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‘The history of Medieval Muslim women in Islamic societies had
been almost non-existent with its slow progress, until recently, over the past
few decades, it has appeared to make a steady development and advancement, due
to an increase in the growth and breakthrough of other historiographical arenas’.1 This is partially
in due rights to the rich Ottoman archives that have provided an rise in the
publications on Muslim women’s history.2 Progress
for different historical periods in Islamic history, have not been stalled by the
lack of archival evidence in their fulfilment of some substantial works based
upon various informative sources of literary writings, juridical and biographies
accounts. However, archival documents have proved to be resourceful sources that
have shed light on ordinary individuals to ‘inform us on societal attitudes,
normative rulings and transgressions’3.
Although the role of women in a medieval Islamic society is often considered being
unknown, hidden and passive, the discovered sources prove to demonstrate
otherwise that have helped historians gain substantial insight on the Muslim
women’s lives over a longer period in time. In relation to this, historians
often take into account, the differences of women depending on their, ethnical
origins, political, social and economic situations, and their lifestyles as
well as their personal statuses to prevent making generalisations and treating
them like a category. Therefore, in this essay I will be discussing the
restricted, yet existing role of women in the public sphere of the medieval
Islamic world, specifically pertaining to their involvement in public
visibility, marriage, ownership of properties, inheritance, professions and
education, ranging from the 9th to the 17th century, and contest
the belief, with individual case-studies, that at times can prove to be existing
anomalies against the presumption that their role did not exist at all.

 

 

When approaching the subject of women in medieval societies,
one must be able to permeate through all existing social levels, in order to
not place them in a single generalised compartment. When discussing their
position in society it is clear that women were considered second class
citizens to men. Although religion did not define the lives of the Muslim
women, it was a highly influential conjunction. Besides this, their role in
society, predominately depended on their rank and social status. For example,
rules on segregation and exposure were different for Muslim women belonging to elite
households, in comparison to those belonging to lower ones. Secondly, a woman’s
personal status, affected her participation in society, differently when
compared to men. For example, a woman serving as a slave would have to submit
herself to her owners will, where he was allowed to use her sexually. She was
then given the status of being a ‘umm al
walad’, which meant the ‘mother of the child’. The child she was to birth,
would be then be considered one of the legal heirs when it came to receiving
the father’s inheritance.4

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When delving further into the social role of women in the
medieval society, the subject of discussion over a woman’s visibility out in
public was held over strict and rigid social rules and directives. ‘Shifting Boundaries,
in Sex and Gender’, showcases preachers like Ibn Abdun, in the 6th/12th
century, and Ibn al-hajj, in the 8th/14th century, to found
the presence of women in cemeteries, markets, streets, unacceptable and disapproving.5 Keeping
in mind the existing social ranking regime, the women belonging to elite
families and backgrounds, stayed indoors, in order to avoid the sight of men
with whom they were not related. If a circumstance was indispensable, they
would leave their house if necessity probed, but they had to be veiled. The
subject of seclusion was related to the preservation of virtue, which meant
that these Muslim women could not have any contact or communication with men
that were not their relatives. A woman’s seclusion, therefore became a mark for
the honour and prestige of their elite family households. Maintaining these
rules were essential among the higher elitist families, where any defiance or
transgression resulted in the loss of honour for the male members of that
family. From this, one can understand the societal pressure on women for the
power they held over the preservation of a man’s honour. An example to support
this can be seen through the satirical poems that were written to expose and
dishonour men of the time. Ibn Shuhayd, (399/1008), a poet, mentioned an
encounter with a woman who got startled by his presence while walking into a
mosque. Her immediate departure after the incident indicated how afraid she was
of being named in his poetry and bringing shame to her family name.6 This in
turn shows how the women realised the responsibility they carried and acted in
an appropriate way to maintain the virtue in the society.

 

Even though women were restricted from public spaces, and
social relationships, this did not mean that they were completely cut off from
the social sphere. For their benefit a system of communication was set up
around them. Servants and slaves, made sure the wealthy women belonging to the
higher echelons of society were in close communication with the world around them
beyond the boundaries of their home, even at times for them to be able to
influence happenings in the social and political aspects of society. Yet what
is to remembered is the level of censorship applied on a woman’s active
participation outside her home. For example, it was quite common for women to
be prohibited in public spaces in cities like Cairo and Damascus. In Cairo,
around 653/1264, women were not allowed to be out of their homes,7 and in
the month of Rajab during the rule of governor of Cairo, Sadr al Din Ahmas ibn
Ajami, prohibited women form waiting for those returning back from the
pilgrimages, a tradition they used to actively follow before.8
Likewise, other traditions and frequently visited places by women, included
mosques, baths and the cemeteries. These places were often segregated to avoid
any contact with men.Tthis was not always the case when looking at the ‘profane
location…for the mingling of men and women…alongside the shores of Nile.’9 The
sense of censorship later applied sheds light on the role the women used to
partake in traditions and the market place.

 

 

On the other hand, a woman’s presence in the court, was
undeniably admitted. Women were able to carry out lawsuits and visit the court
over disputes over marriages, properties and inheritance, to defend their
interests. This is seen from the evidence provided by Ottoman records, where
the Imperial Council, showed evidence of how women’s’ petitions could be often
seen as grievances involving family disputes, marriage laws, corrupt judges,
and in heritance.10 Yet,
even with having their petitions respected, a woman’s position in society could
never be above the space of man. Therefore, ‘women were excluded form judgeship
and from directing the communal prayer in the mosque.’11 However,
rare records exist as anomalies. There is a record of a woman who in 615/1218
recited a sermon during the funeral of a man, named Al’Adil.12 The
lack of participation by women in the judicial sector, was due to the potential
threat they were thought to represent through their sexuality. In order to
supress this, they were restricted from the occupying social spaces and failure
to comply could result in punishment by the community.13 we can
note how this apparent genre was represented in numerous literary works, during
the 9th and 15th century, for example, Ibn al-Batanuni, ‘The kitab al ‘unwan fi makayid al niswan’.14
Which illustrates how women used their sexual personalities to cleverly disrupt
the balance in society.

 

1
M. Marin, ‘Women,
gender and sexuality’, in The New Cambridge History of Islam. Ed Robert
Irwin. 1st ed. Vol 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010,

2
Abid

3
Abid

4
Abid, p.4

5
Huda Lufti, ‘Manners and customs of fourteenth-century
Cairene women: female anarchy versus Male shariah order in Muslim prescriptive
treaties’, edited by Nikki R. Keddie, Beth Baron, Yale University Press, New
Haven, 1995.

6
Monroe, ‘The striptease that was blamed on Abu Bakr’s naughty son: Was Father
being shamed, or was the poet having fun? (Ibn Quzmana zajal no. 133) in Wright
and Rowson eds. Homoeroticism, pp, 107-8

7
Chapoutot- Ramadi. ‘Femmes dans La ville mamluke.’
JESHO. (995) p.148.

8
Abd ar-Raziq, La femme au temps des mamlouks en Egypt (cairo
1973) p.35.

9
M. Marin, ‘Women, gender and sexuality’, in The New Cambridge History of Islam.
Ed Robert Irwin. 1st ed. Vol 4. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

10
Zarinebaf-Shahr, ‘Women, law, and imperial justice in Ottoman
Istanbul in the late seventieth century’, in Amira El Azhary Sonbol (ed.), ‘Women, the family, and divorce laws in the
Islamic century.’  (1996).

11
M. Marin, ‘Women, gender and sexuality’,
in The New Cambridge History of Islam.’ Ed Robert Irwin. 1st ed. Vol 4.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.

12
A.M Edde, ‘Images de femmes en Syre a
lepoque ayyoubide.’ (Paris 2000) p.p.77-76.

13
W. Saleh, ‘The woman as a locus of apocalyptic anxiety in medieval sunni
Islam.’ In Angelika Neuwirth, Brigit Embalo, Sebastian Gunther and Maher Jarrar
(eds.) ‘Myths, historical architypes and symbolic figures in Arabic literature’
(1999), pp.142-3.

14Malti
Douglas, ‘Woman’s Body, Woman’s Word:
Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing’, Princeton University Press,
(October 1991), p.54.

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