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.

Historical portrait of mystic, philosopher, poet and sage Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi (photo: Arab48)
A multi-faceted approach and a wholeness of perspective were two important features of Ibn Arabi′s philosophy – when writing, for instance, about the unity of reason and intuition. Ibn Arabi merged apparent opposites into a harmonic whole and shed light on many problems that are as urgent in today′s world as they were in his own times

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.

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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