Poor Arabian women?

January 29, 2012

How we, cosmopolite, liberal Europeans, with pronounced anti-sexist views and very democratic in behavior (really?), love to pity our Islamic sisters, the poor veiled ladies obviously maltreated by their husbands, oppressed by their discriminatory culture which, in addition, breeds mass-terrorist! We feel so superior, so falsely advanced and philanthropic, if we sustain their “cause” or, after reading the tragic memoir of one struggling Arabian wife, deeply involve in “aid Muslim women” organizations with the strongest sense of self-importance! It’s our duty to support them and actively participate in their externally imposed adaptation to the modern values. We made a mean of boasting with our humanitarian actions from it!


And I don’t state that encouraging emancipation is, though majorly artificial, something blameworthy (after all, help’s inevitably welcomed), but it’s wrong to treat Arabian women as being clearly inferior. Not to say it’s another form of the unfairness we claim to want to diminish.

We, sophisticated, unprejudiced lads, seem to have forgotten the funny contrast between our histories. Bet you don’t expect what I’m about to tell.

While the fancy, highly “cultivated” European dame of the Early Meddle Ages was spending her time doing oh-so-complicated things like this…

woman in the middle ages

…and, if aristocratic enough, this…

women spinning

…the poor Muslim gals had to settle on easier jobs, fitted for their limited capacities, like, I don’t know, patronizing world’s first University?

When the erudition of the female population was badly seen by Christiandom and women had to be satisfied with mere basic knowledge so they could remain the docile, plain brides men desired, Fatima al-Fihri (died 880), nicknamed Oum al Banine (meaning “the mother of the children”) founded the oldest academic degree-granting University existing today, the University of Qarawiyyin, in Morocco. Daughter of a wealthy businessman, Mohamed al-Fihri, she invested the money inherited from her father to build gathering locations for scholars. Her sister, Mariam, is said to have been responsible for the construction of the Al-Andalus (Andalusian) mosque in Fes.

university of qairawan

This was late 9th century, almost 200 to 400 years before the birth of our more educated Hildegard of Bingen (1097- 1179) and Christine de Pizan (1363- 1430).

The 10th century doesn’t disappoint either: around 950, Miriam al-Ijli al-Astrulabi hand-crafted intricate astrolabes, a premature type of global/ Sun/ Moon/ planets/ stars positioning system, which was an impressive deed for the epoch.


It’s sad, though, there’s not much information about these two, at least not in accessible language, ’cause it would be great to learn more of their lives and accomplishments. Personally, I discovered Miriam and Fatima’s vague stories from an informative exposition-program I stumbled across in Istanbul. It was called “1001 Inventions”  (if you need further details) and introduced to the public a list of the chief Islamic scientists, astronomers, doctors, architects, mathematicians, etc, amongst whom were our admirable ladies.

fatima-at exposition

miriam- at exposition


Summing up: it’s very nice to help and sponsor Muslim women to speak-up, claim their God-given rights, liberate or whatever, yet you should bear in mind that they’re far from being pathetic and poor, on the contrary: they have a legacy we can’t brag with.


6 Responses to “Poor Arabian women?”

  1. pyraya Says:

    It’s very interesting to see that arabian women were so educated that
    they outshone the western women in the middle ages! I think sometimes
    we judge them without thinking and your article is sort of a proof that we
    shouldn’t. Great read, anyway

    (prima imagine ar putea sa transmita drama prin care trec si cei care merg la scoala) =))

  2. Anonymus Says:

    great scoop in the history of arabia!

  3. bennythomas Says:

    We in the west see from our perspective much less than what is seen at the surface. There are Arabs who are stupid as to treat women as ‘baggage’ and also there are those who treat them with courtesy.
    We insist on equality of sexes and take our women for granted and allow them to mingle as we ‘flirt’ and it is sometimes a game. We become outraged when women whose sensibilities are of different wavelength feel sexually aroused at a particular point. In the Eastern custom man is supposed to prevent them from such temptations. We flirt and move on without being drawn into anything beyond innuendos and chaff.
    From my little experience the Eastern youth in speech talk dirty but in their heart it is meant nothing more. Whereas we keep the form of civilized gentlemen’ but our ‘hints and light banter are meant to lead to something serious if these are taken by the other party in the way it is meant. (Richard Burton gives an authoritative and informative account on the differences in his The 1001 Nights )

    • I couldn’t thank you more for this in-depth expression of your opinions which I find majorly viable and extremely well-pointed here as I much agree with what you’ve affirmed.

  4. Susan Ozmore Says:

    I am so glad to know about these ladies! Having studied math/science I was aware that in many ways the Islamic world kept advancing when we in the west descended into the dark ages, but I didn’t know about these women.

    With regard to the treatment of women. I was fortunate to have as colleagues several Muslim men prior to the latest wave of negative reactions to Islam. One thing that stood out to me and that I remember years later was the marked respect and courtesy they showed me. I’m not saying that all Muslim men treat their women respectfully, but all western men don’t either. But I agree that in the west we often make assumptions based on ignorance and we do have a bad habit of assuming that we are superior.

    Thank you for the enlightening and thoughtful post.

    • and thank you for the beautiful reply too! 🙂 As I had the chance to speak with a few Muslim women during my holidays in places like Istanbul, I have observed how things really work there and how, unfortunately, we tend to distort them here.

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