the rise of the communism. Leon Trotsky wrote, “We did not imagine that this ‘Women’s Day’ would inaugurate the revolution,” and that seems to be the unwritten story of women.
This day signifies a lot more than solidarity and sisterhood, which sometimes seems in short supply—it speaks more to the power of women in changing narrative, challenging the status quo and shaking things up. Women are integral, the immovable movers of revolution, the birthers of nations. We see that today with #aDayWithoutaWoman, and saw it on inauguration day, waves of women making meaningful stances on the things that matter most to them.
This day signifies a lot more than solidarity and sisterhood…
As a Muslim feminist, inspired by the vibrant socialist roots of my religion, I hope to do the same thing, by sharing eight Women in Islam. Four from the Quran (the divine sphere of Islam) and four from Islamic history (political entity post Prophet), who inspire me. This distinction between the political realm and the divine realm is important, because it’s one that is often conflated and erased by Islamophobes and misguided Muslims alike to quell the agency of Muslim women.
Without further ado, I present to you, the not-so forgotten – queens of Islam:
From the Quran
1. The Queen of Sheba
The Quran is not kind in regards to kings or leaders. It systematically exposes the tyranny and oppression rooted in absolute power and denounces despots like Pharaoh and Neron—but praises one, Balkis. The Queen of Sheba is tested and succeeds but even before her union with Solomon, God’s description of this woman through surah (chapter) 27 ayas (verses) 32-35 shows a level-headed intelligent democratic ruler grounded in ideals of equality and justice. Contrary to the hadith set forth by ulemas and upheld by archaic cultural norms that assert women’s “sensitivity and emotions” make them unsuitable for leadership roles. The Quran reports these words: “O’ my sustainer . . . I have surrender myself with Solomon,” [27:44] affirming that not FOR Solomon did she forgo the ways of her forefathers but WITH him, as an equal. Balkis is the ode to female leadership Muslims deserve.
The story of Prophet Yusuf is one of the few stories in the Quran that is told all the way through in its entirety in its designated surah. Zulaykha is hopelessly in love and obsessed with the young Prophet Yusuf (Joseph) who’s physical appearance is often described as other worldly [12:30-32]. Zulaykha subsequently attempts to seduce the Prophet and fails miserably. The love she feels for Yusuf has been explored and explained by mystics such as ibn’ Abbas, ibn Arabi and Rumi as a ‘love that kills’ and her name is synonymous with the greater jihad of the self in Indo-Persian traditions. Amazingly enough, the Quran reserves its judgment on her actions and paints her character with subtle kindness and even vindicates her as she confesses and owns up to her shortcomings [12: 51-53]. The take-away: we all mess up, we’re all human and we’ll be judged but suffering spurs self-growth.
3. The Daughter of Shu’ayb
The wife of Moses, he helps her and her sister water their herd having no other help. Through this meeting of welcoming the stranger in the strange land – she vouches for him to her elderly father, and lets the old man know that she is interested in marrying him. [28:23-27] This story might seem out of place but to me it signifies a couple of things, the idea of soul-mates borne on love at first sight, and the importance of being able to sincerely convey your feelings without shame regardless of your audience. Long live the pure maiden who dreams.
This is a woman that needs no introduction. More commonly known as “Mary” or “Mother Mary” in the west, she is the bridge between Christianity and Islam and is one of the most revered women of all time. In the Quran her story is of patience, perseverance and prophet-hood. She and her son are signs, of the divine breathing and living through the womb breaking the barriers of the world—essentially saving it in many ways. Surah 3, Imran and verse 36-37 is probably the most feminist execution I have come across in any holy text, expressing that ‘a boy is not like a girl’ and abolishing sexist tradition by the birth of this woman and her famous destiny.
5. Khadijah b. Khuwaylid (d. 620)
Outside of being the Prophet’s first wife, first convert, and the great woman behind the great man of Islam; Khadijah on her own was an elite of Meccan society and a revolutionary entrepreneur despite the dominant misogynistic culture that sentenced female newborns to death for no crime but being born female. She broke glass ceilings before it was even a thing.
6. Zaynab b. ‘Alī (d. 681)
The granddaughter of the prophet daughter of Fāṭima (d. 633) and her husband ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib (d. 661) watched her entire family die at the hands of a power crazed self-imposed despot. Zaynab made sure no one forgot the Massacre at Karbala (680) and made such a powerful speech the viziers of Yazīd ibn Mu‘āwiya convinced him to let her and the rest of the survivors go.
7. Fatima Muhammad Al-Fihri (d.880)
The founder of the world’s first institute for higher learning that still operates in Fez, Morocco to this day, the University of al-Qarawiyyin (since 859). ‘Nuff said.
8. Sayyida al-Hurra (d. 1542)
Born to a well to do family in the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada (present day Spain) after the Christian invasion of the Iberian Peninsula and the diaspora of the Muslim populace,
Sayyida Al-Hurra, ‘the free woman’ became a pirate queen of present day Morocco and stifled colonization efforts against advancing Portugal and Spain. She held down the West of the strait of Gibraltar while a name you might be familiar with – Barbarossa – held down the East.
I hope reading about these badass women have inspired you as much as they have me.
From me, and the rest of the MissMuslim team, HAPPY INTERNATIONAL WOMEN’S DAY!
To learn about more outstanding Islamic women visit, Academia.edu.