Al-Ahram Weekly Online
16 - 22 May 2002
Issue No.586
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

In their own voices

Where should women turn when society's doors are shut in their faces? Rania Khallaf talks to women who are fighting back with their pens

illustration: Mohamed Hegazi
An ordinary housewife has but one desire: to sing. However, her attempts are repeatedly thwarted by her neighbours and her husband, and eventually she is sent to see a psychiatrist. The doctor proves no help to her either, refusing to even listen to her views on the matter. And finally, she stops singing.

This is the story that Salwa Bakr tells in "Oh, what a lovely voice." The tale is one that rings all too true for female writers in Egypt.

The number of women writing in this country has grown so dramatically over the past decade that the 1990s have been dubbed "the decade of women's writing." And while some critics consider this wave bound to be short-lived, literary critic Sherine Abul-Naga argues otherwise. "This mistaken view is due to the very limited experience people have of the new spirit alive among young women; a spirit challenging traditions."

Somaya Ramadan, professor of English literature at Cairo University, characterises this literature as "Moving stagnant water and making a difference. They [female writers] speak out powerfully for self-assurance, non-violence and respect for humanity -- for a new spiritual attitude towards life." Despite the diversity among the voices, Ramadan claims that these writings provide an inspiring new paradigm that challenges our culture, and offers an alternative based on the strength of insight, experience and feelings.

It is a movement that finds its roots in the early 20th century. Writers such as Aisha El-Taymoriya, Mae Ziyada, Labiba Hashim and Zeinab Fawaz were its proponents. They were subsequently joined by figures such as Malak Hefni Nassef and Hoda Sharawi, who were famous for their writings in social and literary criticism.

According to Abul-Naga, "At that time, society was not prepared for this awakening and the new social values it embodied. Female writers today struggle against the same lack of social receptiveness. Only today, the situation is made more complex because of the schisms among the writers themselves. Both of these factors hinder the development of a unified movement."

Most contemporary female writers come from a similar background. They are, in the main, middle-class women who took up writing after they had developed other careers. Writing for them is, consequently, a means of self-assertion, through a dialogue with oneself, and in some cases it is a cry against male domination.

Asma Hashim, 29, who recently published her first novel, believes that writing is "a way to shape my own 'self' and the world around me. My family used to choose every thing for me: my clothes, studies, everything. I had no choices. Writing is an attempt to escape the bounds of a traditional and closed society." Hashim, one of the younger generation of contemporary female writers is an anomaly on the country's writing scene, living not in Cairo, but in the Upper Egyptian governorate of Aswan.

For Ramadan, who was recently awarded the Naguib Mahfouz prize, writing was a last resort. "I wanted to contribute to the world I live in. I worked for human rights organisations and then for charitable associations that serve women and children. However, I could not find way to give back that satisfied me." Although writing has proved a fruitful outlet, she is still seeking to fulfil her need to contribute, conceding that "for an activist," writing, too, has its shortcomings.

For Nora Amin, 27, a prolific writer who began publishing in 1995, and whose novels examine the concept of femininity, writing was her first resort. "I was conscious from early on that writing is a cognitive medium for understanding the world."

Choosing such a method of expression is not without a down side. Hashim recalls, "My parents strongly objected to my writing. They even deprived me of my own books. My male colleagues at university used to criticise me for participating in the Literature Club, long known as a community of men alone. Since I began publishing my stories, things have started to change," she told the Weekly.

Maysoon Saqr, a well-established Iraqi poet who came to Egypt with her family in the early 1960s, is another example of contemporary women authors who look at their writing as an instrument of challenging male dominance. "When I was a teenager, I lived in a community comprised of women because my father, who was then a famous poet, was a political prisoner in the Emirates. When he was finally released, I felt that I wanted to resist all the social values he brought with him, including female submissiveness and obedience to men."

Most female writers suffer censorship, whether it be from their families, society or even from within themselves. Ramadan of Cairo University said, "I am totally aware of self-censorship and I have come to a decision that I will not be tricked into censoring myself for any reason. I will pay the price for what I publish -- regardless of the fundamentalists' views regarding my work. We all suffer from lack of acceptance because of the prevailing religious discourse which does not welcome creativity, especially that of women."

Saqr recounts, "My father attempted to burn my first collection, claiming that it included obscene poems. Our relationship has deteriorated ever since, and for nine years I dared not publish a single book." During the 1990s, Saqr resumed publication, going on to issue another eight collections of poems, however, she seems to be inhibited by the fear of overstepping the ever- present boundaries. "When one becomes more experienced in life, the margin of freedom becomes narrower, until it seems to exist only inside oneself. Being surrounded by people with such conservative values and traditions, one necessarily feels besieged."

Bakr, however, sees more room to manoeuvre. "We live in a conservative society, whose values and concepts are not easily changeable. Religion is one of the major features of the national identity. The wise writer has to use language that establishes a relationship with his readers. I only ask questions through writing, and I try to push the reader to think about them."

Some have suffered the consequences of censorship in very concrete terms. Zabya Khamis, a writer from the United Arab Emirates, was imprisoned in her country in 1987 because of her poems. "They kidnapped me at midnight," recounts Khamis whose books were confiscated and burned. However, Khamis would not submit. "I decided to live and publish my books outside my country," she says bitterly. Khamis, who has lived in Egypt since 1989, has not allowed the bitterness dominate her writing, however. "Although I suffered a great deal psychologically because of leaving my country, I don't write about this suffering. I write about the sweetness of life," she says.

Interestingly, many of these women writers balk at describing themselves as feminists. Saqr explains their caution. "There are critics and readers who consider the 'feminist' an outsider; someone who chooses to be outside the religious realm. The mere research of feminism in our society has become a risky endeavour. Some force draws us back, as though we were fearful of developing our concepts and values."

Focusing on the political dimension, Bakr notes, "Feminism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its roots go back to the 1919 revolution and then it accompanied the national struggle for freedom from the British occupation. The problem today is that the voice of feminism comes within a fragile political context, with the absence of effective political parties."

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