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Just a Century Ago, a Woman Ruled in the Gulf

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In no other region of the world does the tired old cliché that "behind every great man is a great woman" hold more true than in the Middle East. And yet women have not always played a role only from behind the curtains that are their men but have also occasionally stepped up to share the burden and privilege of leading their people.

Ironically, some of the most famous women in the world are those who have reigned in the Middle East. Cleopatra, a direct descendant of a general in the army of Alexander the Great, lover and seducer of two emperors of Rome, is one such example. Another is the Queen of Sheba, who travelled from what is believed to be Yemen at great peril to herself to meet King Solomon in Jerusalem.

Less well-known but equally powerful was Sultana Ismat of Egypt, known as Shajarat Al Durr, who almost single-handedly brought to an end the dynasty started by the great warrior Saladin 800 years ago and heralded the rule of the emancipated Mamluk Sultanate that spanned more than three centuries.

Interestingly, among the 15 documented Islamic female monarchs, two women ruled 11th century Islamic Yemen back-to-back for many decades. According to Fatima Mernissi's book The Forgotten Queens of Islam, not only did Asma and subsequently Arwa al Sulayhiyya regularly attend the council of ministers with their faces uncovered and debating matters of state, but more significantly the imams of the mosques would repeatedly proclaim the Friday sermons in their names, a gesture signalling who called the shots in the country.

All these women ruled many centuries ago and in more progressive and developed societies far away from the conservative Gulf. Surely none would be allowed to rule here, especially not in the strict society that is Wahhabi Saudi Arabia?

Wrong. In the early 20th century, Princess Fatima Al Zamil qualified as one ruler. A blue-blooded lady born of a marriage between members of the Al-Rasheed and Shammar tribes - which makes her a relative of the current Saudi Arabian King Abdullah - she ruled the province of Ha'il from 1911 to 1914 as an administrator of her minor grandson's estate.

Princess Fatima ran the affairs of her society and people from the historic and lavish three-storey Barzan Palace, over which she had full authority. She received foreign guests such as the British writer and politician Gertrude Bell, a close friend and associate of TE Lawrence (of Arabia). She allowed her visitor to photograph her in her residence with her long beaded hair adorning her chest and with her face uncovered, something that is taboo for many Arab women almost a century later.

What is possibly the most significant fact of Princess Fatima's reign wasn't that she ruled over the now demolished 300,000 square metre Barzan Palace, but that she was chosen by the elders of the two most powerful tribes of the central Arabian peninsula in what may be one of the few exercises of tribal democracy in the Gulf.

One may ponder the obstacles that would hinder women from reaching the top post once again. Religion is often used by conservatives to maintain the status quo. However, in modern history, years before Hillary Clinton decided to run for president of the (secular) US, more than one woman has reached the helm of power in Bangladesh, a country founded on Islamic tenets.

It could be argued that the societies of the Gulf are tribal and therefore it is unthinkable for women to lead. But Pakistan, like the Gulf, is a patriarchal, tribal and male-dominated society, yet women have been elected to the post of prime minister and speaker of parliament. Even in the secular sphere it was Turkey that gave continental Europe its second elected female leader after Norway, an honour that a French woman has yet to achieve.

Today, one cannot ignore the roles that three female leaders are playing in the Gulf. In the UAE, Sheikha Fatima has been directly involved in making education and work more accessible for women. In Bahrain, Sheikha Sabeeka famously dismissed a proposal that there should be a quota system for women entering parliament, calling it "discriminatory"; she wanted women to enter according to their merits. In Qatar, Sheikha Mouza heads the influential Qatar Foundation that was able to attract Ivy League universities to the small emirate as well as invite various global figures to the Doha Debates that are held under her personal patronage.

There naturally exists no position that should be out of reach for women, neither before nor after a palace called Barzan.

This article first appeared in The National on May 4th 2008