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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Emily Stumpf

A Woman's Power of the Purse

Among the culture shocks experienced by Sayyida Salme when she left Zanzibar for Germany was the loss of financial agency. She may not have thought much about it before leaving, since she probably took her right to manage her own affairs for granted. What she describes in her writings, however, shows how regressive Europeans were at the time about empowering women financially. Here is a case where “primitive” Arabs were, in fact, well ahead of “enlightened” Europeans, one of the many on-its-head messages Sayyida Salme pithily, ironically, wistfully, vividly shares.

Today it is easy for us to take women’s financial rights and autonomy for granted – and yet, it is but the 50th anniversary of the United States’ passage of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act (ECOA) in 1974. Let that sink in. Even within my own lifetime, wives in the United States had no right to apply for credit independently of their husbands. They had no right to open separate bank accounts or take out loans by themselves, and women generally faced challenges getting bank services and credit on fair terms. It is a century since Sayyida Salme died and just half a century since women in the USA were guaranteed economic functionality and independence.

At least Germany was slightly more advanced in passing the Equality Act (Gleichberechtigungsgesetz) in 1957, culminating decades of efforts to overcome hard-set patriarchal norms. But even that was way late compared to Sayyida Salme’s rights to own assets and transact business in Zanzibar under Omani rule. From her Memoirs and Letters, we know that she received her full inheritance outright at age 12 when her father died in 1856 (Memoirs, p. 87), oversaw her own business from multiple clove plantations (Memoirs, p.189),[1] rented a villa on the sea (Memoirs, p. 192), had her own coterie of personal slaves that cared for her, but that she also cared for (Memoirs, p. 50), and possessed a large asset base of expensive jewelry (Letters, p. 5), to mention a few prominent examples – each with interesting stories that she tells. Even when married, an Arab wife received a dowry that remained her own (Memoirs, p. 125), as a form of protection (Memoirs, p. 110), and some Omani wives she describes not only ran the household, but all the finances (Memoirs, p. 111).

Sayyida Salme gives us no shortage of female-empowered examples, and that was intentional. By the time she wrote the Memoirs, she had been made to experience the complete subjugation and utter impotence forced upon wives and women in the West. With story after story from her native Zanzibar, she teaches her European audience about women’s rights by way of example.[2]

In Germany, by contrast, what she experienced was horrendous. As long as her husband Heinrich was alive, she was subjugated to him, but fortunately in his case well-protected. When he died, however, all the family property accrued to her – but only nominally. What the Hamburg laws of inheritance gave her also took away from her. She was required to hand over all responsibility to two male “assistants,” effectively guardians, who, it appears, could do whatever they wanted. That included spending her money on exceedingly high-risk investments (Letters, p. 90), misplacing documents and keeping sloppy paper trails (Letters, p. 88), and also – doing nothing.

It turned out this lawyer was entirely capricious and unaccountable in his treatment of my affairs, often causing me to suffer to the point of destitution. Even after three years of being a widow, I still had no idea how much yearly interest was at my disposal! It took great effort and multiple admonitions before I got my regular allowance, and then he would again leave me without a penny, no matter how much I pleaded. As a result, my daily life became so indescribably difficult. I was left completely in the dark and all my queries remained unanswered, such that I had no idea how much annual budget I had available. Under all this extreme duress, I survived many a day without barely a thaler in my possession. (Letters, p. 81)

Let that sink in as well. Can you imagine carrying a family with absolutely no visibility of your finances? That is surely a leading cause of unending severe headaches and the feeling of ants ceaselessly crawling under your skin. (Letters, p. 73)

This short blog post is not the place to describe Sayyida Salme’s descent into poverty, except to say that finances don’t matter much if you are living in excess.  But oh, how much they do matter when you do not even have pennies to afford the basics.

I must once again return to my assistant, the lawyer in Hamburg, to report on his unscrupulous behavior, which continued to cause me abject poverty. Because the wonderful jurisprudence of the City of Hamburg required that our entire capital had to reside in his hands, I was completely powerless and entirely subject to his mercy. After untold efforts, I would now and again get some money from him, but always much less than the interest accrued from our capital. I could never get him to provide an accounting, since he was always making one excuse after another, forever leaving me in the lurch. As a result, I had to resort to my jewelry far too often, as my one and only refuge, and one piece followed the next. (Letters, p. 88)

The 19th century that Sayyida Salme navigated juxtaposed Muslim appreciation of women’s autonomy through financial agency against the utter impotence and defenselessness accorded women in Europe. Drawing from British common law notions of coverture and the French Napoleonic code, the West did its utmost to put women in their subordinated place. Thank goodness for progress, we can now say – but we must also take hold of it and stay vigilant. What seems so natural and inherent today can as well be taken away, or even just encumbered. And from there, it is a slippery slope on which the equal rights of women to their finances, careers, bodies, and aspirations are eroded.

Let history surprise you, let her story inspire you – and let her authentic voice speak to you.

Andrea Emily Stumpf

June 17, 2024


[1] There is also the record of sale that Thomas McDow found in the Zanzibari archives, when Sayyida Salme sold all her plantation property to her husband-to-be two months before she fled the island. (Letters, footnote 95)

[2] Not to paint too rosy a picture, I should add that Sayyida Salme also gives plenty of examples of patriarchal Oman and Zanzibar. For example, when describing her fully-owned plantations, she also refers to “all the business challenges that single Oriental women are condemned to bear in a society that excludes them from the world of men.” (Memoirs, p. 189) The financial rights Arab women had were clearly circumscribed in other ways. And of course, this should not overlook a whole category of women that were slave wives – the harem sarari – including Sayyida Salme’s mother. Truly, contradictions abound.


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