top of page
  • Writer's pictureAndrea Emily Stumpf

Free to Have a Good Life

“Freedom” is a watchword these days, as it was in Sayyida Salme’s time. The word gets bandied about so much – as a rallying cry, propaganda, economic indicator, panacea, truism – that it can feel cliché. But it remains essential to humanity and how we, as individuals and society, understand ourselves.

As a prolific professor, influential economist, and Nobel prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz has written many things, including a recent op-ed in the Washington Post that follows his new book, The Road to Freedom: Economics and the Good Society (2024). His take on the topic, reflecting on decades of unabashed capitalism, dovetails remarkably with comments Sayyida Salme made already more than a century ago, as Western capitalism was just beginning to dominate:

Nowhere does the contrast between the haves and have nots appear greater than right here in the cold North, where one finds, on the one hand, such opulence and luxury, and on the other, such heart-rending poverty. I once saw such poverty in the case of an unemployed coach driver’s family, who had absolutely nothing but a number of freezing and hungry children! When I saw this misery, for which I unfortunately had no means of providing a durable remedy, and could only provide momentary relief, I was so seized by this plight the entire day that I could hardly eat. I could not help but think that out of a hundred of our slaves, not even two would want to exchange their lot with this kind of freedom. (Letters, p. 42)

And here is Stiglitz: “ ’Free markets’ alone fail to provide economic stability or security against the economic vagaries they create, let alone allow large fractions of the population to live up to their potential. … Discontent festers in places facing unaddressed economic stresses, where people feel a loss of control over their destinies; where too little is done to address unemployment, economic insecurity and inequality. … We’ve now had four decades of the neoliberal “experiment,” …. The results are clear. Neoliberalism expanded the freedom of corporations and billionaires to do as they will and amass huge fortunes, but it also exacted a steep price: the well-being and freedom of the rest of society.” (Washington Post, May 13, 2024)

What it means to be “free,” and who or what deserves to be free and how, even when it undermines other freedoms, is a question Sayyida Salme raised in her writings as a direct challenge to her European audience. She was not content to simply accept Western criticisms of the East, particularly of slavery,[1] but instead handed it right back:

Whether Arabs use slaves to work the land or in the house, or civilized Europeans use them as baggage carriers, whose workload is usually much harder and harsher, it matters not, the morality is the same. (Memoirs, p. 167)
As if our field and house slaves had to work even half as much as the so-called free people that are doing the mining and factory work in Europe. And one should not forget the general military draft that applies in all of Europe, except England, where there is certainly not much to be said about any special freedom. (Letters, p. 110) [2]

Some people will bristle at this juxtaposition, but it is worth some thought. Overt slavery is not the only way for people to be subjugated and abused, to lose their dignity and humanity. From an economic point of view, Stiglitz points out that the freedom of some can come at the cost of others. Free markets are not the road to freedom if the “freedom to do” leads to the “freedom to do harm.” On the contrary, he says, some cases of “unfreedom,” including through government intervention, can benefit society as a whole. Particularly in this election year, with elections around the world, if we fail to “care about freedom from hunger, unemployment, and poverty – and … fear,” the exaggerated freedom of businesses and billionaires can play right into populist nationalism, crony capitalism, and even fascism – with ensuing restrictions on our political and social freedom. We, as a society, must grapple with difficult trade-offs and find the right balance.


Much of what Sayyida Salme reflected was cultural. Her native Zanzibari/Omani society was hierarchical and took personal freedoms away,[3] but still did much to take care of its own. We do not know the full conditions in the Sultan’s households, where a thousand and more lived, most of whom worked and slaved, but were also provided for. We see the example in her mother, Djilfidan, who as a Circassian slave surie (a form of Arabic concubine) ended up living a more secure, more cared-for life than her royal daughter, who descended into poverty after she exercised her “freedom”[4] – or at least took liberties – and moved to the West. Her subsequent freefall into destitution is hard to imagine in the Zanzibar that she describes:

As far as religious vows, which we had opportunities to fulfill multiple times a year, hundreds of poor people would come to us from all directions to participate in the usual distribution of alms. If someone lay very ill in bed, poor people, who are quite skilled in scouting out these opportunities, would stand under the sick person’s window, taking turns all day long, to be richly bestowed with gifts known as sadka. No Muslim would turn such a beggar away, even if it meant giving up his last coin. Perhaps this is pure altruism, perhaps it exemplifies a hope to win the Almighty’s favor and obtain more of His grace, but it is, in any case, a beautiful custom. (Memoirs, p. 50)

Can we really speak of individual freedom without social conditions that provide some level of minimum economic security - especially when, as Stiglitz argues, insecurity breeds authoritarian populists that further threaten our freedoms? We have had generations since the industrial revolution and modern capitalism to improve and perfect the model.  How are we doing? How can we be the free society that we truly want and claim to be?


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


Andrea Emily Stumpf

May 27, 2024

* Photo of a free-flying heron by Silva G. Stumpf © 2012.

[1] I say more about Sayyida Salme’s views on slavery in my essay “On Controversy” in the Memoirs, p. 243-51.

[2] Her son Rudolph also gives us this quote from Captain Mignan of Oman in 1825: “My residence in Arabia has convinced me that a slave may be perfectly happy; and I feel persuaded that his condition, when compared with most of the peasantry of Europe, is in every respect the more fortunate of the two.” R. Said-Ruete, Said bin Sultan (1791–1856)—Ruler of Oman and Zanzibar: His Place in the History of Arabia and East Africa, p. 158 (1929).

[3] Well-noted that not only those at the bottom of the hierarchy lost their freedoms: “[T]he higher a woman’s social rank, the more stringently she must abide by these restrictions. She may be seen by only her father, son, uncle, nephew, and all her slaves. If she needs to appear before an unfamiliar man, or even speak with him, then the religion requires that she cover her head and body, especially part of her face, her chin and neck, and her ankles. As long as she obeys this rule, she is entirely free to move around during the day and can walk unrestricted on the streets. However, since such coverings are so unpleasant and disfiguring, high-ranking women avoid going out by day and frequently enough envy the Bedouin women who forsake these requirements. If such a Bedouin woman is asked whether she is embarrassed to go out without the required coverings, she will respond: “Such rules are only for the rich, they were not created for poor women!” (Memoirs, pp. 108-09)

[4] I say more about the topic in my essay “On Freedom” in the Letters, p. 129-34.


Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page