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A woman out of her time and element, courageously amazing anyway

Every now and again, I find something that shines a spotlight on the bias and limitations of traditional and classical education: the important people omitted due to gender, race, culture, religion, or other prejudicial factors.

Last week---while watching a television program about the Moorish influence in Andalusia (yes, this is how I spend my free time)---I learned about a female Muslim poet, who might have been omitted for all of the above.

Wallada bint al-Mustakfi was born in 1001 in Córdoba, a town of culture and power significance in Andalusia, the jewel of the Moorish colonies. Although she was the daughter of the caliph, Muhammad III of Córdoba, she nevertheless suffered the same restrictions of all Arab Muslim women. In fact, it was the same for almost all women in medieval times, regardless of religion or culture.

To Wallada, rules were meant to be broken, or circumvented at the least...if they were intended to hold her back from her potential.

I am fit for high positions, by
And am going my way with pride

To get around her inability to speak publicly, she embroidered her poems on her clothing. To make them more visible, she rejected the fashions of Baghdad and wore transparent tunics with no hijab.

History records her as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed and extraordinarily beautiful. She had at least two stormy and passionate affairs with influential men: the politician and poet Ibn Zaydún (who was from a rival clan, thus the affair was secret) and the vizier Ibn Abdús (Zaydún's rival in politics and life, he ultimately ruined Zaydún by seizing his property and imprisoning him).

Abdús became Wallada's life partner, but the vast majority of her work is focused on her affair and break-up with Zaydún.

Forsooth, I allow my lover to
touch my cheek,
And bestow my kiss on him who
craves it.


If you were faithful to our love you wouldn’t have lost your head over
my maid.
You dropped a branch in full bloom for a lifeless twig.
You know I am the moon yet you fell for a tiddly star


You know that I am the moon of the skies
But, to my disgrace, you have preferred a dark planet

Wallada's father was assasinated, the common way to change the ruler, but Wallada was independently wealthy, and lived until 1091.

She hosted salons---gatherings for intellectuals and writers---and mentored young women writers.

She was truly a renaissance woman, ahead of her time.

She wasn't the only one either...I discovered more while researching Wallada, including Classical Poems by Arab Women, a Bilingual Anthology compiled and translated by Abdullah al-Udhari.

I am enthralled by this woman, her courage in thwarting convention, and managing to do so successfully for a long and rich life. I grant it was probably due to the privilege of her position, but even noblewomen weren't immune from persecution. Some things I read about Córdoba make it sound like a liberal arty town, maybe a San Francisco of its time, so possibly her position and her setting enabled it. However, she doesn't sound like she'd win any popularity contests; even her own prized student satirized her in verse after her death. But she forged her own path and inspired people, all while adding art that has lasted for centuries.

What grows inside a person that allows them to be so true to the path they see for themselves, even if it is broad of the path society sets for them?

And why don't we learn about these people in school?

I wonder, I really do, what difference it might have made, had I learned about Wallada and others of her ilk...women who lived their lives for themselves, instead of the women we learned about---the very few we learned about---who were primarily extolled for the virtue of their service to community, family, others.

(I've memorialized September 11 and my experience before, so today I wanted to do something more hopeful...something more about people living, without fear. Nevertheless, I do pause in respect and memory today. Today, which is, after six years, starting to be just another day, albeit one that deserves a pause and reflection.)

Note about Hump Day Hmm tomorrow: Take a topic, any topic, something that is weighing on you, bothering you, troubling you...and write about it from a humorous angle. It can be general or personal, just take a troubling topic and bring out the humor. FWIW, sarcasm counts. Letter style, onion style, Shakespeare style, prose, any style you want. Post it up, and email the link to me at j pippert at g mail dot com.

Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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Anonymous said…
I wonder about the difference it would have made as well. I know that many say that the reason for lack of inclusion is time, but really the more I read about multi-cultural education the more I realize that it is possible to be more inclusive. Thankfully we are breaking from traditional educational models and I am so excited for my children.
Girlplustwo said…
we could all use more fearlessness. thank you for teaching me about someone i've never heard of and reminding me of this simple truth.
Mary Alice said…
That was very interesting. There really isn't a lot of time in traditional public education to branch out and discover things.. apparently. For many, true education continues long after they have left the schools behind.
Anonymous said…
We don't learn about them in school because then the kids might all try it and how in the world would we keep them in line?
Suz said…
I didn't start to get interested in medieval history and literature until I began unearthing those women whose stories are hidden. These are what interested me and kept me going - I remember asking an American Lit professor why no women writers were taught in his course. His response? "You have Women's Studies for that"

painted maypole said…
i love that she embroidered her poems on her clothing! so much more powerful than the girls today who walk around with "hottie" on their backsides!
Julie @ Letter9 said…
My favorite line is this:

"You dropped a branch in full bloom for a lifeless twig."

Lovely. Thanks for an enlightening post, Julie, as always.
Anonymous said…
I love this way of responding to the day. Thank you.

As a child I had a book called "Women Who Changed Things." Maybe it's time for you to do a new version of it, starting with Wallada.
flutter said…
She is quite amazing
atypical said…
My brother-in-law used to be a history teacher (before he joined the IT world). He lovingly refers to the school curriculum as "White Man's history 101."

Thank you for sharing this. I was never a lover of history myself, but now that I am older and can hear these stories in context (and without the dry writing found in most texts), my opinions about history have changed.

You know, if you don't stop writing all of these different posts that open themselves to sequels, we will have a writing assignment for you every day of the year...

atypical said…
P.S. Please note the sarcasm on the word "lovingly" above. Wouldn't want you to think badly of my BIL. :)
Julie Pippert said…
Atypical, I'd call your BIL right. LOL

I'm with Kim: we can be more inclusive.

Mayberry, don't give me any ideas. LOL

Atypical, same goes...I already have a contemporary of Galileo on the mind...

Flutter, did you already know of her? I admit you popped to mind and I wondered...

Julie, anytime. I's compelling.

PM, that is my favorite part, too. They showed one painting of her on the show and I tried like crazy to find it because it was SO fantastic.

Suz, oh what he said to you...ARGH!!!! Okay I'm glad we have Women's (and other focused) Studies but they should not be segregated...they should mainstream, too. Oooh I could go on and on about that.

Emily LOL

Mary Alice, I think there could be, and things could be taught more originally. With stuff like this, kids might be more engaged. Although Emily's warning does spring to mind LOL.

Jen, yes, YW.

Kim, AMEN.
Lawyer Mama said…
I wish I had learned more about people, women like her too. Although I didn't truly appreciate originality in thought and actions until I was an adult. As a child and a teenager I was trying too hard to be one of the pack. But now? I love a rabble rouser!
Emily said…
Thanks for this post. I want so badly to represent femininity, womanhood to my daughters in a way that doesn't enslave them to societal "allowances" for women. Could you write a children's book on the unsung heroine? Pretty please...

Liv said…
I love the "You know I am the moon yet you fell for a tiddly star" part. What a powerhouse of a woman. I hope she is somewhere seeing us salute her!
Anonymous said…
Very Interesting articles , you make some interesting points.

Florist dir
Christine said…
i swear i started to watch this show and fell asleep! damn. she sounds amazing.

like you.
Christine said…
oh god, julie. just went and read about your 9/11 experience. damn, i had no idea, i hadn't been reading at the time. i am so glad he is safe. that he is here now with you and the girls.
Anonymous said…
She sounds like an amazing poet. Thanks for sharing her story, it's exactly what I needed to hear today.
Tere said…
I had never heard of her, and I'm grateful for this post because now I can go research-crazy on her!

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