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Introduction: Women and Poetry in Medieval Islam
here is a rich body of Arabic poetry written by medieval Islamic women that is very little studied.1 Most scholars of women in Islam choose not to study this poetry, because they do not believe it reflects the experience of either individual women or groups of women. Because this material is art, rather than history or life writing, these scholars argue that its relation to individual experience is so mediated that we cannot use it to learn about medieval Muslim women. Similarly, they argue that because the poems were written by exceptional women, often by elite women without husbands, or by artistically-trained qaynahs [slave girls/courtesans], they do not speak about the experience of the majority of women, most of whom were married.2 Although the poetry does not clearly or concretely contribute to an understanding of the history of Muslim women as a group, it does provide valuable reflections on the ways in which particular women viewed their social roles, their place in the public sphere, and their own bodies. On the whole, the women’s poems assert control over their bodies, over their sexuality, and most of all over their mobility, their ability to move freely in public space. These opinions might seem revolutionary or dangerous, but they were very much a product of the milieu in which they were produced and performed; in other words, they were part of the very same system that limited women’s control over their bodies. This essay explores the nature of the poems, the sort of work they do, and how. In the courts of medieval Islam, poetry was the very language of public and political discourse,3 and as such a man could make his fortune,
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or lose it, based on his poetic acumen. The same is true of individual women, especially those existing outside the social norms of the pious, free woman. Their positions were less stable, and as such there was a greater possibility for social mobility in either direction. Poetry was an integral part of court life, and its authors could gain or lose political status as they showed mastery of its conventions. While the conventions of expression are clear, the courtly aesthetic placed real value on play; hence one who could use and subvert courtly conventions showed a greater mastery than one who merely followed them, and could be accorded greater status as a result. Women poets in particular gained status through mastery of, and play with, literary themes and conventions well known to their audiences. Love poetry, with its well-known conventions for depicting women and their bodies, was an important genre in the medieval courts from the Umayyad period onward.4 Women poets established authority by employing conventions for representing their own bodies and augmented it by playing with and altering those conventions. They did the same with the legal discourses used to conceptualize women’s roles. So, while it might seem that the women poets were speaking against the grain of their society, they were also speaking with it, establishing their positions in the same way that some courtly men did. Their poems have survived because they were appreciated, and because they succeeded in conferring the status desired by their female authors. Even if the poems cannot accurately represent the historical experience of either individual women or groups of women, they do present some of the discourses available for discussing their bodies and their sexuality, understood by female writers and their male audience alike. The poems, which were appreciated at court as they conferred status on their writers, were accepted as possible variants on the available discourses for conceptualizing women’s social roles, their mobility,5 and their sexuality. Thus, the poetry is an important source for understanding the ways in which some exceptional women navigated the social roles available to them. Medieval Islam offered three different but interrelated rubrics for conceptualizing the roles of women. One set of attitudes, sometimes egalitarian and sometimes hierarchical, can be found in the Qur’an and in the hadith [traditions concerning the words and deeds of the prophet 148 148
A second set of rubrics can be found in commentary literature articulating the standards of behavior for women. the category of the hurra was elided as most women were expected to meet the standards of behavior accorded to the muhsana. For true (truthful) men and women For men and women who are patient and constant. and so the hurra category remains useful for considering their actions. a third distinction. Finally. but many were slaves. for men and women who fast (and deny themselves) For men and women who Guard their chastity. for men and women who humble themselves For men and women who give In charity. The two perspectives can be encapsulated in a handful of oft-quoted passages. But clearly the women poets did not behave as pious women did.6 As the Islamic legal tradition developed. Early Quranic commentaries make a distinction between the muhsana [pious woman] and the hurra [woman. Medieval Islamic sources yield both egalitarian and hierarchical models for understanding the relation between women and men. and so this rubric is also important for conceptualizing their actions.Mohammed]. Some of the poets were free women. The former encouraged equal access to public space. is between free and enslaved women. and for men and women who Engage much in God’s praiseFor them God has prepared Forgiveness and a great reward (Sura [verse] 33:35). present in the legal tradition.7 149 149 . plain and simple]. the first from the Qur’an: For Muslim men and Women For believing men and women For devout men and Women. while the latter justified the seclusion of women.
but instead to acquired characteristics. and is compelled by social and moral imperatives not to attract gossip as she is the one on whom family honour rests. This trope is often evoked by a hadith in which the prophet asserts: “I looked into Hell and saw that the majority of its inhabitants were women. and I looked into Paradise and saw that but few of its inhabitants were women. it ascribes the same failings to all women. Most discussion of women’s status in Islam is geared to the normative. she avoids exposing herself to strangers. “According to these codes the muhsana is confined to her home. that for which they were morally responsible). but of women only four. These texts have formed the basis of all later jurisprudence.”8 This egalitarian vision of moral and spiritual equality before God coexisted with another discourse. This hadith and others like it form the basis for indiscriminate seclusion of women because of their frailty.”12 It is possible to count the places pious women could go on one’s fingers: the baths (for which they drew much criticism). to funerals (for which they also drew much 150 150 . asserting innate female moral weakness. early commentaries providing behavioral guidelines were written in the form of legal codes called ummahat. free. she is the one to be protected by seclusion. and carnality. and the falling short of all other women was not due to their inherent nature.e. They are to be described also as wanting in intelligence and religion. prominent in discussions of female seclusion and the veil. pious. forgetfulness. and therefore did not constitute law. married woman. and the explanation of their lack of religion is their neglect of prayer and fasting due to pride…10 At the same time that this passage asserts that women’s shortcomings are not due to their inherent nature.”9 Another hadith stresses women’s culpability: Many men have been perfected.11 While many of the restrictions imposed on the muhsana were not taken directly from the Qur’an. namely lack of intelligence and excessive pride. but because of their acquired qualities (i.Leila Ahmed writes that this passage “Balanc[es] virtue and ethical qualities as well as concomitant rewards in one sex with the precisely identical virtues and qualities in the other.
14 The hurra presumably did not try to adhere to these higher standards. their sexuality. and a few were mystics. The sources of information about medieval Muslim poets generally include diwans [poetic collections]. and mobility in relation to seclusion. some were noblewomen who did not marry and did not behave as pious women. learning many of the same materials as courtly young men. slave women were highly visible. to visit relatives. including control over their bodies. because they were unable to exert control over their own bodies. and used it to augment her social status when she could. 151 151 . dancers. The sort of piety possible for free women was not possible for them. the harder it was for her to leave the house. Central themes in their poetry speak to these discourses. This brings us to the third rubric: free versus slave women. and often they were not free. If we place women poets according to the three rubrics outlined here (equal: subservient. muhsana:hurrah. and perhaps to the marketplace (from which they were strongly discouraged). and as a result shared their men. participated in courtly life when free women were excluded. but they claimed equality with men in their verse.13 Poorer women could not avoid many of these and other destinations. and musicians. and courtly qaynahs moved more freely than did upper-class free women. to weddings. to do laundry. spoke the language of the court. So. The Poetry of Qaynahs The available sources on qaynas give substantial information about their training and their social milieux. while the well-educated qaynah had fewer rights but moved in the public sphere.criticism). some were commoners who had transcended class barriers and married up through their poetic skill. dressed better than they did. The majority of women poets were slaves trained as poets. At the same time.15 Many of them were better educated as well. free:qaynah) an interesting pattern emerges: most of the poets are better described by the second term in each pair. but the higher the social position of a woman.16 They were rarely both pious and married. the pious free woman had some legal rights over her person and her property but remained sequestered at home.
expressions of feeling. poetic facility clearly conferred status. so that their effects are as important as the poems themselves. but a girl [sic!] who was washing clothes by the river supplied the ending: “What a shield it would make if it froze. It includes women’s verses.biographical dictionaries. and married her. Here is how her story is told in the chronicles: One day Prince Muhammad19 was walking along with his adviser and confidant the Shilban poet Ibn Amar (1031–1085 ce). 897–967 ce) wrote a biographical dictionary entitled Kitab Al-Ima al Salwa’ir (Book of Slave Women Poets). appearing at the majalis 152 152 . a favorite courtly game in which one person begins the verse and another finishes.21 In this account. The prince stopped and improvised the first line of a couplet: “The wind rippled a mailcoat in the water” and suggested that Ibn Amar complete the couplet. Seville) rose from the position of slave to queen in precisely this way. For example. and so conveys one author’s perception of the social dynamics at play. most of which are given in context. after a conversation about slave-girls who composed poetry. and Itimad did quite well by hers. he compiled it in response to a request by the chief minister. freed her. and the name of her master) he bought Itimad. or poems of praise suggesting he give a party. According to the preface. and turning around. such as reproaches. when he became king of Seville he made her queen. was stupefied to see a beautiful young girl. and in a particular social interaction.” The prince was impressed by the verse. Abu al-Faraj al-Isbahani (Baghdad.20 After getting all her vital information (name. marital status. 1011 ce. the famous poet Itimad ar-Rumaikiyya (b. Two of the best sources concerning the poetry of qaynahs are not diwans but a biographical dictionary and a rasail. Many of the poems included are examples of verse-capping. and rasail [epistles or treatises]. Isbahani’s Kitab Al-Ima al Salwa’ir also provides excellent descriptions of the qaynahs as cultured entertainers.17 The book is arranged according to the accomplishments of the poetesses and the times in which they lived.18 The poems are usually situated in narrative. Ibn Amar could not finish. Isbahani also includes requests or communications to their masters.
781–868 ce). And. literature. Al-Jahiz makes this clear when he describes the composition of letters as one of the tricks of slave-girl’s trade. and because of this it is clear that these women did not dictate their letters to others but instead wrote them themselves.24 We learn from al-Jahiz that the qaynah were brought up to associate with educated men.[singing-party] in which free women did not participate. far fewer of them. This skill is no trifle for. and swearing to him that she has filled the inkwell with tears and wetted the envelope with her kisses…25 The telling detail here is the inkwell full of tears: only the writer uses the inkwell. were taught to write. writing. with training in reading. the best source for the education of slave girls is Risalat al-Qiyan or the Epistle on Singing Girls by al-Jahiz (Pseudonym of Abu ‘Uthman ‘Amr B. Bahr Al-Fukaymi al-Basri. 153 153 . Describing the courtship process. While the tone warns against taking the material too literally. with the exceptions of merchants and scribes. dancing. and dancing. and music. and many consider him one of the greatest prose writers in Arabic. sometimes even attending school with them until the age of twelve. playing instruments. when their lessons began to focus on singing. and so received an education similar to theirs in many respects. All things considered. He was an influential and prolific author. the fact that this expression was a cliché shows that the ability of the qaynah to write her own letters was also commonplace. His satire appears to be directed at the owners of slave women. apparently. while many people in this period were taught to read.26 We should. Baghdad and Basra. it includes a somewhat compassionate portrayal of the women in question. he writes: Later (after first meeting a man she desires) she corresponds with him. and some telling details about their training and living conditions. these women received an excellent education. and the men who pursue them. pouring out complaints to him of infatuation for him.22 However.23 Al-Jahiz’s Epistle is a facetious open letter encouraging men to take advantage of the sexual availability of the qaynah. whom he later identifies as fabricators and libertines. add to this list the ranks of the singing girls.
the most common of which were marriage to her master and deathbed manumission. Thus. but was ambushed and sold as a slave to a man who saved my innocence so I could marry his kind and honorable son. the slave poet could become a concubine. literally the women’s quarters of a large household. As a result of a changed political situation Buthayna is a princess turned slave-girl: Listen to my words. Men who wished to hear them perform brought gifts to the master’s house. the master also helped to cultivate relationships between his patrons and the women. 1070 ce). While she was not raised in the harem. Above 154 154 . Free women. illustrates the point nicely.The position of the qaynah could be fluid. echoes of noble breeding You cannot deny I was snatched as a spoil of war. with the difference that that free women received more religious instruction. and I hope Royal Rumakiyya27 would bless our happiness. She could be freed in a number of ways. she very often wound up in one. the daughter of a Banu Abbad king.28 As Buthayna’s poem demonstrates. I escaped. they might receive a similar literary education. And now. would you tell me if he should be my spouse. daughter of Itimad. a great king whose days were soured by time and chased away. Once her training was complete. in order to drive up their prices when the time came to sell them. If noblewomen were educated in a harem by one of the qaynahs. but they also moved in the same arenas. she earned a living for her master by performing in his house. a role that was itself fluid. had a significantly different legal standing. When Allah willed to break us hypocrisy fed us grief and ripped us apart. Not only could the status of individuals change. father. This poem by Buthayna (b. there was often a significant overlap in the social worlds of slave women and noblewomen. the slavegirl turned queen. of course. with the hope of cultivating a relationship with the women. The result is that class and social boundaries were fluid. I. to which all monotheistic people are entitled under Islam. and were not necessarily educated in singing and dancing. in that they had rights beyond the right to life. While this was not a brothel.
Safiyya al-Baghadiyya. ravisher of hearts. and this is her response: 155 155 . The vizier Aamir ibn Yanaq’s invited her to perform at his majlis. Once you have seen my stunning looks. and this poet acquits herself well in both of the categories that mattered. and sexual satisfaction. namely physical beauty and wit. you are a fallen man. recited lines that accentuated her mobility equating her words with her body. other people. and shelter (all in keeping with their station). Free women could act as witnesses and legal authorities (albeit with some significant restrictions). and manage it (also with some restrictions). Their recorded poems nearly always served a purpose. (d. clothing. pious woman was not entitled to freedom of movement. inherit property. educated slave women were more integrated into the male-dominated courtly society than were their free counterparts. one of the main and most visible differences between slaves and free women was that the free. a twelfthcentury slave poet. and hence their security. they made their living on poetry just the same. and their social position depended on their selfpresentation.31 Slave women expressed in their poems a profound consciousness of the relationship between their words and their bodies. They were creatures of the court who gained and lost favor as many others did. and often themselves.32 As a party game.all.30 While slave women were not entitled to many of these rights. Thus their desirability.29 Their marriages could not be contracted without their consent. Hind. 1152 ce) a qaynah renowned for her skill on the lute. architecture. While they were not what we would call professional poets. They were also entitled to freedom from physical harm and property damage. Her husband could forbid her to leave the home. qaynahs were often asked to improvise a couplet of praise for anything in the immediate environment such as wine. including food. wrote this poem in praise of her own body: I am the wonder of the world. This poem is probably an example of the last type. a free woman had a capacity for legal action. and they were guaranteed certain rights in marriage. In this way. depended equally upon wit and attractiveness.
She is the reply. Both writers treat her heart as domestic space and identify the woman with the home because she personifies it. is vague indeed. proud line of the highest rank. While her body is a vessel. reserved for my best friend However many lovers may be in truth.Noble Lord. (d. He writes to her: Oh you. Very little is known of her origins. holding many men. and as such she is the poem. except that they were lower class. Hind has shown her mastery over these conventions. I’ll quickly come to you as my reply with your messenger. who have a thousand admirers Between your friends and your lovers: I see that you most unkindly Left me outside in the street! Her reply: Oh Abu Bakr. Andalusia). Love for Abu Bakr would have the foremost place. As a rule.33 As Hind speaks these verses. The line between art and nature. in accord with the current poetic aesthetic.34 In this poem Nazhun presents her body as a locus of desire. and made clear that a woman of her station really is what she does. The woman’s body is not only 156 156 . her friend Abu Bakr is granted sanctuary from the public eye by occupying the best spot in it. Abu Bakr ibn Sa’id of Alcala la Real. and in this verse he complains of her many lovers. Perhaps the most outrageous of the poets was Nazhun al-Garnatiya bint al-Qulai’iya. her body and her word are made commensurate. The eleventh-century vizier of Andalusia. you hold a place forbidden To others in my heart. 1100 ce. and that she may have been a slave. Abu Bakr mourns his exposure to the elements when outside her heart. Nazhun represents her body in ways that disrupt conventional strategies for control of women’s speech and sexuality. and protests the merchandising of women’s bodies. exchanged verses with Nazhun.
and asserting that her “vagina overflows with fluid. She asserts her victory as follows: “I have repaid a poem with a poem.associated with the home. If the home is the sanctuary of the pious woman. accusing her of an overflowing female sexuality. This is conventional wisdom cloaking a threat: the conventional wisdom is that. And it is Abu Bakr.” comparing her vagina to a sea. casting the female genitals as a threat and a source of corruption.” alMakhzumi ups the ante. She uses this grotesqueness to threaten her male interlocutor and gain control of a discourse privileging the male body. While at first she attempts to redirect his attacks. to the point that she becomes identified exclusively with the home. by calling herself “an old woman. she presents her body as porous to the point of grotesqueness. namely the composition of masculine verse. By bestowing her love she protects men from the public gaze. curses her. tell me now who is the best poet: Although I am a woman by nature. the man.”37 She gains control of the discourse that plays on a perceived threat inherent in female genitalia by turning it on the speaker.”35 Here. she plays on the grotesque. The following exchange details her poetic skirmish with the famous invective poet al-Makhzumi (12th c Andalusia). my poetry is masculine. “I have heard her speaking. as a woman. you contradict yourself! With what [else than a rod] can a woman be better bestowed?”36 Here. then here Nazhun’s desiring and desired body becomes that home. whose smell can be sniffed for the distance of a mile. who could have been your mother. by my life. she desires the penis. protecting her from the stares of strangers. The blind male poet begins by attacking Nazhun.” Nazhun reverses the curse: “O infamous old man. it actually literalizes that metaphor in order to reverse it. For her part. maximizing the threat implied by a porous body. her double entendre cuts two ways. As her words are reduced to a 157 157 . When al-Makhzumi. he describes her body as porous. calling her “a hot whore. and show her nothing [other] than a rod. who must be sequestered. may God not make her hear the good. Nazhun plays on her opponent’s terms for her own empowerment. as in traditional understandings of female domesticity. saying. in order to beat al-Makhzumi at his own game. reversing conventional power dynamics. In Nazhun’s invective poetry. the threat is that she might very well keep it.
daugher of the caliph Muhammad III al-Mustakfi (ruled 1024–1025 ce). Hafsa bint Hajj ar-Rakuniyya was a twelfth-century noblewoman known for her free way of life. both slave and free. Abu Jafar. The Poetry of Noblewomen Two of the best known noble poetesses are Hafsa bint Hajj ar-Rakuniyya (d. although some authors. only sixty lines of verse. and so often their poetry was focused on asserting their freedom of movement. In so doing. and this difference played out in issues of mobility and the ways in which they related to their bodies. Therefore. Though al-Makhzumi does not give up at this point38 and must be bought off by their host.threatening corporality. and the hair of my head is a leafy shade. Noblewomen poets and qaynahs must have associated quite closely. she in turn objectifies the male body and turns attention back to her poetry. but less control over her physical person. her focus is not on marketing it.41 stress reciprocity and mobility: Shall I visit you or shall you visit me? For my heart always bows to what you long for My mouth is a source of clear sweet water. but their status was different. and was perhaps the most celebrated woman poet of her time. While her body is still the main topic of this exchange. protested the merchandising of the body as Nazhun did. Nazhun has gained a modicum of control. The qaynah had freedom of movement. she plays on the conflation of attractive words and bodies in court poetry by slave women. which was her (and her owner’s) chief asset. 1190 ce) and Wallada bint al-Mustakfi (994–1091 ce). she threatens with her sexuality in order to gain the upper hand in a game of aversion rather than desire.39 While she was one of the most prolific of the women poets. Free women had less mobility than qaynahs. and inverts its concomitant merchandising rhetoric. 158 158 .40 Hafsa’s poems to her beloved. Instead. survive to date. set among nineteen different compositions. much of the slave poetry merchandised the body of the writer.
because of the fact that you visit me. Abu Jafar honors Hafsa for breaking with convention. in this case it is not the rhetoric which has failed. While Hafsa does use some lovely garden metaphors to describe her charms. usually constructed according to an aesthetic that values the blurring of boundaries between the natural and the man-made. I would have liked to go.42 In this exchange. if I had had the opportunity. Ultimately though. First. The garden is a semi-domestic space. she uses garden images to describe the woman (in this case. and the analogy breaks down once the situation departs from the ideal. and the 159 159 . Give me an answer quickly: it is not nice. they note that it does not apply in this situation. when the noon hour would bring me to you. but was preceded by a few other high-profile noblewomen writers. herself ). It is usually not the garden which visits someone. Conventional to love poetry. Wallada bint al-Mustakfi was best known for her self-presentation. a central image in the culture of the period. She was not alone in her refusal. the Prophet’s wife.43 The association of women with this particular sort of domestic space occupies pride of place in the writings male poets. and they condone that. but the one using it. she refused the veil. Hafsa retains some poetic conventions and discards others in order to emphasize her desirability and her initiative. Abu Jafar’s answer: I will honor you. The first of these is Aisha bint Talha. a controversial figure of the second/third generation of Islam and a cousin to Aisha. she also points to their absurdity when they are applied to a living woman.I hoped you were thirsty and struck by the sun. that you keep Buthayna waiting. Gardens don’t mind being kept waiting. In this they both attention to the assumption of female passive immobility underlying the gendering of poetic conventions. but people do. Her lover also points to the failure of the analogy. O Jamil. but it is the gentle breeze which visits the garden.
”46 Instead. and refused to veil her face. The second line refers to her rejection of the veil. in private.daughter of the first caliph Abu Bakr. affirming her belonging in the world in which she moved. Wallada showed an acute consciousness of her body as text in the inscription she wore on her clothes.44 Another well-known example was princes Ulayya. who is blessed and exalted. a message intensified by the fact that she placed it upon her outermost garment. who got away with remaining unveiled because of their high positions and their own personal élan. put her refusal to her own purposes. The first line of the right inscription contradicts the Quranic assertion that women were “one degree lower than men. and on the left. Wallada. invoking God’s sanction. Wallada claims her own revelation. Aisha bint Talha was known as a woman who stood up to her husbands. and sister to Harun ar Rashid. So I will not take the veil for by Allah there is no blemish in me that anyone can think of. it relates a sense of pride in her physical form and its mobility. marked me with beautiful features that I like to show to people so that they may know virtue with respect to them. by Allah. In the right inscription. she declares her freedom of movement in public. Wallada appears to belong to the same school as her predecessors. It expressed her strong opinions about her own worth. again in direct opposition to the idea 160 160 . with pride! left side : Forsooth I allow my lover to kiss my cheek And bestow my kisses on him who craves it. daughter of Caliph Mahdi. explaining: Allah. and called attention to her physical mobility. fit for high positions And am going my way. however. On the fabric of her robe she had the following words embroidered: right side : I am.45 The content of her body-text is a manifesto against the seclusion of women. Echoing the sentiment of Aisha.
of female seclusion. it is as if I Have come to castrate Ali 48 161 161 . Wallada’s poetry is striking because it reverses conventional discourses of desire. serves more to emphasize her transcendence of these feelings than the feelings themselves. bestowing the coveted kiss. As in Hafsa’s verses. undertakes a visit to her lover. would remain still. visited by the lover. and the moon. The left side breaches the physical boundaries of seclusion. and the stars) who. The fact that Wallada. which—if the sun would have felt a similar love. the moon. and to proclaim her mobility more than her love. and its subsequent application to men instead. they would not undertake their nightly travel. And in me is no fault He looks askance at me when I come along. he would not appear. allowing her lover to kiss her cheek. in spite of his excellence. Wallada’s contemporaries. She asserts her mobility once again as she breaches custom by proposing to visit her beloved: When the evening descends. Ibn Zaydun slanders me unjustly. As noted above. the traditional trysting-place). Wallada breaches that convention by instructing her lover to wait for her to come to him (we assume in the garden. describing a reciprocal relationship between the poet and her beloved(s). I feel a love for you. feeling a love that would immobilize the heavens. however. Here. if they felt as she did. because I see the night is best keeper of secrets. and a lover. and the stars. These invectives get their sting from the hostile displacement of sexuality and desire. she would not rise. await then my visit.47 Here. she consents to be a beloved. this was not possible in the secluded world of most upper-class women of the period. Needless to say. the kernel of the poem is the poet’s freedom of movement in spite of her intense feelings for her lover. were more impressed by her invective poetry than by any of her other works. Her mobility is accentuated by comparison to moving celestial bodies (the sun. nor was it possible from behind the veil. the beloved is often referred to as a garden. the appropriation of religious and philosophic rhetoric usually applied to women.
This is because they thought it originated in the body. Here. On the other hand. 1037 ce) in which vulvas grow on trees. outsider status. Al-Jahiz writes of the passion of love: Passion is compounded of love and infatuation and natural affinity and habitude of association. In spite of his excellence. It begins with a growing intensity. so that they were not subject to the same process of decay. namely. and because it engages contemporary philosophical discourse idealizing homosocialty.49 This formulation is based on the Aristotelian theory that all organisms and matter go through the cycles of growth. In this sense. stability.51 This second invective poem is like the first because it accuses ibn Zaydun of homosexuality. construes her desire for him as a threat to the masculinity of his male lover. reaches a climax. love for children. Wallada notes her own ephemeral. and love for ideas and even things. He would belong to the birds called ababil (or. when she’s treated as a threat to the eternal order of a homosocial society. same-sex love. Ibn Zaydun. and then falls off by natural progression to the stage of complete dissolution and the point of positive revulsion. did not originate in the body according to this scheme. In these utopias. two men retire from society to lead a life of mystic contemplation on the magical isle of 162 162 . which decays. that love between men and women must inevitably turn to bitter loathing.The above poem is a relatively simple example of invective.50 Arabic philosophers applied these Aristotelian commonplaces to love. The striking image of the penis in the palm tree is a direct reversal of images found in popular utopian philosophical works such as Ibn Sina’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan (d. If he would see a penis in a palm tree. This next poem is continues the previous theme: Because of his love for the rods in the trousers. the poet claims that her estranged lover. This poem follows the conventional philosophical narrative of love. Ibn Zaydun. he would fly after it like a craven bird). and decay.
56 In both passages. the islands are populated by unveiled. with longer hair and more perfect qualities. and philosophical works. In these works. He will find a great pleasure in her. more important.”54 In many accounts. wonder-books. He who has cut her or attended her cutting can have sexual intercourse with her. When their hair tears. he says. hair. and. they die. sexual fantasy. eyes. fiction. feet. it is specifically their voices which lead to their demise: women’s voices provide the name for the island. women. beyond the realm of the revealed women is a grove of woman-bearing trees. until their hair tears apart. They are the most beautiful of face and hang by their hair.55 Beyond this grove is another better one. Their posteriors and vulvas are more beautiful. They come out of cases like big swords and when they feel the wind and sun they yell Waq Waq. and the women have a good perfumed smell. But MaltiDouglas points out that in all the works in which women grow on trees. breasts. and vulvas like the vulvas of women. hands. One feature common to all the accounts is that in them “the islands partake of fantasy. there are trees that bear fruit like women. not to be found in normal women.”53 Descriptions of the island appear in sailors’ accounts. 1348 ce) describes them in his almanac-like book.al-Waqwaq where naked women with exposed vulvas grow on trees. “The Island of al-Waqwaq takes pride of place in the medieval Muslim geographical imagination.57 163 163 . with shapes. Kharidat al-’Aja’ib wa Faridat al-Ghara’ib (The Pearl of Wonders and the Uniqueness of Things Strange). with their cries of “Waq Waq.” and these cries lead to their death. bodies. On this island. Ibn al-Wardi (d. geographical dictionaries. attention is drawn to the vulva. More importantly. in one case as the only that body part comparable to those of human women. she falls from the tree and lives a day or two. al-Waqwaq is paradise.52 According to Malti-Douglas. or even unclothed. which grows women that are greater in build. When one of these women’s hair is torn.
asserting that it is not her body that causes trouble. when Wallada speaks. In her understanding of alWaqwaq. recoding the philosophical landscape according to what she perceives to be its true focus: men. consumable woman. Ibn Zaydun becomes a bird. The male-focused fantasy of al-Waqwaq centers on the availability of the women-fruit. Hafsa. and their virtue rests in this. but in her vision the hybridity rubs off on the one who desires and consumes it. grotesque. If people are to be dehumanized by becoming plants to be harvested for sexual gratification. including Nazhun. it is not physicality that is virtuously rejected. we see both the merchandising of the body. Wallada counters that image by creating a penis-fruit. the homo-social ideal. In the poetry of slaves. but his. then the person consuming this fruit becomes an animal. many of the women poets. for she recasts the scenario and rejects the denizens’ claims to virtue. through allusion and reversal. and insistent rejection of such modes of representation. they often manipulated the conventions through reversal and displacement. used the rhetorical strategies of reversal and displacement to rewrite discourses of female domesticity and female seclusion. and the explicit. They used these tactics to expose the values of seclusion embedded in the literary conventions governing portrayals of women. and to assert their own mobility in spite of common 164 164 . Wallada was probably aware of this. While women poets represented themselves using many of the same metaphors utilized by their male counterparts. the male denizens of al-Waqwaq have chosen specifically to reject the women-fruit. to the exclusion of women. a hybrid. In this poem Wallada reproaches Ibn Zaydun for his homosexual desires. Furthermore.The palm-tree penis in Wallada’s poem mirrors the landscape of al-Waqwaq. Hence. The poems discussed in this essay have revealed a diversity of strategies for representing the body. and that of other men. and Wallada. In ibn Sina’s telling. but the poet reverses it as well as the poet-philosopher’s relationship to it. Thus. Wallada transfers the burden of disruptive female sexuality onto Ibn Zaydun. but just women. Wallada also counters another aspect of Ibn Sina’s landscape.
who flourished in the tenth century ce. domesticated. and Alois Richard Nykl. 1946). There are a number of poems embedded in scholarly articles in English. a compilation of historical and literary information. In the very act of composing and reciting poetry. Skidmore College end notes 1. In section IV he lists twenty-four women poets. the qaynah to the free woman. The hurra was the counterpart to the muhsana. 1577. in which he mentions thirty-three slave women poets. and the Kitab Al-Ima al Salwa’ir (Book of Slave Women Poets). Abu’l Faraj al-Isbahani. commodified and immobilized women was the counterpart to poems asserting those same values. as a result. Hispano-Arabic Poetry and its Relations with the Old Provencal Troubadours (Baltimore. and the hierarchical model of gender relations was the counterpart to the egalitarian one. The main sources in English translation are Abdullah al-Udhari. MD: Johns Hopkins UP. the poems fulfilled an important function at court. poems. 1999). Classical Poems by Arab Women (London: Saqi Books. Indeed. letters. the possibility of play with the contrapuntal discourses outlined above was acknowledged—and occasionally honored—by the society that generated them. Ironically. Much of what we know about the women poets of Medieval Islam comes from al-Maqqari’s (b. Wallada. women poets gained status and. We still possess these poems today because they were appreciated. His two most important relevant works are the Kitab al Aghani (Book of Songs). Cairo 1632) Nafh al-Tib (The Wafting Scent). the woman’s poem subverting conventions that objectified. who—when added to Isbahani’s thirty-three—yield a total of sixty-three women poets in all. and sections of Al-Maqqari’s Nafh al-Tib are also available in translation 165 165 . d. through her invective poetry. such tactics were not revolutionary. also engaged contemporary philosophical and imaginative discourses that constructed ideal landscapes that excluded women while objectifying their bodies. and quotations. is one of the most important sources for women’s writing in the early Abbasid period.perceptions. and in section III he mentions six Jewish ones. In the same way.
R. p. 1967). 5). 1992). “The Role of Women in Arabic Literature. Woman’s Body.B. Nafh al-tib min ghusn al-Andalus al-ratib (The Wafting Scent of the Dewy Andalusian Branch) in Analectes sur l’histoire et la littérature des Arabes d’Espagne. This is especially clear when compared to traditional Arabic poetry. 9. 455. p. (Teresa Garulo. usually part of the longer panegyric qasida] first appears separate from the qasida in the Umayyad dynasty. Bacharach (NY/London: Routledge 2005).” See Stefan Leder and Hilary Kilpatrick. p. Woman’s Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing (Princeton: Princeton UP. title – presumably “ghazal”?) in Medieval Islamic Civilization: An Encyclopedia. “The Role of Women in Medieval Andalusian Arabic Storytelling.(Shihab al-Din Abu al-Abbas al-Maqqari. Hence.” at www. and is best represented by the work of Umar ibn Abi Rabi’a (d. “secretaries were usually practitioners of the craft of poetry.library. “Women’s History: A Study of al-Tanukhi” in Writing the Feminine: Women in Arab Sources. Meri and Jere L. See Hilary Kilpatrick. 25–40. The ghazal [a pre-Islamic love poem.cornell. Malti-Douglas excludes women’s poetry for consideration because: “Prose by nature permits a clearer representation. 4. see _____________ (author.” Quaderni di Studi Arabi 9 (1991): 161–76. the world of prose was effectively closed to them. 139–52. it is on prose that we shall concentrate” (Fedwa Malti-Douglas. (Amsterdam: Oriental P. pp. pp. 536–68.” in Verse and the Fair Sex: Studies in Arabic Poetry and in the Representation of Women in Arabic Literature. eds. Because poetry was the language of public discourse.htm). eds. “Classical Arabic Prose Literature: A Researchers’ Sketch. 28. Dozy. eds. Frederick de Jong (Utrecht: U of Utrecht P. While certain carefully defined poetic subgenres were assigned to women. 2002). 3.” Journal of Arabic Literature 23 (1992): 2–26. For instance. 2. and that it reveals possibilities “in terms of metaphor or the creation of images” but does not document historical fact. vol. Recent research on women’s writing has focused on prose and excluded poetry. a more elaborate reformulation and restructuring of the world. ca.edu/colldev/mideast/litera1. Josef W. ed. p.Tauris. It has also been argued that poetry documents only itself. Mikhailis argues that “Portrayals of women in Arabic literature serve as a barometer by which we can measure that status and role of Arab women in society” (Mona Mikhailis. Manuela Marín and Randi Deguilhem (London/NY: I. “Women as Poets and Chattels: Abu l-Farag al-Isbahani’s ‘al-Ima’ al-Sawa’ir’. et al. a highly conventionalized form. Mimesis is tied to its essence. 1993). 2 pp. 166 166 . On the other hand. 103 ah/721 ce). Arie Schippers.
De la Puente. “Some late ʿAbbāsid and Mamlūk Books about Women: A Literary Historical Approach. pp. in Muslim Women Mystics. they were expressing opinions held by some men as well. “Women as Poets and Chattels.” p. 77–8.5. Abdullah al Udhari. 7. 22. p. Itimad probably was not a young woman when she met al-Mutamid. Women and Gender. 16. pp. Either she really is at least thirty years older than al-Mutamid. trans. Kilpatrick. Qut alQulub II [The Nourishment of Hearts]. 161. Abu Talib. her husband. 20. Kilpatrick. H. “Women as Poets and Chattels. p. “Juridical Sources for the Study of Women: Limitations on the Female’s Capacity to Act According to Maliki Law” in Writing the Feminine.” p. 23. Women and Gender in Islam (New Haven: Yale UP. “Women as Poets and Chattels. 8. 2001) p. 99. “Women’s Access to Public Space According to al-Muhalla bi l-Athar.” p. 12. Bernard Lewis. De la Puente. “Juridical Sources. Hilary Kilpatrick. van Gelder. 195. 95–110. Hilary Kilpatrick shows that some writers of medieval books about women did not favor their seclusion (Hilary Kilpatrick. Islam and the Arab World: Faith. “Juridical Sources. eds. Ahmed.” p. 1994).” in Writing the Feminine.” p. 10. 9. al-Udhari.106. pp. p. 1069–1091 ce. Margaret Smith (Oxford: Oneworld Publications. Ignaz Goldziher. 19. 11.” Arabica 42 (1995): 56–78). Abu Talib. J. 15. 17. G. Culture (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.” p. Beyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics on the Coherence and Unity of the Poem (Leiden: Brill. 64–5. “Juridical Sources. Muslim Studies: Volume 167 167 . 99. When women wrote to assert their own mobility. Classical Poems by Arab Women (London: Saqi Books. 99. 1982). Leila Ahmed. pp. 1–2. 161.” Quaderni de Studio Arabi 9 (1991): 161–176. De la Puente. in Muslim Women Mystics. 13. Marín and Deguilhem. 1993). 6. 18. 162. 167. king of the Taifa state of Seville. Muhammad ibn ‘Abbad al-Mu’tamid (1040-95). 14. 195. However. Abu al-Faraj al-Isbahâni’s Al-imâ’ al-shawâ`ir. p. Cristina de la Puente. “Women as Poets and Chattels. Classical Poems. Kilpatrick. 162. People. Camilla Adang. or there is something wrong with the dating in nearly every source. 1976). p. Mystical poetry will not be considered here. 21. 14.
32. p. A Mediterranean Society: Volume II: The Community (Berkeley: U of California P. Raymond P. 1980). Weiner. writing was an art acquired just by persons who had a special reason to do so. and trans.” Middle Eastern Literatures 6 (2003): 3–18.” p. “The Role of Women. 303. 1999) p. ed. He claims she has a penis . 35. 1967). 168 168 . “The Role of Women. 41. L Beeston (Oxford: Aris and Phillips.” p. Stern (Chicago: Aldine.One: Muhammedanische Studien. Section 60. 24. “The Role of Women.M. Wiebke Walther. Schippers. Women in Islam (Princeton. 37. p. Classical Poems. Classical Poems.” See S. 25. 26. Al-Udhari. Al-Udhari. title (presumably Hafsa bint Hajj ar-Rakuniyya ?) in Medieval Islamic Civilization eds. Al-Jahiz. F. Schippers. her mother. 149. “The Role of Women. Epistle. Maria Rosa Menocal. 28. 25. Hispano-Arabic Poetry. 145. pp. A. Meri and Bacharach. 308. p. 308. Al-Udhari. “Juridical Sources. 27. 100. In this time and place. Epistle on Singing Girls of Jahiz. 32. 228. Paris: Larose. 34. Classical Poems. p.” p. 39. “The Role of Women. and Michael Anthony Sells (Cambridge: Cambridge UP. 144–48. 38. Schippers. 146. 40.” p. 29. Hafsa bint al-Hajj (Colletion Hesperis. Goitein. Devin J. See also Marle Hammond.” p. Scheindlin. De la Puente. C. ed. 206. 38. 31.but continues to insist on her sexual desire for one (Schippers. p. 100. 100.R Barber and S.a tail which she drags on the ground . and its Relations with the Old Provençal Troubadours (Baltimore: J. eds. 1946). 145). 1949). 30. Schippers. Louis DiGiacomo. Furst. 33. “He said ‘She said’: Narrations of Women’s Verse in Classical Arabic Literature. Stern and trans.” in The Literature of al-Andalus.D. De la Puente. 42. NJ: M. 2000). p. p. S. 1985). A reference to Itimad. Antonio Arjona Castro. “while the knowledge of reading was fairly common. 145. 208.” p.” p. “Ibn Zaydun.M. A Case Study: Nazhun’s Hija’ of Abu Bakr al-Makhzumi. Alois Richard Nykl. 36. 145. p.” p. Al-Jahiz. De la Puente. Stewart. La sexualidad en la España musulmana (Córdoba: Universidad de Córdoba. p. Une Poetesse Grenadine du Temps des Almohades. 1993). Author. “Juridical Sources.H. “Juridical Sources.
Woman’s Body. Al-Udhari. p. Scheindlin writes that “the boundary between inanimate objects and living beings is deliciously vague. Epistle on Singing Girls section 41. Wine. Woman’s Word. 56. p. I:1 402b20–22. Woman’s Body. Woman’s Word. Hugh Lawson-Tancred (London: Penguin Classics. Schippers.” 47. p. “The Role of Women. 46. p. Hughes. another by Ibn Tufayl. Classical Poems. 88. 29. Abu’l Faraj al Isfahani’a. ed. 184. There are three important renderings of this legend. Malti-Douglas. 50. Women. 48.” p. Woman’s Body.” in Verse and the Fair Sex. 87. 52. 144. Woman’s Body. 1986). 51. p. Woman’s Word. Schippers. Woman’s Word. Woman’s Word. 55. Malti-Douglas. 85. Women and Gender. p. Al-Jahiz. cited in Ahmed. 54. 144. De Anima. Kitab al Agani (Great Book of Song). p. and a third in Hebrew by Abraham ibn Ezra (Aaron W. p. 53.Aristotle. 184. Classical Poems. Al-Udhari.43. p. Malti-Douglas. Frederick de Jong. 45. 88. Raymond Scheindlin. p. Malti-Douglas. 77. The Texture of the Divine: Imagination in Medieval Islamic and Jewish Thought (Bloomington: Indiana UP. 49. one by Ibn Sina. Woman’s Body. Qur’an 2:228 reads “and the men are a degree above them [women]. 1986). 8. 57. “The Role of Women. 2004). Malti-Douglas. trans. 86. 169 169 .” 44. p. and Death (Oxford: Oxford UP.
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