The Political Roles of Women in Islam: Case Studies from the Medieval to Early Modern Periods

Saturday, January 5, 2019
Stevens C Prefunction (Hilton Chicago)
Aya Beydoun, Wayne State University
Muslim women are among the least discussed historical figures in our society, both in public history and American academia. Even within their own narratives in the history of Islamic empires, the first people often considered after the prophet Mohammad are the male caliphs (Muslim political leaders) that followed him, and the male scholars that helped spread and develop the religion. However, women also played a prominent role in shaping culture, policy, scholarship, and religion alongside these men throughout history.

It must be said that extensive research of secondary sources was necessary to understanding what role, if any, women played before the modern era. This included sifting through conflicting narratives, scholarly bias, and in some cases tracking names near-forgotten to history. After thorough investigation, consulting with the work of expert historians like Vernon Egger and Fatima Mernici, the identification of eight case studies of remarkable women in Islamic history was possible. Each of whom held some degree of public, political power, and thus their short and long term influence on the Muslim world could be analyzed to prove their relevance.

After an examination stretching from the medieval age to the early modern era, it becomes apparent that the political roles of these women was dependent on the region and time period in which they existed, shifting by their own social and political contexts. While the scope and nature of their influence may have varied, all of these women had a great impact on Islamic history, and in a few cases: world history. Certainly more than the general public and scholars outside this specific field may be aware.

It is vital that these narratives are more widely shared and researched, as they are just as big a piece of Islamic history as their male counterparts. The narrow selection of women’s political narratives in this particular study may have been a result of inaccessible English translations of scholarship and primary sources, but if so then the American scholarly community needs to see a push for more translated works. Above all, the historical community at minimum should create more name recognition for these women, and to help find the names of the women time and misogyny forgot. After all, we should not forget any names that shared all the glories and failures of global Islamic history, be them exceptions or commonplace.

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