Amina, Warrior Queen of Zaria

Blog piece featured on Change the Script. A campaign led by The Hon Baroness Uddin.

The first of her kind, a Nigerian warrior Queen of Zaria (née Zazzau), Amina broke the bounds of a male-dominated society. A little side bit to note; she was Muslim. While much of her history is that of legend (due to word of mouth tradition) she remains an integral part of Nigerian history, a statue spear in hand, on horse, erect in Lagos. Her legacy remembered. She is amongst the many Muslim women who often go unheard of or unspoken about in history. Moving forward with plans for the National Photographic Exhibition with CTS, celebrating 100 women and marking the centenary of women’s suffrage, it is integral to celebrate Muslim women throughout history. They demonstrate that they have and always will contribute to whichever society they belong, deconstructing the misinformed narrative placed upon them. Here is one amazing example to start with, and plenty more are to follow.

Amina was born in 1533, 200 years before British colonial rule, to the ruler Bakwa of Turunku and resided in the city state of Zazzau. She grew up surrounded by wealth as her family traded in imported metals, cloth, cola, salt and horses. Her time was spent improving her military skills with the Zazzau cavalry warriors. Her devotion to the military practice led her to become a leader of the cavalry, over which time she accumulated notable wealth and numerous military accolades.

One of the many beauties of pre-colonial Nigeria was that men were not threatened by power and strength held by women, which made Amina’s forthcoming role as Queen all the more respected and a matter of commonplace where assertion of female authority is concerned.

Throughout Amina’s reign, she faced relentless competition to expand her kingdom amongst the Hausa states. These states belonged to neighbouring powers of Zazzau,  where she ruled. There lay three trading routes through northern Africa which connected the Sahara with the south and western Sudan. These routes were imperative to hold power beyond her own kingdom. To conquer these sites, she conjured an army of 20,000 men who went on the serve a 34 year long war the length of her reign, expanding her kingdom to the largest in its history. With this expansion, she brought indescribable amounts of wealth to the lands, introducing new skills and trades to the people. Amina's skills knew no bounds, looking beyond her military life she also established her architectural skills whereby the earthen walls around the city became a prototype for all Hausa states.

Refusing to marry and never to have bore children, Amina instead chose to take a temporary husband from foes whose legion had been vanquished after every one of her battles. She disposed of them shortly after and left no heir, her brother assuming the throne after her death. Her legendary tales led her to be the model for the television series Xena Warrior Princess. She truly represents a woman who is not as capable as a man, but in this case, more so. She is the perfect case to show that Muslim women have and always will be challenging the narrative by, simply, existing.

Noteworthy Women in Islamic History

Blog piece featured on Change the Script. A campaign led by The Hon Baroness Uddin.

Nusaybah bint Ka’ab, Fatima al-Fihiri, Razia Sultan.

These are three extraordinary Muslim women, amidst many, in history whose stories are more than just exemplary; they are awe-inspiring and most importantly empowering. All three played pivotal roles in their communities as a warrior, educator and ruler. These roles of monumental power that Muslim women held centuries before us should be used as examples to encourage a continuance of empowerment today. 

Advocacy of women’s rights isn't anything new in Islam, in fact, Nusaybah bint Ka’ab is said to be one of the first to note to have done so, being one of only two women to have pledged her allegiance to Allah and his messenger in the religions early years.  Her most notable role was her defence of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) at the Battle of Uhud. When he was left vulnerable by archers uphill leaving their post in a moment of false victory, she was the first to his defence from the enemies acting as a shield, utilising bow and arrow to protect him. She was wounded 13 times in the process. This bravery wasn't just demonstrated on the battlefield but in her questioning the Prophet about why only men were mentioned in the Qur’an. It was because of this that Ayat 35 of Surah Al’Ahzab was later revealed, where we first see the acknowledgement of women as well as men to be rewarded a place in Heaven for their faith in Allah (SWT).  

Education and academia being of significant importance make it striking to note that the worlds oldest operating University was opened by a Muslim woman in 859 AD. Al-Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco is recognised in the ‘Guinness Book of World Records’ as the oldest institution in the world that operates as a university which grants degrees. The library itself holds a 9th century Qur’an still in its original binding. The woman behind it? Fatima Al-Fihri, a Tunisian who migrated to Fes. After the death of her Father, Fatima used the money that she inherited to establish what was first a Mosque and later became a university. It was one of the first in the Islamic world. The subjects available were diverse, ranging from mathematics to music, encouraging people from all over to study there. It remains today as one of the most respected universities in Morocco, where both women and men can study. 

A Mamluk Ruler in the 13th century, the first and last that Delhi saw of that kind; a Muslim female. Her name was Razia Sultan. She is one of the few females in all Islamic civilisation to have had a role as magnanimous as this. Ordinarily, the females were referred to as Sultanas, meaning wife or mistress of the Sultan, but she refused to be known as either. During her reign from 1236 to 1240 she broke away from conservative Muslim tradition by adopting male attire and not wearing a veil, having coins minted in her name as “Pillar of women, Queen of the times, Sultan Razia, daughter of Shamsuddin Altumish.” Even though she broke religious traditions she remained not only respected but also her faith did not falter; establishing schools and public libraries that taught the works of the Qur’an. Despite not having a female ruler since the time of the Mamluk dynasty, her example demonstrates how the role of a woman in Islamic society is contrary to peoples perceptions today. 

Growing up, I wasn't taught about the role of women in Islam from a historic stance. At 24, the ability to learn more about Islam has not only played into my love for history, but it’s also allowed me to rediscover the religion on a personal level. On top of that, it has given me the understanding of the roles I have as a woman. The past is what makes much of the present, and with examples like these, there is certainly hope which can inspire Muslim women to challenge and break stereotypical perceptions of who we are.

Noor Inayat Khan

 Blog post featuring on the website for the campaign Change the Script ran by the Hon Baroness Uddin.

When we think about World War II the images that are generally conjured up are that of Nazi Germany, bombs, air raids, spies and trenches and not anything remotely related to a  woman at war let alone a Muslim one. That’s where Noor Inayat Khan, an unsung hero as it were, comes in. There are a number of reasons why you probably haven't heard of her before, and a lot of them remain the same reasons why established Muslim women aren't spoken about in British society today. Nonetheless, looking at a historic figure like Noor tells us that having a Muslim female inspiration is entirely tangible. 

Noor was born on the 1st January 1914 in Russia to an Indian father and American mother, a direct descendant of Tipu Sultan, an 18th-century Muslim ruler of Mysore.

She was brought up in both Britain and France making her the perfect mesh of bilingual and multicultural, ready to be plucked by the elite Special Operations Executive in 1942 set up by Winston Churchill. She was sent to Paris to work as a radio operator, which made her the first woman undertaking this job in Nazi-occupied France during World War II. The thing to remember about Noor is that she did not take on this position with the notion of fighting because of her love for Britain, instead, it was her aversion to fascism and dictatorship. Sadly, it was both those things ultimately led her to her tragic death.

Codenamed Madeleine, also known under the false identity as Jeanne Marie Renier, she assumed the identity of a governess from Blois who had moved to Paris.

Within the first week of the operation, many of the top operatives had been captured by the Gestapo (the official Nazi secret Police). After some time laying low with another agent, word was heard from London instructing Noor to return. She, however, refused instruction. She requested to stay on after realising she was the only British operative remaining and continued to single-handedly work six radio operators on her own.

After three months of tirelessly having to change her appearance and alias in order to continue sending intercepted radio messages back to England, her name had been compromised. An act of betrayal from a colleagues sister, Noor was caught and taken to the German prison Pforzheim in 1943. Her refusal to divulge any information led to 10 months of beatings, torture and starvation being taken to Dachau concentration camp where she was tortured further. On the 13th September 1944, Noor Inayat Khan was led to her execution. Her last word; “liberté.”

Her piece of history doesn't stand alone. It highlights the importance of Muslim women being bold in their beliefs, but more importantly, it exemplifies the 1000’s of stories about both Muslim women and men who had participated, fought and lost their lives in WWII who are all unsung heroes.