Al-Andalus. Women Poets. Surprisingly Independent Voices.

Al-Andalus. Women Poets.
The poetry of al-Andalus (as the Moors called the land they occupied in the Iberian Peninsula) has several surprises for readers steeped in Western verse. Poetry was an integral facet of court life and poetic competitions allowed gifted poets to prosper, scale the social ladder and enjoy enviable social status. Predictably, panegyric verse (in praise of dignitaries) was extensively practiced to win the approval of rulers or influential military figures, and satires and scurrilous poems were penned against political enemies.

Love poetry, of course, was an important genre, but to Western eyes its frequent sensual and erotic content –with suggestive animal, tree and floral imagery— may be at first disconcerting. Perhaps disconcerting, too, is Arabic homoerotic verse which found wide acceptance despite religious injunctions against the practice of homosexuality. And featuring extensively are nature poems or poems in which nature –especially gardens—play an important role. In these, poets frequently paid special attention to small and often unpoetic objects (e. g. an inkwell, a thimble) to demonstrate that beauty is often in the eye of the beholder.

Surprising, too, is the lively activity of women poets compared to the small number of female poets in other medieval European countries. Writing in classical Arabic, some 39 or 40 women poets have been identified in al-Andalus, some by their works and others only by reference.

Why this should be so may owe something to the high esteem accorded in cultured circles in al-Andalus to women of all social levels who could entertain and recite poems. In fact, women slaves and courtesans were specifically instructed in singing and dancing in schools established for that purpose and they were much prized for their ability to entertain at a sophisticated level.

This general presence of women in cultured circles may, then, have facilitated the activity of women poets, although the number of the latter certainly does not approach that of male poets, nor is there a complete anthology or diwan of any of them. The most notable Andalusi women poets are the Umayyad princess Wallada bint al-Mustakfi (994-1091) of Córdoba, and Hafsa bint al-Hajj (1135?-1191), from a wealthy family of Berber origin living in Granada.  

Wallada bint al-Mustakfi (994-1091).
The princess Wallada is best known for her stormy love affair with the poet Ibn Zaydun (1003-70), frequently acclaimed as the most outstanding love poet of al-Andalus, and the one whose work is most frequently cited as evidence by Arabists of courtly love language prior to that of Provence. It was Wallada who inspired his Nuniyya or Poem in N (alluding to the rhyme scheme in ina), arguably the most famous love poem of al-Andalus, if not in all of Arabic literature, according to some scholars.

As a caliph’s daughter, Wallada would naturally have greater access to a cultured environment than most women, but from what we know of her life she appears to have been of an independent and unconventional spirit. Fair-skinned and blue-eyed (reflecting a partial Christian background) and leader of a literary salon in Cordoba, she scandalised the court with her disdain for the veil and her amorous relationship with another –socially inferior–woman, Muhja al-Qurtubiyya, daughter of a fruit vendor (Muhja was also a poet). 

Wallada’s poetry shows her to be bold and sure of her own worth. According to Arab sources, she had embroidered in gold on one border of her cape the words:
I am, by Allah, fit for high positions
And am going my way with pride!

On the other border was written:
Forsooth I allow my lover to kiss my cheek
And bestow my kisses on him who craves it. (From Segol 160)

The boldness of these words is confirmed by her actions, if what Ibn Zaydun says is true: that it was she who initiated their first secret meeting.  Certainly, her own words seem to support the intensity of her passion and her active encouragement of trysts. By doing this, she takes the initiative, thereby breaching convention and leaving her lover in a passive role, the position usually occupied by women:
When the evening descends, await then my visit,
because I see the night is the best keeper of secrets.
I feel a love for you, which –if the sun had felt a similar love,
she would not rise; and the moon, he would not appear;
and the stars, they would not undertake their nightly travel.
(Segol 161)

The need to be together is the passionate desire of lovers; their separation often the spur for some of the greatest love poems, with Ibn Zaydun’s Poem in N being such a case. Wallada may not have reached such lofty poetic flight, but in the following she does capture the nostalgia of absence:
Can there be a solution for us regarding this distance?
All lovers complain about the same thing.
I spent our rendez-vous hours during the winter burning in the embers of passion.
And how else, if I am separated from you and destiny has been quick in bringing what I feared.
The nights go by, and I don’t see the separation ending, and I don’t have the firmness to free myself from the slavery of passion.
May God water the land where you dwell with abundant and constant rains.

Love, however, did not always flow smoothly. Wallada reproached Ibn Zaydun, for example, for dallying with a black slave girl:
If you had been true in the love that there was between us,
you wouldn’t have loved nor preferred a slave of mine.
You have abandoned the branch that yields fruit of beauty, and have chosen a branch that bears no fruit.
You know that I am the Moon of the heavens, but you have chosen, to my chagrin, Jupiter*. (Jupiter: a play on the Arabic word meaning “the one who has been bought”)

Wallada’s metaphorical self-praise (she is “the branch that yields fruit of beauty”) alludes to the erotic pleasures she has to offer Ibn Zaydun unlike the sterility of the slave girl. In short, she is more beautiful and a far better lover. The “put down” is directed not only at the slave girl but also at Ibn Zaydun.

A much stronger language was in store when the romantic relationship of princess and subject eventually turned sour, with each insulting and vilifying the other. This may have been triggered when Wallada transferred her favours to one Ibn Abdus, Ibn Zaydun’s most powerful rival at court.  Matters did not improve for Ibn Zaydun; he spent some time in jail, quite possibly at the instigation of Wallada and her new lover. We can capture the flavour of Wallada’s change of heart in her insulting attack/ invective directed to her former admirer:
They call you the “Sixer” [allusion to Sodomite etc. in the next line]; and your life will leave you before this nickname does:
Sodomite and bugger you are, adulterer, pimp, cuckold and thief. (Stewart 309).

There is perhaps little poetry is this diatribe, but Wallada’s language leaves little doubt about her sentiments and confirms her reputation as strong-willed and bold.

Hafsa bint al-Hajj al-Rakuniyya (1135?-1191).
A century or so later, another couple exchanged poems –like Wallada and Ibn Zaydun– on the ups and downs of their relationship. Hafsa bint al-Hajj (1135-91), who was from a well-off Granadine family and noted for her beauty and learning, had a passionate love affair with a nobleman, Abu Yafar ibn Said. Like Wallada, Hafsa too suffered from her flame’s philandering, and in time –perhaps tired of his disloyalty– became the lover of the Almohad governor of Granada (Abu Said Utman). Abu Yaffar reacted by rebelling against Almohad authority, was captured and summarily executed in Málaga. Hafsa grieved after his death, wrote public elegies praising him, and does not appear to have married, dying in Marrakesh as governess of the daughters of the Almohad caliph.

What is astonishing is that at a time of religious conservatism, first under the Almoravids and then the Almohads, Hafsa was publicly known as Abu Yafar’s lover and their poetic dialogue widely read in the court. Yet, despite kicking against public morals, she was admired for her refinement as well as her verse, and even when she donned mourning clothes following Abu Yaffar’s execution, she was obviously sufficiently respected not to have suffered for publicly proclaiming her love for her former lover over the governor. 

Some 60 lines of her poetry has survived, distributed among 19 different poems.  In these compositions, she talks of her wish to see Abu Yafar, she sometimes reproaches him jealously for his interest in other women, but assures him at the same time that she will be faithful to him. Like Wallada, Hafsa suffered the torment of seeing her lover flirt with a black slave, and her reproach is not dissimilar:
You –the most courteous of men
prior to the situation which fate placed before you–,
have taken a fancy to a black woman,
like night that covers the gifts of beauty,
in whose blackness you cannot see an open smile,
nor even make out a blush…
Who can love –unless mad– a garden that bears
no white nor yellow flowers?

The metaphoric allusion to a sterile, colourless garden (the black slave) recalls a similar metaphor in Wallada. By implication, Hafsa paints herself as beautiful and fertile and Abu Yafar as blind and mad to have abandoned her.

In one poem Hafsa adopts a third-person voice to describe herself in images that might have come from a male perspective:
A visitor arrives at your house;
her neck is gazelle-like,
she is the waxing moon in the night sky;
her look has the enchantment of Babylonia
and the saliva of her mouth is better
than that of the daughters of the vine;
her cheeks bring shame to the roses
and her teeth confuse the pearls.
Can she come in, with your permission,
or must she leave, for some reason? (Rubiera Mata 110).

By assuming a male perspective, Hafsa is free to adopt a sensuous vocabulary associated with male poets: gazelle-like neck, saliva, daughter of the vine, roses, pearl. The purpose, however, is not to imitate her male counterparts but to praise herself without appearing to do so. Her beauty is, in fact, superior to that of natural objects frequently used to as sources of beauty in love poetry (“saliva … is better, cheeks bring shame, teeth confuse”). [Not all agree with this adoption of a male perspective and see it rather as lines written by Abu Yafar]

Abu Yaffar’s death was sorely felt, and Hafsa’s love undiminished by absence:
I send a greeting –which opens the calyxes of the flowers
and makes the doves coo in the branches–,
to him who is absent, but who dwells in my heart
even though my eyes are deprived of seeing him.
Don’t think that your absence makes me forget you,
that, by heavens, will never come to pass!
Ask the throbbing lightening on a calm night
if it has reminded me of my love at midnight,
for it has made my heart throb again
and has supplied me the rain that runs down my cheeks (Rubiera Mata 111).

Both Wallada and Hafsa were members of nobility and their independence might be attributed to their social status. However, if the case of Itimad ar-Rumaikiyya (1011-?) is anything to go by, even slave girls could reach unprecedented heights thanks to their skill and ingenuity. One day, a prince of the taifa state of Seville, Muhammad ibn ‘Abbad al-Mu’tamid (1040-95) was out with his adviser, the poet Ibn Amar (1031-1085), when he suddenly stopped and improvised the first line of a couplet: “The wind rippled a mail coat in the water.” Asked to complete the couplet, Ibn Amar, couldn’t but a woman washing clothes by the river nearby did: “What a shield it would make if it froze.” Impressed by her beauty and wit, al-Mu’tamid bought her from her master, married her and made her his queen when he became king.

The gift of composing verse, recitation or the delivery of a witty response to male advances could also provide socially inferior women with confidence in their beauty and self worth. The 12th-century slave poet, Safiyya al-Baghadiyya –perhaps in reply to a male comment in verse— clearly set a high value on her beauty:
I am the wonder of the world, ravisher of hearts
Once you have seen my stunning looks, you are a fallen man (Segol 155).

No hiding behind demure, down cast eyes here, but a startling “in your face” affirmation of her power. Praise of female beauty was normally the reserve of the male poet, but Safiyya has taken the words away from the male voice thus removing the very source of his control.

Scholars have noted –and the above examples bear this out—that the women poets of al-Andalus did not pay any special attention to men’s physical attributes whereas male poets waxed lyrical about women’s beauty: their figure, skin, eyes, hair, teeth, beauty spots, and hips (especially). They also praised women’s clothes, jewelry, henna-based decoration, and other adornments that were a source of both aesthetic pleasure and suggested physical gratification.

This highly descriptive view of women as objects of desire did not really have an equivalent in female verse. Not only were male physical and wardrobe descriptions unusual, there was also a marked disinterest in activities associated with medieval masculine virility: swords, lances, horses, battles etc.

Generally absent, too, in Andalusi female verse are scenes of indolent pleasures, marked by wine and drunkenness. On the contrary, a feature that distinguishes Andalusi female verse is a greater emphasis on personal feelings expressed directly and with little decorative rhetoric. There is, then, much less attention given to external, physical description that marks male verse. For male poets the evocation of sensual imagery can often seem so conventional that it descends into clichés and clouds what might be sincere feelings.

Andalusi female poets were more openly personal with many for their poems, which in fact were responses to poems from their lovers. Succinctly expressed by Ross Brann as “He said, she said,” “his” and “her” poems were a kind of verbal sparring which formed an autobiography or epistolary history of their love relationship. Such a relationship could range from recalling joy and fulfilment to expressions of anger and desire for revenge, but in doing so the women affirmed their independence as individuals and “asserted control over their bodies” (Segol 147).

Brann, Ross “He Said, She Said: Reinscribing the Andalusi Arabic Love Lyric,” in Studies in Arabic and Hebrew Letters in Honor of Raymond P. Scheindlin, eds. Rand, Michael and Decter, Jonathan New Jersey 2007, pp 7-16.
Lizabe, Gladys “Temas y problemas de la Poetisas de Al-Andalus (Siglos XI-XV)” in Revista Melibea, 3 (2009), 69-88.
Menocal, María Rosa, Scheindlin, Raymond and Wells, Michael The Literature of Al-Andalus Cambridge 2000.
Menocal, María Rosa The Ornament of the World  New York, London 2002.
Moral, Celia del (ed.) Arabes, judías y cristianas: Mujeres en la Europa Medieval Granada 1993.
Rubiera Mata, María Jesús   Literatura hispanoárabe Madrid 1992.
Segol, Marla “Representing the Body in Poems by Medieval Muslim Women” in Medieval Feminist Forum, 45, No 1 (2009), 147-169.
Stewart, Devin J. “Ibn Zaydun,” in The Literature of al-Andalus, pp. 306-17.
Tisani, O Ishaq, Nsiri, Imed “Gender and Poetry in Muslim Spain: Mapping the Sexual-Textual Politics of Al-Andalus,” in AWEJ (Arab World English Journal) for translation & Literary Studies Volume, 1 Number 4, October 2017), 52-67 in