Scholar Discusses Role Of Medieval Women In Politics, Stresses Need For More Equality Today

As part of its lecture series, the Islamic Civilization and Societies (ICS) program invited Zilka Spahic Siljak to speak to the Boston College community to discuss women and politics in her talk entitled, “Muslim Women in Politics: From Medieval Queens to Elected Political Leaders.” ICS Associate Director Kathleen Bailey introduced Siljak, an independent scholar from Bosnia. Siljak has a master’s in human rights and democracy jointly conferred by the University of Bologna and the University of Sarajevo and a Ph.D. in gender studies from the University of Novi Sad.

Siljak has a near-decade of experience in non-governmental sectors in Bosnia and Herzegovina and teaching in higher education. She has focused on human rights, politics, religion, education, gender, and peace-building. Currently, she is a visiting lecturer on women’s studies and Islamic studies at the Harvard Divinity School.
She spoke on the global pattern of underrepresentation of women in politics present among both non-Muslim and Muslim peoples. Siljak began by giving the audience an overview of the four main perspectives on gender and politics present under Islam. The first is kyriarchical, a term coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza of Harvard Divinity School. Different than hierarchy, kyriarchical is an intersectional analysis. It describes a social system of subordination and oppression, wherein an individual may be suppressed by one system and privileged by another. That is, women are completely excluded from politics.

The second possible view is complementary, the dichotomy of women nurturing, men leading. Another position is equality of genders, and the last is the abandonment of religion as the only possible way to achieve and analyze gender equality.

Muslim medieval queens, then, were female historical figures of Islam. “These women didn’t want to accept, impose, interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadith,” Siljak said. “And they didn’t want to be subservient and they found ways … to come to leadership positions”-there are just 17 known so far. To be considered a queen, Siljak said, is for the individual’s names and titles printed on monetary coins and for her name to be said in Juma prayer on Fridays.

One example is Sultana Radiyya, who was appointed by her father-the first sultan to appoint a woman to succeed him.

“They were basically no better nor worse leaders than men because they operated within the kyriarchical system of their time and they had to work within masculinized frames of leadership,” Siljak said, explaining the politicization and personal lives of a few of the medieval queens.

“Of course, women today have to do the same,” she said. “They have to manage within organizational structures … and they have to either adapt to that leadership style if they want to be accepted or they have to choose the role of the mother of the nation.”

The five elected political leaders-Benazir Bhutto among them-represent women who made some concessions to Islamists in their rise to power. Whether this was making the pilgrimage to Mecca, upholding family values, or occasionally wearing the hijab, these women had not completely departed from Islam to enter politics. Bhutto, for example, was largely introduced to politics because her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, a high-ranking politician, encouraged her to do so from jail. As the first woman to rule a modern Muslim country, she kept her family ties strong in order to continue his legacy.

The role of religion, culture, and family ties all had an effect on the rise of women in politics, in both cases of medieval queens and contemporary political leaders. Of course, the connection with the American political system is all too obvious, she said.

Since both the medieval queens and the political leaders are not well known among Muslims, she aims to expose the lack of visibility of women in politics. In politics-both new and old-women need to work hard to prove themselves as the equals that they are, she noted. She stressed the autonomy of individuals even given these structures, challenging the audience to create a more just society.