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A Critique of the Classical Female Arab Poets

Guest Author Maureen Pemberton

(I would like to thank Ms. Kefah Yafai for her encouragement and inspiration for this article)

Poetry is an excellent vehicle for expressing powerful and beautiful insights into a person's private worlds: More concisely expressed than say a novel or letter could.We have an insight into a person's feelings/thoughts on, beliefs, spirituality, relationships, /Politics, sex and death, community and art, nature, the universe- everything! Looking at other cultures and their literatures and poetry compounds everything into quite rich complex and challenging perspectives, often different, yet very similar to our own perspectives. Imagine this, combined with the often hidden, yet insistent voices of women. Male voices are often the norm or mouthpiece for any one group- however that just means you are leaving out 50% of the population, nonetheless!

I want to introduce you to a very small sample or selection of short Arabic poetry by women, across the centuries, but in the Classical Period, as opposed to say more recent times. Hearing their voices, you will see that they do not conform to the heavy stereotyping of what some westerners(scholars and non-scholars alike) perceive Arab/Muslim women to be. Of course we have multiple complex identities, whereas stereotypes do not These artists are not passive, nor are they obviously silent! Of course different rules do operate in different cultures, but that doesn't necessarily equate with oppression- western women have to question for themselves the notions of "freedom", "equality", "silence" "gender" perhaps more so in the light of 9/11, rather than just take all these concepts for granted, and assume that they are "Allright, Jack".

These artists do just that - in questioning and challenging and using their proud and incisive intelligence. They are living, spiritual voices from the grave literally - they are with us still, for they are not dead.

Time scale and period of Arabic classical poetry

(Brief overview)

Jahiliyya (4000 BCE-622 CE)
relates to the time when the Arabic language first evolved from the time of Jurham, an ancestor of an early extinct Arab ethnic group, to the end of the Great Flood(Noah or Arabic NUH).

The greatest female poet (perhaps of all time) KHANSA (died 646) is one of this period's examples.

Islamic period (622-661 C.E)
Islam is established by the Prophet Muhammed, succeeded by the Caliphs (leaders) : Abu Bakr (573-643) Umar (584-644) Uthman(577-656).A time of expansion and development for this new religion- in many countries; the beginnings of an empire.

Ummayyad ( Umayad/Ommayad) -661-750-
Based in Damascus in Syria( result of expansion of Islam) stretching from the Chinese Borders to Andalus(Spain/Portugal).

"Majnum Laila" one of the greatest Muslim/Arab love stories came from this period:

"While Majnum (the poet Qais ibn-al Mulawah) celebrates his love for Laila, in the most passionate poem in the the Arab language, Laila had to bear the brunt of burning love stings silently.

"Laila's self control unlike Majnum's self-pity is indicative of the Umayyad's women's intellectual and moral strength"

(Abdullah al Udhari - Classical poems by Arab women)
We have the Abbasid period which covers the same titled dynasty who overthrew the Ummayyads and moved their capital to Baghad, Iraq, where economic and political stabilty found its feet. Caliph haroun-al rashid, he of the famous/infamous(!) "One thousand and One nights" presided over this so-called Golden age of Arab Civilisation"- yet for many the reality was that of underprivileged and extreme poverty. (750-1258)

The Andalusian period (711-1492) -
Covers Spain and Portugal. Conquered by Tariq ibn -Zayid, Al- andalus was a gorgeous "earthly" paradise, created and governed by the Arabs/Moors(Northern/ North-West Africans) whose cities in Seville, Cordoba(Spain) and Lisbon and Silves(Portugal) exuded sophistication, intelligence and magnificence. The fine poetesses here are many- fiery, speaking their mind and challenging the "arrogance of muscle power"(al- Udhari, p.21) with their subtle wit and, passion- equal to the best male poets. Wallada (d. 1091) is a good Andalusian example.

let us sample a selection now - taken from Abdullah al-Udhari's excellent and accessible anthology- Classical poems by Arab women- a bilingual Anthology- Saqi Books isbn 086 3560474)

I leave the last word , in this section, to al-Udhari: "Now let us listen to the women telling their story poems and discover a humanity blurred by a manmade veil"(p.23)

Jahiliyya Period
Safiyya bint al Bahiliyya cries:

"We were twinshoots sprouting beautifully on a tree.

When our branches spread our shade stretched and our buds flushed, time snapped my other shoot"

this is evocative of grieving/widowhood: partners on the same tree of life. A tree is a symbol of potential growth, bearing fruit- from youth to middle to old age; a beautiful image of a young married couple, twin souls, well matched at the start of their relationship life. as life goes on, with its happiness and sadness and complexities, their life/relationships grows, as does the tree, until time snaps- suggesting maybe a sudden death- "My other shoot"evokes deep sadness and loss.

She is still here, for the tree is still strong and very mature- she is still resourceful, with a lot more life in her yet. A sad but loving remembrance of a much loved husband and friend.

Now for a humorous one, quite self- explanatory! (same period)

This is Jahaifa Addibabiya's contribution:

"What a man you gave me , lord of all givers,

He's a nasty old lump of wrinkles with shrivelled fingerbones and a bent back, like a croaking crow"


Khansa (Tumadir bint Amr Asharid) is worth mentioning here. The Prophet is reported to have enjoyed listening to her recitations. She straddles both the jahiliyya and islamic period, as it happens. Her poetry are often elegies for her brothers and sons killed during the jahiliyya period/ early Islamic Wars.

To me Khansa is a deep and passionate artist- she thinks and feels deeply- she has a huge reservoir of emotions, yet she is self- controlled. This is one of my favourite examples of hers, because it is poignant and wonderfully touches on the feeling of grief- see for yourself:

"The rising and setting of the sun keep turning my memory of Sakhr's death.

and only the host of mourners crying for their brothers saves me from myself"


Sahkr was her brother, it refers to the constant memories that never go away (they are always in the foreground)... her realisation too that she is not the only one who suffers so, keeps her hanging on to life: "saves me from myself" (perhaps from committing suicide or having a complete mental breakdown, we don't know). She has a survivor's/ warrior's heart, so she will live on tenaciously - she has counted many sunrises and sunsets.

Safiyya al Baghdadiyya (12th century-Iraq?- abbasid period) writes tanatlisingly and very tongue in cheek:

"I am the wonder of the world, the ravisher of hearts and minds.

"Once you've seen my stunning looks,

you're a fallen man"(p.146).

Safiyya's comments underlines the fact that men are very much "visual"- and here lies their very vulnerability, (which every shrewd woman knows ;-)

She is challenging the notion of the male's self appointed superiority

Shamsa al Mawsiyya evokes a fantastic image of a dancer: (13 th century-same period)

"She sways in a saffron dress bathed in camphor, ambergris and sandalwood like a narcissus in the garden, a rose in the sun or an image in the temple.

"She's gracefully thin and if time tells her 'Rise', her hips will say 'Slow down, no need to rush"


You can almost imagine the dancer doing vertical 8's or hip myas - pushing out her hips softly in a glorious swathe of golden saffron cloth, surrounded by nature's herbs and flowers and the sensuous odours of these. The goddess image is magicked up with the vision of the temple - perhaps a reference to the idea that the Goddess philosophy is still here and hasn't died out.

Perhaps the last line refers to the wish to freeze this dance/ feeling moment for ever, not to grow old too quickly, but savour all stages of womanhood for there is no need to rush.

The Andalusians offer these:

(both quite cheeky and bold)

"By Allah, I'm made for higher goals and I walk with grace and style,

I blow kisses to anyone, but reserves my cheeks for my man"

Wallada (daughter of the Caliph Mustakfi (976-1025) a trendsetter, so to speak in her day...


Resolutely independent Aa'isha bint Ahmad al- Qurtubiyya(Cordoba) -11 th century, a fine calligrapher writes scornfully after rejecting one poet's offer of marriage:

"I am a lioness, and I will never be a man's woman.

If I had to choose a mate, why should I say yes to a dog, when I'm deaf to lions?"

(Some rejection - poor man!)

Many of these poetesses were clearly highly literate and articulate woman - artisans, musicians, calligraphers and as often in the case of the Andalusia's - teachers and so on; many came from the higher classes, obviously, but many of them were also religious/spiritual women who had had the benefit of an education.

This selection is quite tiny, but hopefully has given the reader a flavour of the variety of female voices/themes and backgrounds to the. Arab Classical Period. Maybe the reader will want to learn more...

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