The Hidden History of Arab Feminism, MS. Magazine May/June

From MS. Magazine May/June 1993 p.76 - 77

The Hidden History of Arab Feminism
Women's networks and journals have flourished since 1892


   The clear dividing line between a journalist and a writer in the
West has always been blurred in the Arab world. Many Arab
journals and papers were launched by writers and educators
who considered journalism an extension of other forms of
writing and who felt that they had an urgent social and political

   Between 1892 and 1940, Arab women writers concentrated
their efforts on printing their own journals, in which they
published poetry, fiction, and criticism, as well as essays aimed
at promoting women's role in society. Any assessment of Arab
(or, for that matter, global) women's literature cannot be done
without evaluating the Arab women's press, which was for half a
century the major platform for Arab women writers.

   In 1892, the Syrian, Hind Nawfal, started her first journal,
al-Fatat ("Young Girl"), in Alexandria, Egypt, ushering in a
flourishing era: there were more than 25 Arab feminist journals
owned, edited, and published by women -- all before the First
World War. These editors stated in their editorials that their most
important concern was women: women's literature, women's rights, and
women's future. In her editorial to the first issue (November 20,
1892) of al-Fatat, Hind Nawfal wrote: "al-Fatat is the only journal
for women in the East; it expresses their thoughts, discloses their
inner minds, fights for their rights, searches for their literature
and science, and takes pride in publishing the products of their
pens." Editors of other journals urged women who are "attentive to
the future and betterment of their sex to write so that their works
may be read and become, in the meantime, a part of the literary
heritage." These journals appeared in Cairo, Beirut, Damascus,
and to a lesser extent, Baghdad. The editors displayed
profound political knowledge, sensitivity to the sources of social
problems, reliable economic sense, and sophisticated professional
skills in the domains of publishing, marketing, and financial
viability. To name just a few: Anis al-Galis, owned, edited, and
published by Alexandra Afernuh (Alexandria, 1898); Shajarat
al-Durr, by Sa'dya Sa'd al-Din (Alexandria, 1901); al-Mara'a, by
Anisa Attallah (Egypt, 1901); al-Saada, by Rujina A'wad (Egypt,
1902); al-A'rus by Mary A'jami (Damascus, 1910); al-Kitadir, by
Afifa Sa'ab (Lebanon, 1912); Fatat al-Niyl, by Sara al-Mihaya (Cairo,
1913); and Fatat Lubnan, by Salima Abu Rashid (Lebanon, 1914).

   Although regular coverage was given to the experience and
achievements of Western women, all these journals stressed the
necessity to learn from women's movements in the West without
giving up what is positive in Arab culture and Muslim religion.
(As far as women and Islam are concerned, studies often confirmed
that there is literally nothing in the Koran that makes "the
veil" a required Islamic duty, and that polygamy is against
the spirit and the actual wording of the Koran.)

   A stream of articles that appeared in a number of these journals
established an interesting link between the emergence of
political movements for national independence and the
awakening of a feminist consciousness in the Arab world, arguing
that no country can be truly free so long as its women remain
shackled (an important connection that Arab women in the next
generation failed to stress). The point that feminist issues are
national issues was made not only by women, but also by such
prominent men as Adil Jamil Bayhani and George Niqula Baz.
Women writers expressed real interest in national affairs and
political issues, and gave no indication whatsoever that they were
living on the periphery of political life. Suffice it to mention,
perhaps, that the Arab Women's Union, with its clear Pan-Arab
vision, was formed in 1928, 17 years before the League of Arab

   Some nationalists even started to see in the feminist writings
of this era a key for national reform. The wellknown nationalist
lawyer Habib Faris wrote to Fatat Lubnan in 1914: "National
reform could be achieved once the government decides to
support women writers who are best qualified to sow the seeds
of just and righteous principles among the people. The writings of
women in newspapers and journals are more compelling and more
effective in bringing about reform than any other force."

   Yet some women writers dealt with feminist issues that we are
still, almost a century later, trying to resolve. Labiba Shamti'n
wrote in 1898: "I can't see how a woman writer or poet could
be of any harm to her husband and children. In fact, I see the
exact opposite; her knowledge and education will reflect positively
on her family and children.... Neither male art nor
creativity has ever been considered as a misfortune to the
family, or an impediment to the love and care a father may
bestow upon his children. The man who sees in a learned woman
his rival is incompetent; he who believes that his knowledge is
sufficient is mean, and the man who believes that woman's
creativity harms him or her is ignorant."

   In another 1898 article, exploring the social and psychological
evils of granting men unlimited power to divorce, Shajarat
al-Duff strikes an unusual chord: "Fear of divorce may distort
a woman's character and mind, drive her to conspire against
her husband, and treat him as she would treat a
wicked enemy rather than a loved companion. Woman in reality
may find it necessary to use tricks and games to satisfy her
husband at all cost, because she fears him as she would fear a
totally untrustworthy person. She tries to be a shrewd enemy
to an adversary who is, forever, hanging the threat of divorce over
her head."

   Articles about the position of European, U.S., Chinese,
Indonesian, and Indian women appeared regularly in these
journals, as well as biographies of great women, both
European and Arab. The accounts of non-Arab women, in general, never
conveyed the slightest feeling of prejudice against Western women or
against their style of life. Most of these articles stressed the
necessity to benefit from the experiences of other women
without losing sight of Arab history, culture, and religion. In
addition, the journals published accurate social studies about the
status of rural women, of employed women, of educated women,
and of housewives. These studies often pointed to the source of
social ills that kept women on the margin of life, and called
for true reform. Quite a few of these articles stressed that if
differences between the sexes were to be examined
accurately, we would find that the results are in women's
favor. They argued that women surpass men in sensitivity,
kindness, sympathy, and deep thought, because women are
the source of life and the origin of everything valuable in it. But
most of the articles stressed that the point is not to prove the
superiority of women over men (and by so doing commit the
same mistake men have committed for centuries); rather, such
arguments try to prove that what others used to call weakness in
women's character is, in fact, true strength and a solid basis
for social structure.

   The journals also reported on the feminist societies that
began to appear in all quarters of the Arab world, and on
news of international women's conferences.

   In addition to feminist networks that were set up in
Cairo, Alexandria, Damascus, Beirut, and Baghdad,
women journalists corresponded with the organization Women
and Peace, which called upon women in all corners of
the globe to use their powers against the escalation of
tension and the production of weapons. They argued
that women are the first, and the worst, hurt by war.
These journals exerted a real effort to win Arab women to
the cause of peace.

   It is clear from letters of readers and correspondents that
the women's press during that time constituted a central
element in the Arab press. But the important role these
journals have played during the first half of this century is not
yet acknowledged. It is unfortunate that no proper archives exist
in the Arab world of this rich heritage, and no studies have
appeared about it. It deserves introduction to Arab and Western
readers alike.

Bouthaina Shaban is professor of comparative women's literature at
Damascus University and is the author of "Both Right and Left Handed:
Arab Women Talk About their Lives" (Indiana University Press,
1991) and "Poetry and Politics" (Dar Talas, Damascus, 1993).