Today is the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, a day globally designated for recognizing the accomplishments of women, past and present. Women have been devalued in so many ways across so many cultures throughout time that this day is a great way to bring some of the forgotten stories of noble women upfront and center. And with the overplayed rhetoric of Muslim women in the media as oppressed and undervalued, I believe a little reflection on some contributions of Muslim women is a great counter to ignorance.
I am particularly inspired by two women from the early days of Islam. Both were wives of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) at different times. One’s name was Khadijah bint Khuwaylid and the other was Zaynab bint Jahsh (may they both be enveloped in Mercy). A discussion on the accomplishments of Muslim women can’t even begin without mentioning her. In many ways, she was a contemporary woman trapped in a past that didn’t appreciate her. Khadijah (ra) was a businesswoman, who actually employed the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). She remains a noteworthy example of a strong woman to this day–self-employed, privileged, educated, and business-minded at a time when female infanticide was still practiced. She was also a loving mother to six children in addition to those roles. Khadijah was successful in pre-Islamic Arabia, a time best described as primitive and barbaric. “Women were marginalized, and unequal, used for enjoyment and breeding…[without] property or dowry rights […]. Survival for most women meant being attached to a family unit” (see Tamam Kahn’s Untold: A History of The Wives of Prophet Muhammad, 2010, p.10). Shoot, women are still marginalized in that way today, but Khadijah didn’t merely survive, she soared like a butterfly! Khadijah was a successful woman by anyone’s standards–past and present! Subhanallah!
The other wife, Zaynab (ra), who came years after Khadijah’s death, reminds me a little bit more of myself. I’d love to be a Khadijah–but I’m not particularly business-savvy. But anyone who knows me personally knows that I’m always doing something artsy with my hands. These days in particular when I’m not writing, I’m crocheting. Zaynab (ra) excelled in arts and crafts and then spent the money she made on charity. She did leatherwork (tanning and piercing leather) and embroidery. There is a hadith (traditional saying of the Prophet) that concerns her, “The swiftest of you to join me (in paradise) will be the one with the longest armspan (or hand).” Zaynab was a small woman, her arm wasn’t that long, but it was clear that after she died, Muhammad had been talking about her generosity. She died ten years after the Prophet–the first of his later wives to die, with her small, but long hand forever a symbol of charity (See Sahih Bukhari, Vol.2, Book 24, Hadith #501). It is a goal of mine to one day start a circle of Muslim women crocheting for charity in Zaynab’s example.
But I think for now I’ll just write….and convey intelligence and knowledge wherever I find it…like another wife of the Prophet (saws), Aisha bint Abu Bakr (ra). This is the lady who is responsible for so many sayings of the Prophet being kept intact so that today we can actually repeat the Prophet’s words.
And an even more contemporary inspiration to me (but still a little dated) is Nana Asma’u (1793-1865), who I first learned about during my undergraduate studies. Named after Asma bint Abu Bakr (ra), the sister of Aisha (ra), Nana Asma’u was the daughter of Shaykh Usman dan Fodio of the Sokoto Caliphate in West Africa. Like Aisha (ra), Nana Asma’u outlived most of the founding generation of her father’s caliphate, making her an important source of guidance to its later rulers and followers. She played a major literary and educational role–especially for the Muslim women in her community. A champion for women’s leadership and rights, she started a program of women teachers who traveled throughout the Caliphate to educate women in their homes. Most often, these women were new to Islam or from poor and rural communities where educational resources were scarce. Multilingual and writing in Arabic, Fulfulde, Hausa and Tamacheq (Tuareg), Nana Asma’u wrote poems that were a source of history and guidance to all that read them. Her poems helped Muslims align their lives to the sunnah, meanwhile propelling Nana Asma’u to the status of a noteworthy scholar, author, and poet in her time–among other roles–renown to this day. I can only hope to follow in a few of her footsteps. To read her works and more about her, check out Jean Boyd’s The Caliph’s Sister: Nana Asma’u 1793-1865: Teacher, Poet and Islamic Leader (1989), Jean Boyd and Beverly Mack’s One Woman’s Jihad: Nana Asma’u, Scholar and Scribe (2000), and The Collected Works of Nana Asma’u, bint Usman dan Fodiyo 1793-1864 (1997).
Islam was not spread by the sword, it was spread by women. Women who were educated and educators…givers of an art of the hand and mind.