On the 8th of March - 8 great Arab women from history

May 2017
1,201
Syria
#1
Happy international women's day to all women throughout the world!

I figured that making a list about prominent women in history would be a good idea for today, but since many of the women I planned to talk about were already discussed extensively in the forum, and it would be difficult to pick a limited number of great women in history from all the world's regions and historical periods, I limited it to (the probably lesser known) prominent Arab women from history who bravely defied norms, left their mark and shaped their worlds, all being equal of recognition and admiration. By chronological order:

1-Zenobia (3rd century AD)

272 AD coin depicting Zenobia and the goddess Juno.

Zenobia, born around 240 CE in Palmyra, an ancient Syrian caravan city and one of the Roman empire's eastern outposts, became queen of Palmyra after her marriage to the city's ruler, Odaenathus. Proving herself to be a remarkable woman, during her tenure as queen consort she would allegedly march in the desert with the soldiers, outdrink the generals, embark on hunting trips and accompany her husband on his military expeditions to Persia. After the assassination of her husband and his son and co-ruler, Hairan, in 267 CE, she prevented a power vaccum in the east by punishing the perpetrator(s) and claiming the throne for her minor son, Vaballahus, with Zenobia becoming queen regent. During her brief reign, she subjugated all former Roman controlled territory stretching from Ancyra to Alexandria, before claiming the title of Augusta for herself and Augustus for her son. In response to the queen's rebellion, Aurelian marched to the east in 272 CE, and after reconquering Asia Minor while a naval force retrieved Egypt, he defeated her in Immae and Emesa, before sacking her capital later in 273 CE. Sources are conflicted on what became of Zenobia. The Augustan History says she was pardoned and resumed her life in a Roman villa in the countryside, marrying a well-to-do Roman. John Malalas says she was beheaded, while Zonoras says she died on the journey from Palmyra to Rome. Her rise and fall inspired many authors, artists and playwrights throughout history, and she continues to be an icon in the modern day middle east.

2-Mavia (4th-5th century AD)
Mavia (Latinized from Mawiyya, meaning mirror in Arabic) was queen of the nomadic Tanukhid Arabs by her marriage to their king, al-Hawiri. Mavia, since her husband had no heirs, rose to command the Tanukhids after her husband's death, and led the Tanukhid armies in revolt against the Roman empire. Attacking Roman outposts in Palestine and Arabia and repeatedly defeating the Roman armies throughtout the Levant, emperor Valens had no choice but to sue for peace under her conditions. He appointed a monk called Moses as bishop over the Arabs as Mavia intended, and Mavia in return married her daughter to Roman commander Victor. According to an inscription, Mavia died in 425 CE near modern-day Aleppo after a reign that successfuly, albeit briefly, restored the priviliege the Tanukhids had in the east as allies of Rome.

3-Al-Khansa (6th-7th century AD)
Tumadir bint Umar ibn al-Harith, known mostly by the nickname "al-Khansa" (the gazelle) was an influential poetess of the pre-Islamic era, known for her elegies. One of her best known elegies are those mourning her dead brothers, Mu'awiyah, who died in a tribal skirmish, and Sakhr, who died avenging him. al-Khansa was praised and admired by her contemporaries. Al-Nabigha, another pre-Islamic poet, praised her and told her "you are the greatest poet among those with breasts". She allegedly replied by saying "I'm the greatest [poet] among those with testicles as well." She eventually converted to Islam and died sometime around 645 CE, passing on her skills in poetry to her daughter 'Amrah, who also wrote elegies. al-Khansa rose to become one of the best known poets in Arabic literature and continues to be admired in the middle east.

4-Khawlah bint al-Azwar (7th century AD)

Jordanian stamp depicting Khawlah

Khawlah bint al-Azwar was born in the early 7th century in the Arabian peninsula to Malik bin Aws, known as al-Azwar. Trained in archery, melee combat and horse riding, she rode with the Rashidun army alongside her brother Dhiraar bin al-Azwar during the Islamic conquest of the Levant. Although initially just joining to provide medical attention to the wounded soldiers, she took on a knight's armor and wrapped herself in loose shawls typical of Arabian warriors and rode with the soldiers after her brother was captured, and became unrecognizable as she rode to fight the Byzantine battalions. She was so skilled in battle that allegedly, one of the Rashidun army commanders, Shurahbil ibn Hassana, even said that "this warrior fights like Khalid ibn Walid". It wasn't until Khalid asked her that she revealed her identity. She continued fighting in the Rashidun ranks, getting later captured by the Byzantines alongside other women prisoner, before managing to escape captivity by rousing the female prisoners to fight against the Byzantine guards using the tent poles, with Khawlah herself killing five of them. Many streets and schools in the middle east are named after her, and an Iraqi all-women military unit is named after her.

5-Al-Khayzuran (8th century AD)
Al-Khayzuran.png
Syrian actress Samar Samy depicting al-Khayzuran in the 2018 historical fiction "Harun ar-Rashid".

al-Khayzuran bint Atta, born in ancient Jorash, in Yemen, was one of the Abbasid caliphate's most prominent women. The wife of a caliph and the mother of two others, for nearly 14 years, she wielded extremely great influence in the Abbasid court during the reign of her husband al-Mahdi, and her two sons al-Hadi and Harun ar-Rashid. But before al-Khayzuran became the Abbasid matriarch, she was originally a slave who eventually was noticed in the markets of Mecca by al-Mahdi, the heir to the Abbasid throne. al-Mahdi bought her, and upon his succession as caliph, impressed by her knowledge, charisma and strong opinions, freed her and married her, depriving his first wife, Rayta bint al-Saffah, of her position and depriving his children from his first marriage of their rights to inherit the throne. Unlike most royal women at the time who would be secluded in the harems, she would hold audiences and receive petitions in her chamber, discuss state affairs with generals and politicians, and participated actively in the caliphate's decision-making. Her power and influence at court continued well into the reign of her son al-Hadi, but he eventually grew dissatisfied with her participation in state affairs and after an intense argument, al-Khayzuran had him murdered and replaced by his younger brother, Harun ar-Rashid. Harun, unlike his older brother, tolerated his mother's political power and cherished her advise, and she continued to exercise political power and influence until her death in 789 CE. Her death had a devastating effect on Harun ar-Rashid who, defying customs, wept during her funeral.

6-Fatima al-Fihri (9th century)

The University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fes, which Fatima founded and funded

Fatima bint Muhammad al-Fihri was born sometime around the beginning of the 9th century in Kairouan, in the western outposts of the Abbasid caliphate. Educated in history and Islamic theology, Fatima, using her inheritance, founded the University of Al Quaraouiyine in Fes, Idrisid Morocco, which is, according to UNESCO and Guinness World Records, the oldest existing and continually operating educational institution in the world, alongside a library with the same name. The university was also the first degree-awarding institute in the world, and it would offer courses on mathematics, grammar, medicine and Islamic studies. She continued to fund the university and its library before dying at eighty years old in Fes.

7-Arwa al-Sulayhi (11th-12th century)
Arwa bint Asma, later known as Arwa al-Sulayhi, was born in Yemen sometime around 1084 CE. Orphaned early, she was brought up in Sana'a and later married her cousin, Ahmad al-Mukarram bin Ali, at age 17. Ali al-Sulayhi, her father in law, died in 1067, so her husband inherited the throne of Yemen. But due to being paralyzed and bedridden, he gave all his power to Arwa, who began attending state councils and was responsible for the state's decision making, moving the capital to Jibla, building numerous schools, improving the economy and supporting agriculture. Arwa herself was described as being incredibly intelligent, and was versed in religious sciences, poetry and history. She remained in power until dying around 1138, buried in Jibla. Her tomb became a place of pilgrimage and she's revered and admired in modern day Yemen.

8-Huda Sha'rawi (19th-20th century)

Huda Sha'rawi

Huda Sha'rawi was born in 1879 in Minya, Egypt, daughter of the president of the Egyptian Representative Council. Spending her early life secluded in the harem, Huda began to resent the restrictions and obstacles forced on women in her society and began organizing lectures on women's rights. In 1922, she took off her veil in public and many women followed in her footsteps. She founded the Egyptian Feminist Union, published two feminist magazines, represented Egypt in international women's congresses, and despite the fact that her demands weren't met during her lifetime, she laid the groundwork for middle eastern feminists and remains a symbolic standard-bearer for women's rights in the middle east.

Feel free to share and discuss other great women from history!
 
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Oct 2014
77
Osaka
#2
@JaddHaidar thanks for posting. I had heard about two of these notable women (Zenobia and Fatima) but didn't know the others. Happy international women's day!

I would like to contribute, unfortunatley I don't know too much about specifically Arab women from history but will it be allowed to share some great Japanese women from history in this thread? Murasaki Shikibu is considered to have written the world's first ever novel. She lived a thousand years ago and her contribution inspired a whole genre of literature written in a poetic style by women. One might also consider Chiaki Mukai, the first ever female Japanese astronaut.

Women in Japanese History Who Led the Way for the Rest of Us
Top 10 Japanese women throughout history 【Women in Japan Series】

Am interested to see more contributions of amazing women from history in this thread :)
 
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Likes: JaddHaidar
May 2017
1,201
Syria
#3
I would like to contribute, unfortunatley I don't know too much about specifically Arab women from history but will it be allowed to share some great Japanese women from history in this thread?
Of course! I personally don't know much about Japanese women in history other than some of their empresses regnant (Jingu for example) and of course, Murasaki Shikibu as well (I once received " The Tale of Genji" translated into Arabic as a gift)

Murasaki Shikibu is considered to have written the world's first ever novel. She lived a thousand years ago and her contribution inspired a whole genre of literature written in a poetic style by women. One might also consider Chiaki Mukai, the first ever Japanese astronaut.

Women in Japanese History Who Led the Way for the Rest of Us
Top 10 Japanese women throughout history 【Women in Japan Series】

Am interested to see more contributions of amazing women from history in this thread :)
Thanks for sharing!
 

civfanatic

Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
3,308
Des Moines, Iowa
#4
The greatest Arab women are the members of the Ahl-ul-Bayt, particularly Fatima az-Zahra and Zainab bint Ali, whose womanly virtues serve as an example for all other women. The heroism of Sayyida Zainab in the face of Umayyad tyranny is particularly noteworthy, and stands out as one of the greatest examples in history of feminine courage.
 
May 2017
1,201
Syria
#7
Was Zenobia really Arab?
I was actually unsure whether to include her in this list, her ethnicity cannot be proven since we know nothing about her ancestry, and her Aramaic name doesn't reveal much either as we have many instances of Jewish and Arab families in Palmyra adopting Aramaic names after a certain generation, perhaps to blend in with the city's dominant culture. But whatsoever, we do know that the name of her husband, Odaenathus, is Latinized from "Udhayana", which is Arabic for little ear, that the name of her son, Vaballathus, is Latinized from "Wahb al-Lat", a theophoric Arabic name meaning gift of al-Lat (who was a goddess worshiped in pre-Islamic Arabia, especially the hejaz and northern Arabia. Her name's mentioned in the quran) and the name of her other son, Hairan, is also Arabic. There is reason to believe that she was of mixed Arab-Aramaic ancestry like her husband and a lot of Palmyra's elite were.

Greco-Roman sources allege that she claimed descent from the Greek Ptolemies.

al-Tabari says that she was an Arab of the Amaliq, but then again his account of Zenobia (or rather - al-Zabba') is heavily fictionalized and inaccurate, and seems more like folklore. He doesn't even mention the Romans, the Persians, her husband, or her children, and Palmyra itself is only mentioned once as the city where the queen spends the spring.
 
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Oct 2014
77
Osaka
#8
Was Zenobia really Arab?
No, not in the strictly modern sense. She lived too far back in history.

The Palmyrans were a Semitic people who spoke Aramaic, a Semitic dialect, and used the Aramaic alphabet, which is ancestral to Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic. Palmyra is in Syria.

So kind of a proto-Arab, but I'm not sure if that term even existed yet so far back in history. Definitely part of the Semitic family of languages, which the Arabs are part.
 

civfanatic

Ad Honorem
Oct 2012
3,308
Des Moines, Iowa
#9
So kind of a proto-Arab, but I'm not sure if that term even existed yet so far back in history.
The terms "Arab" and "Arabia" certainly existed by Zenobia's time. There was a Roman emperor who was called "Philip the Arab" (Phillipus Arabus in Latin), as well as a Roman province called "Arabia" that included the Sinai and parts of Palestine, Jordan, and Syria. In fact, even the Bible uses the term "Arabia." See Galatians 4:25 in the New Testament, which indicates that Mount Sinai was in the region called "Arabia."
 
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