The Role of Women in Arabic Literature

Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx xxxxxxxx at
Wed Aug 9 14:36:54 MDT 2000

People who have uniformly portrayed third world women as passive agents of
"traditional" culture should at least attempt to read the Arabic literature. 
Here is a perplexing piece of literary work by Mona Mikhai.


The Role of Women in Arabic Literature

Mona Mikhai

Mona Mikhailis ,Associate Professor, of Arabic and lslamic Studies at New York
University. She has written numerous articles and made many translations of
contemporary Arabic literature. Dr. Mikhail won the P.E.N. Prize for her
translations of the short stories of Yusuf ldris.

Portrayals of women in Arabic literature serve as a barometer by which we can
measure that status and role of Arab women in society. Some may argue that
literature and real life are two different matters, that Arabic letters tell us
something about literature and not necessarily about conditions in Arab
societies. Nevertheless the value of literature in
understanding, indeed in bringing about change, regeneration, and transformation
within the very fabrics of these societies is not to be underestimated.

The literature of the Arabs is so vast that sifting through the numerous works
ftom the seventh century to this day to obtain a "definitive" view of women in
Arabic literature is a monumental task. Poets and writers, both men and women,
speak to us unveiling their innermost selves. A sampling of this infinitely rich
body of literature gives only a glimpse
at the changing roles, values and desires the Arab world has witnessed. In both
theory and practice women have been and will continue to be an inspiration, as
well as part of and instrumentat in bringing about a revitalizing change.

Tumadir bint Amru al-Harith-bint al-Sharid, better known as 'al-Khansa', the
dauntless poetess of the seventh century, reknowned for her eloquence and
outspoken courage, remains to this day a legend in Arabic literary annals. Her
famous "lament for a brother" rings with
timelessness and poignant immediacy:

What have we done to you death
that you treat us so, with always another catch
one day a warrior
the next a head of state
charmed by the loyal
you choose the best
iniquitous, unequalling death
I would not complain
if you were just
but you take the worthy
leaving fools for us.

Nazik al-Mal'aika, the poet, critic and innovator of poetic techniques, attracts
attention to the endemic plight of her sisters and the unlegislated inequities
imposed upon them in our contemporary societies. Her most moving poem,
Insignificant Woman, speaks not only of women but of the alienated human race
estranged in an indifferent world to its fate:

No eyes followed her coffin
to the end of the road
Only a memory of a lifeless form
passing in some lane...
A moon mourned in silence.

Walladah hint al-Mustakfi, famed beauty and daughter of the ruler of Cordova,
held literary gatherings that attracted the best known poets of the day,
composed as well as inspired some of the greatest eleventh century Andalusian
verses. Her liberated ways, advanced even by today's
standards, serve as paradigms for the status of women in her times.

I am fit for high positions, by
And am going my way with pride

were words embroidered, we are told, on one of her garments.

Forsooth, I allow my lover to
touch my cheek,
And bestow my kiss on him who
craves it.

Since the early 1900's Arab women have forcefully reflected in their writings
the multiplicity of social, intellectual, and political beliefs of their
societies. Voicing some of the "ills that flesh is heir to", Therese Awwad
pinpoints one of the more devastating diseases of our modern age, loneliness and

My loneliness
ages like wine
I arrest it
between parentheses
bridle it
together with the tumult
paste doubt to it

Fadwa Touqan rejects the constrictions that outside forces impose on her freedom
as a woman and as an Arab:

My freedom
I shall carve the words in the
chisel their sounds
over every door in the Levant...
below the slope at every street
corner inside the prison
within the torture chamber.

In more recent times men have made a substantial contribution to literature in
this vein. Jamil Sidqi a]-Zahawi, Ma'ruf al-Rusafi, Ahmad Shawqui and Hafiz
Ibrahim were ardent pioneers for the emancipation of women at the turn of this
century. Their words, vitriolic at times,
unquestionably accelerated the movement towards the shedding of archaic beliefs
and restrictive mores. Half a century later, Hamid al-iryani attacking the last
vestiges of shackling traditions that seem to linger stubbornly, writes:

Tear it
This veil
Discard it
Tatter it
And Leave death parade
To join the wedding procession
and sing
Destroy fears with violence...

Striking an equally forceful note Nizzar Qabbani focuses on his urbanized,
superficially Westernized companions. He has idolized women in the traditional
style, but has also succeeded, perhaps more than any other contemporary poet, in
exposing rauses which
perpetrate the victimization of women. Speaking for all women, he cries out:

My dear sir
l fear lo say what I have to say
I fear if I do
The skies will burn your East,
dear sir
Confiscates blue missives
Confiscates the dreams stored in
women safe...

Qabbani is equally critical of the vain, superficial woman who perpetuates her
subservience to material possessions.

You want
You want like all women
Solomon's treasures
Like all women

Pools of perfumes
Combs of ivory
A horde of slaves...

Like all women
You want me to give you the stars in the heavens...

Perhaps no fictional persona has dominated the Arabic literary ethos as much as
Shahrazad, the heroine of the Thousand and One Nights, and no comparable
literary figure has been more maligned. Shahrazad, the narrator of one of the
most influential masterpieces of world literature,
was not merely the prototype of All women, but more specifically woman who
through her exhaustive knowledge of human nature and accomplished scholarship
not only saves her life and those of her sisters, but succeeds in "humanizing"
her misogynic husband. As the tales
unfold, there emerges a discernible pattern of a studied strategy to bring about
a radical change in the disposition of her opponent. The battle of the sexes is
peacefuly resolved after the purging
of the residual enmity lingering in Sharayar's soul. The ethics, the language
and the mores of Arab medieval societies are inextricably woven into this
colossal work.

Contemporary Arabic fiction deals less dramatically with women than this
classical antecedent did. The novels, novellas and short stories of major Arab
writers, by and large, treat women more as symbols than individuals in control
of their destinies. Yet Fathiyya, the heroine of Yusuf Idris's novella
Al-Naddaha (The Siren), abandons husband and child in search of her true
identity and destiny. Unconventional as this behavior may seem for an illiterate
peasant, the great master craftsman spins a tale that convinces.  Women writers
have, in varying degrees, attempted to delineate their struggle to assert their
personalities and individualities as human bcings. Laila Baa'lbaki and Ghada
al-Sama have been the focus of many an argument for their daring treatment of
the subject. From North Africa, Assia Djebar, in a series of novels, assiduously
investigates the opposing forces between the
sexes, the long unresolved, often tenuous relationship between man and woman.
Like ldriss, Assia Djebar traces and follows the growth of her heroines. In Les
Alouettes Naives, Nfissa, a freedom fighter in the Algerian War of Independence,
lives in a world of conflicting ideals. She
is painfully aware of the plight of her Arab sisters:

All our women are afraid... They who are so talkative, never speak ofthefact
that they are afraid. They are busy having child after child to stifle their

Nfissa, like her Arab sisters, attempts and eventually succeeds in escaping the
imposed asphyxia bequeathed by generations of ignorance. Assia Djebar tells us:

Nfissa in the process of loving didn't lose herself, but rather awoke to herself
held herself high as a marble statue but also a statue of clay that could take
new forms.

Literature, we are told, is subversive because it probes the deepest strata of
the psyche and the imagination and remains unanswerable to governments. Arab
writers, both men and women, heroes and heroines, are in constant search of
their authentic selves in an attempt at
understanding their realities and, more crucially, redefining the meaning of
their lives. Arab women, in fact and fiction, have been dynamic and changing
factors. Underlying their "feminism"is not just the assertion of a new hope for
themselves, but a hope for a new kind of world for both men and women.



Xxxx Xxxxx Xxxxxx
PhD Student
Department of Political Science
SUNY at Albany
Nelson A. Rockefeller College
135 Western Ave.; Milne 102
Albany, NY 12222

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