"We All Want the Same Things Basically": Feminism in Arab Women's Literature

Article excerpt

Abstract: After establishing that Middle Eastern feminism is essentially different from American feminism, I discuss the portrayal of feminism in various works by Middle Eastern women writers. These include the novels and nonfiction works of Nawal El-Saadawi, the premier Egyptian feminist and scholar. I also explore the theme of the emergence of a feminist consciousness in a novel by Hala Deeb Jabbour and in a memoir by Fay Afaf Kanafani. My conclusion emphasizes the importance of a broader understanding of the various feminisms around the globe.

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In her important travel memoir, An American Feminist in Palestine: The Intifida Years (1994), Sherna Berger Gluck encounters a member of the leadership of the Palestinian Women's Social Work Committee. Despite the fact that the Committee sought to empower Palestinian women living under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the first Intifada (the uprising of the Palestinian population against the Israeli military occupation between 1987-1992), this woman in particular tells Gluck: "No, no, we are not feminist. We are for women, and we are for helping them to be independent--independent from men--but, no, we are not a feminist group" (p. 57). Sensing the passion in the woman's voice and words, Gluck refrains from probing further about the committee's perspective on women's rights and feminism, though she suspects that her "adamancy was more a reaction to the label than to the concept" (p. 57).

I was impressed by Gluck's memoir, which I perceived to be one of the most soundly constructed bridges between Western and Eastern feminisms built thus far, especially in a time when the need to find connections between East and West is much talked-about, but not often acted upon. Gluck describes her various visits to the Palestinian occupied territories as missions during which she hopes to observe the Palestinian-Israeli crisis both as a Jewish-American who opposes the occupation, and as a woman: "I also look at the world through my feminist lens, always asking where the women are and how they are experiencing events. As a result, although my view of the Intifada is a broad one, women are at the center, not on the margins" (p. 14). However, in order to see the role Palestinian women play in society and politics clearly and accurately, Gluck suspends her own interpretations of feminism and makes herself intellectually available to receive other visions and possibilities. She does so skillfully and insightfully.

My own travels to the Palestinian territories have not been unlike Gluck's (although I'm not altogether sure I could articulate my observations as well as she) in the sense that, like Gluck, I am a feminist and a person who is emotionally invested in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by virtue of my ethnic and religious identity. Gluck is a Jewish-American, a rabbi's daughter, who grew up learning about the "Promised Land" and singing "songs about the land and the olive trees in some far-off place ... in a Zionist youth group" (p. 3). I am a Palestinian-American, an Arab Christian, who was raised on stories about the fig trees and olive trees, the sweet air of the hills and rich soil of the valleys "back home"--raised on the memories of parents who left Palestine in 1967. They traveled separately to America, where they later met, in hopes of carving out some happiness. They carved it permanently, etching in the details with their remembrances of home.

I grew up, then, thinking about Palestine and believing that I knew everything about it. I saw the strength of my mother and aunts, and assumed that all Palestinian women were strong, self-reliant people. However, my first solo trip to the West Bank in 1997 (I had taken shorter visits with my entire family) changed my opinion and made me realize my naivete. In Palestine, not all women are strong; many are, but many are also meek and submissive. I became weary of a few cousins of mine who were seemingly obsessed with finding husbands, and I admired other female relatives who were pursuing PhDs, careers, or other ambitions, despite the frequent closures of the universities and roads; I also was happy to meet relatives who had created egalitarian marriages in which they and their husbands contributed equally--and were not shy about it. …