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.