When Benazir Bhutto became Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988, there were some who claimed that is was a blasphemous assault on Islamic tradition, since no Muslim state, they alleged, had ever been governed by a woman.
In this extraordinary book, now available in paperback, Fatima Mernissi shows that those self-proclaimed defenders of Islamic tradition were not only misguided but wrong. She looks back through fifteen centuries of Islam and uncovers a hidden history of women who have held the reins of power, but whose lives and stories, achievements and failures, have largely been forgotten.
Who were the Queens of Islam? How did they accede to the throne and how did their rule come to an end? What kinds of states did they govern and how did they exercise their power? Pursuing these and other questions, Mernissi recounts the stories of fifteen queens, including Sultana Radiyya who reigned in Delhi from 1250 until her violent death at the hand of a peasant; the Island Queens who ruled in the Maldives and Indonesia; and the Arab Queens of Egypt and of the Shi'ite Dynasty of Yemen. It was the Yemenis who bestowed upon queens a title that was theirs alone – balgis al-sughra, or 'Young Queen of Sheeba'.
Mernissi concludes this absorbing historical inquiry by reflecting on its implications for the ways in which politics is practised in the Islamic world today, a world in which women while generally more educated than their predecessors, are largely excluded from the political domain.