Through the Lens of History Vision 11: With Scimitar, Veil and Book – Muslim Women Warriors

15 May, 2010

Through the Lens of History: Using History for Better Gaming
Vision 11: With Scimitar, Veil and Book
Muslim Women Warriors

Before beginning this month’s article the Lens wishes to shed some light on Islamic practices that are often imperfectly understood.

The term jihad is usually used in an overly simplified way.  Muhammad taught that there are two jihads: a greater and a lesser.  The greater jihad is each Muslim’s personal struggle to be true and faithful to God.  The Prophet defined the greater jihad as the fight against the souls inclination to do evil.

The lesser jihad, the armed struggle against the enemies of Islam, is the most widely know in the Western world.  It is only the ‘ulama, legitimate religious authorities, who can authorize the use of force is such a struggle.  The Prophet himself preferred to use negotiation when it was possible but was not reluctant to use the sword when needed to defend his faith and his people.

The Prophet and Islam gave rights to women that they had previously lacked in traditional Arabic culture: inheritance and property rights, forbid female infanticide and limited a man to four wives (and then, only if he could treat them all equally and equitably).  Mohammad relied on his wives for support and advice and welcomed all, man or woman, who were willing to fight to defend Islam.

Many of the restrictions on the dress of Muslim women that are seen are culturally rather than religiously imposed.  The Qur’an simply requires modesty (from both men and women) some cultures choose to interpret this more extremely than others.  While the veil is both traditional and practical in the Middle East, especially Arabia, where it shields the face from sand and sun as well as prying eyes.

Women and war often come together in Islamic history, the Lens will look at some of the individuals and traditions that exemplify the martial history of Islamic women.

Part I – The History

Women warriors were not that rare among the Bedouin tribes in the pre- and early Islamic era.  The Prophet and early Caliphates counted women warriors among their armies, sometime even until units of pious woman fought for the faith.

It is traditional among Muslim tribes for the women to act to encourage the men to fight.  The young women, amriya, of the Murra Bedouin accompanied their men to battle carried in camal born litters they beat tambourines and sung.  During battle the amriya sang, recited poetry and drove those of their own side that tried to flee back into battle.

Umm Omara, was a healer and a warrior as well as an early convert to Islam, who went into battle with a sword, a bag of healing herbs and salves, a water skin and festooned with layers of girdles to tear apart for bandages.  She played an important role in the Battle of Uhud (625 CE) where the wives of the Quraysh chieftains fought along side their men and other women in the defense of Islam.  Umm Omara acted as a field medic, tending the wounded so that they could return to battle, even sending her own son back into the fight after bandaging his wounds (he later died in the battle).  When the Prophet was attacked, she leapt to his defense with her sword, saving his life but suffering fourteen cut, some bone deep, in the process.  The Prophet would later say of Umm Omara, “At the Battle of Uhud, wherever I turned to the right or left, I saw her fighting for me.”  After the death of the Prophet she again takes up to sword to oppose the False Prophet in Yamamah.  During that campaign, she took eleven wounds and lost her hand, but she survived and continued as a healer and a midwife to the end of her days.

Aisha bint Abu Bahr, the last and youngest of Mohammad’s wives, opposed the rule of the fourth Caliph, Ali, who had seized power after the assassination of his predecessor, Uthman.  Aisha sought both justice and the reconciliation of the various factions that had emerged after the Prophet’s death.  At the Battle of the Camel (656 CE), Aisha inspired her heavily outnumbered followers to great effort from camel back with song and oration, but numbers told and she was defeated.  Ali spared her life and Aisha submitted to his rule but she continued to seek peace between the divisions of the faith until her death.

There are several tales of Khawlah bint al-Azwar al-Kindiyyah, a high born Bedouin warrior woman and knight of Islam.  Khawlah first comes to prominence when, clad all in black armor, she charged a Byzantine army leading a unit of knights who broke the enemy line and rallied the Islamic army.  Only afterward, when she was confronted by the general of the Islamic army did she reveal that she and her followers were all female, she had avoided the general out of modesty, as proper for a woman of her rank.  She marries Ali, the fourth Caliph, but will not live is his household, instead she lives and trains with her warriors.  Khawlah was said to be “more ferocious than a rain cloud over Yemen”.  Khawlah and her warriors were once captured by the Byzantines who surprised and overran her camp.  Khawlah and her warriors were mocked and confined to their tents by the Byzantines but they fought free using the tent pegs as weapons.

In the Middle East, many women among the Khawarij (the political dissident movement in Islam arising in the mid-seventh century) won renown for their prowess and skill in battle, among them was Ghazala who defeated al-Hajjaj, an Iraqi tyrant, in a duel.  The Khawarij retreated from warfare after reactionary leaders who opposed women warriors evolved a vicious strategy to remove them; the reactionary muslims stuck against them by killing and exposing naked the women they captured in their battles with the Kharijis (the singular form of Khawarij), a tactic suggesting an attitude toward women on the battlefield far different from that of the first Muslim community. The strategy was effective in driving Khariji women from direct participation in war.  Such tactics reflect the movement of Islam towards reestablishing the male dominance of the earlier Arabic cultures which took place in the Middle East in the centuries immediately following the Prophet’s death.

Among the warlike Afghani, women often fought side by side with men.  One named Malalai is know to have turned the tide of combat during the Battle of Maiwand (1880) against the British.  When the Afghani warriors began retreating, Malalai shouted a landey (poetic couplet):

Young love, if you do not fall in the battle of Maiwand,
by God, some is saving you as a token of shame.

Then, using her veil as a standard, she lead the warriors back into the fight and to victory.

The Muslim royal courts in India often maintained units of women soldiers (urdubegi) which served as attendants and bodyguards for the zenada.  The zenada was the women’s quarter of the Indo-Muslim elite and included the ruler’s wives and concubines along with their children and an extended family of aunts, unmarried sisters and cousins.

The urdubegi were organized as military battalions with officers drawn from their own ranks.  Not simply guards, some served as palaquin bearers, a role demanding great physical strength.  At times the urbubegi were privileged to guard the ruler himself.  Sometimes the urdubegi took to the field and served in armies.  Urdubegis were allowed to marry, the married ones rotated out for a few months each year to attend to their domestic duties before returning to continue their service.

Part II- Breaking it apart and putting it back together

All cultures have their own heroic female warriors, some are just harder to find than others.  The warrior legacy among Islamic women has been, to some extent, deliberately suppressed as part of a reactionary political-religious agenda primarily among the Arabic Islamic community.

The women and women’s roles described in the article can be inspiration for characters from such a society when women warriors were allowed or even encouraged.  In D&D terms they would be fighters, bards, clerics (Umm Omara is an excellent model for a D&D cleric) or even paladins.

An interesting option would be to have the society be reactionary and have restricted women’s “proper roles”.  One could play a character that was a descendant of a great heroines such as Umm Omara, Khawlah bint al-Azwar al-Kindiyyah or Ghazala who wishes to see their ancestor restored to her proper role in the histories, perhaps by emulating their deeds, would be quite a challenge.  Perhaps the character would have to disguise their sex while adventuring and building a reputation.  Maybe she would end up campaigning for women’s rights, social and political, and challenging the very structure of her society.  Possibilities for intrigue, blackmail and adventure would abound in such a campaign.

Supplemental d20 Material:
New Feats

Urdubegi (Combat)

You serve your ruler as a incorruptible guard of the zenada, serving in both war and peace.  Your position is both honorable and well respected.

Prerequisites: Female, Strength 10, Base Attack +1.

Benefit: You receive a +1 bonus on your Perception and Sense Motive checks and to Will saves.  If you have 10 or more ranks in one of these skills, the bonus increases to +2 for that skill.  You gain a +1 moral bonus on damage rolls when directly defending your ruler or the zenada.  Due to your status and connections, you gain a +2 circumstance bonus to use Diplomacy to gather information and Knowledge (nobility and royalty) checks when dealing with people in your kingdom.

One comment

  1. Very interesting article & good to see something that is different from traditional portayals. Inspiring stuff.

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