Academic journal article Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

Reconciling Arabo-Islamic Culture and Feminist Consciousness in North African Women's Writing: Silence and Voice in the Short Stories of Alifa Rifaat and Assia Djebar

Academic journal article Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

Reconciling Arabo-Islamic Culture and Feminist Consciousness in North African Women's Writing: Silence and Voice in the Short Stories of Alifa Rifaat and Assia Djebar

Article excerpt

This article sets out to explore the theme of silence and voice in selected short stories by two North African women writers, Alifa Rifaat and Assia Djebar. In their representations of women's lives in Egypt and Algeria, respectively, both Rifaat and Djebar present different strategies employed by women to counter gender oppression. Although the female characters portrayed by both writers encounter diverse, and sometimes opposing, circumstances, they tend to share a common plight--the need to break free from the constricting fetters of patriarchy. A comparative reading of selected stories reveals that Rifaat's characters resort to silence as a means of self-preservation, while Djebar's characters, on the other hand, use techniques ranging from writing to outright protest to show their rejection of gender-based segregation. In spite of this difference in approach, it can be said that both Rifaat and Djebar have made a great contribution to feminist literary creativity in North Africa. Key words: Alifa Rifaat, Assia Djebar, Islam, women, short story, feminism.

Introduction

One can hardly carry out a discussion on Arabo-Islamic culture without making reference to Islam, the dominant religion in North Africa and the Middle East. It is, however, important to state that Islam is not a monolithic entity with laws that apply to all Muslims in different places and times in exactly the same way. Camillia El-Solh and Judy Mabro (1994: 2) confirm this assertion when they note that although there is a unifying framework which is provided by the Qur'an and the five pillars of the creed--shahada (proclaiming the faith), salat (prayer), zakat (almsgiving), sawm (fast) and hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca)--this unity is accompanied by a multitude of diversities which need to be taken into consideration in any discussion of Islam and its practices by Muslims. Such diversities become evident as one studies Islamic practices in different countries. In the book Modernizing Women: Gender & Social Change in the Middle East, Valentine Moghadam (1993: 10) observes that the countries of the Middle East and North Africa differ in their historical evolution, social composition, economic structures and state forms, and thus to study Middle Eastern women is to recognize the diversity within the female population, for not only are the women stratified by class, ethnicity, education and age, but they are also divided ideologically and politically. Thus, it would be a matter of cultural bias to ignore regional differences in Islamic cultural practices in a discussion of North African women's writing such as this one. It would also be prejudiced to say that feminist movements in North Africa and the Middle East share uniformity instead of commonality.

The debate on whether feminism is relevant to Muslim women in North Africa and the Middle East is a long-standing one, with strong arguments for and against that cannot be delved into in this paper. Differences in opinion notwithstanding, many critics of Arabo-Islamic cultures have shown that feminist movements play a contributive role in Muslim women's struggle to transform their societies into egalitarian systems based on the principles of gender equality and justice (Accad 1991: 247; Malti-Douglas 1995: 11; Golley 2004: 521-522). The South African Indian feminist Sa'diyya Shaikh (2003: 155) has put forward a salient argument on the relationship between feminism and Muslim women in modern times:

   While some Muslims eschew the term "feminist", increasing numbers
   have begun to utilize the term to describe themselves. The value of
   retaining the term "feminism" is that it enables Muslim women to
   situate their praxis in a global political landscape. This in turn
   creates greater possibilities for alliances, exchanges, and mutually
   enriching interaction among different groups of women. These
   connections enable varying groups of women to share and learn from
   each other's experiences, whether this is in an exchange of feminist
   tools of analysis, or of varying ways of implementing activist ini-
   tiatives, or simply an exposure to other forms of justice-oriented
   gender praxis. … 
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