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Muslim Women in the History of Cape Town

The role of women in history and their contribution to nations, societies and communities seems to be a theme greatly neglected in the records of history. True to the gender bias displayed in its morphological structure, the term "history" depicts essentially the story of males. It is "his" stories which are important. Men are the dominant characters and history is essentially a depiction of "his" achievements and "his" contributions. Occasionally some of the "sisters" do become "brothers" and finds a centre place in "his story". For this, their contribution or their sacrifice must be exceptional. Yet without women, would there really have been a "history"? What this essay intends to do, is to pay tribute to the

achievements of women, the sacrifices they made and the suffering endured. It wants to show how their "ordinary" contributions helped to create a holistic past. At the same time it wants to show that without women, "history" might not have been possible.



It is a fact of Cape Muslim history that the first two mosques in Cape Town was the result of the initiative of women. Saartjie van Kaap in 1809 purchased from her mother, Trijn, two properties in Dorp Street Cape Town for the sum of 3,000 guilders. One of these properties was already used as a mosque by a congregation of which her husband, Achmat of Bengal, was a member. Thirty years later, while compiling her will, she declared that this property shall continue to be used as a mosque for as long as Islam as a religion would be allowed in this colony.THE REMARKABLE SAARTJIE
It is the purchase of her properties in Dorp Street, which caused Margret Cairns, a Cape Historian, to hail Saartjie as a remarkable woman. Mrs Cairns writes : "It was a distinctly unusual occurrence at that date for a woman to buy immoveable property during the subsistence of a marriage. As far as is known," she continues, "Saartjie's case is an isolated instance for the period." What is more remarkable Saartjie ignores the impression created in official documents that her properties are those of her husband. It is only in 1841, with the compilation of the will, that she shows her independence of mind, the strength of her character is further amplified. In 1843, after her husband's death, she added a codicil to her will, which almost caused a change of history at the Auwal Mosque.Dissatisfied with the actions of her sons, who became involved in the establishment of the Nurul Islam Mosque in Buitengracht Street, she appointed Ghatieb Abdol Barrie as the person to be responsible for her burial. She went further and appointed him as the successor of her husband as Imam of the mosque. As owner of the property she ignored completely the competency of her sons to succeed their father as the Imam. Mochamad Achmat only became an Imam at the mosque in 1852, after the death of Ghatiep Abdol Barrie.


A similar independence of mind is displayed by Sameda of the Cape, the wife of the very popular Imam of the Palm Tree Mosque, Jan van Boughies. In 1848, two years after his death, Sameda left his property, this income that Ghatieb Moliat in 1873 brought about the necessary repairs to building and its upper-storey mosque.It was Sameda's will which ensured the continued existence of the Palm Tree Mosque, especially during the period 1860 to 1880 when continued Supreme Court litigations could so easily have led to the sale of the mosque. Some of these litigations resulted from the ownership of her immoveable property, especially the furniture she left behind.

Another remarkable Muslim woman is Jarea of Cape Town. It was her insistence on the rights as a slave owner which caused a major inquiry into the administration of the fire services of Cape Town. Muslim Free Blacks were conscripted into the fire services from 1736 onwards. The conditions under which they had to serve were terrible. When a fire broke out they had to leave whatever they were doing to attend to the fire. Apart from this they were also responsible for the maintenance of the machines. On the second Monday of the month, they had to present themselves for a two hour exercise from 6:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m., clean the machines and leave the pipes out to dry, and return in the evening to pack away the equipment.  They were not paid for their fire brigade services, but if they were to leave town they needed a pass. To make matters worse, non-attendance at a fire or neglect of equipment was punishable by corporal punishment - "25 lashes" -or imprisonment on "bread and water for 3 to 8 days". Fire brigade duty was the most hated of the regulations imposed on the Cape Muslims. They found it unnecessary and designed to curtail their freedom of movement and to frustrate and oppress them. Ingenious mechanisms were devised in an effort to dodge this service.

For almost ninety years the Cape Muslims meekly accepted the injustices imposed upon them through the fire brigade services, never complaining to the authorities of the difficulties it created for their social, religious and economic life. This changed in 1821, when the free woman, Jarea of Cape Town penned a memorial protesting against the forcible conscription of her husband, Absolm of Batavia, into the fire brigade.
Jarea's memorial is an interesting one. In it she claimed that she has been warned, that unless she released him for such services, she would be imprisoned. Absolm, she argued was her slave, by whom she was married by Muslim rites. As a slave he could not be conscripted into the fire brigade, a service reserved for free Malays. Her marriage to him does not make him a free man, as Muslim rite marriages were not recognised in the Colony. On inquiring why she does not set him free, she replied that freedom would make him prey for other women. Why must she set him free, merely to lose her husband to another woman.
Jarea's memorial was the first letter of protest penned by a Free Black on the conditions under which thev served in the fire brigade. This letter was in 1824 followed by a Saayer of Cape Town. It was these letters which set into motion the appointment of a Royal Commission of Inquiry to investigate the compulsory services of Malays and Free Blacks in the fire brigade. The findings of this Inquiry, with the evidence of Imam Achmat and Imam Jan of Boughies transformed the fire brigade services in Cape Tlown.


All three women in the case studies above were slaves who had acquired their freedom. The position of women in the Cape slave society was not an easy one. Slave women were double prejudiced against -being woman and being slaves. While our three subjects were lucky to acquire their freedom, the vast majority were not. The mother of the first Imam of Uitenhage, Imam Jan Berdien or Jabaruddin, Eva, died in slavery. The Imam, in 1828, applied to purchase the freedom of his three sisters, Rosina, Rachet and Galati, from the estate of their owner Joseph Peroo.
Slavery at the Cape was not as mild as we at times are made to believe.

The two shiny oval metal cans are a Toshiba Satellite 1900-305 Display Driver pair of crystals; presumably, one per transmit channel. Double click on the driver then you get a confirmation message from the window.

Human beings cannot be subdued in oppression or slavery simply through persuasion. They must be brutalised into subjugation. Cape history is full of incidents of slaves being broken on the wheel with their limbs torn from their bodies; beaten with cat-o-nine tails and impelled through the anus. There is also a case of a slave woman who was tied up in a sack and drowned in Table Bay.

Slaves constantly lived in fear of a whipping either by a master or mistress, who would illegally whip them. Alternatively they were sent to the fiscaal's office, there to be punished by Caffers for any misdemeanour. These Caffers, though slaves themselves, did not have an iota of sympathy for their unfortunate brethren. They were even more vicious than the slave masters in their application of punishment of their fellow slaves.Being a female did not ease the burden of slavery. Slave women were under constant threat of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation. Their status as slaves implied that their bodies belonged to their master who could use it at his whim or fancy. It was a common practice in Cape Town for slave owners to force their female slaves to have connection with their guests. Slave owners profited through such connection. Should the slave girl become pregnant, her child automatically becomes the property of her owner. Then too, a light complexion slave fetched a good price in Cape Town. Many of these slave girls were reluctant to have such connections, but were forced into the bedroom by their owners. Then too, slave women were forced 'to cohabit' with their masters, whether they wanted to or not. Some of them opted to become run-away slaves; face the severe punishment which such desertion entails, rather than suffer the sexual indignity of "cohabitation". A case in point is that of the run-away, Spas of Cape Town. From a young age she was forced 'to cohabitate' with her master, Cornelius Erigelbrecht. If such "forced cohabitation" is not rape, it is difficult to understand what constituted rape in the master-slave relationship in Cape "Town. The Statutes of India, the laws in terms of which the Cape was governed, clearly place "force cohabitation" in a definition of rape. The indulgence of masters in "unruly passions and their making use of compulsory means in forcing a slave to obey any such commands which are contrary to law and morality," were prohibited. This placaat of the Statutes was never used to bring about a conviction. Not a single case is recorded where a slave master was convicted for raping a slave woman. In the one case recorded, the master's son was absolved from the crime because of the alleged licentious behaviour of the young slave girl. On the other hand, a male slave, charged with rape, was viciously punished, even executed, even though the evidence shows that he was seduced by the white woman.This is clearly illustrated by the beautiful 24 year old white woman, Maria Mouton of Middleburg, who had a love affair with her slave, Titus of Bengal. This love affair resulted in murder. Franz Joost of Lippstadt, Maria's husband was murdered, by Maria and some slave accomplices, on the 31st of January, 1714. Titus was not directly involved in the murder, but as Maria's lover, the court nevertheless sentenced him  publicly impelled through the anus until death resulted. It is recorded that while he sat in this deplorable state, "he often joked and scoffingly said that he would never again believe a woman". This case vividly depicts the different degrees of protection given to white women and that of slave women at the Cape of Good Hope. The morality, dignity and sexual vulnerability of white women were at all times protected. The wife of Van Bruel's of Drakenstein was in 1716 "living a very evil life with her slave." For this she was only threatened with excommunication from the Drakenstein church unless she sold her slave. She said she would comply, but her husband was having great difficulty selling her slave lover, would the church be patient? A response, as Robert Shell points out, so reminiscent of St Augustine's human plea: "Let me be chaste, oh Lord .. but not yet." Thus while white women were at all times protected and their shame covered or dismissed, no such protection was afforded slave women. Female slaves at the Cape were not afforded any social protection; while at the same time she was provided with little protection from the law. If slave women suffered sexual abuse and exploitation by their masters, they also suffered physical abuse from their mistresses. The master's abuse of slave women, as we have seen, resulted from the power which the social, legal and political structures vested in him as an owner of human chattel. This sexual abuse in most cases angered the slave mistress. the concern was not the harm inflicted upon the slave woman. It was the humiliation she experienced as the wife, and her inability to stop her husband's infidelity which were her concerns. Very few turned against their husbands. It was the victims of the sexual abuse, the slave women, who had to stiffer the cruelty of this anger and vengeance. This cruelty and vengeance is clearly illustrated in the case of the Stellenbosch mistress who murdered and then disembowelled her slave maid whom she suspected of having being made pregnant by her husband. The details of this case as related by the Cape diarist, Samuel Hudson, is gruesome. Even after the slave maid denied that she was pregnant and that her master had never made any advances to her, she was still beaten. Not satisfied with the beating, the mistress killed her by cramming hot bread down the throat of the unfortunate girl, while she was held down by a strong male slave. So fierce was her jealousy, that after killing the maid, she cut her open to determine if she was pregnant or not. These are some of the cruelties and indignities faced by Muslim slave women in the slave society of the Cape. That the majority of them under such circumstances opted to remain Muslim and continued to be enslaved could be attributed to their steadfastness to Islam.'Tribute need to be paid to this steadfastness, and recognition should be given to the severe and restrictive social and political conditions under which they lived and laboured.

In 1831, with the establishment of the slave infant school, it was slave women who refused to send their children to this institution; opting instead to send them to the madaris, which proliferated in the homes of several Imams in Cape Town. They were seeking an alternative education, free from the yoke of Colonialism, for the socialisation of their children. The Muslim schools or madaris, provided that alternative.
The conditions of slavery also conditioned them to develop a sense of independence and a sense of liberalism not generally experienced in other Muslim communities at the time. When some of them acquired their freedom and built up some means, they would purchase for themselves husbands whom they reverted to Islam. It was the freed slave woman, Saleja of Macassar, who purchased Jan of Boughies, gave him his freedom and allowed him to play an important role as an Imam in Cape Town. It was the freed slave woman, Rosa of the Cape, who ran a very successful candle making business and contributed considerably to the wealth of her husband, Min Kajamolin.

During the second half of the nineteenth century many former slave women could be counted among the Muslim property owners in Cape Town. Rebecca of Cape Town owned several properties in Strand
and Vanderleur Streets. Similarly Rasmie of Cape Town owned several properties in Zonnebloem as well as properties in Faure she inherited from her grandfather, Min Kajamolin. In the execution of their wills their independence of mind and their administrative skills are clearly displayed.

Women also played important roles in broader community issues. In the male dominated Cape society women organised their own congregational structures within mosques, appointing their own leader, the Motjie Imam, and adopted those responsibilities normally neglected by males. Their role in Cape society and the making of the Cape Muslim community has been wide ranging. In many instances they directed the course of Cape Muslim history. Yes, there were women who threw stones during the first urban black uprising when the authorities, in 1886, tried to close the Tana Baru Cemetery.   !

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