Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1238, (19 - 25 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Once upon a time

 Were the Mameluks good to women?

Two events that mark women’s achievements in both public and private life are celebrated this month. Egypt’s Mother’s Day is on 21 March, and International Women’s Day was on 8 March.

Contrasting in origins, one of these days honours women for their domestic role as mothers, while the other recognises women for their role in politics and the economy. Both celebrations pose a question: Are women getting a fair deal?

Many women around the world would argue that equality between men and women is still a distant hope. Today’s women may be more educated and better off in other ways than their counterparts a century ago, when the International Women’s Day started in America and Europe as an offshoot of the socialist movement. But the road ahead is still a long and bumpy one.

In the 13th century CE, Egypt was a traditional patriarchal society run by a caste of slave warriors known as the Mameluks, literally, “the owned ones.” They were fierce warriors on the battlefield, but apparently fairly romantic when it came to women.

It was customary at the time for the rich and powerful to keep a coterie of concubines. If contemporary chroniclers are to be believed, some women managed to have a good time, despite their restricted lives.

Cairo University Professor Sayed Abdel-Fattah Ashour describes the lives of women in the Mameluk era, from mid-13th century until the early decades of the 16th, in his book about one of the most important of the Mameluke sultans, Al-Zaher Baybars, published in 1963.

“In this society, which we call mediaeval, women enjoyed a great deal of respect. The Mameluks regarded women with immense appreciation, giving them honorary titles such as khawand and khatun and addressing them in their letters with utmost veneration, as can be seen in the correspondence between the sultans and their daughters, wives, and sisters,” Ashour wrote.

Ashour tells the extraordinary story of Shagaret Al-Dorr, the first Mameluk female sultan, or sultanah, who ruled Egypt briefly after the death of her husband, Al-Saleh Nagm Al-Din Ayyub, the last of the Ayyubid rulers.

He also says that the mother of the sultan Al-Said Ibn Al-Zaher Baybars was active in politics. When her son fell out with his top military chiefs, or emirs, in 1278 CE, she went to talk to the insurgents and brokered a deal on behalf of her son.

The Mameluk sultans used to take their wives and concubines, also known as the harem, on short picnics to the countryside in Giza. The women travelled in the comfort of silk-padded litters and were accompanied by a small contingent of helpers and guards.

But the merchant and working classes of the time were no less respectful of their women, Ashour notes, listing the names regular folks used to call their daughters, including Sett Al-Khaq (Lady of the People), Sett Al-Hokkam (Lady of the Rulers), Sett Al-Nas (Lady of the Folk) and Sett Al-Koll (Lady of All).

When a woman went out, if her husband could afford it, he would hire a donkey led by a donkey driver, or makkari, and have a servant accompany her on foot. Women in Mameluk times were also allowed to participate in scientific and religious life, and several excelled in the study of grammar, poetry and theology.

“Women were active in Cairo city life, visiting markets and spending their leisure time in parks. Women did most of the shopping. It was common for women to buy clothes for their husbands. And when they had no need to shop, women headed out to the women-only public baths for a bit of relaxation and a chat,” Ashour notes.

They would also go to cemeteries, have picnics by the side of lakes and by the Nile, and go to other places for leisure and sightseeing. However, the ulema, or religious scholars of the time, frowned on the range of these perceived freedoms and called for “a ban on women going about in such a fashion,” according to Ashour.

At the time of Sultan Baybars, women’s fashions involved imitations of men’s clothing. They would even wear tawaqi (singular, taqiyah) or skullcaps, and turbans, a practice Baybars banned in 1264.

“It is forbidden for women to wear turbans or dress in men’s clothing. And if any of them does so, on the third day her wardrobe will be confiscated,” a decree announced.

The contemporary chronicler Al-Maqrizi tried to offer the women’s point of view, saying that women were wearing men’s clothes because they couldn’t afford anything better. But a few pages later he contradicted himself by noting that some women embellished their skullcaps with strands of gold.

So it wasn’t exactly equality — not even close. But it seems that even in Mameluke times, some women had a taste for politics, for going out and for wearing beautiful hats.

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