More than 13 centuries after she lived and fought, the legacy of Khawlah bint al-Azwar lives on. By Raquel Evita Saraswati.
I have always been captivated by the woman warrior. As a feminist, I can’t help but be drawn to stories of women who lead on the front lines of epic battles, defeating their male adversaries with tremendous bravery and skill. Women warriors like Joan of Arc and Hua Mulan have inspired films, plays and even storybooks and costumes aimed at girls eager to imagine themselves defending their people from tyrants, invaders and dragons. During America’s Civil War, it is estimated that anywhere from 150 to 400 women posed as men to fight, including Frances Clayton, whose performance in the Union Army made her an American legend.
Fictional characters like Yentl Mendel (portrayed by Barbra Streisand in the 1983 film Yentl), a young Jewish woman who wanted nothing more than a religious education, and real-life women and girls seeking basic education in Afghanistan, have also posed as men. When women warriors of the classroom or battlefield are discovered to be cross-dressing, they are either received as the heroes they are, or are severely punished.
Perhaps the most famous woman warrior in Islamic history is Khawlah bint al-Azwar. Khawlah bint al-Azwar was born sometime in the 7th century, and she and her family were among the first followers of Islam. It is said that Khawlah initially joined Muslim armies as a nurse, providing care to wounded soldiers fighting in present-day Syria, Jordan and Israel/Palestine. After her brother Dirar was captured, Khawlah donned men’s armour, including a face mask, and charged into action. Other soldiers assumed that the brave young fighter single-handedly taking on scores of Roman soldiers was the general Khalid ibn Walid, until he himself appeared.
Women’s fighting units and military academies have been named after her, and religious leaders have used her story as an example of women’s empowerment in Islam
Rather than being angry with Khawlah for taking a man’s place in battle, her fellow soldiers recognised her tremendous prowess, and had her lead them into battle. She was a remarkable fighter, but the real proof of her bravery was to come when she and other women were captured by enemy forces. The women were taken to the tents of Roman soldiers to be kept in sexual slavery, with Khawlah to be kept as a Roman general’s personal sex slave. Rather than submit to sexual assault and enslavement, she got the women to join her in fighting their captors. It is said that Khawlah had the women form a circle, and using the poles from the camp’s tents, they successfully defeated their captors.
Today, Khawlah bint al-Azwar is regarded as a source of pride for many Muslims. Women’s fighting units and military academies have been named after her, and religious leaders have used her story as an example of women’s empowerment in Islam.
Unfortunately, some extremists have also used Khawlah’s story as a way to further their own malignant agendas. Rather than using her story as a way to empower women against the forces that would enslave them, extremists use it as a means to lure women into the kind of ideology Khawlah struck every time she defeated another one of her would-be sexual captors.
A US-based extremist group, the Islamic Thinkers Society, uses an embellished narrative about Khawlah’s life and mission in one of their many posts about what they believe are the virtues of fighting against non-Muslims, and as they say, the “legitimacy of women participating and fighting in jihad”. And according to the January 31, 2002 edition of pan-Arab newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, would-be female suicide bomber Itaf Alayan, who claimed to have attempted a suicide attack in Jerusalem, declared female suicide missions acceptable because Khawlah bint al-Azwar fought “without a male chaperone”. Numerous other examples of the exploitation of Khawlah’s story to advance a violent, archaic and anti-woman interpretation of Islam can be easily found online.
Empowerment and leadership will not be freely given to us by men who seek to retain a stranglehold on the minds and bodies of women
It is time for Muslim women to reclaim the female warrior, and Khawlah bint al-Azwar’s legacy. This is not a call to arms, but a call to remember, honour and live the spirit of a woman who refused to be enslaved and refused to allow her sisters to be enslaved.
There is hope in the courage of today’s Muslim women warriors. One of my favourites is a dear friend of mine: Egyptian-American journalist, lecturer and activist Mona Eltahawy. While covering the Egyptian revolution in November 2011, she was brutally beaten and sexually assaulted on Mohamed Mahmoud Street in Cairo. Like Khawlah bint al-Azwar, Mona hit back – and hard. She showed the entire world the crimes of the Egyptian military, exposed the gropers and molesters hiding in open sight in Tahrir Square, and delivered a blow that set social media ablaze for weeks: an essay entitled Why Do They Hate Us?, a no-holds-barred response to the abuses of women and girls rampant across the Muslim world. Like Khawlah bint al-Azwar, Mona works with those men who support, respect and fight alongside Muslim women, yet never hesitates to deal fatal blows to the misogyny and tyranny living in the minds of those seeking to enslave women’s minds and bodies.
If we are to do justice to the legacy of the great women of Islamic history, we must remember that the freedom to live their examples of empowerment and leadership will not be freely given to us by men who seek to retain a stranglehold on the minds and bodies of women. The time is ripe for change: As revolutions continue to sweep the Arab and Muslim world, Muslims must reject the notion that the only alternative to secular fascism is the anti-woman theocracy that would imprison, maim and kill a woman like Khawlah bint al-Azwar. Both radical Islamists and virulent Muslim haters insist that we do not have this choice, but the women of our history, the best of our faith, and the living examples of today’s women warriors tell us otherwise.
This article originally appeared in the August 2012 Eid issue of Aquila Style magazine. You can read the entire issue free of charge on your iPad or iPhone at the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet at Google Play