The African, Muslimah Poet: An Unveiling
In the world of literature, as in the world at large, and also in the world of poetry as a microcosm, the space is dominated by mentions of male writers. It is rare to read the works of or about female classical writers. Rarer even it is to have read or heard about Muslim, female writers. And even more rare so, an African, female Muslim writer!
Personally, ask yourself, how many great female poets do I know? Do I even know any Muslim one? Any African?
Now, we all know the answer to those questions. But, your answers are about to change.
For a fact, the female Muslim, the Muslimah, has been portray as a slave, a property, a lesser person indentured to a man, a sit-at-home, one-in-a-harem, uneducated, unlettered, unexposed wife who is always at the whims of an ideologically dogmatic and patriarchal husband. This view is both complicit of overbearing Muslim men, who like men everywhere attempt to subjugate the female gender, and also by the negative depiction by the Western media with the aim of making other civilisations look less civilised.
But, make no mistake, Muslim women in times past, and as also now, are far from that monochromatic light. We have shaped the world, by birthing men that birthed wonderful ideas and thoughts, and also by birthing these wonderful thoughts and ideas ourselves. And penning them down!
The medieval Arab poet, Abd al-Amīr Muhannā, attested to over 400 female poets in his works. 400! For one man who didn’t have Google search to know at least 400 female poets suggests that female literacy and involvement in literature was alive and well in old Islamic cultures. 15th-century poet, al-Suyuti mentioned an anthology called _Akhhar al-Nisa’ al-Shaua’ir_ which he said was a compilation of poems written by women.
Female poets in Islamic societies were called _qiyans_ and usually studied literature at Basra, Medina or Te’if. The female poet of ancient Islamic literature can be classified into four personas: the grieving mother/wife/daugther; the warrior/diplomat; the princess; and the lover/sensual woman. Female Islamic poetry was usually divided into two genres: the rithā’ (elegy) and ghazal (love-song). Of note though is the absence of female writings about religious matters.
Some notable Muslimah writers of yore include al-Khansāʾ, ʿUlayyah bint al-Mahdī, Walladah bint al-Mustakfī, al-Fāriʿah bint Shaddād. Of particular note are these two writers who wrote about the taboo topics of sex and sensuality, Shāriyah, and Rābiʿah al-ʿAdawīyah.
Poetry, like literature, loves to romance the past. But I also shall talk about the contemporary, as I am of the present.
While it was unfortunate that at a time not long past, the flow of Muslimah writers ebbed low, I am happy to inform you that there has been a resurgence of the Muslimah poet. Today we have strong Muslim women who are retelling the narrative through word and verse. It is little wonder though that most of the works by these poets are usually aimed at addressing the loads of misconceptions about the Muslimah.
Muslim women have been blazing the trail of poetry most especially in the Western world and a couple of years ago, in 2016, the first All-Muslimah poetry show was held in the UK. This series was headlined by Shahina Khatun, a young presenter on the Islam Channel. She believes that “as a Muslim woman, I felt that poetry is an effective media through which I could get my voice heard and even challenge incorrect perceptions about Muslim women and Islam.”
Yes, there has also been a glut of talented Muslimah writers in Africa. For want of space, I’d mention three: one, a writer I admire from afar, Ladan Osman is a Somali-American poet and teacher. In 2011, Osman was awarded the Sillerman First Book Prize for her collection, The Kitchen Dweller’s Testimony. Osmans work transverses the realms of identity, specifically her Somali heritage and Muslim identity. She uses her works to counter the way “other people attempt to override the narratives of our own lives.”
Then, there is my very good friend, Karimot Odebode, a Nigerian whose poems about women empowerment paints a picture of the uplifting of the downtrodden woman. Her works inspires the woman to challenge the status quo and help establish a fairer, more inclusive society. She has written severally about the African girl-child.
Lastly, of course, there’s me! My poems usually about the emotions a young girl faces growing up, falling in love and out of it, the joys and surprises of growing up, the let-downs and the downfalls, appeals to the real life situations of lots of young women everywhere, and especially in Africa.
With particular emphasis to the African girl-child, I hope I have unveiled to you, and empowered, “the poet who dons a veil.”
Maryam Lawal is the founder of and an editor at The Proud Muslimah Magazine.
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