Pinched Lives and Stolen Dreams in Arab Feminist Short Stories

By Quawas, Rula | Journal of International Women's Studies, January 2014 | Go to article overview

Pinched Lives and Stolen Dreams in Arab Feminist Short Stories


Quawas, Rula, Journal of International Women's Studies


And no one will listen to us until we listen to ourselves. Marianne Williamson

Introduction

Women in the vast Arab world have been writing fiction for the past half century. Since the second half of the twentieth century, the short story and the novel have flourished and reached maturity during the cultural renaissance known in Arabic as al-nahda. The development of the Arabic press offered many women authors an avenue of publication and a powerful vehicle of self-expression and of social criticism for women. Prominent among the authors are Nawal al-Saadawi, Layla Ba'labakki, Radwa Ashour, Latifa al-Zayyat, Mona Ragab and many more. All in all, the fiction of Arab women reflects the interests and concerns of Arab women, from feminist issues to social and political challenges to cultural and moral dilemmas. The authors' multiple voices articulate the female experience and speak of the relations between the sexes, the pull of traditional values and the lure of new needs, love and sexuality, education and work, marriage and raising children, and restrictions and freedoms. The mosaic portraits of women bespeak the realities of Arab women who live in the Middle East and North Africa, realities which are not only fascinating but also intriguingly thought provoking.

Arab women writers have published numerous pieces of short fiction in newspapers, prominent magazines, and book forms between 1950 and 2010, yet they still remain virtually unknown among scholars and students of Arabic literature. Their literary heritage is more often than not ignored, misinterpreted, marginalized or trivialized by critics who have controlled the Arabic literary canon and its interpretation. Although Arab women short-story writers have addressed many important topics and feminist/gender issues in their short stories, their voices have been silenced or underrated simply because they are women. It should be noted that some of their stories have been anthologized in five books so far, but critiques of these stories are scanty, if non-existent. This essay attempts to claim the voices of some Arab women short story writers and to create awareness of the quality of their multifarious contributions to the field of the Arabic feminist short story.

The short fiction of Arab women writers not only epitomizes their point of view, their intellectual complexity, their ambition, their penetrating feminist voices and their resourcefulness, but it also contributes to our understanding of the diversity of Arab women short-story writing in the second half of the twentieth century and to our need to reclaim it from the depths of obscurity. The best and most interesting stories are infused with vivid portraits of Arab women's lives, with conflict-ridden and ever-questioning women, with chronicles of encumbered marriages and marital relationships, with oppressed or silent(ed) women whose lives are stunted or truncated and with tributes to self-assertive women who come to understand themselves and the world around them. These stories are all handled with stylistic clarity and subtle wit and are all elaborately suggestive, radiating numerous meanings, psychological and cultural. Every written word carries a specific context, certain implications that may never be removed from its meaning, no matter how softly these allusions may be whispered. It is essential to read these stories with both an open mind as well as a nod to the culture and context in which they were born and cradled. In her book Women and Gender in Islam, Leila Ahmed writes that "adopting another culture as a general remedy for a heritage of misogyny ... is not only absurd, it is impossible" (129). Indeed, adopting the customs of a colonizing culture seems counterproductive to aims of empowerment. In more than one sense, the stories call for readers as construers of meaning, interpreters of value systems, and suppliers of bridges over gaps in signification.

In most of the short stories of Arab women writers, a multitude of themes appear prominently. …

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