Arab Women (Part I): The Literary Pioneers

After creating #NotYourNarrative, a Twitter-based discussion centered around the mainstream media’s usurpation of native voices, with Rania Khalek, a hashtag which amassed more than 6,000 tweets in less than a single day, I found it essential to provide a list of Arab women writers and their contributions. While compiling a list I found that Nahla Hanno, creator of Arab Women Writers, has already organized a brilliant collection aimed at ‘celebrating and recognizing Arab women writers, and promoting awareness of the breadth of their contributions to Arab and world culture.’

The following is a modest selection taken from Hanno’s ‘Arab Women Writers’:
Afifa Karam (1883-1924) was a Lebanese novelist and journalist born in the village of `Amshit. She was educated at village convent school and Sisters of the Holy Family School in Jubayl. She married at the age of thirteen and immigrated to the U.S. with her husband in 1897.

She enriched her knowledge of culture with extensive reading and wrote for the diaspora press, including the journal al-Huda. She established the journal, al-Mar’a al-Suriya (1911-1913), after which she published the monthly al-Alam al-jadid (1913). She was also a correspondent for al-Mar’a al-jadida. She translated Alexander Dumas’ novel, The Regent’s Daughter, as well as the novel, Queen for A Day.

Although it has been the general consensus in the Arab world that the first modern novel in Arabic literature is Zainab, by the Egyptian writer Hussayn Haykal (1914), in fact, Afifa Karam wrote the first novel in Arabic in 1906. It was Badi’awa Fouad, published by Al-Huda newspaper.

Publications: (Arabic)
Badi`a wa Fu’ad, novel, 1906
Bedouin Fatima, novel, 1906
The Beauty of `Amshit, novel, 1914
Muhammed `Ali the Great, novel

Zaynab Fawwaz (1846-1914) was a Lebanese essayist, novelist, poet, and dramatist. She immigrated from south Lebanon to Egypt as a young woman and became a prominent writer on gender issues in the nationalist press.

She was the daughter of a Shi’ite family of modest means from Tibnin, Jabal Amil. She became the protégée of newspaper publisher and litterateur Hasan Husni Pasha al-Tuwayrani, in whose newspaper, al-Nil, she published essays in the early 1890s while also publishing in women’s journals and other periodicals.

Her essays and poetry were published in The Zaynab epistles, 1906; like other intellectuals of her time, she wrote across genres, publishing a massive biographical dictionary of famous women, Scattered pearls on the generations of the mistresses of seclusion, 1894, as well as two novels, Good consequences, or Ghada the radiant, 1899 and King Kurush, first sovereign of the Persians, 1905, and one play, Passion and fidelity, 1893. She is considered an Arab feminist pioneer; her work is notable for emphasizing the importance of women’s access to income-generating employment.

Publications: (Arabic)
Scattered pearls on the generations of the mistresses of of Seclusion, 1894
The Zaynab epistles, 1906

Husn al-awaqib aw Ghada al-zahira, 1899
al-Malik Kurush awwal muluk al-Fars, 1905

Passion and fidelity, 1893 (Translated from Arabic into English)
Booth, Marilyn. May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001
“Fair and Equal Treatment,” translated by Marilyn Booth. In Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, edited by Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990

Malak Hifni Nassif (1886-1918) publicly advocated women’s advancement in the early twentieth century during the Women’s Awakening; the women’s press and the writers who contributed to it played an important role in the development of feminism and the reform of social institutions in a number of Middle East countries. Nassif, along with other prominent figures such as May Ziadeh, were active in literary and social groups through which they contributed to the intellectual and public debate about nationalism and how to define Egyptian and Arab political and cultural identity under the British colonial government.

Nassif articulated one of the founding discourses of feminism that emerged in Egypt during the first third of the twentieth century. Nassif’s feminism, expressed in her collection of talks and essays, Al-nisa’iyyat (Women’s affairs, 1910), de-emphasized Western values as it attempted to affirm and improve women’s lives and experience through increased educational and work opportunities within a reformed Islamic context.

Publications: (Arabic)
Womenly. Two volumes of her articles, 1925

Munira Thabit (1902-1967) was an Egyptian journalist and political activist born and raised in Alexandria. She learned English, Italian, and Arabic and moved to Cairo to work in journalism in 1925. She published the French-language Le Poire newspaper, a political and literary weekly.

She then put out the Arabic-language Al-Amal. She published a series of articles in al-Alram entitled Reflections of a Revolutionary, all signed “M.T.” Her non-fiction works include The Cause of Palestine: Egyptian Woman’s Opinion on Britain’s White Paper, 1939.

Publications: (Arabic)
A Revolution in the Ivory Tower: My Memories of Twenty Years of Struggle for Women’s Political Rights, memoir, 1946

Samira Azzam (1927-1967) was born in Acre, Palestine. The daughter of a Christian Orthodox goldsmith, she completed her basic education, and began working as a school teacher there at the age of sixteen. She was later appointed to the post of headmistress of a girls’ school. She worked for a living, had no university training, and was largely self-taught. In her late teens she became an occasional contributor of reviews and original stories to the newspaper Filastin (Palestine), under the pen name “Fatat al-sahel”.

After fleeing with her family to Lebanon in 1948, she worked as a teacher before entering the field of radio broadcasting. She is familiar to many Arabs simply because she was heard so often on the radio. Her first job in broadcasting was with the Near East Arab Broadcasting Station (NEABS),’ She later worked for radio stations in Iraq and Kuwait and taped material for the Jordanian station and the Voice of Palestine in Cairo.

She lived and wrote mainly in Lebanon from 1948 until her early death in a car accident in 1967.

She wrote two novels and published four collections of short stories, of which the last was Al-insanu wal sa’aa; she also translated Ray West’s Fifty Years of American Fiction.

Publications: (Arabic)
Small Things, short stories. Beirut: 1954
The Big Shadow, short stories. Beirut: 1956
Other Stories, short stories. Beirut: 1960
The Clock and the Man, short stories. Beirut: 1963
The Holiday Doesn’t Come from the Western window, short stories. Beirut: 1971
Echoes, short stories. Beirut: 1997

Malakat al-Dar Abdullah (1918-1969) was Sudanese novelist born in al-Ubayyid. She received her early education at the al-Qubba School in al-Ubayyid, the first girls’ school in western Sudan. She continued her education at the Teacher Training College in Umm Durman, from which she graduated in 1943.

She worked as a teacher in several regions of Sudan and in 1960 became the school inspector in Kurdufan. She is a founding member of the al -Ubayyid Women’s Charitable Association, as well as a member of the Sudanese Women’s Union and the Teachers’ Syndicate. She received first prize for her story, The Village Doctor, in a short-story competition sponsored by Sudanese radio in 1947. Her novel al-Faragh al-‘arid was published posthumously.

Publications: (Arabic)
The Vast Emptiness, novel. Khartoum: National Council for the Humanities and Arts, 1970

Asma Tubi (1905-1983) was a Palestinian writer born in Nazareth, where she remained until completing primary school. She was concerned with women’s issues and was an active member of the Women’s Union in Acre from 1929 to 1948. In the late period of the British Mandate she was the president of the Arab Women’s Union in Acre, a leader of the Orthodox Young Women’s Association, and a prominent member of the Young Christian Women’s Association.

When she was forced to leave Palestine in 1948, she left behind a book manuscript at the printer titled The Arab Palestinian Woman. She appeared on several Palestinian radio programs, including Jerusalem Here and The Near East in Jaffa. She also appeared on Lebanese radio in Beirut in 1948. That year, she assumed the editorship of the women’s page of Filistin (Palestine) newspaper. She was also the editor of two women’s magazines.

She wrote drama, poetry, and fiction and published several works in English. She received the Lebanese Constantine the Great Award in 1973 and was posthumously awarded the Jerusalem Medal for Culture and Arts in December 1990

Publications: (Arabic)
The Death of the Czar and His Family, play, 1925
The Young Woman and How I Want Her, essay, 1943
Patience and Relief, play, 1943
On the Sacrificial Altar, poetry, two vol., 1946
Stories from the Heart, short stories, 1955
Fragrance and Glory, essays, 1966
The Coral Mountain, 1972
My Big Love, poetry, 1972.
Wafts of Perfume, essays, 1975

Aisha Taymur (1840–1902) was one of Egypt’s most distinguished social activists, and also a poet and novelist. Born to a literary family, Aisha was the sibling of researcher/novelist Ahmad Pasha Taymur and aunt of playwright Mohammad Taymur and novelist Mahmoud Taymur.

Her father, of Kurdish origin, was member of the royal entourage and was keen on providing her with adequate education. She was well-versed in the sciences of the Holy Quran and Islamic Jurisprudence. She wrote poetry in Arabic, Turkish and Farsi.

Publications: (Arabic)
Decorative Embroidery, poetry, 1884
The Consequences of Circumstances in Words and Deeds, 1887
The Mirror of Contemplation, epistle, 1892
Featured image caption:
“Palestinian author Asma Tubi from Nazareth (on arm of chair); and Safiyyah Riyahi from Jaffa (seated), who became a lecturer in Arabic at Beirut College for Women; 1938. From the London Conference to the UN Partition Recommendation, 1939-1947”


4 thoughts on “Arab Women (Part I): The Literary Pioneers

  1. Thank you so much for this Roqayah. My knowledge of women of colour feminist writing (outside of black women) is sorely lacking. Really appreciate this primer to help fill that chasm.

  2. Pingback: Top 5 of 2013 | Letters From The Underground

  3. Pingback: Arab Women (Part II): The Literary Pioneers | Letters From The Underground

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