Remke Kruk’s The Warrior Women of Islam opens up a corpus of Arabic literature otherwise erased from the eyes of the non-Arab public. Yes, we know about the very popular One Thousand and One Nights (rolls eyes), but how about a text focusing purely on gender issues? The Warrior Women of Islam explores the poignant question of women in Islamic history, a question which in our quest for women’s rights is becoming increasingly important. Kruk probes the depiction of the heroic woman in their own epics Sirat Dhat al-himma, as well as side characters for the male heroes, for example in Sirat ‘Antara. She questions how women’s tales differ – or more controversially, the tropes that remain the same – from their male counterparts.
The stories that Kruk recounts describe women who are brave and respected leaders. The writing gives us an image of how current societal expectations of gender roles have severely turned back the clock, beyond even these medieval warriors. Not only are the heroines Dhat al-himma, Qannasa and Ghamra born to be warriors, but they also earn it through their various military conquests, frequently beating male heroes on the battlefield.
Kruk’s concise and engaging style of writing shows a truly passionate and inquisitive vision of the past. She explores the stories in their natural framework in the oral traditional of storytelling which took place in public settings in Cairo and Marrakech until very recently. Kruk enquires and analyses the origins of these stories and opens up their more problematic aspects to the reader. For example, these stories were told and written for males; how can this be seen through the narrative of the Arabian epic? Also, why if Dhat al Himma and Ghamra were so proud of their femininity did they dress as men on the battlefield? Lastly, how are these epics reflective of reality?
Together, Kruk’s team of warrior women give a wide range of representation of the strong, independent female character. The Warrior Women of Islam unites these diverse women highlighting a controversial argument against the demure, passive and emasculated woman, turning them into an emancipated and empowered vision of the future. Now, I can’t say when Muslim women started to be seen as submissive and why it’s so engrained into our societal culture, but what I can say is that Kruk’s The Warrior Women of Islam is a fantastic eye-opener for the non-Arab public, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to work past the distorted representations given to us by the media.
About the reviewer
Amirah Mohiddin, born in Birmingham U.K, is an MA Creative Writing student. She specialises in fantasy, speculative fiction and magical realism.