Arts & Culture The Hope Issue

What do you know about the women of Arabia?

"They brought life into the Peninsula."

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By Ghada Almuhanna

Truth be told, it took me a few days to decide what to write about for this article, because really what is there not to write about? The culture and history of the Gulf region is so rich that it is hard to pick and choose.

Being the visual person that I am, I began looking through documents, photographs, and the like to find something of interest to share with you all.

Then I found a photograph that struck a chord.

Bedouin woman performing the “Daha” dance. Image: Library of Congress.

It was one of a Bedouin woman from the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula from 1919. She was bearing a sword, and dancing in front of a line of men who were clapping for her. Personally, it is one of my favorite photographs, not only because it is very powerful, but it also shows something extremely unique – how women lived their lives in the past. And most importantly, it showed a glimpse of an untold story. 

And so this is what I wish to share – the stories of our matriarchal ancestors.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a general idea about the women of the Peninsula, and that is that their participation in society beyond childbearing was nonexistent. That they had no autonomy, no respect, nor did they even seem to be present in our history. And this simply is just not true.

Before sharing a few stories, I wish to point out that the Peninsula as such is an extremely diverse region. Therefore, to speak about one woman, and to give you an impression that this would apply all over the region would be unfair to the rest. Truthfully, I might not be able to cover all the women, but I do hope that a glimpse into a few stories will open a discussion and encourage a way to view their history and ours differently.

Now back to the photograph from 1919. The woman that is “dancing” is actually performing “Hashi”, and it is part of a dance called “Daha”, in which the men line themselves in rows and start to clap while making loud noises, imitating an animal’s voice. The purpose of this dance is to boost the confidence of the men that are going out to war. And when a woman enters the field with a sword, she is telling those men that not only is she stronger than them, but more importantly that she is the final line of defense in case they lose in their war, and that she will be the protector of the land.

This idea of women being the defenders of the land is not uncommon. For example, a well-known documented story is that one of Ghalia Al Bugumeyah.  She was a woman who led a military resistance to prevent the Ottomans from recapturing Makkah during the Ottoman–Saudi War, by not only bestowing her money on her men, but by also guiding them and delivering encouraging speeches that ignited their spirit to fight against the enemy.

During that time, Ghalia’s name had spread throughout the region after the first defeat of Mustafa Bey’s army near Turbah. This reinforced the fears of Ottoman soldiers of her influence and strong military presence as a head of men. Some even told the strangest stories about her powers as a witch, perhaps not believing that a woman could lead a military force like she did.

Another woman whose name spread throughout the region was Luluwah Al Arfaj, who was better known as “Al Arfajiyah”. She was the wife of a prince named Hujailan bin Hamad Al Abu Olayan, who was taken hostage alongside some members of the Al Saud and Al Sheikh families by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt after he demolished the capital of the first Saudi state, Diriyaah. Her biological son, who was given the title of prince after his father was taken away, was murdered by his cousins, who sought after the title. She was betrayed by her adopted son Abbad, who had opened the castle gates to their cousins to kill his brother.

In her grief, Luluwah created a plan of revenge. And so in the middle of the night, she snuck into the castle where she used to reside with some of her own helpers. She went from room to room, until she found herself in the room that had stored arms and gunpowder, and set it on fire, killing many in the building, including the man who had taken her son’s place: Prince Sulaiman bin Rashid Al Abu Olyan. As if that was not enough, she stood by the door of the castle, and waited for those who tried to escape the castle, killing them as they passed.  

And of course, who could forget Princess Noura bint Abdul Rahman Al Saud, the sister of the founder of Saudi Arabia, King Abdulaziz, who would often proclaim, “I am the brother of Noura” as he held her in very high regards. It was her, in fact, that encouraged the King to regain the leadership of the country when the family was in exile in Kuwait, as well as provided him with political opinions that led the King to pay attention to a number of issues in the country, especially social ones.

In addition to these three women, there are also women who are unknown to us by name, but we know that they existed due to orientalists travelling in the region. For example, Swiss traveler Johann Ludwig Burckhardt had heard of female musicians in the western region of Saudi Arabia and how their status was highly regarded for their skill, writing “professional female Makkah musicians have, it is said, good voices and are not of that dissolute class to which the public singers and dancers belong in Syria and Egypt.”

Our homes that were in the desert, the “Bedouin” tents, those were woven by hand to create cloth barriers against the harsh weather. They were made by women who weaved these structures, erected them and packed them up whenever they needed to move. These women were literally building homes and providing spaces for their family members to rest after a day of hunting and gathering in the harsh desert weather.

The Bedouin tents were made by women. Image: Library of Congress.

And so, it makes no sense to me to say that the women of the Peninsula had no role in our societies. It sounds even ludicrous to say that they were only child-bearers. These women were protectors of the land, builders of homes and at times they brought life through music. They brought life into the Peninsula.

Ghada Almuhanna is a Saudi media and policy professional with a background in law. She currently lives in Berlin, Germany.

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