Were there women in Islamic history?
Were there women in Islamic history?
Wednesday, March 3,2010 21:03

This article is written to present a historical background for those who are "looking for" veiled writers, for those who have "found/not found" them, and for those who defend them saying, "they were always there; you didn't see them." For the question, "Were there women in Islamic history," still lies behind all these questions and answers as a determining question/verdict.

What did Orientalists say? "Islam is oppressive for women. This is the reason for backwardness in Muslim societies." According to Leyla Ahmed, if we want to express the Orientalist works in one sentence, we can summarize it like this. In other words, when looked at within an Orientalist framework, this picture appears: Muslim women did not contribute to history; they were either sold in slave markets or cloistered in harems as sex objects.

When looked at from the West's point of view, the East, especially the Islamic world, is seen as a huge harem. Of course, there are some distinct reasons why the West nurtured such an image regarding Muslim women. For while Europe was establishing its own identity, it placed the East, the Islamic world in particular, in a counter position as its opposite. It needed an image of the East that was loaded with all negative characteristics. This was built on the stereotype of the imprisoned, oppressed woman. As can be seen in Montesquieu's Persian Letters, criticism of civil and governmental injustice and arbitrary administration was always made via the harem.


The placement of an oppressed and submissive Muslim woman image in the center of the imagination of Westerners took place at the same time as the foundation of the British and French empires in the 19th century. In other words, there is a direct relation between these images and imperialism and the legitimization of imperialism. This legitimization did not end with the 19th century. While in the 21st century America legitimized both the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, it used the stereotype of the "oppressed woman in a burqa." These stereotypes of the Orientalists influenced the self-image of Muslims who were trying to face up to defeat by the West. We adopted an image of ourselves refracted in their view of us and modern history has passed by producing answers to these Orientalist prejudices. It can be said that we have still not escaped from this defensive position.

Well, were there really women in Islamic history? What their existence was explained and measured by is a different matter.

The criticisms that history books did not take into account the lives of ordinary people and that history was only written in regard to great events and wars led to new forms of recording history like micro-history and narrative history. However, due to the sensitivity shown in the Islamic history tradition to relating hadiths, there exists an historical approach of writing histories via high officials. This tradition continued in the form of memoires of saints and collections of hadith. In these books, for example, in biographies of poets, in notebooks of saints and in collections of hadith, women's names were always given together with men's names.

But whenever a need is felt for a defensive explanation like "There were women in Islamic history,"  then both as an answer to Orientalist prejudices and as examples of our own history during the modernization period we find that women are included in special women biographies and women encyclopedias.

For example, the work Me?ahirünnisa written by Mehmet Zihni Efendi is the first of this kind of encyclopedic biography. Mehmet Zihni Efendi wrote this book in 1878 at the request of the Ministry of Education and it was to be taught in Female Teachers Schools. This book includes women who had achieved fame by various means. There are thousands of names. Me?ahirünnisa includes not only the names of famous women, but of infamous ones as well.

One aspect of the book's composition that attracts attention is the presentation of important work done by women who became famous, whether in the field of knowledge or politics, in a very natural way. There is no hint of amazement in the words of Mehmet Zihni Efendi either when he mentions a Muslim woman named ?eceretüddür who was in the state administration during the time of the Ayyubids or when he states that Ibn Arabi's teacher was a woman.

Famous hadith scholar Süyuti mentions more than ten women as his teachers. And while explaining this, he does show any indication that there is anything strange about this. In other words, there is no implication to the effect, "Oh, that great hadith scholar's teacher was a woman!" This means that the presence of women in this field was not rare. Or it means that a discourse on women that carried this emphasis was not yet in circulation.

However, women who were included in collections and biographies as poets, hadith teachers and Sufis were included in this book only because they were women. This was a new approach. And it comprised a response to the above-mentioned claim that Islam was oppressive to women.


On the other hand, women and issues related to femininity appear as a very central field of debate in Ottoman society which had experienced various facets of modernization. The women's issue sits squarely in the middle of the discourse on modernization and civilization. For a new woman is needed for a new society and education is needed for a new woman. Of course, what is emphasized here is modern education. In classical Ottoman society women had a broad, but not formal education aimed at the needs of the time. There was a pre-industrial economic organization and, like men, women pursued their education in a master-apprentice model.

Because modernization was brought via Western institutions, education became one of the main supports of modernization. Setting out with the observation that they could not fly with just one wing, Ottoman intellectuals gave great importance to the education of women. The Ministry of Education saw the unsoundness of presenting only examples of successful Western women to young girls who had learned a Western language and Western customs during their education. It was important to present life examples from our history. This was important from two angles:

I-In a world divided along the lines of civilized and barbaric or, in other words, Europeans and "the rest of the world," in order to be counted among the civilized nations, we wanted to show our difference from so-called "barbarian" African tribes and our historical heritage both to those across from us and to ourselves.

II-We wanted to remain ourselves while modernizing. In order to remain ourselves, we had to feel the place our grandmothers held and their existence and to benefit from it.

It was this concern that led the first female novelist in the Ottoman and Islamic world to mention names of women from Islamic history under titles like "women predecessors" and "famous women." For while advocating women's rights, it was necessary not to be in a successor-predecessor relationship with European women.  In her article entitled, "Let's Learn a Lesson from the Bablus," she emphasized that our own predecessors should be taken as a model and not the European "Blue Stockings." "We should not take an example from them and try and not resemble them." "Yes! We should not be the successors of the Bablus. We should be the successors of poets and famous women who came from the predecessors of Islam."

On the one hand, we see an effort to find women predecessors during this period. On the other hand, we see an effort to make visible on paper living women who can hope to be taken as examples by educated, modern women. In this respect, the book entitled The Origin of an Ottoman Novelist, which included Fatma Aliye's own life as an example and which was written by Ahmet Mithat Efendi, is a first. It was new both in form and content.

In short, the special effort to find our female predecessors in history began as an answer to the stereotype judgment, "There are no women in Islamic history."  But even if it began like this, we need to know our female predecessors in history. For a person can only get a footprint from life. And footprints are important because they guide. It is only possible to grasp how priorities and constants were put into practice by taking into consideration the life shown to one in footprints. For this reason we have a need to know women in history before they are squeezed into the "women's history" perspective.