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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Emily Stumpf

Women's History Month

Updated: Mar 29

March is Women’s History month in the United States, coinciding with International Women’s Day on March 8. As a time to highlight women’s contributions to the past and present, I am happy to shine a light on Sayyida Salme.


Her most memorable contribution is Memoiren einer arabischen Prinzessin, which came out in Germany in 1886, the first book ever published by an Arab woman. This literary achievement gives us a window into history that is recorded nowhere else, a detailed and intimate account that includes the inner sanctum of the harem, the quotidian of the Sultan’s household, the rhythm of its Muslim culture, the picture of Al Bu Said dynastic power, and much more. It is a national treasure for Omanis and Zanzibaris and a fairy tale made real for others. But beyond all the history it records, it also compares and contrasts East and West and asks us to reconsider our own customs and values.


We can trace this book to Sayyida Salme’s youthful precociousness, on the shoulder blade of a camel. At a time when only boys were taught to write, she deliberately disobeyed the strict limits on learning – proving once again that inquisitive minds are hard to still:

First, just as here, we had to learn the very complicated Arabic ABCs. Then, in the absence of any other schoolbooks, we began to read the Koran, followed, as mentioned, by writing lessons for the boys. When students are still at a rudimentary level, they all read in unison and usually very loudly. But that is the extent of it, since what is read and learned is never explained. That is also why at most one student out of thousands understood enough to interpret, word for word, all the thoughts and directives in the Islamic holy text, even though eighty out of a hundred had learned half of it by heart. Reflections upon the holy text are actually considered irreverent and unauthorized. People are simply supposed to believe what they are taught, and this rule was strictly followed.  (Memoirs, p. 56)

Having transgressively acquired the power of the pen, a number of additional things converged for this book to happen. Had she not left Zanzibar, she would not have been moved to record her own unimaginable history for her children. And even though her half-brother Sultan Barghash was promoting printing presses as part of his modernization,[1] it was the literate German public that showed itself receptive to far-fetched tales of an exotic land. But it was also Sayyida Salme’s own experience as the object of caricatures and condescensions that convinced her to set the record straight. She was a lone voice speaking out against mainstreamed perceptions, having to show that her “bias” was in fact the better basis for understanding.[2] And yet, it was her main mission, as she unabashedly observed:

I will step right into the most important of all these questions: the status of women in the Orient. This is a rather difficult topic for me. As a native Oriental woman, I am certain I will be considered biased and therefore fail in thoroughly dispelling the distorted and incorrect views that prevail in Europe about the position of an Arab woman in relation to her husband. Despite easier connections, the Orient is still far too much of the old fantasy land, about which one can say just about anything with impunity. A tourist heads off for a few weeks to Constantinople, or Syria, Egypt, Tunisia, or Morocco, and then writes a ponderous book about the life, customs, and practices in the Orient. And yet he has never had a closer look inside real family life. So he contents himself with stories that are passed from mouth to mouth and become increasingly distorted, perhaps from a French or German waiter in his hotel, or that he hears from sailors or donkey drivers, which he records and then uses to pass judgment! There is not much to be learned this way. He simply lets his imagination run wild and then supplements at will. If his book then happens to be amusing and artfully written, it will certainly garner many more readers than the less spicy, more reality-based accounts, and accordingly shape the views of the broader public.  (Memoirs, p. 107)

If her book changed the views of her contemporaries, it has also had remarkable longevity, still being read and researched 138 years later.[3] And yet, this was surely not her only first as a woman. Here are some other possible firsts to consider:


·   The first female to be the scribe for a palace coup, at age fifteen no less.

·   The first Zanzibari / Omani royal to become a Christian.

·   The first woman to teach Arabic and Swahili in Europe, particularly as a native speaker.

·   The first Arab woman to request and receive citizenship in the new German empire.

·   The first Western woman to be visited by African and Arab sailors in her home.


For all these firsts, and when thinking about women’s contributions to the past and present, she was clearly not the first woman to center her life around her children, nor the first to sacrifice herself for their well-being and the memory of her husband. She was also not the first to choose not to remarry. And she was not the first to favor self-expression over self-effacement, to stay true to herself, even as that exposed her to great risk and rejection. 


In being both so extraordinary and ordinary, first and foremost a wife, mother, and widow, and a woman of great faith, hers is a lifetime and legacy that, I think, has its place in Women’s History Month - especially in this, her centennial, year. (See my blogpost 100 Years.)


Let history surprise you; let her story inspire you.


© Andrea Emily Stumpf, March 26, 2024

* Image background is the end paper of the original Memoiren, Vol. 2 (1886) from the Stumpf family collection.

[1] P.C. Sadgrove, “The Press: Engine of a Mini-Renaissance in Zanzibar (1860-1920),” in History of Printing and Publishing in the Language and Countries of the Middle East, Journal of Semitic Studies, pp. 151-78 (2005).

[2] I cannot help but mention my professional experience around “conflicts of interest” when beneficiary countries seek to be involved in decision making about funds they would like to receive (e.g., by being part of the governing body for an international trust fund).  Some donor partners are quick to consider this a conflict of interest (with undue bias) that precludes their direct participation, when, in fact, the views of recipients (developing country / indigenous voices) are arguably the most relevant when it comes to development projects.

[3] We now also have the sequel, her Letters to the Homeland, to give us an even greater understanding of her challenges and capabilities. 


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