With the expansion of Islam and the strife for political power, the Islamic empires merged with the highly patriarchal, highly oppressive societies they conquered, leading to the adoption of widespread traditions such as veiling and seclusion. By the Abbasid era, Muslim women predominantly occupied a private sphere—a stark contrast to their freedoms and very public participation at the start of Islam—and were not only restricted in their influences, but were romanticized in these restrictions as indicators of wealth. In spite of the inarguable right of women to authority, demonstrated since the earliest of Islam by a legacy of female religious and political leaders who not only practiced but actively transmitted and preserved Islamic teachings, patriarchal values from conquered societies were codified into shari’ah law as Islamic and the secluded woman and exploitive harems became a fashionable possession for men in power. Women disappeared from public life and events as their powers, freedoms, and rights were stolen.
It was in the midst of this growing resentment for female influence that Umm al Muqtadir-Billah, the mother of an ineffective and hedonistic caliph, appointed a female judge from among her courtiers to settle petitions, disputes, and lawsuits to restore and reform the government. People were offended and dismayed, despite the fact that Islamic history would prove the appointment hardly shocking and the outraged reaction laughable. To reassure the citizens, the newly appointed judge brought Abul Hassan on the second day, signifying scholarly approval. And then there was justice. There was access to justice, for everyone.
But the opposition was dangerous and as a result the empire was still falling apart, as patriarchal oppressive empires are bound to do. Military officials organized a sudden, violent seize of power. The first time, they failed. The second time, Umm al Muqtadir-Billah’s son was killed, and she became sick from the shock. She was captured and imprisoned by Al-Qahir, who seized the caliphate from her son, stripped her of her wealth, and tortured her. He attempted to coerce her into suspending the charitable trusts she had established, to which she replied, “I established these trusts in the name of charity and in the name of closeness to Mecca and Medina, for the weak and the poor, and I will not authorize their dissolution and sale.” And despite his attempts she continued to refuse. He confiscated them anyway and sold them.
Her conditioned worsened under torture, and she died. 321 AH.
This is not at all far from what we face in this jihad against the cultural oppression of Muslim women. Remember her and her courage as you demand your Islamic rights from heinous, insecure, despicable men masquerading as virtuous religious leaders.