Our family has embarked on virtual travels to various countries and regions. To explore these countries and their cultures, we have followed along with the festivals, cooked and eaten traditional foods, learned of traditional handicrafts with hands on exploration, along with many activities to immerse ourselves. Chronicled here are some of these activities.

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Thursday, March 26, 2015

Extraordinary Women from the Muslim World | Women's History Month

For Women's History Month, I'd like to bring your attention to thirteen Muslim women from ancient to modern times who have lived extraordinary lives and influenced their communities, often overcoming extreme hardships. These women, from various nationalities and economic backgrounds, have had a positive impact throughout the ages.

We were introduced to them in the wonderful book Extraordinary Women from the Muslim World. From poets to military pilots to nobel prize winners., this book offers an account of the lives of these women in an easy to read, approachable and intelligent storytelling way, each with one full page illustration of their portraits. It dispels stereotypes about Muslim women and offers role models you may never have known. I highly recommend reading this book with your kids, it will inspire them to pursue their goals and dreams. As importantly, it will show them that inspiration can be found in all people, no matter their gender, nationality or religion. Here's a quick introduction to thirteen Muslim women well worth getting to know. 

1. Khadija bint Khuwaylid. The First Wife of the Prophet Muhammad (Arabia)

Khadija bint Khuwaylid was the first convert to Islam, and the devoted wife of the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century. She was already a wealthy business woman with several children and widowed twice when she met Muhammad. Through working together, she fell in love with him, his honesty and his trustworthiness, and was the one to propose to him at the age of 40, though he was 25. Together they had many children. After 15 years of marriage, Muhammad received his first revelation, and Khadija is the first person in whom he confided. She comforted and supported him, and was the first to convert to Islam. Although common at the time for Arab men to have multiple wives, he remained monogamous to her during their 25 years of marriage, until her death. Khadija continues to be a role model for Muslim women because the stories of their relationship reflect love, loyalty, trust and respect between two partners. 

2. Aisha bint Abi Bakr. Wife of the Prophet Muhammad (Arabia)

Aisha bint Abi Bakr became the Prophet Muhammad's wife after the passing of Khadija. She had an important role in early Islamic history. She was responsible for spreading thousands of the Prophet's sayings and served the Muslim community for 44 years after his death. She was highly regarded for her intellect and knowledge in many fields, from poetry to medicine, and even led an army at the Battle of Camel.

3. Al-Khansa. Poet (Arabia)

Al-Khansa was a 7th century poet and is the best known female poet in Arabic literature. At the time, the role of female poets was to write elegies for the dead and perform them in public competitions. She won respect and acclaim in these competitions, and always recognized herself as quite equal to (if not better) than her male contemporaries. 

4. Rabi'a al-Adawiya. Saint (Iraq)

Rabi'a al-Adawiya was the first female Sufi saint who set forth the doctrine of "Divine Love", and considered the most important of the early Sufi poets. has made the greatest contribution of any woman towards the development of Sufism. Rabi'a was born to a very poor family, orphaned at an early age and sold into slavery. It's believed that she was set free when her owner witnessed her bowing in worship in a manner symbolizing a Muslim saint. She spent years worshiping, performed a pilgrimage to Mecca, and despite many offers of marriage chose to live a life of celibacy and asceticism, rejecting materialism. Having known slavery, she was passionate against all forms of slavery, and helped integrate Islamic slaves into Muslim society. 

5. Arwa bint Ahmed al-Sulayhiyya. Queen of Yemen

Arwa bint Ahmed al-Sulayhiyya was the Queen of Yemen for over 50 years. Orphaned at a young age, she was adopted by her aunt and uncle, the queen and king of Yemen. Arwa was educated by the queen herself, and married their son, the crowned prince. After the death of the king and queen early into the marriage, the new king, Arwa's husband retreated from public eye because of paralysis. This brought Queen Arwa into the role of governing, which she continued to do through her two husbands and then alone, and ruled peacefully for seventy years. She focused on the welfare of the people, set up several centers for education, and built roads and mosques. She never lost the support of the Yemeni people. 

Palace of Queen Arwa
Photo Credit: Mufaddalqn (CC)

6. Sultan Razia. Warrior Queen of Delhi (India)

Razia was the sultan of Delhi from 1236 to 1240 after being appointed by her father as his successor just before he died, making her the first woman ruler in Muslim history. This decision was met with riots and nobles wanting to unseat her. She met this opposition and strengthened her position by riding as a soldier throughout the streets, and maintained her control by giving herself a masculine image by dressing like a man wearing a turban, pants, coat and sword. She also appeared unveiled in public, which was quite different than the customs of the time. Despite the resistance and opposition she received, she established schools, academies, centers for research and public libraries. A revolt however ended her reign after her relationship with a slave was exposed, and she was imprisoned. 

7. Nana Asmau. Scholar and Poet (Nigeria)

Born in 1793, Nana Asmau became a leading scholar in the most influential Muslim state in West Africa, and represented a number of highly educated Muslim women of the time. Her writings became tools for teaching men and women about the principles of the caliphate (a form of Islamic government). When her brother became a leader, she advised him and found herself debating with governors, scholars and princes. She was particularly influential on women's education. In 1830, she formed a group of female teachers and journeyed throughout the caliphate, educating women.

For some, Nana Asmau represents the independence and education possible for women under Islam. Many Islamic women's organizations and schools in northern Nigeria are named in her honor. She continues to be a model for African feminists to this day. 

8. Tjut Njak Dien. Guerrilla Leader (Indonesia)

Tjut Njak Dien on Indonesia's 1998 10000r o by Bank Indonesia

Born in 1848, Tjut Njak Dien became an anti-colonial guerrilla fighter who played an integral role in the Indonesian resistance to Dutch imperial colonization. After ten years of training with her father and brother, she became a commander, and led warriors for years of battles, until taken as a political prisoner in the early 1900s. As the only female political prisoner, she became respected as a scholar of the Qur'an.

9. Halide Edib Adivar. Novelist, Professor and Activist (Turkey)

Born in 1882 in Turkey, Halide Edib Adivar became a professor, an author and an activist. She attended the American College for Girls and was one of the first Ottoman Muslim women to receive a western education. By 1909, she had married, had children, founded the Society for the Elevation of Women and published her first two novels. She later divorced her husband and began teaching at an all girls high school, implementing the addition of language and science courses. This experience led her to advocate for women's education and empowerment. During the Turkish War of Independence, Halide gave speeches, and worked as a nurse and a soldier. She lived through the war to one day create and English Literature department at Instanbul University.

10. Umm Kulthum. Singer (Egypt)

Umm Kulthum is the Arab world's most famous singer. Though she passed away in 1975, her music still remains popular. She was born to a poor family, and as a young girl her father dressed her up as a boy to allow her to perform in public. Her popularity and lyrics changed the imagery associated with women and the middle class, and brought poetry to everyone - the working woman as much as the daughter of the wealthy. 

11. Sabiha Gokcen. Military Pilot (Turkey)


Sabiha Gokcen was the world's first female fighter pilot. She was orphaned at a young age and lived in poverty until a chance meeting with the Father of Modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, changed her life forever when he adopted her. When she was 23, he enrolled her as the first female student in a school for aviation. She excelled, despite some challenges, and went on to the Military Aviation Academy where she received training to become a bomber pilot. In 1937, she graduated at the top of her class. Despite her credentials, she was prevented from fighting in real combat missions because of her gender. With Ataturk's approval, she was allowed to fly and provide air support to Turkish soldiers, thereafter becoming a national hero. She later became the chief instructor at a flight school in Turkey.

12. Chaibia Tallal. Painter (Morocco)

Chaibia Tallal is a world renown painter. Born into a poor family in 1929, she was married at 13 and widowed at 15. After the death of her husband, she supported herself and her son by working as a maid in Casablanca. She began painting with nor formal training, and her work caught the eye of a Parisian museum director. Her paintings featured women and Moroccan culture with bold colors and strokes. Once her work was exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, she became an internationally acclaimed painter. One of her paintings was used for the poster advertising the first International Women's Art Exhibition in 1984. A large portion of her painting sales were donated to education initiatives for women in Morocco. 

13. Shirin Ebadi. Nobel Peace Prize Winner (Iran)

Shirin Ebadi is the first Muslim woman and Iranian to win the Nobel Peace prize. She has spent her career pursuing social justice as a judge, lawyer and author. In 1970, she began her career as a judge at the age of 23, becoming the first female judge in the Iranian justice system. However, soon after the Iranian Revolution in 1979, she was removed from her post and offered the position of a clerk in the same courtroom she used to preside over. This led her to retire and work on publishing books and articles. In 1992, she received her license to begin a private legal practice. Since then, she has been legal counsel in many social justice cases, defending women, children, political dissidents, refugees and those whose human rights have been violated. She founded the Center for Defense of Human Rights in 2001 and received the Nobel Peace prize in 2003 for her work upholding human rights. 

These are the thirteen women you and your children can learn more about (in a much more interesting way!) within the book. If you'd like to learn about the many more Muslim women who have and continue to make positive impacts in their, and our, communities, WISE Muslim Women is a site devoted to sharing the story of Muslim women.

This post is part of the Women's History Month Series on Multicultural Kid Blogs. Be sure to enjoy all the posts in the series, and link up your own, on our main page


  1. Thanks for introducing this book. Looks like a wonderful book, talking about great women.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Ambika - this book was a great find!

  2. Could you please suggest the age group of kids, it fits?

    1. I'd say ages 8 and up - it's text heavy, but in an easy to read way. I did read a review that said her 6 year old daughter loves the book, and my 12 year old likes the stories and the format as well.

  3. Looks like a great book. You always find the best ones, though!

    1. This was a happy coincidence when I came across this book!

  4. Interesting collection of women.

    1. I like the historical range and differences in accomplishments.


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