There are certainly serious issues of discrimination in many Muslim countries, just as there are places touted as beacons of women’s rights (the United States and Europe). Still it’s easy to forget women have also long held prominent positions of political power in the Middle East.
From the time of the Prophet Muhammad’s rich and influential wife Khadija to the region’s modern day leading ladies such as Qatar’s Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser and the United Arab Emirates’ Minister of State for Tolerance Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, women have had their hands on the reins of power in the region. Here’s a look at some of the powerful Muslim women history often overlooks.
1. Sitt al-Mulk in modern-day Egypt
Sitt al-Mulk helped to plot the murder of her brother, Al-Hakim, who ruled as the sixth Fatimid caliph and 16th Ismaili imam from Egypt. She took the reins of power as the regent for Al-Hakim’s son Ali az-Zahir. Taking power in 1021, she continued to wield influence over her nephew even after he came of age.
2. Asma Bint Shibab in modern-day Yemen
Asma Bint Shibab ruled Yemen alongside her husband in the 11th century, Ali al-Sulayhi. Asma Bint Shibab was given equal status as a monarch next to her husband.
She was referred to as “the noble lady who is free and independent, the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.” After the death of her husband, she continued to rule alongside her son and his wife.
3. Turkan Khatun in the Seljuk empire (Turkish-Persian)
Turkan Khatun ruled alongside her powerful husband, Malikshah, the Seljuk (a medieval Turko-Persian empire) sultan from 1072 to 1092.
She kept her husband’s death a secret while she plotted to install her four-year-old son on the throne. This way she remained in command.
Her plan worked but she was forced to concede to the influence of a vizier in order to maintain her power, due to the command of the Abbasid caliph of the period, al-Muqtad.
4. Arwa al-Sulayhi in modern-day Yemen
Following in her mother-in-law’s footsteps, Arwa al-Sulayhi ruled Yemen as an equal alongside two consecutive husbands.
From the death of her second husband in 1101 until 1138, she ruled alone. In addition to standing out as a successful ruler, she was seen as a powerful religious leader and was granted the title of “hujjat,” signifying her as the closest living image of God’s will in her lifetime, according to the Isma’ili branch of Shia Islam.
5. Shajarat al-Durr in modern-day Egypt
After her husband’s death in 1250, Shajarat al-Durr took the throne of Egypt and won a great victory against the crusaders. But, despite her military victory and her obvious skill at leading, the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, al-Musta’sim, refused to support her owing to her womanhood.
She disregarded the refusal and held onto power, without the caliph’s support. Eventually her popularity, once immense, waned and she was deposed.
6. Fatima Al Zamil of Ha’il in modern-day Saudi Arabia
Princess Fatima Al Zamil ruled the Saudi province of Ha’il from 1911 to 1914. Selected by the elders of the two most powerful tribes of the central Arabian peninsula, she governed from the now demolished 300,000 square meter Barzan Palace.
Notably, she hosted the British writer and politician Gertrude Bell, a close friend and associate of T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia).