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Arab women writers.

Translated from the Arabic by Mandy McClure

Unlike many other women writers, Arab women writers draw on a rich, ancient heritage, which stretches back to civilizations that flourished in the region before the Islamic conquest. As for the Arabic heritage, it takes us back to a venerable ancestor, al-Khansa', whose poems and recorded exploits give her a secure position in the canon. Among the anecdotes related about her is this enlightening story: it is said that al-Khansa' went to al-Nabigha while he was sitting in 'Ukaz and recited her famous ra'iya poem to him. Al-Nabigha told her, "If Abu Basir [al-A'sha] had not already recited to me, I would have said that you are the greatest poet of the Arabs. Go, for you are the greatest poet among those with breasts." Al-Khansa' replied, "I'm the greatest poet among those with testicles, too."

There is no need to comment here on the verbal pluckiness of al-Khansa', which many European and feminist critics might well envy.

Al-Khansa' emerges positively in the culture; others were ostracized and held up as the epitome of wickedness and depravity. In later periods--the 'Abbasid, Umayyad, and Andalusian eras--biographical dictionaries and literary encyclopedias are filled with the names of hundreds of women, including female poets. One researcher counted 242 female poets, from al-Khansa' to Wallada Bint al-Mustakfi, and in her study of women in the 'Abbasid period, Wajda al-Atraqji counts forty-five female poets in the first hundred years of the 'Abbasid period. Some of these women, like Wallada Bint al-Mustakfi, belonged to the ruling elite. Two lines of poetry attributed to her were said to have been embroidered on her clothing in gold:
   I was made for the high things in life, by God
   When I walk, I swagger with pride.
   I give my cheek to my lover
   And my kiss to the one who craves it.


The names also included devout believers who composed Sufi poetry, most prominently Rabi'a al-'Adawiya, as well as singing slave girls who were poets. The tenth-century scholar Abu-l-Faraj al-Isfahani composed a book entitled Rayy al-zama fi man qal al-shi'r rain al-ima (Thirst-quenching Excerpts from Lives of Slave Girl Poets), which contains the biographies of thirty-one slave girls and excerpts from their poetry. Perhaps some women researchers will examine the lives of this third group of poets, reading their poetry and analyzing their portrayal in the medieval biographical dictionaries, truncated or imprisoned as they are under the rubric of "slave girl." So far no researchers have looked closely at these talented poets, caught in their existential dilemma as owned women, yet whose pre-established role required a perpetual exploitation of wit, cunning, and deception. These were women who combined two odd functions: they were to serve, submit, and pleasure, but at the same time, they were peers and rivals in poetry, who might win the upper hand with a unique thought or an eloquent turn of phrase.

Contemporary Arab women writers draw on a rich, complex tradition that encompasses the believer who recites poetry about divine love; the princess who possesses knowledge, power, and standing; the slave girl trained in the lute and pleasuring her master; the strong, free woman capable of public, eloquent speech, at times bold or even obscene; and the shy woman who speaks in a low voice from behind the curtain. The mother of them all is, of course, Sheherazade, the mistress of speech, who tells stories upon stories. Her tales go beyond time and place, and through them, she takes leave of the king's bedchamber and steps into the wider world.

Contemporary Arab women writers, their texts--the entirety of the texts they have produced--have added something, be it a different perspective, a new tone of voice, or a distinct sensibility formed over centuries of silence and oppression in a world long ruled by patriarchy. This sensibility has also been shaped by the multiplicity of roles that women play and perform, even after they were sufficiently emancipated to go out and work as writers.

The French historian Clot Bey says that Napoleon spoke to him of General Menou's treatment of his Egyptian wife and how it influenced Egyptian women's ambitions to change their circumstances. General Menou, a leader of the French expedition in Egypt (1798-1801), married a woman from Rosetta and, so the story goes, treated her like Frenchmen treated their women (that is, Frenchmen of the aristocracy and middle class). Clot Bey relates a story told by Napoleon, that General Menou took his wife with him to various functions, walking next to her and offering his arm to her. He would choose a seat for her at the head of the dinner table and bring her whatever food she desired. When she told this to the women at the public bath, their faces are said to have filled with hope, and they thought it a sign that their circumstances would change. They sent a letter to "Sultan" Bonaparte asking him to force their husbands to treat them the way Menou treated his wife.

Despite its peculiarity, the anecdote is significant. It is difficult to ignore the proposed source of change (France/Europe, represented by General Menou and Bonaparte). We add nothing new if we note that women's liberation, like other aspects of the renaissance in the Arab world, raised a problematic contradiction between a liberation enterprise motivated by a desire for modernization and advancement and a viewpoint that saw the colonizer as the primary source of this modernization. Napoleon's story about the woman of Rosetta and her French husband is highly suggestive. The Frenchman is a general who came by force of arms to execute his mission of plunder and control; the woman was from Rosetta, the site of one of the most prominent chapters of the popular resistance to the French campaign. The men of Rosetta, none of whom took their wives to public functions--indeed, they would not condemn one of their own for beating his wife--stood up to face the invasion and gave their lives in the process.

The dilemma encapsulated so simply and clearly by the anecdote would set the issue of women's liberation on two divergent paths: the first would follow the road laid out by the story of General Menou highlighting the part while ignoring the whole. The second would be aware of its link to national and social liberation movements. This latent contradiction may explain why Lord Cromer--the most prominent figure in the history of the British occupation of Egypt--and pro-occupation Egyptian newspapers, such as al-Nil and al-Muqattam, were so enthusiastic about women's liberation, and also why women and men who took up the call of women's emancipation also contributed to the nationalist movement and why their names are linked with the opposition to colonialism.

Arab women would not have contributed to literature without the call to escape the bonds of the enclosed home and enter the public sphere, even shape it to a certain degree. The beginning of women's education in schools, and later in universities, was a basic step on this road, and it could not have continued without the efforts of pioneering women in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon, followed by Iraq and Palestine, and later Jordan, Arab North Africa, Sudan, and the Arabian Peninsula.

These efforts began in the last two decades of the nineteenth century in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, and they continued until the First World War. Women's associations were founded, starting with Bakurat Suriya (Syrian Dawn), founded by Maryam Nimr Makariyus in Beirut in 1880, and Zahrat al-Ihsan (Flower of Charity), established the same year. The tradition of literary salons began with the salon of Maryana Marrash in Aleppo, Princess Nazli Fadil's salon in Cairo, and Alexandra Khuri Averino's salon in Alexandria. This was followed by the emergence of newspapers and magazines: in 1892, Hind Nawfal's al-Fatah appeared in Alexandria, the same year that Jurji Zaydan started al-Hilal. The next year, a monthly women's magazine appeared in Aleppo, al-Mar'a, published by Madiha al-Sabuni. In the four decades from 1892 to 1939, the eve of the Second World War, twenty-four women's periodicals were published and circulated in the cities of the Arab East. In addition to Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, and Baghdad, periodicals founded by women were published in Alexandria, Mansura, and Fayyum in Egypt; Tripoli in Lebanon; and Hums, Hama, and Aleppo in Syria. Lebanese Maronite women, many of whom settled in Egypt, played a prominent role in establishing most of these journals. They in turn helped lay the groundwork for the publication of Qasim Amin's Tahrir al-mar'a (The Liberation of Women). This period also saw the publication of encyclopedias about the lives of famous women, the most well known being Zaynab Fawwaz's al-Durr al-manthur fi-l-tabaqat rabbat al-khudur (Scattered Pearls in the Lives of the Harem Dwellers), published in 1894. Fifteen years earlier, in 1879, Ma'rid al-hasna' fi tarajim mashahir al-nisa' (An Excellent Exposition on the Biographies of Famous Women), by Maryam Nasr Allah al-Nahhas, a Syrian from Tripoli, was printed at al-Misr newspaper press in Alexandria. From 1892 to 1939, Egypt alone saw the publication of 571 biographies of women (written by both men and women) in eighteen periodicals. These biographies were the product of a fruitful conjunction of two traditions: the rich Arabic tradition of biography and biographical dictionaries, and the European tradition of writing about famous women.

With only two female voices--Warda al-Yaziji (1838-1924) in Lebanon and 'A'isha al-Taymuriya (1840-1902) in Egypt--the 1880s gave no hint that a multitude of women writers were preparing to emerge into the public eye. These writers boldly chose two outlets: journalism, which gave immediate access to the reading public and allowed them to shape public opinion, and the novel, the most malleable literary genre and the newcomer to Arabic culture. In journalism, women did not limit their articles to women's magazines, and they did not write only about the status of women and their demands. Some wrote under their own names (Warda al-Yaziji and 'A'isha al-Taymuriya, the most prominent examples), and some wrote under a pseudonym. Zaynab Fawwaz (1846-1914) published her first novel under the soubriquet "an Egyptian woman," although the second edition was printed under her name. Malak Hifni Nasif (1886-1918) published all her articles under the name Bahithat al-Badiya (Seeker in the Desert). Her book Nisa'iyat (Women's Things), 1910, was published using the same name. The use of pseudonyms was so widespread that in 1908 the Association for the Advancement of Women in Egypt launched a campaign to defend the right of women to use their names, arguing that Islamic law allowed, and even enjoined, it. Although the head of the association, Fatima Rashid, declared a year later that in response to the association's campaign women had started to publish under their own names in newspapers and magazines, it was not so simple. The custom of women using pseudonyms or signing their works with initials--or not at all--has remained widespread in many Arab countries until recently.

As for the second outlet, novels by women were issued at a brisk, indeed astonishing pace, given women's recent return to writing after such a long hiatus, and the novelty of the literary form itself. Alice Butrus al-Bustani published the novel Sa'iba (Correct) in 1891. Zaynab Fawwaz published Hush al-'awaqib aw Ghada al-zahira (Fine Consequences, or Radiant Ghada) in 1899 and al-Malik Qurush aw malik al-Furs (King Cyrus or the King of the Persians) in 1905 (she published a play, al-Hawa wa-l-wafa' [Love and Fidelity] in 1893). Next came 'Afifa Karam's novel Badi'a wa Fu'ad (Badi'a and Fu'ad) in 1906, followed by Fatima al-badawiya (Bedouin Fatima) and Ghadat 'Amshit (The Beauty of 'Amshit) in 1914. In 1904, Labiba Hashim wrote a novel, Qalb al-rajul (A Man's Heart), followed by Labiba Mikha'il Sawaya's novel Hasna' Salunik (The Beauty of Salonica) in 1909 and Farida Yusuf 'Atiya's Bayn al-'arshayn (Between the Two Thrones) in 1912. These novelists were all from Lebanon; some of them, like Zaynab Fawwaz and Labiba Hashim, settled in Egypt while others, like 'Afifa Karam, settled in the United States.

The intensive presence of women constituted a native incubator for ideas about women's liberation, pushing the issue into the public sphere, where it became a topic of debate among the greatest writers of the nation. Butrus al-Bustani (1819-1883) in Lebanon was the first to talk about women's right to education, advocating the idea in 1847. Rifa'a al-Tahtawi (1801-1878) in Egypt wrote al-Murshid al-amin li-l-banat wa-1 banin (The Faithful Guide for Girls and Boys) in response to a request from the Egyptian Ministry of Education to "compose a book on the humanities and pedagogy that can be used for the education of both boys and girls." In his introduction, al-Tahtawi praises Khedive Isma'il for opening up education so that
   girls, like boys, can compete to come up with the most novel ideas.
   He made the acquisition of knowledge the same for both groups; he
   did not make knowledge like inheritance, in which men enjoy double
   the share of women.


In 1895 Muhammad ibn Mustafa ibn Khuja al-Jaza'iri published his book, al-Iktirath fi huquq al-inath (On the Rights of Women), followed by Qasim Amin's Tahrir al-mar'a (The Liberation of Women) in 1899 and al-Mar'a al-jadida (The New Woman) in 1901. Next came Imra'atuna fi-l-shari'a wa-l-mujtama'(Our Women in Law and Society) in 1929, by Tahir Haddad al-Tunsi, who a year earlier had released a book about Tunisian workers and the rise of the trade union movement. Prominent writers took a position on the women's issue and stepped up to defend their rights, most prominently Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid in Egypt, Amin al-Rayhani in Lebanon, and the poets Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi and Ma'ruf al-Rasafi in Iraq.

These were the beginnings of Arab women's writings in the modern period. The writing styles and genres chosen by women showed that they drew on the classical Arabic heritage while at the same time they benefited from and imitated available European writings. Significantly, women writers ignored the popular, folkloric tradition, seeing what they wrote as part of "high" culture that had no relation to the songs and popular stories of oral tradition produced by women in the vernaculars. Why? The writers' social status might not offer a full explanation. There is another element that cannot be denied: their rebellion against traditional women's roles and their desire to prove their ability to write, an activity linked with the educated elite, particularly since many men belittled their intellectual capacities. Whether this explanation is sound or not, the fact remains that the pioneering generation and the generations that followed ignored women's oral tradition, thus neglecting a rich cultural vein. Arab women as creators of oral text have a continuous, rich, and varied story that stretches over hundreds of years of history and culture.

At the end of the nineteenth century, women--both as writers and critics--helped to disseminate women's achievements. Mayy Ziyada (1886-1941) continued this tradition in the first half of the next century, writing biographies of three women writers: Warda al-Yaziji, 'A'isha al-Taymuriya, and Malak Hifni Nasif. In doing so, she bequeathed to herself and later generations of writers a legacy of modern Arab women's writing. Ziyada wrote and a later generation of women writers read and drew inspiration--and not only in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt, for the circle widened beyond these three countries. In the 1930s and 1940s, women writers from Iraq and Palestine emerged, in addition to Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. They wrote articles for the press and radio, short stories, and poetry. The 1950S witnessed the start of a creative surge of female writers in all types of literary genres. The decade opened with the publication of the novel al-Jamiha (The Defiant Woman) by Amina al-Sa'id in Egypt and Arwa bint al-khutub (Arwa, Daughter of Woe) by Widad Sakakini from Syria; it closed with three novels, considered even then significant milestones in the evolution of Arab women's writing. In 1958, Layla Ba'labakki published Ana ahya (I Live), followed a year later by Collette Khuri's Ayyam ma'ah (Days with Him). The next year, Latifa al-Zayyat in Egypt published al-Bab al-maftuh (The Open Door). Two years later, Layla 'Ussayran released Lan namut ghadan (We Will Not Die Tomorrow), followed by Emily Nasrallah's Tuyur Aylul (The Birds of September). Despite their differences, these novels presented a new voice that explored women's relations with themselves and with men, with fathers and mothers, and with the surrounding political and social environment. In the same decade, Palestine offered one of the most mature experiments in the short story, in the writings of Samira 'Azzam. In poetry, there was Nazik al-Mala'ika in Iraq, whose poem "al-Kulira" (Cholera), published in 1947, was a pioneering work in modern free verse, as well as Fadwa Tuqan and Salma Khadra Jayyusi in Palestine, the first of whom started with the classical Arabic ode, or qasida, before moving to free verse and the second of whom chose the new form for her poems from the beginning.

The texts produced from the end of the 1940s through the early 1960s are the link between the old and new generations across the Arab world, from Mauritania, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in the west, to the Gulf countries in the east, from Sudan and Yemen in the south, to Iraq and the Levant in the north.

Nawal al-Sa'dawi was another pioneer who raised several issues related to women's freedom and drew attention to the possibilities offered by the methodologies of the feminist movement in Europe and the U.S. in the early 1960s. In many books including sociological studies, stories, novels, and journal articles, Nawal al-Sa'dawi put forth a new, bold, influential discourse picked up by later generations of women writers, who reproduced it, developed it, and used it as a starting point for a path that sometimes converged with that discourse and sometimes parted ways with it.

In the last third of the twentieth century, Arab women's writing evolved along divergent paths. While women from older generations continued to write, new generations worked to steep themselves in their own time, place, and experience, and to develop the craft of writing. In poetry, women went beyond the classical qasida form to free verse and prose poetry, at times managing to overcome sentimentality and the tropes of romantic expression. In contrast to the first half of the twentieth century, the short story and the novel received the largest share of women's creative attention. Women wrote texts trying to capture a complex, complicated reality burdened by contradictions and anxieties. Women wrote about national struggle, civil war, political and social oppression, and corruption as much as they wrote about relations with men and their status in a male-dominated society, trying to express themselves as both women and citizens. In their attempts to capture their own experience, women chose various forms of writing. They produced realistic novels with a clear chronological order and an omniscient narrator, depicting some aspect of Arab life in Beirut, Cairo, Tunis, or Baghdad, or they turned to a small town or far-flung village to depict the lives of its inhabitants. They produced modernist texts in which the collapse of all assumptions, the fragmentation of time, and the isolation of the individual come together to impose a different novelistic form. They wrote historical novels in which they address their own reality through writing about former ages. In autobiographies, women documented their life stories or some part of their lives, such as the experience of childhood or political detention, or the story of a trip to the West. At times, they speak directly in the first person, relating events in chronological order; other times, they invent styles to meet their needs. In contrast, women's creative efforts were directed less at drama, and there are relatively few women playwrights compared to other types of writers. Is this because playwrights need an active theater movement in which they can take part, which exists in only a very few Arab countries? Or did talented women playwrights turn to writing for television?

Arab women's writing has dealt with a diversity of themes addressed in various styles, although historical concerns and an awareness of a double burden remains a basic theme in their writing. With the exception of Palestine, all Arab countries won national independence, but they did not find freedom, justice, or prosperity, and the problems and contradictions grew. The Zionist state has grown more violent, American hegemony fiercer, and national governments have contributed to the internal fractures with their repressive practices and their immobility in the face of fundamental change. Class gaps have widened, and the rift between men and women has deepened. There is an increasing contradiction between appearance and truth, word and deed, hope and illusion. This confused, often chaotic social reality is reflected in both men and women and their relationships with the self, others, and the surrounding environment.

Since the 1970s, Arabic literature has entered the age of doubt, and the question mark has replaced certainty. Arab women novelists have written about war, frustration, the erosion of all preconceptions, and a reality even stranger than fiction. More and more women writers have turned to the literature of exile and marginalization. Today, the situation is fraught with ambiguity. Women are open to global issues, and they have a keen awareness of their location vis-a-vis language and discourse, and culture and ideology. At the same time, they are being re-imprisoned by ideas about particularity and the body disseminated by certain feminist circles. The public and private spheres are increasingly intertwined, and a significant segment of women have learned their rights and duties. They have learned the importance of writing, thought, theory, and practice, which qualifies them to occupy a place in Arab culture distinguished by intense questioning and animated rebellion. Now they must face the challenge of social and intellectual forces that want to return them to their seclusion with weapons that are much more dangerous and deceptive because they replace violence, tyranny, and ideology with reason, praise, and compliment. We will not fall in the trap of praising women's writing a priori or sentencing them to the prison of "women's writing" with its predetermined subjects. It is a field open to all experiments and the future.

First published in Arabic in 2004 by Nour: Foundation for Research and Studies, Cairo, and the Higher Council of Culture, Cairo as Dhakira li-l-mustaqbal: mawsu'at al-katiba al- 'arabiya, "Arab Women Writers" appears courtesy of the American University in Cairo Press.
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Author:Ashour, Radwa; Berrada, Mohammed; Ghazoul, Ferial J.; Rachid, Amina
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Jan 1, 2009
Words:3732
Previous Article:Editor's note.
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