Arab Women Writers: "Are There Any?"

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Arab Women Writers: "Are There Any?"

At a convention of the Modern Language Association, I was introduced to an American colleague as "a scholar from Syria working on Arab women novelists." He raised his eyebrows and, with an ascending laugh, exclaimed, "Arab women novelists: Are there any?"

As one who feels she needs two lifetimes to cover only a fraction of the material available, his reaction planted two questions in my mind. I've answered one by deciding that if American readers are unaware that Arab women novelists exist at all, it is more urgent to write about Arab women novelists in English than it is in Arabic. The second question, which I'm still pondering, is where to begin. The number of women who have distinguished themselves in Arabic literature from the sixth century until today is immense.

Al Khansa (575-664) was an Arab woman poet who was also a literary critic. She used to stand in that world's fair of Arabic poetry, the Okaz market in present-day Saudi Arabia, scrutinizing the work of her fellow poets, and pointing out to them the merits and demerits of their poetry. In the 14 centuries since, Arab women have been writing poetry and prose and conducting their literary salons. In such salons poets have been meeting regularly to recite their recent compositions, with the hostess (who is always a woman) as the ultimate literary judge. If the literary contributions of Arab women have not been properly recorded or fairly acknowledged, the task to do so is ours.

Even before the operation of recording Arabic literature began, it was women who conveyed the stories of oral tradition from one generation to another, keeping the heritage of Arabic storytelling alive. Poetry was for generations the most important genre in Arabic literature. The short story and the novel in their modern forms were quite late to appear, but earlier forms such as Al-Hikayya and Makamah were widely practiced.

In my own latest research I have discovered that the first novel in Arabic literature was written by a woman rather than a man, as previously assumed. 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), this can only be true if we exclude women writers.

In fact, Afifa Karam, a Lebanese woman, wrote the first novel in Arabic in 1906. It was Badi'a wa Fouad, published by Al-Huda newspaper (New York). Since then Arab women writers have been writing novels and short stories, but without claiming the amount of attention accorded to men writers.

Most Arab women writers began by exploring the intricacies of their lives as women, of their families, and of family relations. Until the 1950s, the concept of women's literature, as expressed by Syrian novelist Widad Sakkakini, was "the literature in which a woman writer expresses her inner feelings and subtle sensitivity in female spheres which are out of man's reach. . .Women's literature describes 'female habits and modes of thinking which no man writer, however talented he might be, could reach.'"

Yet the writer who coined this limiting definition exceeded it in her own literary productions. In a style that included sharp satire and shrewd humor, Widad Sakkakini's first story collection, The Peoples' Mirrors, sensitively portrayed the social and psychological environment confining her sisters, and tacitly incited them to rebel against prevailing prejudices and stereo-types. …