Rufaida Al-Aslamia رفيدة الأسلمية – th Century – Medina, Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Embroidered portrait of Rufaida Al-Aslamia, head and shoulders. She is staring straight ahead and wearing a blue and white hijab.

Rufaida Al-Aslamia is considered the first Muslim nurse and social worker.

Born in Medina sometime in the 7th century, Rufaida’s family were among the first to have converted to Islam and it is said that she knew the prophet Mohammed personally.

Her father was a physician by trade, and taught his daughter the skills needed to care for the sick and wounded. At a time in history defined by a number of holy wars, Rufaida’s help was invaluable on the battlefield, and she cut her teeth in desert field hospitals.

Rufaida was also an excellent organiser and clearly a charismatic personality – in the highly male dominated field of medicine she was able to flourish and thrive. She trained other women in nursing, and introduced the first documented mobile care units which aimed to stabilise the wounded after battles and prepare them for further procedures.

Rufaida’s team of volunteer nurses were so successful that following one battle Mohammed ensured that she receive the same portion of war booty due to soldier who had fought – one of the earliest examples of equal pay.

In addition to her role in battlefield healthcare, Rufaida was interested in disease and its causes among ordinary people. She is recorded as having personally worked in poor communities encouraging hygiene and attempting to alleviate social problems which led to poor health.


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Khawlah bint al-Azwar خولة بنت الأزور – c.7th Century – Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Kawlah bint al-Azwar

Khawlah bint al-Azwar was a warrior like no other. Born during the 7th century, the daughter of a chief of the Bani Assad tribe, her family was amoung the first to convert to Islam, during the life of Mohammed.

Living during the times of the Muslim conquests, she clearly had some serious military training behind her. In fact, the first time we hear about Khawlah is in the heat of battle. She was working as a combat nurse during the Battle of Sanita-al-Uquab in 634 when her brother, Zirrar (sometimes Dhirrar), the commander of the Rashidun army, was wounded and captured by the Byzantine army.

Khalid ibn Walid, the leader of the Muslim forces, set off on a rescue mission, and Khawlah went with them. She dressed as an ordinary soldier in an attempt to blend in – but her bravery in singledhandedly fighting off the Byzantine rear guard made her somewhat conspicuous.  In fact, she so distinguished herself that the soldiers who saw her fight thought she must be Khalid himself.

When the Byzantines finally fled the battlefield, Khalid came to find the warrior he had heard so much about. He found Khawlah drenched in blood and asked her to lower her veil. Her identity revealed, Khalid ordered his army to chase the remaining Byzantine soldiers – led by Khawlah.

Khawlah fought alongside Khalid and her brother many more times. In another battle she was knocked off her horse and captured by the enemy. As a woman, she did not have the rights a male captured soldier had. She was the spoils of war.

But the enemy had sorely underestimated her. Imprisoned alongside other women captives, Khawlah got organised. She led the women as they tore the camp apart, using the enemy’s tent poles as weapons, killing thirty Byzantine knights as they escaped.

Today Khawlah is honoured in Saudi Arabia and throughout the Middle East as a heroine. The Iraqi all-women military unit is named the Khawlah bint al-Azwar unit, and the first military college for women in the UAE is called the Khawlah bint Al Azwar Training College.


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