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The Harem - Part 3
(By Ariadne La Noire as appeared in the November/December 1999 Bolt)

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Despite all the scholarly information that women in the Abbasid-Period harems were subjugated under male rulers, we can conclude an opposing viewpoint based on some historical information. The fact that scholars and members of the ulema (the body of learned and law men in the Muslim community) saw fit to denounce the abilities of women (especially as rulers) during the Abbasid period is possibly a reaction to how women were acting during this time. Perhaps it shows how women were able to have sway over the decisions of rulers merely by being close to them. After all, the wives and concubines had access to the Caliphs and Sultans of the time that the average person and even some officials did not. There are many incidences in the Abbasid time period that illustrate this viewpoint. I am going to categorize our women into several groups in order that you understand the extent of their power. Our royal women are also not limited by geography. There are examples of powerful concubines and queens that range from Andalusia to Asia. Some women may be part of more than one category, but our categories of political power range from 1.) Sway over their Royal Husband 2.) Joint-rule of a Kingdom along with husband to 3.) Sole Ruler.

Many women were able to maintain some sort of sway over their husbands just by being close to them in the royal palace, this I have mentioned before. But there were some that managed to gain so much power of persuasion that they made indelible marks on the ruling of their own countries. It was easier for some, based on the cultures they lived in, to gain political prestige. For example, the Mongol rulers who overthrew the Abbasids in 1258 did not share the same views on women as did their Persian and Arab counterparts. They were more likely to place women in positions of power and not worry about their supposed inferiority. The orthodox and traditional Arabs, however, would be far less likely to allow a woman to rise above her designated place, though even Arabia (as we shall soon see) was not a stranger to the power of Queens.

I will start first with the examples of women holding sway over their husbands. Aurora was a slave girl to Al-Hakam, an Umayyad Caliph of Andalusia who ruled from 961 to 976 A.D. Born to Spanish nobility, she came to the court of the Caliph as a prisoner of war, and was able to use not only beauty but her knowledge and intelligence to come to the Caliph's favor. She is also known as Sabiha Malika Qurtuba, Queen of Cordoba, or by the shorter pet name, Subh. She married Al-Hakam, bore his heir, but also managed affairs of state in the name of her husband. She would have remained in power save for a questionable relationship with her close advisor and secretary, Ibn 'Amir. The truth of the relationship between Amir and Subh remains a mystery, but the historians of the time were quick to denounce a woman who was not only a slave but a former Christian (Mernissi, 44-49).

Khayzuran (literally, Bamboo) was a slave, born most likely in Yemen, (on the tip of the Arabian Peninsula) in the Arab court of the Abbasid Caliph. She, like Subh, was able to gain political clout through her husband, al-Mahdi (ruled 775-785) and also during the reigns of her two sons, the first al-Hadi and the second (and well remembered and loved) Harun al-Rashid. Al-Mahdi married Khayzuran (a great feat for her, as it is for any slave girl to rise through the Muslim "meritocracy") and bore his two sons. Al-Mahdi respected his wife and allowed her to make many important royal decisions. After his death, it was Khayzuran who kept the peace by paying off the Caliph's army in order to maintain order. She arranged for the accession of her son, al-Hadi, even when he was away from the capitol. When al-Hadi proved less tolerant of Khayzuran's political manueverings than had al-Mahdi, it was speculated that it was Khayzuran who arranged his murder in favor of her second, more tolerant son, Harun. Whatever the truth, Khayzuran is more fondly remembered than many of the caliphs themselves (Mernissi, 51-65).


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