If you were born anywhere west of Turkey, you’ve probably never heard of her. If you’re of Arab descent, Khawlah Bint Al-Azwar is as famous as Joan Of Arc and pretty much for the same reason.
Fundamentalist Muslim women aren’t generally encouraged to show initiative outside the home. They’re expected to be docile, dependable breeders. At least that’s how their role has evolved over time. A lot has changed since the good old days when men were men and girls could be men too if they really wanted to be.
Take the case of this essay's subject. I’ll call her Khawlah for short. She lived in the 7th century -- the daughter of a small time sheik and the sister of a big time warrior named Derar. He was as famous for his poetry as for his swordplay. (I will never understand why so many armored cultures insist on pairing verse with viscera. What’s that about? Samurais compose a haiku just before they ritually disembowel themselves. What if they miscount the syllables? Do they have to start all over? OK, that was a long digression. I’m back now.)
Let’s return to Derar. He was an unusual man for his time. For all his blood and guts antics on the battlefield, he was completely devoted to his sister and saw nothing wrong with teaching her how to fight. She proved to be an adept pupil.
The duo were big fans of the newfangled religion called Islam. So when its prophet declared war on everybody, they eagerly enlisted. Derar went to fight in the front lines while his sister organized a field hospital unit. (She was the Florence Nightingale of her day.) A very traditional arrangement. The men do the fightin’ and the women mop up the mess afterward.
The status quo was about to receive a jolt during the battle of Ajnadin. Derar was unlucky enough to be captured by the Byzantine army. His sister, who saw the whole thing from a nearby hillside, wasn’t about to stand back, wring her hands and cry “Well-a-day!” She dashed off to slip into something less comfortable. Swathing herself in black all the way up to her eyeballs and donning a green shawl to cover her other attributes, she headed into battle.
General Khalid bin Walid and his troops watched in amazement as a lone knight armed with a spear and sword cut a swath through the Byzantine ranks like Sherman through Georgia.
“Who is that guy?” they asked each other. “He’s nuts!” Nobody knew. They continued watching as the unknown warrior repeatedly charged the enemy and left a trail of bodies behind after every sortie. The rest of the army rallied to follow his lead. Khalid sent one of his personal bodyguard to flank the masked warrior and make sure that the lunatic survived the battle.
Not only did the unknown knight survive but he led a detachment to pursue the fleeing enemy and recovered all the prisoners including Derar. Once all the excitement died down, General Khalid came looking for the hero of the day. It was easy to pick him out of the crowd since he was the one completely drenched in blood.
“Who are you?” Khalid asked.
At first Khawlah didn’t want to reveal her identity but when she saw there was no help for it, she admitted, “I was with the women accompanying the army, and when I learnt that the enemy captured my brother, I did what I did.”
Much to his credit, Khalid didn’t get all puffy and mottled and scream, “How dare you dress up like a man and make us all feel incompetent?” He was pragmatic enough to realize that if he wanted to win the prophet’s war, he could do it quicker with Khawlah leading a charge instead of leading a supply caravan. So from that point forward she rode with the army and battled her way through Syria, Palestine and Jordan.
Unfortunately, not every skirmish went her way. In a later fight around Ajnadin (not a lucky place for her family apparently), her mare was killed and she was captured by the Byzantines. They put her in cold storage with a bunch of other women who were intended to be given out as door prizes to the commanders of the army. (Maybe the term booty call is older than we think.) The general had already earmarked Khawlah for his personal use.
Our heroine didn’t think much of this arrangement. She rallied her fellow captives and told them, “Anybody here who doesn’t want to be a sex toy, follow me.” They armed themselves with sharpened tent poles and attacked the guards, taking out about thirty Byzantine knights in the process.
The enemy general decided to try a new tactic. He offered to marry Khawlah and make her the first lady of Damascus (where they have lots of white houses). She replied, "I wouldn't even accept you to be the shepherd of my camels! How do you expect me to degrade myself and live with you? I swear that I'll be the one to cut off your head for your insolence." ( That wasn’t poetic license on my part. She really did say that.)
In the battle that followed, she was as good as her word. She killed five knights plus the general. Shortly afterward, Khalid arrived with the cavalry and killed another 3,000 of the enemy.
Khawlah hung up her scimitar several years later, married a rich Arab prince and settled down to live happily ever after.
Ah, those were the days. Long before the Taliban and fundamentalist Islam decided that women should be neither seen nor heard. I wonder what Khawlah would have said to the women of Afghanistan while it was still under Taliban control. Probably something like this. “Anybody here who doesn’t enjoy wearing a bedsheet over their heads to go grocery shopping, follow me. It’s time to start sharpening some tent poles.”