Fariba Hachtroudi is inspired by the powerful women of Islamic history
“Show her respect, for by Allah she will be the preserver of our race and our crown.” So said King Ali of Yemen about his niece, Arwa Al Sulayhi, who went on to become one of this region’s greatest queens.
Orphaned as a child, Queen Arwa (AD1048-1138) married the crown prince of Yemen, who was said to have been bedridden and paralysed. Arwa became queen and ruled for more than 50 years. “She was the commander in chief of a massive army and unified the South and North of Yemen for the first time as the head of her army,” said Fariba Hachtroudi, an author and journalist who was in Dubai last week. “An amazing woman.”
Hachtroudi, a powerful and outspoken woman in her own right, has always admired strong women and brings them back to life through her writings and talks.
“We have great examples of powerful women in Islamic history,” said Hachtroudi, the French-Iranian author of more than a dozen books and novels, who was at the Alliance Française of Dubai to talk about Admirable Women of the Islamic World on May 14.
Born in 1951 in Tehran, Hachtroudi comes from a long line of scholars and outspoken figures. Her paternal grandfather was a religious leader who supported the constitutionalists in 1906 against those who argued for absolute monarchy. Her father, Mohsen, was a famous scholar, often called the Omar Khayyam of contemporary Iran. He fought for the promotion of democracy, women’s rights and secularism.
His daughter, who received her doctorate in art and archaeology in Paris in 1978 and who calls herself a “citizen of the world”, continues this family legacy in her own way.
Surrounded by mostly female fans (and a few “brave men”, she joked), Hachtroudi showed photos of her trip to Yemen, where she traced the life and footsteps of the queen.
“Queen Arwa set up education centres for culture and religion, she built roads, mosques, fountains and palaces,” she said. “She was beautiful, smart, very educated, knew and followed the Quran and was a poet and a scholar.”
Al Sayyeda Al Hurra (free woman), Al Malika Al Hurra (free queen), the Little Queen of Sheba – her titles indicate the kind of life she lived and the legacy she has left. She was the first woman to be given the title of hujja in the Ismaili branch of Shia Islam, a title given to an imam with a special connection to God.
“I want to inspire women to go back and find women from their own past and their culture that were role models and dared to be different and fought for what they believed in,” said Hachtroudi.
The other figure mentioned and admired by Hachtroudi was the mystical Persian poet, philosopher and theologian Tahiri Qurrat Al Ayn, who was one of the first women to give lessons on the Quran and who, in the early 19th century, challenged the Ulama (Muslim scholars) on women’s rights by removing her veil in public.
“Behind a curtain inside a packed room, men and women would listen to her speeches on Islam and the Prophet Mohammed, who was a great supporter and advocate of women’s rights,” said Hachtroudi.
An outspoken proponent of Babism, a religious movement founded by Sayyed Ali Mohammed Shirazi (1819-50), Qurrat Al Ayn remains an intriguing figure. She was killed after having been given an ultimatum: give up her way of life and become a member of the Shah’s harem, or be executed.
“Of course, she refused and was executed as a heretic. But her courage and her knowledge remain legendary,” said Hachtroudi. “She and Arwa were early feminists, in the sense that they embodied freedom, dignity and equality.”
The third woman Hachtroudi admires is one she didn’t mention at the talk: Khadija bint Khuwaylid, the Prophet Mohammed’s wife.
“She supported him and helped spread his message. Powerful and dignified, she is a true role model for all women,” she said, speaking before her talk. “The Prophet Mohammed always sought out her advice. How he mourned her death is well documented. The Prophet also always included his daughter, Fatima, in many of his decisions.”
In 1995, Hachtroudi set up in Paris a humanitarian association free of political affiliations, the MoHa Foundation, named after her father Mohsen Hachtroudi. It focuses on education and women’s rights. The foundation helps Iranian refugees and she hopes to register it in her home country to help empower young people and women there. She is currently looking for sponsors to help with this project.
“I am always challenging myself and looking for new ways to empower women,” she said. “I never stop researching and learning about my heritage and the heritage of women.”
She is also interested in social and political stories, such as the story she tells in her first book, L’exilée, which describes her clandestine return to Iran in 1985, by way of the desert of Baluchistan to understand the daily life of her compatriots. (She left Iran after the revolution of 1979.)
Her forthcoming book is a new venture for her, a book of poetry. “The world needs to bring back some of its more poetic side. We used to breathe and sing poetry – we need some of that positivity back.”
Rym Ghazal is a senior features writer and columnist for The National.