Aicha 'Lella Saida' Manoubiya

Tunisia's feminist icon

A free spirit who did not abide by the constraints imposed on women in the thirteenth century, Sufi saint Aicha Manoubiya, known as Saida or Lella Saida, holds a special place in the memories and hearts of the people of Tunis. By Safa Belghith

In the governorate of Manouba, west of Tunis, her shrine stands as a historical and cultural landmark of the city. It is a place for local gatherings and musical celebrations. Visitors join in eating, chatting and enjoying the folk songs praising the saint and singing her qualities.

Wandering inside, I was told to speak to Aunt Zaziya, an old woman who lives in one of the rooms in the building. There was a line of people waiting outside her door. A little while later, I walked in and sat down while she was having lunch in a humble room, surrounded by a few bags of gifts from the visitors.

Aunt Zaziya told me that people bring her sweets, to give away to visitors, and meat to cook and eat there, and she would send them away with the blessings of Lella Saida. She told me stories about couples who got pregnant after years of trying unsuccessfully and women who got married at a very old age, thanks to the saint’s blessings. When I told her I wanted to learn more about who this respected and revered woman was, however, Aunt Zaziya was unwilling to continue the conversation.

I got the chance to talk to some of the women there and hear those stories. Amira, 25, said that going to the shrine gives her "inner comfort". But she was unaware of Lella Saida’s origins, her life story or what Sufism was in general. Other regular visitors told me that Saida Manoubiya was a "wise and good woman who helped the poor". However, exact details about what made her such a good woman were not common knowledge.

This lack of knowledge is in striking contradiction to the teachings of Saida Manoubiya herself, how she lived her life and why she should be celebrated as one of Tunisia’s greatest women.

Education in a patriarchal society

Growing up in the 13th century Hafsid era in Tunis, Aicha exhibited exceptional intelligence and great intuition. Her father was a teacher of the Koran. What should be noted in his relationship with Aicha is that he encouraged her education, teaching her Arabic – her native language being Amazigh – and the Koran.

It was clear that Aicha was different, she was a free spirit who did not abide by the constraints imposed on women in her time, something that was not appreciated by the village people. Her attitude was perceived as untraditional or too liberal, to the point that her father often faced criticism for her actions.

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Comments for this article: Tunisia's feminist icon

"When Aicha was informed that she was going to be married to a relative, she refused and decided to move out, an option that is still frowned upon in present-day Tunisia." Does that imply that most Tunisian women marry through an arranged marriage? Also, don't you think that using the term "liberal" for the 13th century is inappropriate? Or are you trying to dig in the heritage to find "liberalism"?

Nadeem02.09.2018 | 12:15 Uhr