Women Warriors of the Early Muslim World

How a few women warriors made a huge impact in the early years of Islam

Women Warriors of the Early Muslim World
Illustration by Joanna Andreasson for Newlines

The first and only time I fought Olympic taekwondo champion Arlene Limas, I was at a fundraiser called Karate Helps Kick Diabetes, one of many such events to which my father, an accomplished martial artist himself, dragged me in my youth. This time I was just 10 years old. Circling the hardwood floor, gathering a sleeve of dirt on my bare feet, I must have gotten off a jab or two, perhaps a most excellent try at a leg sweep. But what I remember is being stalked, cornered and pounded into a gelatinous heap of a boy (in hindsight, I’m sure Ms. Limas put almost zero force behind what then seemed like roaring deathblows). The referee called the match, but not in my favor. Needless to say.

From my harborage on the floor, I peered out through the swollen red protective headgear that trapped and amplified the sound of my own breathing. It was a fundraiser in which celebrity martial artists fought friendly matches with anyone who wanted to sign up. Here was my opponent: a woman, very much a woman, but not a doting mother or delicate sister, at least not at this instant. Rather a keen, dexterous athlete hardened by years of training and hundreds of fights, one who wouldn’t think twice before rushing breakneck toward the sounds of trouble. This woman, I remember thinking as she offered me a powerful arm to pull me up and exchange friendly glove taps: This woman is a warrior.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. No reason to think that women are any softer, weaker, more merciful or less bloodthirsty than men, aside from arbitrary social norms plus my own idiosyncratic experience. In fact, from Mulan to Cleopatra, from Lozen to Pavlichenko, history tells another tale. “Come back with this shield or come back on it” — according to Plutarch’s “Moralia,” this was the parting cry of Spartan mothers as their sons rode to battle. Then again, their bravado is singled out as an oddity, a freak aberration from the normal rupture between femininity and the martial virtues. Such a rupture is not confined to the Greek classics. It appears also in the Near Eastern context, where the foremost literary heroine, Scheherazade of “1,001 Arabian Nights,” has no warlike recourse but instead only sex and fairytales to save herself.

Who are the Spartan women of the Muslim world? Who are their Amazon warriors, and what happens when they take the field? We hear constantly about Middle East militias, jihadis and national armies, but less about female soldiers and their brassy heroism. Accounts of women in combat are rare in both Islamic history and imaginative literature, versus those who command armies from a safe distance. But the stories that remain — like in the epic “Sirat Dhat al-Himma” (“The Stouthearted”), which tells the story of legendary warrior Princess Fatima and her military conquests, as well as the travels and family drama of her tribe — end up proving the rule by means of a bright, shining exception: that the so-called weaker sex is anything but.

Of course, not all exceptions look alike. Few indeed are humanity’s Margaret Thatchers and Catherine the Greats, but such iron women rarely ever hefted shield and spear. Contrast their armchair prowess with the dust-eating, steel-flashing Boadicea, who was queen of the British Celtic Iceni tribe when the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus tried to conquer her people along the northwest coast of Wales during the first century A.D. reign of Emperor Nero. Queen Boadicea led a massive but doomed revolt against Suetonius in which over 70,000 Romans and Britons died. Or the seafaring Artemisia, queen of the ancient Greek city-state of Halicarnassus, who cast her fate with Xerxes I, King of Persia, against the independent Greek city-states during the Greco-Persian Wars of 499-449 B.C. Artemisia went on to command Xerxes’ vast fleets; her legendary naval prowess was portrayed by Eva Green in the 2014 blockbuster film “300: Rise of an Empire.”

Tales like these sprang up in the ancient Near East, too. They talk of figures like the Assyrian Semiramis, widow of King Ninos, or the Scythian Queen Tomyris, who overcame Cyrus the Great in 530 B.C. and who is today considered Kazakhstan’s national heroine. The great Persian epic “Book of Kings” sends out a phalanx of women soldiers, especially the warlike Saka-Scythian nomads of Central Asia — ancient Iranian peoples who engaged their neighbors in perpetual warfare and had a reputation for being wild and uncouth but honest in business dealings. The best known is Gordafarid, “formed as a hero,” a champion archer who defends the Turanian White Fortress against the valiant Sohrab.

In common trope of battlefield epics, Sohrab gets flustered when he knocks off Gordafarid’s helmet and reveals her long hair: Only now does he realize that he’s dueling a woman (and echoing Richard Wagner’s operatic revelation when Siegfried rips off Brunhilde’s breastplate, thus disclosing her ample bosom, and affirms with rich understatement: This is no man!). Sohrab captures Gordafarid with his lasso, but she tricks him and escapes with her people. In another epic, the anonymous “Banu Goshaspnama,” Sohrab has a cutthroat sister named Banu Goshasp, who brushes violently with suitors, her father and even her own husband, Gev.

But Amazons are still the best-known female fighters of old. Conquering them — both in battle and in bed — is a standard task for the would-be ancient Greek hero. In the ninth labor of Heracles, the Mycenaean King Eurystheus orders the great demigod to take back the belt of Hippolyta, queen of the Amazons. Legends about Alexander the Great show him trysting with warrior queens, including Thalestris, who stalks the young conqueror for thousands of miles so that she can sleep with him and bear his child: In premodern lore, Greek or otherwise, rearing a great champion is an inheritance that crowns a woman with perpetual glory.

Such Greek, Persian and Mesopotamian threads all entwine with the sands of Arabia to create a unique tradition of popular epic. In the martial context, pre-Islamic Arab women sang dirges for the dead known as marathi, which offer a pretext to boast in the slain warriors’ tribe as a whole. The most admired marathi poetess is Khansa (“snub-nosed,” an Arabic epithet for a gazelle as metaphor for beauty), whose bitter laments for her brothers Sakhr and Mu’awiyah have stirred audiences for centuries. It’s said that the Prophet Muhammad wept when he heard them.

Attached to this eulogy tradition was the twin practice of rousing men to battle and shaming them for cowardice, a practice vividly captured by the pre-Islamic “hanging ode” (mu’allaqah) of ‘Amr ibn Kulthum:

When those ladies go out, they go with calm

and swagger in their walk like drunken men.

They feed our horses but say, You are not

our husbands if you don’t keep us from harm!

If we men defend them not, then let us die!

nor let us remain after they’re gone.

One notorious woman who goaded men to war was Hind bint Utbah, a member of the mercantile tribe of Quraysh that opposed Muhammad at Mecca. Facing their hostilities, Muhammad fled to Yathrib in 622 A.D. (present-day Medina), and from there he scuffled with Quraysh over the next few years. One of their encounters was the Battle of Uhud, a defeat for the Muslims and a win for Quraysh. Hind marched with Quraysh to battle, then stormed the field with other women to mutilate the corpses of the Muslims, slashing off noses and ears and fashioning them into necklaces. It’s said that she gouged out the liver of Muhammad’s uncle Hamza and bit into it, then mounted a tall rock and shrieked:

We’ve paid you back for Badr!

War after war is always fierce …

I’ve slaked my vengeance and finished my vow.

Wahshy, you’ve quieted the burn in my breast.

For her allegedly gruesome exploits, Hind is remembered by the nickname Hind al-Hinoud Akilat al-Kuboud (Hateful Hind the Liver-eater).

This same animus invictus ennobles the women of Arabic popular literature, including the “1,001 Arabian Nights.” In the history of King Umar al-Nu’man folded into that work, readers meet the Greek Byzantine Princess Ibriza, who challenges a Muslim champion to feats of strength when he accidentally passes by her keep. These contests end in a wrestling match, always a favorite excuse for the narrator to describe the hero’s arousal, after which the two conveniently fall in love and take up residence together.

But the deepest lode of warrior women tales are the siyar (journeys), epic narratives chanted aloud and later written down. These chansons de geste make up a vast sea of Arabic storytelling. Some of the earliest siyar tales rehearse the life and conquests of Muhammad; most revolve around some hero based on remote history, including the pre-Islamic Bedouin warrior ‘Antarah ibn Shaddad in “Sirat ‘Antarah,” or the 13th-century Mamluk Sultan Baybars in “Sirat al-malik al-zahir Baybars.” In each case, the narrative dresses up supposedly true events, recounting the exploits of the hero and his companions. For centuries, professional reciters in the Middle East rolled out these sagas in front of live audiences — a tradecraft that has long shrunk to a mere historical curio next to radio and television.

What sort of figure do female fighters cut in the siyar tradition? Unlike matriarchal Amazon society, where women refuse to sleep with men, clean house or bear children (Alexander legends notwithstanding), Arabic popular epics show them forming happy unions, raising sons and daughters with motherly care, and upholding the patriarchal order. Dreams and other signs herald the birth of a heroine, who, as with the wolf-wrestling girl ‘Unaytirah in “Sirat ‘Antarah,” gains martial skills by being trained as a boy. Having come of age, the warrior woman then faces various enemies. Like Princess Ghamra from “Sirat ‘Antarah,” she consents to marry only the man who can beat her in combat.

Not all siyar tales conform to these motifs. “The Tale of Prince Hamza al-Bahlawan” takes a reliably negative view of warrior women — they are forbidden from going to war, a man’s occupation. Or in “Sirat Baybars,” the unyielding “lionesses” (labawat) have no combat training but instead use deceit, knives and poison to get their way. But in most cases, and in any historical age, warlike women who perform the same physical feats as men are rare, perhaps owing to biology, education, social norms, reader attitudes and more. One such popular epic still captivates to this day, with its picture of a female soldier not as a mere foil but in fact the star of the show.

“The only veil I need is a helmet.” Few pronouncements better convey the person of Dhat al-Himma (Resolute or Stouthearted). This is the honorific of legendary warrior Princess Fatima and the title of her popular epic, “Sirat Dhat al-Himma.” Spanning thousands of pages, this beloved story now enjoys a place in English with Melanie Magidow’s new translation for Penguin Classics, “The Tale of Princess Fatima, Warrior Woman: The Arabic Epic of Dhat al-Himma.”

By means of a dozen or so well-picked episodes, and in the uncluttered language of oral epic, Magidow’s rendering sets forth the life and times of Fatima and her loyal mates. Many of their adventures hang on spats waged among Arab tribes, but it’s the neighboring Christian Greek empire of Byzantium that looms largest. By turns combative and conciliatory, the Byzantines — who in fact called themselves rhomaioi (Romans), since they claimed true inheritance of the Roman Empire, and hence the label “Rum” in Fatima’s tale — cut into Muslim lands with maddening regularity. Princess Malatya, the hawkish daughter of Emperor Leo, besieges the Muslim town of Amida, while the bloodthirsty general Hermes persuades a local ruler not to reconstruct his shattered truce. These and other Greek fighters duel and plunder and roll back the enemy with existential urgency.

Yet Byzantines and Muslims conspire and commingle as much as they fight. Emperor Leo, awed by Fatima’s strength, enlists her soldierly talents against the king of Portugal. Fatima’s conniving uncle Zalim switches allegiance to the Byzantines, which he signals by guzzling wine and pork. In the final adventure, the Muslim caliph al-Mu’tasim dies and is replaced by his son al-Wathiq, who was himself sired through a Byzantine slave woman.

Fuzzy identities move other parts of the story, too. Although she boasts a noble lineage of the Central Arabian Bedouin tribe of Banu Kilab, the infant Fatima is discarded forever in a bet by her father, Mazlum, and is placed into the care of a wet nurse. She joins the enemy tribe of Bani Tayy and vows to get payback, evoking the pre-Islamic poet and desert raider Shanfara’s thirst for justice. According to legend, this outcast wheeled against his birth tribe of Azd and swore to kill 100 of their number, since in one version of the story they’d refused to avenge his father’s death while in another, their women snubbed his advances. He’d finished off only 99 by the time he died. But later, a member of Azd passed by Shanfara’s bones and spitefully kicked his skull, giving him a splinter that grew mortally infected.

Things go better in Fatima’s case: She makes nice with her father but only after subduing him and dragging him to prison. Nor is it the last time she conquers an insufferable male. Commanders throw soldiers at her over and over, only for them to fall beneath her blade. A lovestruck Romeo from the Bani Tayy harasses her despite Fatima’s repeated threats to slay him. In the end she impales him on a spear with the chief’s blessing. Yet this flinty female destroyer stops short of razing a monastery, on the peaceable standard of the Prophet Muhammad. She flows with delicate poetry and warm caresses for her son Abdelwahhab. Such double-edged scenes conjure Malory’s bifurcated sketch of Lancelot as the meekest man who ever ate in hall, and the sternest knight who ever put spear to foe.

Speaking of Fatima’s son Abdelwahhab, his very being arises from a foul conundrum that sums up all the paradox, moral anguish and fevered gall that make Fatima who she is. Recall Zalim, her scheming uncle, whose son Walid fixates on his warrior woman cousin’s beauty and ferocity. He gives it the old college try: multiple love notes, gifts of robes and horses, a banquet held in her honor. Each time Fatima refuses, a choice her father staunchly supports, and each time Walid’s longing grows. Finally, his heart turns cold. He makes a pact with ‘Uqba, a meddlesome cousin and sorcerer, to slip Fatima what amounts to an eighth century roofie so that Walid can have his way with her. This he does, and the resulting pregnancy brings forth Abdelwahhab, a great hero and Fatima’s crowning joy.

The narrator doesn’t excuse the inexcusable. Walid and his father Zalim are corrupt, disgusting, wicked scum: That much is clear. They’re downgraded by the caliph to Fatima’s servants, and at last they’re defeated by Abdelwahhab. The sneaky chemist Uqba is summarily executed. Furthermore, Mazlum, a milksop on the battlefield, somehow gathers the moral pith to vouchsafe his daughter’s innocence. “This has happened to many an Arab girl,” he tells Fatima, “because of the passion of men. You did this only because you were forced.” It is ironic that despite his misguided apologia for rape, he still manages to console his violated daughter and hold her blameless, which is light years ahead of many patriarchal narratives today. But still the disturbing paradox stands: In the vein of myths like that of Zeus and Leda, where the founding act of civilization is a rape scene, the narrator says that were it not for this terrible deed, “the great lion of a hero Abdelwahhab would never have been born.”

The problem here goes beyond sexual assault, although that’s certainly enough for a tragedy. In a fallen world where “cruelty is the law pervading all nature and society,” as the Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy writes in “Jude the Obscure,” can any good be wrested from it by those who are brutalized? Can they ever hope for peace, or even redemption? In Fatima’s case, inner strength comes through pious, quasi-ascetic devotion to God, which more than simple man-hatred makes her a dangerous fighter. “I am focused upon my calling,” she declares in the face of yet another hapless marriage proposal. “I ride not for prestige but to further the cause of goodness in this world.” Not everyone’s choice, perhaps, but for Fatima it shows her unique conviction and grit.

Given the highly conventional nature of oral epic, one might expect more cardboard cutouts in “Dhat al-Himma,” but in fact they’re hard to find. Instead, what we have are quirky, flawed personalities who come through with flashes of warmth and even nobility, injustice notwithstanding. One can almost hear Fatima, always the good soldier, dispensing tough love to Abdelwahhab, or see the defeat on Zalim’s face as the Caliph Mansour rules against him in a public trial. Fatima sues Zalim and Walid after the latter’s hateful assault on her honor, and based on testimony from a panel of physiognomists — experts in judging character or predicting the future from facial characteristics — the caliph decides that Abdelwahhab is indeed Fatima’s son by Walid, thus corroborating her account of the rape. One imagines looking on at these moments, the same way I can still almost feel the gloved fist of my 10-year-old self find its target or hear the sound of my own quickened breathing.

Ultimately, “The Tale of Princess Fatima” and other Arabic popular epics, like my bout with Arlene Limas, dare us to think of women as expert fighters as well as wives and mothers. Neither position rules out the other. And what’s more, to not fear prejudice, violence, deceit and hatred, which often surround us but never fully define us. To remain, in the face of such ugliness, “magnificent as the full moon,” as Princess Fatima is memorably described. To look death squarely in the maw and smile — this is what gives the sira tales their sharpness, vigor and intimacy hundreds of years later.

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