Huda Sha'rawi's 'Mudhakkirati': The Memoirs of the First Lady of Arab Modernity

By Kahf, Mohja | Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ), Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Huda Sha'rawi's 'Mudhakkirati': The Memoirs of the First Lady of Arab Modernity


Kahf, Mohja, Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)


Huda Sha'rawi's name is a household word in the Arab World, a name that calls up the image of an activist for women's rights and social change. Born in 1879, Sha'rawi entered public life in the period leading to Egypt's nationalist Revolution of 1919. She remained in the forefront of nationalist work and women's rights reform in the ensuing decades and was decorated with the state's highest honor, Nishan al-Kamal. Sha'rawi died in 1947. What is her legacy?

Huda Sha'rawi's Mudhakkirati (ed. Abd al-Hamid Fahmi Mursi, Cairo: Dar al-Hilal, 1981) has been read as an historical document, but what if we read it as literature, as adab (belle-lettres)? Adab in the Arabic tradition has always been a more open and democratic countryside than the snobbish modern realm of Literature (which emerged in the West only during the last hundred years and is now, under the barrage of postmodern theory, easing its border restrictions). Adab is not limited to fiction or to the clearly defined genres of high Literature. To its realm a work of ambiguous genre such as Sha'rawi's memoirs has no problem being admitted on several grounds. Leila Ahmed, in her groundbreaking study of this Arabic text, links Sha'rawi's text to the genre of seera dhatiya (autobiography) in classical adab (1988, 154-155). The possessive in the title declares the autobiographical pact (Lejeune 13-14), as do the embedded documents whose authorship the narrator claims and which are signed "Huda Sha'rawi." Certainly, the way Sha'rawi opens, "When I stand before the memories of my childhood . . ." announces her autobiographical intentions and easily calls to mind the model modern Arabic autobiography, Taha Husayn's Al-Ayyam (1929). Specifically, Mudhakkirati could be considered of the species of professional autobiography ("how I found my calling") which form part of the classical autobiographical heritage in Arabic (cf. Ghamdi).

We might also consider how portions of the memoirs draw on the rihla (travelogue) tradition of writing ("places I have been and things I have seen") and can be read as contributing, along with works such as Fadwa Tuqan's Rihla Sa'ba, Rihla Jabaliya and the third volume of al-Ayyam (translated as A Passage to France), to a modern Arabic corpus of autobiographical travel narrative. A small part of the text consists of diary entries, a modern element frequently appearing in women's lifewriting, particularly in American letters. Neither should we ignore the title's literal meaning, "memoirs," or the way the opening lines invoking childhood memories give way quickly to public documents about the 'Urabi nationalist movement, recalling that some critics separate between memoir and autobiography (e.g. Pascal). Yet we need not, according to Malti-Douglas, take "mudhakkirati" in as restrictive a sense as the translation would indicate (13), and the text's beginning section discourages such limitation.

In short, Sha'rawi's variegated text evokes the traditional literary heritage but brings other, less familiar, elements into it, in a pragmatic re-cutting of old fabric into new shapes that is the signature of her style and her message. What concepts does Sha'rawi's work generate, what scenarios and characters does she give us, what new voice does she author, and how does she add to our reservoir of cultural models? What is the significance of Sha'rawi's Memoirs for modern Arabic cultural studies?

Sha'rawi's Mudhakkirati writes the modern female individual into the Arabic literary tradition by achieving a public inscription of the heroic female ana ("I"), the female version of the Arab renaissance period's new individual, otherwise usually conceptualized in heroic male terms. Her memoirs loosen the language of tradition and change the meaning of its words, just as in her life she loosened the sartorial symbol of tradition and changed the meaning of its name. These are not radical feminist aims but contributions to the moderate modernist reform of Arabic tradition, as befits Sha'rawi's status as a Lady, a leading Lady of Egypt in the late khedival-monarchical era. …

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