The Hidden History of Arab Feminism

From MS. Magazine May / June 1993 p.76 - 77
The Hidden History of Arab Feminism
Women's networks and journals have flourished since 1892
By Bouthaina Shaaban

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 mission.

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 States.

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).

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