Al-Ahram Weekly Online   22 - 28 December 2005
Issue No. 774
Books Supplement
 
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Re-opening the gates

Opening the Gates: An Anthology of Arab Feminist Writing, 2nd Edition, Margot Badran & Miriam Cooke, eds., Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2004. pp480

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Huda Shaarawi; Qut al-Qulub

Opening the Gates, a new edition of Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke's classic anthology of Arab feminist writing in English translation, is an interesting and informative book, which truly opens the gates to new horizons, those depicted by Arab women writers. It contains texts from almost everywhere in the Arab world and presents famous names such as those of Huda Shaarawi, Fadwa Tuqan and Nawal al-Saadawi, as well as unknown writers whose works are published here for the first time. The headnotes provided by the editors to their selections are always illuminating, presenting the authors' fascinating life stories, which reveal their pains and pleasures and show women's particular fight to make their voices heard. The glossary at the end of the book will also help familiarise non Arabic- speaking readers with Arabic vocabulary and help them appreciate the cultural contexts of the texts.

Themes discussed in this book cover a wide range of topics that concern feminist scholars, from gender segregation and women's internalisation of the sense of inferiority, to the power of the male gaze and the oppression of patriarchy, aided sometimes by matriarchy, circumcision and social hypocrisy. The editors' classification of the texts into three sections, "Awareness," "Rejection" and "Activism" is a brilliant move, suggesting the typical steps that characterise the birth of a movement and leading naturally to a final step, "Transition," the final section and a new addition to this second edition of the book.

The editors' introduction also gives an enlightening survey of the movement of feminisms in the Arab world, the term being used in the plural "to acknowledge plurality within unity." The new introduction and the new fourth section also highlight the new contexts of the nineties, with the appearance of many NGOs dealing with women's issues and the discourse of Islamic feminism.

Each section of the book begins with a poem that reflects its major theme. In the first section, in addition to revealing the awareness of their authors, the texts reflect a clustering of themes, though this organising principle is not mentioned in the introduction. For example, the first four selections reflect gender segregation and highlight the importance of writing and literary composition as a means of liberation. The texts written by Huda Shaarawi, Shirley Saad, Samira Azzam and Ulfa Idelbi focus on women's abuse in the institution of marriage, Saad's short story, "Amina," for example, revealing the pain and guilty feelings of a mother who has just given birth to her fourth daughter. Ironically and bitterly, the scene is presented as one of scandal.

"Lectures on Clitoridectomy," "Who Will Be the Man?" and "Honour," also in this first section, deal with the issue of female circumcision. The last pieces in this section tackle different themes, prominent among them the neglect of the Algerian women fighters who were relegated to the margins after the war of independence against France.

The book's second section, "Rejection," includes texts that reflect their authors' refusal of many current social habits and practices. Aysha al-Taimuriya, Bahithat al-Badiya, and, more than 50 years later, the Syrian and Lebanese writers, Ghada Samman, Emily Nasrallah, and Hanan al-Shaikh, all criticise women's position within the family and marriage, and society's persistence in moulding them to fit within certain frameworks.

Al-Taimuriya rejects the typical education in domestic skills, such as needlework, offered to women, for example, and Bahithat al-Badiya denounces the institution of polygamy, being herself a victim of it. The three last writers express their refusal of the commodification of women within the institution of marriage. Samman also criticises society's insistence on keeping women as "colourful mummy/slaves," causing them to internalise a false sense of inferiority, which she compares to "the slave who loves her bonds." Similarly, Nasrallah depicts a girl's desire to "decide [her] tomorrow," instead of waiting for a man to come and marry her. Al-Shaikh, too, makes clear her heroine's refusal to be treated as saleable or "unsaleable merchandise".

Ihasan Assal tackles another issue related to marital relationships, that of Bait al-Taa, or the house of obedience, the title of her short story. In the selections by Assal, Evelyne Accad, Andrée Chedid, Samar Attar, and Nawal al-Saadawi the common setting is one of the house as a site of confinement, with its most repressive effects being found in al-Saadawi's article "Eyes". This piece is based on the true story of a young girl who was veiled from a young age and isolated from men. Fadhma Amrouche's autobiographical extract deals with a taboo issue, that of illegitimate children, the writer herself being "a child of sin".

The book's section on "Activism" begins with two of the oldest texts by female activists, Hind Nawfal and Zainab Fawaz. Like Samman's text, written 70 years later, Fawaz's article criticises women's internalisation of gender segregation by denying the call made by a contemporary women of letters to confine women in the home, claiming that they cannot handle responsibilities both outside and inside their homes (ironically an ongoing argument even today). Bahithat al-Badiya takes over where Fawaz leaves off, and she advocates women's right to work, instigating them to take action.

An extract from a novel by Qut al-Qulub continues the discussion of marriage from the perspective of the heroine, Ramza. This young women is not only aware of the crime of forcing women into marriage, as is the case in the texts by Shaarawi and Idelbi, and she does not only reject the idea of being treated as a commodity, as in the selections from al-Shaikh and Nasrallah. Instead, she takes action when she defies her father's patriarchal power, telling him that "My ambition, Father, is to marry the man I have chosen freely, the man I have loved and not to be passed on like an inherited good...." In the novel, Ramza marries the man she loves, and when he lets her down she makes him divorce her, being the agent of both her marriage and divorce.

Social and religious hypocrisy and common misconceptions of women's faculties are discussed by Nabawwiya Musa, Saiza Nabarawi and Nazira Zain al-Din. The latter's text sets a precedent in its vigorous exposure of hypocrisy. Al-Din rightly argues that "honour is rooted in the heart, and chastity comes from within, and not from a piece of transparent material lowered over the face." This tone gets louder and stronger in the work of Zoubeida Bittari, who speaks bitterly here of the injustices of patriarchal society, which repudiated her at the age of 14 for going to the dentist alone. As a result, she was divorced and kicked out of the house, not only by her husband's family, but also by her own.

The activism section of the book also contains a group of texts that document the efforts of feminists in Egypt to assist women in gaining their rights, presenting these in chronological order. They include texts by the older generation of feminist activists, women such as Huda Shaarawi, Zahiya Dughan, a Lebanese activist, Inji Aflatun and Duriya Shafiq, as well as the new, represented by Amina Said, Nahid Toubia (representing the Arab Women's Solidarity Association) and a group of Egyptian women working in different fields. With Amatalrauf al-Sharki's "An Unveiled Voice" we move from Egypt to Yemen, where activism is expressed through the oral narrative of the life of a woman who has developed a feminist consciousness. She unveils her face while working for radio, and she speaks of the veil as "a big lie."

The book's final section, "Transition," contains interviews and writings that reflect contemporary transitions in feminist discourse, consciousness and modes of activism. Interviews with Amat al-Aleem Alsoswa, the first woman minister in Yemen, and Tahani al-Jibali, one of the first three Egyptian women to be appointed a judge, give a vivid image of two brave women who have fought to attain their rights in societies tending to deny them. They also reveal the power of Islamic feminist discourse and its intersection with secular feminism. In her "Testimonial of a Creative Writer" Egyptian author Latifa al-Zayyat asserts her "woman-ness," which she had earlier denied: "Why do we shrink from calling our creative works women's ( nisa'i ) writings or feminist ( nisawi ) writings," she asks.

In this section we also hear the voices of Kuwaiti activists for the first time in translation, recorded in an interview whose title indicates the transition in Kuwait "From National Resistance to Feminist Activism." This is followed by an autobiographical piece by the Kuwaiti woman Layla al-Uthman, in which she compares the harshness of her father who forced her to wear the abaya with the Iraqi invaders in 1990 forcing people out of a supermarket while they were looting inside.

On finishing this book, the reader can only feel grateful to the editors who have offered her or him this wonderful chance to discover many silenced and veiled voices and who have opened the gates to so many unknown territories. The various texts document the movement of feminisms in the Arab world, proving wrong the common fallacy that Arab women lack awareness of their own rights, and that they have therefore been necessarily influenced and initiated into action by western feminists. This influence, though not denied here, is not exaggerated either.

As a result, reading this book is a must for anyone interested in feminist studies or gender issues in general, whether a scholar or a member of a broader audience. The book is also very timely as it highlights a new stage in the development of feminisms in Arab societies, and it gets us past divisive or degrading stereotypes that freeze off genuine communication and allow a more positive and accurate image to be built.

Reviewed by Heba M Sharobeem

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