Contrary to popular perception, early Muslim society
produced women who came to symbolise an explosive mix of beauty, critical
intelligence and caustic wit. They were known for their learning and
articulation, and displayed great talent for conversation and repartee. They
jealously guarded their freedom of will and action, and believed in the idea of
gender equality. Wherever they felt the weight of prevailing custom and law
going against the principle of equality, they refused to submit and asserted
their freedom and dignity. Such women were described as Baraza women.
According to Arabic Lexicon Lisan al-Arab, "A Baraza woman is one who does not hide her face nor lowers her head. She is seen by people and receives visitors at home. She is a person of sound judgment and is known for her reasoning (aql) and her articulation (qadirul kalam)".
They grew up in an environment where Arab fathers proudly assumed surnames after their accomplished and beautiful daughters. They conversed freely with men.
The poet Firdausi has aptly described them as:
Lips full of smiles, countenance full of modesty
Conduct virtuous, conversation lively.
The most famous among the Baraza women was Lady Sukayna, daughter of Imam Husayn. She had seen the butchery of Kerbala, which partly explains her revolt against the oppressive political and social practices that hindered individual freedom, including the oppressive version of the veil (hijab). She abhorred the Umayyad rulers and their politics. She spared no opportunity to attack and insult the dynasty and its officials publicly as well as inside mosques. Her erudition and poetic skills, refined taste and humor made her the first among the women of her time, and, according to Amir Ali, her residence was a haven for poets, jurists, the learned and the pious from all classes.
Lady Sukayna married more than once and ensured her control over marital affairs by including the necessary stipulations in the marriage contract. More specifically, she retained the freedom to defy marital obligations (nushuz) and insisted on her husband giving up the right to polygamy. When her husband violated the condition, she filed a suit and secured divorce. During divorce proceedings she turned to her husband and said across the courtroom, "Have a good look at me. From now on you will no longer see my face". Arab chronicles say that the judge was dumbfounded to see the terms of marriage and the Caliph deputed an officer to keep him posted about the progress of the trial.
BUT LADY SUKAYNA was not the first woman to insist on a monogamous marriage. In fact, there is more than one narration in Bukhari showing that the marriage contracts of all the daughters of the Blessed Prophet provided that the husband would not have the right to take another woman during the lifetime of the wife.
Countlesswomen followed this tradition, the most prominent among them being Umm Salama who married the first Abbasi Caliph Abbas Saffah, and Umm Musa who married Caliph Mansoor. Both of them insisted on the monogamy clause, a condition that was accepted and honored by their powerful husbands.
Last but not least was Aisha bint Talha. She combined in her person noble descent, captivating beauty and lofty spirit -- three qualities admired most by Arabs. According to Abul Faraj, when rebuked by her husband Musab bin Zubayr for not veiling her face she said "God has made me beautiful and I wish people to see me and recognise His Grace in my beauty and glorify Him."
Arif Mohammed Khan is a former Union Minister