May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt, by Marilyn Booth. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2001. xxxviii + 310 pages. Notes to p. 426. Bibl.to p. 441. Index to p. 460. $65 cloth; $35 paper.
Reviewed by Cynthia Nelson
One of the challenges facing many contemporary Western feminists translating and interpreting texts from "that venerable Arabic tradition of life writing," is the encounter between the genre of Western feminist theorizing and the genre of Arabic biography writing. In May Her Likes Be Multiplied, it is the encounter between 20th century post-colonial feminist theorizing and late 19th/early 20th century writing of women's biography in modern Egypt. Booth situates herself within this encounter by arguing: "for an approach to the writing of biography in Egypt that contemplates it as gendered discourse of prescription by way of encouragement, a discourse of exemplarity through which women explicated and explored their situations and their hopes, a discourse of circulating texts in which women and men proposed and debated their ideas of social change." (p. xiv).
She begins her exegesis on biography and gender politics in Egypt with Zaynab Fawwaz's Scattered Pearls on the Generations of the Mistresses of Seclusion, a work published in 1894 and donated as an example of Arab Women's achievements to the Women's Section of the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Fawwaz not only inspired the title of her own book, but also, as Booth clearly acknowledges, "Its gems are my starting point - in pondering how one textual history - the writing of gendered biography has contributed to the discourses of postcolonial modernity within one society's history" (p. 3).
With Zaynab Fawwaz as her starting point, Booth takes the reader on a rich textual journey through the analyses of texts from different periods of modern Egyptian history from the early 1890s to the late 1940s. Booth interweaves the concepts of exemplarity, circulation, connection, and repeatability "which are the core of my work," (p. xiv) to emphasize the interplay between biographical genre and biographical gender in the writing of women's lives. Each chapter builds on its predecessor and by its title highlights a particular theme in an emerging discourse on gender's centrality in Egypt's struggle to wrest independence from colonial subjection.2 One only needs to read the titles of her chapters to appreciate the rich array of writers and writings Booth has brought together to demonstrate the diverse, contradictory, and complex role models that were being constructed for young women of the emerging middle class in Egypt: Siting Biography: A Politics of Address (chapter 2); Exemplar and Exception: Biography in the Journal for Women (ch. 3); May Our Daughter Listen: Readers, Writers Teachers (ch. …