Advertisement

The Vicious Cycle: Contemporary Literary Feminisms in the Mashriq

  • Kifah Hanna
Part of the Literatures and Cultures of the Islamic World book series (LCIW)

Abstract

As early as Mary Wollstonecraft and the rise of the feminist movement in Western Europe, feminist concerns with rights and representation, power and patriarchy, labor, education, and independence have found concrete articulation in literature. While the Arab feminist writers on whom this book focuses have often shared similar concerns with their Western counterparts, these have been substantially reconfigured in context of the sociopolitical specificities of family, religion, ethnicity, class, nation, and region in the Middle East. Questions of womanhood and feminism, of human rights and women’s rights, of women’s roles in the private and public spheres, and of their renegotiations of national identity formations, among others, have received new inflection in the work of Arab feminists confronted, even until the present, with the cultural given of women’s inferior biological, intellectual, social, and political status. Further, such feminists have had to write in the face of a publishing industry largely predominated, at least until the 1960s, by men. Under such conditions, the idea of feminism itself, anything but an easy Western import, becomes a problem to be newly addressed by each successive generation of Arab feminist writers. The literature that has resulted thus challenges our core conceptions of feminism, of the relationship between literature and society, and of the nature of sociopolitical engagement while foregrounding, and attempting to overturn, the plight of women in the Middle East.

Keywords

Vicious Cycle Arab Woman Woman Writer Egyptian Woman Gender Prejudice 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Preview

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Notes

  1. 1.
    See Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke (Eds.), Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing (London: Virago Press Limited, 1990), p. xxi–xxii. Joseph Zeidan adds the writers’ ages to his typology, consequently confusing the historical development of Arab feminism given that many writers began their careers at different ages. SeeGoogle Scholar
  2. Joseph Zeidan, Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995), pp. 5–6. One might further complicate matters by also taking into account the chronology of writers’ feminist activism. I find it necessary, though, to employ a broader framework that allows for the examination of similar aesthetic strategies across what other critics list as distinct literary periods. By the same token, I eschew the sort of thematic categorization we find in Badran and Cooke, where al-Sammān is read alongside ‘Ā’isha al-Taymūriyyah due to their comparable rejections of traditional customs in, respectively, the 1960s and 1887. Needless to say, such categorization falls short of explaining the specific social, religious, and political challenges these writers faced during different time periods. However, my historical overview acknowledges chronology to a certain degree. I find it at times helpful to group writers according to the dates of their publications, as this allows for comparisons of their responses to specific historical contexts and helps demarcate what I later call the “vicious cycle” of Arab feminism.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    See Anastasia Valassopoulos, Contemporary Arab Women Writers: Cultural Expression in Context (London: Routledge, 2007), p. 13.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    For critiques of this patronizing gesture, see Amal Amireh, “Publishing in the West: Problems and Prospects for Arab Women Writers,” Al Jadid 2:10 (August 1996), passim; Amal Amireh, “Writing the Difference: Feminists ‘Invention of the Arab Woman’,” in Interventions: Feminist Dialogues on Third World Women’s Literature and Film, ed. Bishnupriya Ghosh and Brinda Bose (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997), passim; Valassopoulos (2007), pp. 1, 8–9; andGoogle Scholar
  5. Lindsey Moore, Arab, Muslim, Woman: Voice and Vision in Postcolonial Literature and Film (London: Routledge, 2008), p. 4.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    For further discussion of Arabic terms for “feminism,” see Badran and Cooke (1990), p. xvii; Margot Badran, Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 19;Google Scholar
  7. Lila Abu-Lughod, “Feminist Longings and Postcolonial Conditions,” in Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East, ed. Lila Abu-Lughod (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 22; Valassopoulos (2007), p. 20; Moore (2008), p. 8, andCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Anna Ball, Palestinian Literature and Film in Postcolonial Feminist Perspective (London: Routledge, 2012), p. 9. Al-Mawrid English-Arabic dictionary defines “feminism” as “a theory of equality between the two sexes politi cally, economically, and socially.” Munīr Ba‘albakī, Al-Mawrid: A Modern English-Arabic Dictionary (Bayrūt: Dār El-‘ilm Lil-Malāyen, 2002; 1st ed 1987), p. 342. Translation from this source mine unless otherwise stated. I is interesting that in Al-Mawrid “feminism” comes under “niswīyah” and is explained between brackets as “theory, movement, etc.,” while the word “feminine” comes under the word “nisā’ī.” Although there is no mention in the same dictionary of “feminism” under “theory,” the term “women’ liberation movement” comes under “movement,” or “harakah,” in “haraka tahrīr al-mar’ah.”Google Scholar
  9. Rohī Ba‘albakī, Al-Mawrid: A Modern Arabic-English Dictionary (Bayrūt: Dār El-‘ilm Lil-Malāyen, 2001; 1st ed. 1987), p. 1170, 1168, 286. Exemplifying the wider problems of definition in Arabic culture Al-Mawrid, an authoritative source on the Arabic language, thus fails to provide an adequate definition of the term “feminism.”Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    Badran and Cooke (1990), p. xvii. Transliteration mine. A less politicized usage of nisā’ī is evident as early as 1920 with the foundation of al-Nādī al-Adabī al-Nisā’ī (the Women’s Literary Club) in Syria. Yet later women’s parties and associations readily drew on the term’s more political resonance as established by the Egyptian Feminist Union. Such organizations include al-Ittiḥādal-Nisā’ī al-Sūrī al-Lubnānī (the Syro-Lebanese Feminist Union), founded in 1928; al-Ḥizb al-Nisā’ī al-Qawmī (the National Feminist Party), founded in Egypt in 1942; and Ittiḥādal-Jam‘iyyāt al-Nisā’iyyah (the Union of Feminist Associations), founded in Syria in 1944. This fact has led Beth Baron to associate the term “nisā’iyyah ” (feminine of “nisā’ī ”) with feminism, and highlight its feminist connotations in the material contexts of its usage. See Beth Baron, The Women’s Awakening in Egypt: Culture, Society, and the Press (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994), p. 6.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    Marilyn Booth, “Woman in Islam:Men and the ‘Women’s Press’ in Turn-of-the-20th-Century Egypt,” International Journal of Middle East Studies 33:2 (May 2001[a]), p. 176. Badran also makes this point, arguing that “Nisa’i/yah is an ambiguous term in Arabic that can signify anything pertaining to women; sometimes it denotes ‘feminist’ and sometimes ‘feminine’.” Badran (1995), p. 19.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. 10.
    Karen Offen, “Defining Feminism: A Comparative Historical Approach,” Signs 14:1 (Autumn 1988), p. 150. Emphasis mine. As we know from the wide range of “third-wave” feminist critiques of “second-wave” feminism, it is problematic and controversial to apply “Western” definitions to the various feminisms of the “third,” “postcolonial,” or “Eastern” worlds. Such definitions often obscure the local particularities of women’s sociopolitical experiences in other parts of the world in favor of more universalizing notions of rights, agency, and participation, not to mention the postcolonial dimensions of their resisting practices and discourses. For further discussion of the limitations of second-wave feminism in, specifically, the Arab world, seeCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Miriam Cooke, War’s Other Voices: Women Writers on the Lebanese Civil War (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996), pp. 1–14; Abu-Lughod (1998), pp. 3–32;Google Scholar
  14. Miriam Cooke, Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism Through Literature (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. vi–xxviii; andGoogle Scholar
  15. Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), pp. 1–39. In this book, I, following Abu-Lughod, Booth, and Valassopoulos, consider what Valassopoulos calls both “local and Western discourses” as mutually informing facets of the development of Arab literary feminism. Valassopoulos (2007), p. 16. For a similar argument, see Abu-Lughod (1998), p. 5. Booth likewise employs this approach in her examination of Egyptian feminist biographies. There, she acknowledges Egyptian feminism as indigenous while recognizing its multiple roots. SeeGoogle Scholar
  16. Marilyn Booth, May Her Likes be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001[b]), p. xxvii. It is not my intention here to examine in depth Western and/or (post)colonial influences on Mashriqi feminist writing. I will, however, detail an international definition of feminism that foregrounds the local without undermining the impact of “Western” feminism on Mashriqi gender politics.Google Scholar
  17. 11.
    Barbara Ryan, Feminism and the Women’s Movement: Dynamics of Change in Social Movement, Ideology and Activism (New York: Routledge, 1992), p. 60.Google Scholar
  18. 16.
    Haideh Moghissi, Feminism and Islamic Fundamentalism: The Limits of a Post-Modern Analysis (London: Zed Books, 1999), p. 93.Google Scholar
  19. 24.
    Nawfal’s Lebanese origins highlights the major role played by Lebanese and Syrian emigrants, especially women, in Egypt’s flourishing press and consequently in the rise of Arab feminism. For further discussion of migration and feminism, see Hilary Kilpatrick, “Women and Literature in the Arab World: The Arab East,” in Unheard Words: Women and Literature in Africa, the Arab World, Asia, the Caribbean and Latin America, ed. Mineke Schipper (London: Allison & Busby, 1984), p. 75 and Zeidan (1995), p. 46. Booth examines women’s journals and magazines under the rubric of “literature of conduct.” See Booth (2001[b]), pp. 44–48.Google Scholar
  20. 27.
    Miriam Cooke, “Arab Women Writers,” in Modern Arabic Literature, ed. M. M. Badawi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), p. 447. Zeidan observes that “Labībah Sham‘ūn issued an appeal in Anīs al-Jalīs for the right of women to participate in literary culture.” Zeidan (1995), p. 47.Google Scholar
  21. 30.
    For more on al-Taymū riyyah, see Kilpatrick (1984), p. 74 and Mervat Hatem, Literature, Gender, and Nation-Building in Nineteenth-Century Egypt: The Life and Works of ‘A’isha Taymur (New York: Palgrave, 2011), pp. 181–191. Al-Taymūriyyah is one of the earliest Arab poets to compose in the neoclassical style.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. 34.
    Deniz Kandiyoti, “Contemporary Feminist Scholarship and Middle East Studies,” in Gendering the Middle East: Emerging Perspectives, ed. Deniz Kandiyoti (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996), p. 2.Google Scholar
  23. 37.
    Sabry Hafez, The Genesis of Arabic Narrative Discourse: A Study in the Sociolog y of Modern Arabic Literature (London: Saqi Books 1993), p. 157, passim.Google Scholar
  24. 41.
    The most famous of these organizations is the Egyptian Feminist Union (EFU), founded by Hudā Sha‘rāwī in 1923. For her reflections on the activities of the EFU under her stewardship, see Huda Shaarawi, Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist (1879–1924), trans. Margot Badran (New York: The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1987), pp. 129–136.Google Scholar
  25. 45.
    Hanan Awwad, Arab Causes in the Fiction of Ghādah al-Sammān, 1961/1975 (Sherbrooke: Editions Naaman, 1983), p. 20.Google Scholar
  26. 46.
    Halim Barakat, The Arab World: Society, Culture, and State (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993), pp. 225–226.Google Scholar
  27. 47.
    Cooke (2006), p. 450. As one might expect, Ba‘albakī was consequently taken to task by her more conservative critics. Such reception culminated in 1964, when charges of “obscenity” and “harming the public morality” were brought against her for her use of shocking sexual expressions in Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon. For an account of this trial, see Elizabeth Warnock Fernea and Basima Qattan Bezirgan, Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1977), pp. 280–290. For more on issues of chastity, alienation, and embodiment in Ba‘albakī, seeGoogle Scholar
  28. Evelyne Accad, Veil of Shame: The Role of Women in the Contemporary Fiction of North Africa and the Arab World (Sherbrooke: Editions Naaman, 1978), pp. 95, 102–104; and Zeidan (1995), pp. 100–101.Google Scholar
  29. 54.
    Jayyūsī (2002), p. 22. For more on al-Malā’ikah’s contributions to development of Arabic poetry, see Fernea and Bezirgan (1977), pp. 232–243; Dizīreh Ṣaqqāl, Ḥarakat al-Ḥadüthah: Ṭurüḥahü wa Injāzātaha (Modernism: Its Objectives and Achievements) (Bayrūt: Manshūrāt Mīryam, 1991), p. 42; Jayyūsī (2002), p. 17; and Cooke (2006), p. 449.Google Scholar
  30. 64.
    For more information on al-Idlibī ’s war writing, especially Damascus, Smile of Sorrow, see Bouthaina Shaaban, Voices Revealed: Arab Women Novelists, 1898–2000 (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2009), pp. 141–144.Google Scholar
  31. 74.
    Joseph Zeidan, Women Novelists in Modern Arabic Literature (PhD Thesis), Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International (1982), p. 356. In his later, 1995 study Arab Women Novelists, Zeidan partially contradicts this claim. There, he argues that “Arabic literature is subject to the rules of tradition that holds the Classical Arabic language to be sacred (meaning that changes in the formal language are discouraged). This creates quite a challenge for women writers who, if they are to find their voices, must change this patriarchal language that marginalises them and at the same time must make the language acceptable enough to be published and read by a significant audience.” Zeidan (1995), p. 2. Emphasis mine. In this sense, Zeidan highlights the importance of this challenge and justifies women writers’ tendency to introduce changes to the traditional sacred language.Google Scholar
  32. 76.
    Edward Said, “Arabic Prose and Prose Fiction After 1948,” in Reflections on Exile: And Other Literary and Cultural Essays (London: Granta Books, 2000), p. 48; M. M. Badawi, “The Background,” in Badawi (2006), p. 14.Google Scholar
  33. 79.
    For a detailed overview of new directions in contemporary Arab feminism, see Arab and Arab American Feminisms: Gender, Violence, and Belonging, ed. Rabab Abdulhadi, Evelyn Alsultany, and Nadine Naber (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2011). For an analysis of the uses to which the category of “gender” has been put in feminist theory, see Joan W. Scott, “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” American Historical Review 91:5 (1986).Google Scholar
  34. 80.
    By using the phrase “territorial nationalist affiliation,” I do not refer here to Antun Sa‘ā da’s version of “territorial nationalism,” which, according to Yasir Suleiman, is “regional in character.” I understand “territoriality” more in terms of “state-orientated” nationalism, at least in the Lebanese context. Yasir Suleiman, The Arabic Language and National Identity: A Study in Ideology (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), p. 204.Google Scholar
  35. 82.
    Elisabeth Kendall, Literature, Journalism and the Avant-Garde: Intersection in Egypt (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 4.Google Scholar
  36. 83.
    David LeHardy Sweet, “Edward Said and the Avant-Garde,” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 25 (Edward Said and Critical Decolonization) (2005), p. 150.Google Scholar
  37. 84.
    Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), pp. 49–50.Google Scholar
  38. 89.
    Ghādah Al-Sammān, Al-Qabīla Tastajwib al-Qatīla (The Tribe Interrogates the Killed Woman) (Bayrūt: Manshūrāt Ghādah al-Sammān, 1981), p. 55. Translation mine.Google Scholar
  39. 95.
    I have discussed, with reference to the work of al-Sammān and Khalīfeh, the rapid transformations of women’s social and political roles during and after conflict elsewhere. See Kifah Hanna, “Middle Eastern Women’s Roles Transformed: the Gendered Spaces of Ghadah al-Samman and Sahar Khalifah,” in Shared Waters: Soundings in Postcolonial Literatures, ed. Stella Borg Barthet (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2009), p. 120.Google Scholar
  40. 96.
    For further discussion of El-Sa‘dāwī’s critiques of the feminist movement, see Moore (2008), p. 22 and Valassopoulos (2007), pp. 23–24. El-Sa‘dāwī’s example here is meant to elaborate solely on the material underachieve-ment of the feminist movement in Egypt. It does not engage with the literary value of her writings. For a pointed critique of the limitations of el-Sa‘dāwī’s narrative style and aesthetics, see Amal Amireh, “Framing Nawal El Saadawi: Arab Feminism in a Transnational World,” in Intersections: Gender, Nation, and Community in Arab Women’s Novels, ed. Lisa Suhair Majaj, Paula W Sunderman and Therese Saliba (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002).Google Scholar
  41. 99.
    Deniz Kandiyoti, “Identity and its Discontents: Women and the Nation,” in Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994), p. 380.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Kifah Hanna 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Kifah Hanna

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations