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Warrior queens shaped the world, but men wrote the history

In one of Islam's greatest battles at the base of Mount Uhud, an unlikely hero stood out from the crowd of men. This hero's name is only mentioned in passing in the history books, but it left a great impression on a group of schoolgirls, who interrupted their teacher demanding to know more.

"Wherever I turned, to the left or the right, I saw her fighting for me," said Prophet Mohammed, referring to Nasibah bint Ka'b al Maziniyyah, or Umm Umarah as she is better known. She fought in many battles, attended historic treaties, and even lost a hand in one skirmish. The fact that she was a wife and a mother didn't stop her from wielding a sword or tending to the wounded.

As a schoolgirl, I was in awe of this woman who the Prophet said had fought with more skill than some of the bravest men of the time.

It was not part of the curriculum, but noting the curious looks from the 10-year-old pupils upon the mention of a woman in the middle of a bloody battle, the teacher spent the rest of the class talking about the great and diverse roles of women in Islam and before. "No woman was restricted to a single role or position," I recall my Saudi teacher saying.

It is a generally accepted fact that history is written by men. As a consequence, a great many contributions by women, particularly in male-dominated fields like science, politics or even war, have been forgotten.

Some of the women we hear about are like Fatima al Fihri, the daughter of a wealthy merchant who founded what is arguably the oldest university in the world, Al Qaraouine University, which was built in the 9th century in Fez. The university produced great (male) thinkers like Abu Madhab al Fasi, a leading theorist in the Maliki school of Islamic theory, and Leo Africanus, a renowned traveller and writer.

Zubaidah bint Jafar al Mansur, the wife of the famous caliph Harun al Rashid, was a pioneer in her own right in the field of construction, having designed Mecca's water supply and the first pilgrimage route to the Holy City.

One of the region's first entrepreneurs was the businesswoman Sayyidah Khadija bint Kuwaylid, Prophet Mohammed's first wife. Contrary to current traditions, she was the one who proposed marriage to the Prophet because she liked his integrity and honesty.

Another of the Prophet's wives, Aisha bint Abu Bakr, was also the daughter of the first caliph, Abu Bakr, and a warrior, scholar and teacher. Aisha has been credited with narrating over 2,000 Hadiths and was known for her knowledge of common ailments and their cures.

We even have had great queens who have been lionised by Hollywood films but often ignored by regional filmmakers. The Queen of Sheba, mentioned in the Bible and the Quran, is said to have ruled the kingdom of Marib in Yemen around 1,000 BC, although her legend is also told in Ethiopia across the Red Sea.

Zenobia, the warrior queen of the Roman colony of Palmyra, in what is now Syria, ruled from about 267 to 274 AD. She conquered several of Rome's eastern provinces before she was defeated at the battle of Antioch by the Roman emperor Aurelian.

Years after that class in Saudi primary school, my curiosity was again ignited after watching the 2009 historical drama Agora, which depicted the struggles of the 4th century mathematician, philosopher and astronomer, Hypatia of Alexandria. In the story, she discovers the heliocentric nature of the solar system long before Copernicus, but none of her work survives after she is killed.

That may be only partly based on history, but around the same time the library of Alexandria with its precious historical archive was destroyed, as were so many of the great libraries of old. It was said that the Tigris River turned dark from the ink of the books that were thrown into it when the great Baghdad library was burnt in the 13th century.

Just imagine what great works have been lost forever, and what great women we will never know about. It makes it all the more important to honour those who have risen above history.

rghazal@thenational.ae

Published: December 16, 2010 04:00 AM

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