May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt

May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt

May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt

May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt


Marilyn Booth's elegantly conceived study reveals the Arabic tradition of life-writing in an entirely new light. Though biography had long been male-authored, in the late nineteenth century short sketches by and about women began to appear in biographical dictionaries and women's journals. By 1940, hundreds of such biographies had been published, featuring Arabs, Turks, Indians, Europeans, North Americans, and ancient Greeks and Persians. Booth uses over five hundred "famous women" biographies--which include subjects as diverse as Joan of Arc, Jane Austen, Aisha bt. Abi Bakr, Sarojini Naidu, and Lucy Stone--to demonstrate how these narratives prescribed complex role models for middle-class girls, in a context where nationalist programs and emerging feminisms made defining the ideal female citizen an urgent matter.

Booth begins by asking how cultural traditions shaped women's biography, and to whom the Egyptian biographies were directed. The biographies were published at a time of great culturalawakening in Egypt, when social and political institutions were in upheaval. The stories suggested that Islam could be flexible on social practice and gender, holding out the possibility for women to make their own lives. Yet ultimately they indicate that women would find it extremely difficult to escape the nationalist ideal: the nuclear family with "woman" at its center. This conflict remains central to Egyptian politics today, and in her final chapter Booth examines Islamic biographies of women's lives that have been published in more recent years.


As a child, [Qadriyya Husayn, daughter of Sultan Husayn] preferred perusing the pages of illustrated magazines and asking about what she saw there to playing with dolls…. She wrote many books, the most important of which in our opinion is Book of the Egyptian Queens.

“Al-Amira Qadriyya Husayn, ”Mothers of the Future, 1930

Halide Edip is the lady to whom leadership of the women's awakening in Turkey eventually came, without any effort on her part to acquire this position, in the view of both the strong and gentle sexes. This is contrary to what we witness among certain literary ladies of the other countries [in the region], who have been set on making the ears of others ring with the words that woman has rights now suppressed, that between woman and man lies an enigma women must solve by striving to speak publicly and to write what is in their interest.

Muhibb al-Din al-Khatib, “SN: al-Sayyida Khalida Adib, ” Young Woman of the East, 1922

Qadriyya Husayn, Turkish princess in Egypt, wrote about Egyptian queens and early Muslim women. She carried on the work of Fawwaz and, like her, privileged some features of the tabaqat tradition and muted others. These shifts emerged also in biographies of “Famous Women” (shahirat alnisa')—of Fawwaz, Husayn, and hundreds of others—that appeared in periodicals in Egypt targeted largely at women as subject and audience, and edited primarily by women. For, from its emergence in 1892, “the women's press” (al-sihafa al-nisa'iyya) celebrated famous women, borrowing texts from Fawwaz and Husayn, and writing many others. We have already watched Labiba Hashim editing life stories taken from Scattered Pearls, carrying Fawwaz's shifts further: focusing more keenly on the subject's own life, minimizing her role as a link in a chain; intimating a political justification for the gendered manipulation of a rhetoric of exemplarity and precedent; inserting an intrusive and generalizing narrative voice that points up that justification; flooding the text with attributive adjectives and . . .

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