07 August 2007

Herstory -- Women Who Ruled

History often reads a lot like his story -– a list of exploits from the men who came, saw and conquered. It has its fair share of powerful female rulers: Hatshepsut, Cleopatra VII and Elizabeth I. A consistent theme is that most of these women lived in the sway of male influences, until they met tragic, lonely ends. Women have exercised limitless influence in some of the most unexpected places. When most Muslim women were veiled and secluded in harems, three remarkable females made their bid for power.

Razia was the eldest daughter of Sultan Iltutmish, who reigned in Delhi 1210-1236. Educated and with a strong interest in politics, she became her father's regent during his campaigns.

On his deathbed, Iltutmish expressed his wish that Razia would rule in his stead, but this command offended the Indian nobles. Iltutmish insisted. "My sons have given themselves up to wine, women, gambling and the worship of flattery. Government is too heavy for their shoulders to bear. Razia, though a woman, has a man's head and heart and is better than twenty such sons." However Razia's half-brother, supported by the nobles, took the throne.

Six months into the new ruler's reign, Razia appeared before the congregation at Friday prayers and spoke of the excesses of her half-brother. Supported by the masses, Razia ascended the throne of Delhi at the age of 31. During her four-year reign, silver coins issued in her name bore her official title "Jalauddin" but she referred to herself as "lmadatun Niwan", which meant the Great Woman. Razia Sultana dressed like a man and rode an elephant through Delhi with her face unveiled. Rumors about her close relationship with an Ethiopian slave caused her downfall. Her governors rebelled and she was forced to marry. However, one of her brothers usurped the throne. Razia and her husband died in 1240. Her tomb remains is a place of pilgrimage in Delhi.

Shajarat al-Durr, whose name meant "the Tree of Pearls", was a former slave who reigned as Sultan of Egypt for two months. Her warriors drove back the Crusader armies of King Louis IX of France who threatened her country.

In 1250, Shajarat's first husband died after campaigning against the Crusaders. She concealed the Sultan's death for weeks, allowing for the return of her stepson Turan Shah. The new Sultan proved unlikable and within a year, he was assassinated. Shajarat al-Durr was proclaimed Sultan of Egypt. Newly-minted coins bore her name and Friday prayers in the mosques were devoted to her.

Political pressure from the Caliph of Baghdad forced Shajarat to marry again. She wed Aybak, one of the Turkic officers of the army, but made him repudiate his first wife. Together, the couple initiated the Mamluk Dynasty, which was to rule Egypt for nearly 300 years. In her husband's long absences on campaign, Shajarat became de facto ruler of Egypt again. However, Shajarat discovered her husband planned to murder her and take a new wife, so she had him assassinated. Aybak's son suspected her in his father's death. Shajarat al-Durr was tortured and executed. Her mausoleum bears her name and titles.

Kosem was mother of the Ottoman Sultans Murad IV and Ibrahim I. Daughter of a Greek priest, Kosem entered the harem of Sultan Ahmed I and in 1612, bore him their first son, Murad.

When Murad succeeded to the throne at the age of 11, Kosem became the official regent, advising at meetings of the Sultan's ministers from behind a curtain. Murad was a cruel ruler, who murdered his younger brother Bayezid, Kosem's second and favorite son. Murad also ordered the execution of anyone caught smoking or drinking, yet succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 27. On his deathbed, he ordered the death of his surviving brother Ibrahim.

Though her third son was mentally unstable, it served Kosem's interests to have Ibrahim inherit the throne. While the incompetent Sultan loitered around the palace feeding coins to fish, urging his agents to purchase furs and fill his harem with the most obese women they could find, Kosem continued to rule. Even after Ibrahim's death in a palace coup in 1648, Kosem refused to surrender the regency to Turhan, the Russian mother of her seven-year old grandson Mehmed IV. In 1651, Kosem began plotting the removal and replacement of the Sultan, but without the support of the army, the conspiracy failed. Kosem was strangled. Three days of official mourning followed her death.

For women who ruled, it seemed as if power and enduring happiness could not co-exist. But while they lived, these women proved they could be as competent, decisive, and cruel when necessary, as their male counterparts.

Posted by Lisa Yarde