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Great Ancestors - Women Asserting Rights in Muslim Contexts

Thursday 19 November 2009, by siawi2

Book Review by Anissa Helie : Great Ancestors - Women Asserting Rights in Muslim Contexts

In 2004, the international solidarity network Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML)1 and the Lahore-based women’s collective Shirkat Gah (also acting as the WLUML Regional Coordination office for Asia) have undertaken a ground breaking historical research. Its aim is to reclaim women’s rights activism as grounded in Muslim societies.

The resulting publication - the Great Ancestors, Women Asserting Rights in Muslim Contexts - highlights the lives and deeds of women from diverse Muslim countries and communities who have, in the past, engaged in the struggle for gender equality. Richly illustrated, it provides dozens of examples of women’s rights advocates ranging from the 8th century to the 1950s and encompasses regions as varied as the Arabian Peninsula, Egypt, Muslim Spain, India, Pakistan, Algeria, Iran, Turkey, Central Asia, Nigeria or Indonesia.

In the words of the author, Farida Shaheed from Pakistan, the research allows to connect “the contemporary struggle for women’s rights [with our] historical past, engendering a sense of linkage with - and ownership of - both women’s assertions in the past and the contemporary movement.”

Feminism belongs to all

The impetus for the project came from a need to challenge a common assumption that defines feminism as a project which originated in the West in the course of the last couple of centuries. This misconception, combined with the portrayal in mainstream Western media of “Muslim women” as passive victims, serves the proponents of the so-called clash of civilizations - who would like us to believe that boundaries of identities negates the very possibility of a global feminist agenda.

On the other hand, it also serves the interests of the religious Right in Muslim countries and communities. These politico-religious forces (“fundamentalists”) systematically denounce feminism as a foreign discourse and practice. The goal is to de-legitimize feminists as “Westernized” women who betray their culture or religion by opting for a “non-indigenous” strategy.

It is clear that the challenges women faced (and continue to face) are influenced by historical, social and political circumstances, and that the strategies they designed (individually or collectively) are, accordingly, varied. Yet, Great Ancestors sets to demonstrate that the efforts undertaken by women towards achieving gender equality in Muslim contexts have been ongoing for centuries. In the process, it “explodes the myth that struggles for women’s rights are alien to societies that embraced Islam.”

The wealth of illustrations - from portraits to covers of 19th century women’s magazines to reproductions of early miniatures, some of them exquisite - also goes a long way in making this statement not only politically valuable but also enjoyable for the eye.

Documenting women’s struggles in Muslim contexts - A WLUML approach

Reclaiming a feminist past in Muslim contexts is not a new endeavor. For more than a decade already, scholars have documented prominent female figures, or focused their research on women’s activism in a given region.
For example, Margot Badran has translated the Memoirs of Hoda Shaarawi, an early Egyptian feminist leader (Harem Years - 1879/1924). Badran subsequently drew upon a wide range of women’s sources (memoirs, letters, essays, journalistic articles, fiction, treatises, and extensive oral histories) to record the spread of feminism at the turn of the last century in Egypt in her Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt (1996).

Other well-known researchers include Fatima Mernissi in Morocco, who brought back to life the Forgotten Queens of Islam (1993). Or Kumari Jayawardena in Sri Lanka, whose research on women’s political struggles from the last 19th century onwards did include women in some Muslim countries (Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World, reprint 1994).
Yet, Great Ancestors adds an international dimension to this previous scholarship. In addition to its stated aim to uncover an “indigenous” feminist past that can inspire younger generations of activists, it also differs from earlier work at other levels.

The unique format will prove invaluable to women’s advocates, trainers and educators alike. The 2 volume kit offers, on the one hand, a narrative part which is organized chronologically from the 8th century till the contemporary period. Varied illustrations enrich the almost 200 pages of text. The “Narratives” portray women according to the specific area of activism on which they focused. The scope of their activities is an eye opener - reminding us that a number of issues (such as polygyny, divorce rights, child custody, etc.) remain sites of struggle to this day.

Shaheed underlines three main “strands of women’s assertiveness” - at times interconnected, at times developing independently from one another: “The first strand consist of women asserting control over their personal lives, especially in terms of bodily integrity, including sexuality, and rights within the family. The second, much less documented strand is women’s solidarity actions, that is, initiatives by women to support other women. The third strand is women’s efforts to improve their societies.”2
Some women worked towards ensuring access to education (for themselves or others) and thrived on intellectual achievements or the knowledge of scriptures. Others fought to secure rights within marriage or refused the marriage institution altogether. Yet others engaged in collective solidarity projects, including anti-colonial struggles or early forms of transnational feminist networking. For the reader, the combination of chronological and thematic within the “Narratives” (as well as the index) makes the various chapters easy to navigate.

The second volume of the kit - the “Training Module” - also mirrors the three broad “strands” of women’s activism. It provides texts and illustrations (as well as guidelines and glossary) that are specifically designed for teachers and trainers to run a one hour training session. The Training Module’s script, to be read aloud, offers a series of monologues/cameos either based on original sources or, where possible, using women’s own voices. These concrete examples of women’s activism, each lasting no more than 60 seconds so as to keep attention focused, start with the provocative sentence: “How could you have forgotten me?”. Indeed, participants will no doubt wonder how so many powerful women could have been silenced and made invisible throughout history.

The content is also original in terms of its orientation.
Great Ancestors is not focused exclusively on famous women. In the words of author Farida Shaheed: “it is about women who intervened for women’s rights and social justice, whether they were subsequently famous or not.”3
It also, deliberately, does not limit itself to “Muslim women” - for two reasons. First, because WLUML is aware that there were, and there are, non-Muslim women who live and struggle in Muslim contexts. Second, and importantly, because there are women from Muslim backgrounds who - whether they are believers or not - choose other markers of identity than religion.

Finally, Great Ancestors includes some male voices, to pay tribute to the men who took a stand in favor of gender equality and advocated for women’s rights. As Farida Shaheed emphasizes: “The notion that all men in Muslim societies are misogynistic is as much a myth as the notion that women are only silent victims.”4

Sources and Limitations

Historical sources rarely do justice to women’s struggles. Apart from the recurrent issue of male monopoly over knowledge, there may also be the fact (at least in some contexts such as sub-Saharan Africa) that a number of societies tended to rely on oral rather than written traditions.

However, in the early days of Islam (during the 8th and 9th centuries), various historical data do include prominent women. Shaheed notes that, among the 4,250 names entered in the earliest Tabaqat al-kubra (the “First Generations” - a record of important figures), about 15% are women.
Between the 11th and 15th centuries, scholars continue to record the lives of Muslims from royal and elite families - but now also move towards documenting less affluent or influential people. This includes “women merchants, poets, midwives”, etc. The geographical range increases as well: early works focus initially on Mecca and Medina later ones, starting from the 14th century, also mention women from Egypt to Syria.

But, from the 15th century onwards, “women mysteriously disappear”. In the 16th century Al-Ghazzi’s (died 1651) compilation of 1,647 illustrious people includes only 12 women. In the 17th century, Al-Muhibbi (d. 1699) lists no women at all. In the 18th century, Al-Muradi (d.1791) refers to one single woman. And in 19th century, Al-Baytar (d.1918) mentions only two women.
What happened?

Shaheed suggests this sudden disappearance could be a consequence of the “fragmentation into disparate structures and empires, each with its own priority and language.”

Badran situates the time when “notable women [began to] rapidly drop out of Islamic history” earlier, possibly linking it to the increased practice of concubinage around the 10th and 11th centuries. She states: “The ’Abbâsids [832-950] preferred having concubines to wives. Wives were free Muslim women who could exercise their rights, while concubines were slaves with few rights. The emphasis on concubinage affected the whole society and engendered attitudes that canceled the exercise of women’s rights and freedom.”5

More research would help establish whether this was one of the early factors which led to women’s exclusion from historical records.
For the 15th to 19th century period, court records would have no doubt offered a wealth of information, as many women took advantage of legal means at their disposal to settle disputes (as a delicate 13th century miniature from Baghdad shows, with a wife and husband consulting a qadi, or magistrate). But the Great Ancestors’s small team could not take advantage of such sources - at least not for this volume (it is conceived of as an ongoing project).

Another limitation, acknowledged by the authors, is linked to the fact that the research relied primarily on information available in English or Urdu - leaving unexplored large sections of the “Muslim world” (such as Chinese, Indonesian Muslims or communities from sub-Saharan Africa and Europe, etc).

However, overall, Great Ancestors proves to be an exciting, well researched, and attractively illustrated book. Hopefully, the present publication will encourage groups with access to local data to undertake further research in other countries. Reclaiming history is an endeavor most oppressed constituencies - from indigenous to women, from gays and lesbians to disabled people - are engaged in. By documenting their own great ancestors, such groups are able to trace the roots of their activism, and sustain contemporary struggles. Similarly, a large-scale history of feminism in the Muslim world6 can go a long way in confronting the challenges posed to women by foreign intervention, the failure of nation states to provide for citizens’ basic needs or the rise of the Muslim religious right.


1. See; Note that most WLUML publications, published since 1986, are downloadable on line from the above website
2. Introduction - “Training” volume, p.vii-viii
3. Introduction - “Narratives” volume, p. xi
4.Introduction - “Narratives” volume, p. xvii
5. Margot Badran, “Muslim Women Reclaim Their Original Rights”,
6. In 1998 and 1999, the WLUML network and the Center for Women’s Global Leadership (CWGL) jointly held two intensive trainings institutes in Istanbul, Turkey, and Lagos, Nigeria. More information on these “Feminism in the Muslim World Leadership Institutes” can be found at

Vivienne Wee’s responses to Anissa Helie’s interview questions about Farida Shaheed’s Great Ancestors (September 2005)

Vivienne Wee is the Associate Director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre and an Associate Professor at the City University of Hong Kong

Anissa: How did you come across the Great Ancestors and why do you think we need to write about them?

Vivienne: I learnt about the Great Ancestors when it was still a project in process. When I met up with the author, Farida Shaheed, at an international women’s meeting in Capetown in late October 2004, we spent many hours discussing and comparing different endogenous women’s movements that had emerged out of their own historical and cultural contexts. In our discussion, we agreed on the need to make visible these endogenous women’s movements, especially those that are not linked to European or American women’s movements. So I was very pleased to learn from Farida at that time that she was shortly publishing a whole book on women asserting their rights in historical Muslim contexts and even more pleased that this book has now been published.

I think there is an urgent need to write about our ’great feminist ancestors’, because there is a widespread belief in post-colonial societies that all progressive values, such as human rights, women’s rights, social justice or sustainable development, have been transmitted to us as part of the ’white man’s burden’ of civilizing us. As a result, such values tend to be known as ’Western values’, as if prior to European colonization, there was no indigenous notion of justice or rights in the societies that were colonised. In fact, we should realise that this myth was constructed precisely to legitimize the colonial presence as a ’civilising process’.

In this context, Farida’s work Great Ancestors is more than just a compilation of women who had lived and asserted their rights in different Muslim countries and communities. Indeed, this work serves to debunk the myth that the notion of women’s rights was imported from colonizing countries to the colonies. The persistence of this myth in our post-colonial contexts only emphasizes the continuing ’coloniality’ of our situation. It is thus crucial for feminists in post-colonial countries to stake ownership over the notion of women’s rights as an indigenous value that is part of our own heritage. Failure to do so will lead to us losing home ground from which to assert women’s rights as a legitimate nationalist concern. I must thus congratulate Farida for pioneering this important work of anchoring women’s rights deep within diverse Muslim histories and cultures.

Anissa: Mainstream and conservative discourses tend to see feminism as a project originating in the West in the last 200 years or so. What does this book have to say about that?

Vivienne: The book points out that mainstream discourse about feminism as a Western project has become a myth that is accepted by people both inside and outside of Muslim contexts. The former uses this myth to ’discredit women’s rights advocates and their cause’ (Great Ancestors, p. xi), with feminism construed as an alien intrusion from the West that post-colonial nationalists should therefore reject.

In reality, this mainstream discourse is itself part and parcel of an earlier colonizing discourse that was constructed expressly for the purpose of legitimizing colonialism. Such discourse stems from an ’othering’ process that depicts the non-Western Other in terms of ’Oriental despotism’ or some other form of barbarism from which non-Western women must be ’saved’. It is very ironic that post-colonial nationalists should now embrace this colonizing myth and identify themselves as people who do not value women’s rights.

The book Great Ancestors thus performs a great service by helping to restore women’s rights to their rightful historical place within Muslim cultures and societies. As noted in the Introduction, ’over the centuries, many men from within Muslim contexts have called for better gender relations and justice, and…innumerable men have been key supporters and facilitators of women’s assertions of self. The notion that all men in Muslim societies are misogynistic is as much a myth as the notion that women are only silent victims’ (p. xvii).

Anissa: Can you give us one or two striking examples of the women featured in the book who inspired you?

Vivienne: The women who particularly impress me are those who promoted the collective rights of girls and women, rather than just their own individual rights. In this regard, I am struck by the women who contributed to the founding and maintenance of the ribats that had flourished from the twelfth to the fifteenth century as socially sanctioned spaces for women ’who chose a different life pattern than the norm of marriage and children as well as for those who had no other choice or space’ (p.21).

Even more significantly, ’a large proportion of the inhabitants of the ribat were of various Sufi orders. Like their male counterparts in mysticism, some came to these institutions not for refuge from an unstable or abusive situation, but for the freedom to practise heterodox forms of Islam’ (p.22). I found this particularly inspiring in relation to something that the author, Farida Shaheed, said in another context. In her address to the Asia-Pacific NGO Forum on Beijing+10 (July 2004), she spoke of her right not only to choose and define her individual identity but also her collective identity [emphasis added]. Her description of the ribats, as quoted above, amply illustrates how 900 or so years ago, women were already exercising their right to shape their identities as Muslims and indeed their religion. What is more, this right was institutionalised within a Muslim context and was not imposed as an intrusion from outside.

Another account that I found inspiring was that of the woman in 15th-century Cairo, who was outraged by the marital rape suffered by her niece, and who managed to mobilize her entire neighbourhood to lobby for justice from the court. As a result of this collective action, Shaheed notes, ’this fifteenth century court acknowledged the concept of marital rape and denounced it as a violation of women’s rights. It is ironic indeed that five centuries later, we should have elements in different Muslim societies who deny the very concept of marital rape as being non-existent or even contrary to Muslim jurisprudence’ (p. 35).

I am also impressed by Amina Sarauniya of Zazzau (1533?-1610?), in what is now Nigeria, who became a ruler in her own right, who was able to conduct military campaigns, and who refused to subject herself to any patriarchal marriage. It seems to me that the heritage left by Amina is more than just old city walls. She has left behind a path for women to assert their right to be political leaders in their own right, to shape their countries politically, and to live independent lives of their own choice.

Anissa: There’s a ’training module’ in Great Ancestors, in addition to the narratives section. How could this work be used by professors and students and also by activists? And are you planning to use it in your own practice?

Vivienne: The training module brings to life these ’great ancestors’, capturing the essence of their personalities and deeds. I found this so even after I read the volume of narratives. Farida Shaheed has masterfully expressed similar contents in two quite different voices - a more reflective third-person voice in the narratives and a more direct dialogic voice in the training module. The two volumes are thus complementary in their approaches. For teaching purposes, both volumes should be used - the narratives for discursive knowledge and the training module for knowledge through experiential role-playing.

The training module is relevant for educating both Muslim and non-Muslim students and activists. I plan to use it in my course ’Women and development in Asia’ which I am teaching this semester.

Anissa: At a time when the religious right seems to be on the rise, what impact do you think a work like Great Ancestors can have on debates and struggles around the world? Do you think the book is likely to inspire you or others to undertake similar research in your own context (or in contexts not yet covered in detail in the book)?

Vivienne:Great Ancestors is definitely significant in relation to the religious right that is bent on portraying their religions as void of rights and justice. By documenting well-substantiated research of great women in historical Muslim contexts, this work has the potential of debunking misguided claims that women’s rights are an alien import. In my opinion, the significance of this endeavour extends beyond Muslim contexts to other contexts of post-coloniality, where other, non-Muslim, women are also told that their rights are alien to, for example, ’Asian values’.

I am impressed by the extent to which Great Ancestors has given visibility to women’s capacity to shape their collective and personal lives. This rewrites the patriarchal script of women as victims or as passive participants. I feel inspired to trace the roots of women’s movements in China and Indonesia to indigenous beginnings. At this moment, I am exploring with my students the historical possibility or even probability that China was a matrilineal society, before patriarchal Confucianism was imposed as state ideology. I would like to trace continuities, in women’s deeds and thoughts, from this pre-Confucianist context to subsequent women’s movements that sprang up endogenously in various parts of China. Similarly, in Indonesia, I would like to do research on the indigenous roots of women’s movements in different parts of the country. This is particularly important at this time when extremist Muslims are trying to assert that women’s rights have no place in Islam or Indonesia as a Muslim-majoritarian country.

2005, 2 volume Kit (Training Manual: 133 pages; Narratives: 193 pages)
Author: Farida Shaheed, with Aisha Lee-Shaheed
Order from: Shirkat Gah [pubs mQn] or WLUML [pubs mQn]
Price (exclusive of postage and packing): Global South: $15; Global North: $30