Tunisia's feminist icon
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.
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, let alone back in the 1200s. By leaving Manouba for Tunis and sacrificing her family life, Aicha was not only leaving behind the confines of a loveless marriage and traditional social constraints, but also seeking freedom, financial independence and education.
According to historian Abdel Jalil Bouguerra, education during that period was only available to certain women: foreigners coming from the Mashreq, Al-Andalus or to the elite women of the ruling family. Aicha was neither of those.
Settling down in Montfleury, she started knitting and spinning wool to support herself and soon became a student of Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, one of the most prominent religious figures of his time, who was immersed in the Sufi school of Ibn Arabi al-Andalusi.
Ibn Arabi, a controversial but influential figure in Islamic history, believed women and men to be equal. He wrote extensively about the various women teachers that shaped his spiritual knowledge, so it is no surprise that Aicha chose this Sufi order as her educational path.
Aicha continued to defy the social standards of her time. She studied the Koran and sought to mindfully interpret it to understand its meanings, choosing questioning as a path towards faith. She would leave her house without a male companion, meet with men in order to preach and debate. This is believed to have led some sheikhs to even call for her stoning.
However, she studied hard, passed several exams and quickly rose from student to teacher. Her debates with her mentor, al-Shadhili, became an attraction for Sufi scholars and rulers. Pursuing her education at that time was an impressive feat by itself. But pursuing and teaching Islamic studies and religion, a field that is mostly dominated by men, was an even greater achievement.
Prominence and influence
Aicha took her rightful place as a leading religious figure in Tunis, with access to the highest religious circles. She would accompany her mentor to different prayer locations situated on tops of mountains and hills, considered as a privilege in Sufi circles. She became close to prince Abou Mouhamad Abdel Wahed and subsequently to Sultan Abou Zakariyah, gaining access to prayer areas that were previously restricted to men, like Mousalla Al-Idayn, built by Abi Zakariya in 1229.
Preaching in the Mosque of Safsafa (the location is now the shrine of Abdallah Chrif), Aicha shocked and amazed people, as her eloquent style and sophisticated language skills were then only expected of distinguished male scholars.
In addition to her scholarly and religious attributes, Aicha was a philanthropist, using her income to survive and giving away the rest to the poor, especially women. There is also some historical evidence that she bought several Tunisian slaves that were being sent to Italy only to set them free, six centuries before slavery was officially abolished in Tunisia in 1846.
When Al-Shadhili was leaving Tunisia, he gave Aicha his cloak, ring and the title of Qutb in an official ceremony, calling her an "imam of men". Qutb, which literally means "pole", is the highest of spiritual positions in Sufism; Aicha was indeed a pole of knowledge and religion in her lifetime and beyond.
Her spirituality and deeds touched people’s lives in a way that elevated her to a saint, and surrounded her life with supernatural and divine stories, referred to as "karamat" in Sunni Islam. A famous story is that her father once gave her a bull for agricultural use, instead she gave it all to the poor, asking them to give her back the bones. Once the bones were collected, the bull came back to life.
What is certain about her life, though, is that she was an independent and influential woman who was able to cut though the social constraints and establish herself as an equal, if not an intellectual superior. By calling for womenʹs education and freedom, Saida Manoubiya was truly a feminist ahead of her time.
© Open Democracy 2018
Safa Belghith is an International Relations graduate from the University of Tunis El Manar. She is a freelance researcher, with a focus on Tunisian politics, women’s rights and media reform.