Instigators in doing good: Power, piety, patriarchy, and royal women's charitable endowments in Bahri Mamluk Cairo (from the reign of Shagar al-Durr to the reign of al-Ashraf Sha'ban, 648 AH--778 AH/1250 CE--1377 CE)




LeFort, Alexis Anne

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This thesis examines the striking disconnect between the extensive power wielded by women in medieval Cairo and the 'official' constructions of gender relationships articulated by the ulama. The formal discourses produced by legal-religious scholars encouraged men to monitor, correct, and chastise women in order to limit the chaotic and destructive potential innately present in female bodies and feminine activities. However, the larger population, including the very members of the ulama who constructed these narratives of patriarchy, consistently undermined these beliefs in their daily practices. The tensions produced between patriarchal ideals and the relatively egalitarian reality of gender relationships in medieval Cairene culture were especially visible in the ruling class. While royal women actively shaped the popular image of the Mamluk sultanate and participated in extending its power throughout the city, their abilities to engage in statecraft from formal and official positions of authority were restricted by their culture's constructions of gender. However, rather than being oppressed by these limitations, Mamluk women created a unique sphere of power from which they exercised enormous influence on the epistemological framework of their society, especially through the establishment of awqaf (perpetual charitable endowments). In the following analysis, I demonstrate how royal women utilized the locations and functions of these foundations to emphasize cultural norms that linked the female population of Cairo to the spaces of death and remembrance in the city's cemeteries. Underscoring their membership in two distinct bases of power--the ruling class and women in general--female founders utilized their awqafto cultivate interpersonal relationships with the women of Cairo and to strengthen the Mamluks' hegemonic framework through the appropriation of female concepts of piety. By focusing their architectural and charitable patronage on the female population of the city, royal women also helped reinforce the spaces central to female expressions of piety and participation in the production of knowledge.


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gender, Mamluk, medieval Cairo, patriarchy, power, women