‘The only new idea that could save humanity in the 21st century is for women to take over the management of the world. This reversal is a matter of life or death.’ — Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Al-Andalus represents a pinnacle of Muslim social and cultural achievement commonly invoked in contrast to current Muslim predicaments. What is not acknowledged, or indeed widely known, is that the openness and tolerance of Muslim Spain applied equally to women. There were no barriers to restrain them; and, by tradition, empowered women were highly valued. Andalusian women were, like their noted male counterparts, polymaths, excelling in music, law, and languages. Their voices were present and often highly esteemed among men in spirited discussions about artistic and intellectual pursuits or issues surrounding public life. And they were totally unreserved in expressing their feelings of love.
Among the most remarkable was the Umayyad princes Walladah, daughter of a Caliph of Cordoba, an ‘emancipated woman’ by all definitions. In his book The Fragrance of Perfume from the Branch of Green Andalusia, the famous Moroccan historian and biographer al-Maqqari (1578-1632) describes her as ‘unique in her time, endowed with gracious speech, lavishly praised and centre of attention’. Never married, Walladah played host to poets and artists in her Cordoba home, often engaging in poetic contests. ‘By God’, she declared in one of her poems, ‘I am suited to great things, and proudly I walk, with head aloft.’ Asma Afsaruddin provides a survey of dozens of notable female poets and literary figures from tenth- and eleventh-century Muslim Spain, offering evidence of ‘the amount of freedom enjoyed by these women and the high level of accomplishment that distinguished them’. Afsaruddin’s list includes Al-Arudiyyah, who learned grammar and philology from her patron and soon surpassed him; Hafsah bint al-Hajja al-Rukuniya, whose beauty and elegance impressed the ruler of Granada, but she preferred a fellow poet, the slave al-Abbadiyyah, a writer of prose and poetry who spoke several languages; and al-I’timad, the wife of a ruler in Seville who, while she was the slave of another man, so impressed him by her ability with verse that he purchased and wed her. But women in Muslim Spain were not just poets and artists, but also scientists and philosophers. And they were not just a handful but numerous – and during their time they were as famous as their male counterparts.