Vigor and Compassion

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Role models for Muslim girls, and others.

By Beth Kephart

By Natalie Maydell and Sep Riahi WG’94
Paintings by Heba Amin
Global Content Publishing, 2008. $14.95.

What makes for an extraordinary Muslim woman? What, indeed, makes for an extraordinary woman? The task authors Natalie Maydell and Sep Riahi set out for themselves in their new children’s book was to identify 13 Muslim women whose “extraordinary lives” not only influenced their communities in a positive way but serve to counter “stereotypes that have at times been placed on the role of women in Islam.” Such history brought to life well might, the authors hope, change a reader’s future, inspiring others to pursue their life goals with “increased vigor and compassion.”

Vigor and compassion is an interesting pairing of words, and yet for much of this book the pairing works. For if a certain feistiness defines the women featured here, so does generosity—a desire to live beyond oneself and redefine a world. These are lovers, mothers, politicians, artists caught up in the fever pulse of their times. These are women who make it their unyielding business to leverage their gifts on behalf of others.

Begin at the beginning, with Khadija bint Khuwaylid. Born into a leading Meccan Quraish tribe, she was a widow managing a wildly successful caravan trading business when she hired a distant cousin, Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as an overseer. It was a partnership soon sanctified by marriage—and soon tested when Muhammad was presented with a vision in the Cave of Hira, near Mecca. He was a prophet, the Angel Gabriel told him—“entrusted by Allah with the task of conveying His book—the Qur’an—to the Arab people.” Khadija might have drawn many conclusions. She drew only one: that she would live the remainder of her life in support of her husband’s calling and emerge as the first convert to Islam—giving alms, freeing slaves, financing a burgeoning Islamic community. Khadija is today revered, the authors tell us, for traits that surface repeatedly through this book—“independent, strong, supportive, faithful, and loving.”

As one of two queens featured in Extraordinary Women (there is also a guerilla leader), Sultan Razia, the 13th-century Warrior Queen of Delhi, was the favorite child of the Sultan of Delhi—a hunter and rider better skilled at martial arts than any of her brothers, and a born leader. It was Razia whom the Sultan chose to succeed him as a leader—a choice inevitably squelched by the amirs, who installed her half-brother on the throne. Chaos ensued, maternal scheming, a plot to murder Razia. She’d have none of it. Appealing to the people, she won their hearts, becoming, in 1236, the “first and only woman ever to sit on the throne of Delhi.”

Razia used her power on behalf of the public good: building schools, libraries, and research centers; encouraging the arts; fostering tolerance among different faiths and points of view; and ultimately dying on the battlefield just four years after her ascension to the throne. Like the other heroines who populate this book, she permanently changed the world around her and the expectations Muslim women might have of themselves—and of each other.

More recent examples of extraordinary women in the book include Sabiha Gökçen of Turkey, the world’s first female combat pilot; Egyptian singer and activist Umm Kulthum; and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Shirin Ebadi, who founded the Children’s Rights Support Association in Iran.

Since its publication last year, Extraordinary Women has been named the winner of the Middle East Book Award for the top nonfiction children’s book about the Middle East, and also received the Moonbeam Children’s Books’ Peacemaker Award. More important, perhaps, it has enabled its authors to reach out to young Muslim women faced with decisions about their own lives. Through their web site,, the authors promulgate stories about contemporary Muslim women who are, in their own ways, extraordinary—women such as Robina Muqimyar, the sole female athlete representing Afghanistan at the Beijing Olympics, and Shada Nasser, the Yemeni lawyer who successfully represented a 10-year-old child seeking a divorce from her abusive 30-year-old husband. At the same time, through their donations from the profits of the sale of the hardback, the authors are setting a charitable example—contributing to Islamic Relief toward its work in Sudan.

Though the target reading age is not entirely clear (the stories are on the longish side given the simplicity of the language), the book’s illustrations, by Heba Amin, are exquisite—soulful, spiced, evocative, ageless. Extraordinary Women serves as a colorful reminder of the power of ambitions turned toward a greater good.

Beth Kephart C’82’s third novel for young adults, Nothing but Ghosts, will be released in June. She maintains a literary/photography blog at

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