Review: Sovereign Women in a Muslim Kingdom

Ratu Safiatuddin Tajul Alam, Ratu Nurul Alam Naqiatuddin Syah, Ratu Inayat Zaqiatuddin Syah, Ratu Kamalat Syah.

These were the names of the Aceh’s four queens who ruled for almost 60 years.

Islam today still struggles with female leadership, sometimes even considered an anathema. Yet Aceh – a staunchly Islamic Kingdom – was able to be ruled under the female leadership for 60 years in the 17th century. Aceh was considered the major trading port for pepper, elephants and even jewels for the region. It was during this time that Aceh saw the ascension of 4 female monarchs, in succession. Considering it was the 17th century, female rule seems like an anomaly, or perhaps even impossible.

Sher Banu examines and illuminates us with a history in a specific moment of time and shows how these females  integrated new elements and features into a largely masculine concept of traditional monarch. The coronation of the first Queen saw diplomats from around the region and Netherlands to a spectacle that was beyond her times. During Safiatuddian’s rule, she made diplomatic, just and fair dealings with the Dutch, while still maintaining autonomy and protecting her local traders. Sher describes how diplomatic the queens carried out their duties, while still abiding to Islamic traditions and adapting royal duties to fit her gender.

How timely it is that this book was published, with the current intense and often regressive debates on the role of women in Islam. The increased policing of women’s acctions, and the expansion of the spheres forbidden to women in the name of Islam by some groups. This book reminds us that this should not be the dominant narrative among Muslims and the pervasive perception of Non-Muslims. It serves as a heartening example of the diversity and richness of Muslim women’s experiences.

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