Burqa-clad feminists

The idea that Islam is incompatible with feminism was refuted by Muslim women centuries ago, writes Natasha Shahid

Burqa-clad feminists
Islam and feminism don’t mix – or so you would think. The orthodox religion has often been associated with limiting women, either to the house, inside the kitchen, or forcefully draped in a burqa. And with measures like the Saudi ban on female drivers, the image only gets stronger, fiercer, and more misogynistic – and rightfully so. But has it always been this way?

Female Muslim Warriors

Yes, there is such a thing, and not just in contemporary times. Islam has seen its fair share of female fighters: women who fought, in person, on the ground, against and beside men, and without a male guardian to escort them inside the battlefield. These were Islam’s very own Joan of Arcs – only much less celebrated.
Islam has seen its fair share of female fighters


Khawlah bint al-Azwar – the Black Knight

Khawlah’s story is unfortunately not very well known in our part of the world, nor have people attempted to circulate it – or others like it, for that matter. It is ironic that many of us have heard of Hazrat Aisha Siddiqa’s role in the Battle of Jamal, in which she did not even have to wield the sword even once, but haven’t heard of Khawlah bint al-Azwar who led the Muslim forces and fought bloody battles.

Khawlah was one of the first female knights of Islam, whose claim to fame was helping the Muslim forces to victory in the Battle of Yarmouk (636 AD). However, she had entered the limelight two years earlier, during the Battle of Sanita al-Uqab, which was fought en route the taking of Damascus. It is reported that when her brother, Zarrar, who was one of the commanders of the Muslim forces, was taken captive by the Byzantines, Khawlah left her station – she was taken along as a nurse – mounted a horse, and waded into the Byzantine ranks, herself. Not only did she manage to inflict substantial damage to her opponents, she succeeded in her mission too, and brought her brother and other captives back with her.
Khawlah bint al-Azwar led Muslim forces and fought bloody battles

And she did all of this draped from head to toe in a black burqa and a green shawl.

Khawlah’s gallantries brought her to the attention of others in the Muslim ranks, and, most importantly, to that of the Commander-in-Chief, Khalid bin Walid. When she advanced down the rear-guard of the Byzantine army alone, Khalid and others noticed the maniacal move, and expressed their interest in finding out who the warrior – obviously a male – was. Thus when she returned, Khalid enquired her identity. He must have been surprised to discover a woman behind the armour; surprised, but evidently impressed by her skills. She was recruited into the army as one of the commanders and went on to fight a substantial number of battles that took place in the Levant.

Khawlah is reported to have earned a memorable compliment from another Muslim commander, Sharjeel bin Hassana: he thought it was Khalid bin Walid, himself, fighting.

Sayyida al-Hurra's artistic rendition
Sayyida al-Hurra's artistic rendition

Sayyida al-Hurra – the Pirate Queen

Another example of “Muslimah gallantry” is Sayyida al-Hurra, who ruled Tétouan – a city in Morocco, today – as queen for twenty-seven years (between 1515 AD and 1542 AD). She is alleged to be the first female Muslim “pirate” as she, along with the Turkish governor of Algiers, Oruç Reis, policed the Mediterranean Sea for nearly thirty years: she controlled the west, while he, the eastern part of the sea.

Sayyida al-Hurra was different from Khawlah in many ways. She has no military exploits to her name – perhaps because most of her “exploits” were on the seas – and has no anecdotes of bravery. But she was a strong woman in her own right. A diplomat in name and in action, Sayyida al-Hurra dealt with her male counterparts much like modern ambassadors do, and was respected in her capacity by all, Spanish, Portuguese and Turks, alike. That is quite a lot for a woman who had resorted to piracy.

The most remarkable story related to Sayyida al-Hurra is that of her marriage to the King of Morocco, Ahmed al-Wattasi. It is reported that when the Moroccan king married Sayyida, she did not leave her governorate of Tétouan. Instead, the King moved to her place after marriage. It is said that Sayyida did not want to come across as a woman who would abandon her charge and responsibilities simply because she was married to a king.

Are we still interested in her choice of clothes?
Were they not every bit as strong as the men they dealt with - in fact, even stronger?

The Mediterranean Sea, half of which was controlled by Sayyida al-Hurra in the early 16th century
The Mediterranean Sea, half of which was controlled by Sayyida al-Hurra in the early 16th century

Burqa- or Bikini- clad: does it make a difference?

Khawlah bint al-Azwar and Sayyida al-Hurra are just two of the many examples of “empowered” female Muslims. We have all heard of the stature of Hazrat Khadija as the prolific businesswoman in pre-Islamic Arabia, and that of Hazrat Aisha, the scholar whom many of the Holy Prophet (PBUH)’s companions turned to for advice on religious matters. We may also have heard of Razia Sultana, the Mamluk Sultan of Delhi, and of Nur Jahan, the wife of Mughal Emperor Jahangir who managed to have her name stamped on the coinage of the time. Were these women, by any stretch of imagination, weak? Were they not every bit as strong as the men they dealt with – or, in fact, even stronger? Khawlah bint al-Azwar was believed to be one of the bravest warriors in the times of the Rashidun, braver than many men who accompanied her on the battlefield, on either side. Sayyida al-Hurra managed an entire governorate alone, dealing with dignitaries from around the globe with confidence and command. Hazrat Aisha was more learned than many of her companions, while Hazrat Khadija had better business sense. Even Hind, the wife of Abu Sufyan, was one of the strongest people of Mecca during, before and after the times of the Prophet (PBUH). And as far as is known to historians, none of these women had to wear bikinis to make their mark in the world around them.

This is not to demean women who do choose to wear exposing clothes – of course, it’s their choice – but to oppose the trend of making naked women the face of feminism in the modern world. This is to present a case against the notion that the fewer clothes you wear, the more empowered you are; and that the moment you “rid” yourself of your headscarf, you are instantly stronger, more intellectual and better cultured than your counterparts who haven’t been fortunate enough to experience that “liberty”.

Many of such “feminists” wouldn’t last an hour against someone like Khawlah bint al-Azwar.
Many modern-day feminists wouldn't last an hour against Khawlah bint al-Azwar


But, Islam, whereto?

Having said that, it is also pertinent to mention here that Islamists themselves have played a very important role in promoting the image of Muslim women as caged and suffocated. And why wouldn’t they? A sector of society that is overwhelmingly ruled by men, why wouldn’t it like to see women closeted in their tiny worlds? Why wouldn’t they want you to know about the Khawlahs and Sayyidas who have preceded you? They wouldn’t – it is you who must strive to learn about these women and let their stories be known to the world, so that the burqa seizes to be the ultimate symbol of oppression. Circulate their stories until they are as well-known and celebrated as European heroines – the Joan of Arcs and the Queen Elizabeths who have left their marks upon history. And, this, not because they were Muslims, but because they were strong women whose stories are as inspiring as those of their European counterparts.
Islamists have promoted the image of Muslim women as caged and suffocated


Nur Jahan, Mughal Emperor Jahangir's wife, who had coinage in her name
Nur Jahan, Mughal Emperor Jahangir's wife, who had coinage in her name

Caged in Modernity

It is an upsetting reality of the modern world that the idea of being restricted to her home is presented as the only oppression that a woman can be subjected to. It is not. Freedom is a very strong notion that cannot be measured merely by the number of visits you pay to the mall or the type of clothing you can afford to wear. Freedom is having the ability to be yourself and bring about the changes that feel right to you – without the fear of being judged.

So you, ladies, who are caged by the modern society’s demands of you; demands of looking a certain way and being a certain size and wearing a certain brand of clothing – you are not as free as you think. If you must flaunt a certain look or speak in a certain manner in order to be approved by society – you are not as free as you think. And if all you’ve done in your entire life is earn money to dress up nicely and attend weddings – you are certainly not as empowered as you think. You have been tricked into believing that a pretty life is what empowerment looks like, not donning a burqa and fighting dozens of Byzantine soldiers single-handedly. What’s glorious about that? Why wouldn’t you rather be a Miley Cyrus and ride naked on a wrecking ball, than lead the Kingdom of Delhi, covered from head to toe?

It is time for women to overcome their prejudices against other women, to reject the society’s superficial demands, and recognize what is truly powerful. It is already too late.