Arwa Salih''s the Premature: Gendering the History of the Egyptian Left

By Hammad, Hanan | Arab Studies Journal, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Arwa Salih''s the Premature: Gendering the History of the Egyptian Left


Hammad, Hanan, Arab Studies Journal


This article examines the intellectual legacy of the Egyptian Marxist Arwa Salih (1953-97) in order to trace an intimate history of the Egyptian left. Gender relations among comrades have underpinned the movement that has enveloped women's rights in the folds of national and class struggles. In her short life, Salih was a veteran underground activist and, from 1972-73, a key leader of the most effective student movement in modern Egypt. She translated Marxist and feminist literature into Arabic and composed works in diverse literary genres. Viewing the leftist movement from the gender edge, I provide a reading of Salih's biographical works, al-Mubtasirun (The Premature, 1996) and Saratan al-Ruh (Soul Cancer, 1998).1 I study Salih's texts under the rubric of biographical writings, although it might be difficult to categorize those texts as such. They are neither autobiographies nor memoirs in the strict sense of those terms. Rather than providing a chronology of life events, the texts offer a deep and intimate reflection on Salih's experience as a female communist intellectual, activist, and frustrated Marxist believer who spent her last days in psychiatric clinics. Salih offers an unprecedentedly harsh critique of Egyptian communists from gender and generational perspectives. She broke taboos about sex and intimacy among comrades and cast doubt on her male comrades' morality and sexual exploitation of female colleagues. Leftists in Egypt have blamed the demise of their movements on the ruling regime's repression as well as the right-wing Islamists' ideological ascendance. Salih broke with this rhetoric. Her vision and legacy pose important questions as to how emotions, gender relations, moral regimes, and sexuality shackled the political potency of the Egyptian left. Salih's experience is comparable to that of US women in the civil rights movement and women participants in Latin American revolutions. In all three instances, women came to feminism by rethinking private relations in their progressive movements, by confronting the issue of sexual harassment, and by refashioning public and personal politics among male and female activists.2

While there are works on labor history and the history of the nationalist movements in the interwar and post-colonial periods, Egyptian communism in the later twentieth century has not been subject to academic inquiry.3 Scholars who are not affiliated with the party confront a lack of primary sources. The communist movement's documents and literature remain confined in the custody of the police and the state security department, or Amn al-Dawla. These authorities have refused to catalog confiscated material and denied scholars access to that part of the national memory. Communist intellectuals and labor activists have produced a handful of history books on the movement. However, their commitment to leftist ideologies and movements informs their writings.4 Subjectivity and factionalism colors their work, which provides organizational histories of their parties. More importantly, all of these writers are male and they do not recognize gender as a category of analysis. As Joel Beinin rightly points out, activist-historians have offered significant insights into the social and political conditions of Egyptian communism and communists' ability to mobilize popular support by linking the issues of national and social liberation.5 Their writings have not, however, illuminated the social base of Egyptian communism or the experience of being a communist. Women's participation and women's issues have been absent from the historiography of the Egyptian left. The lack of meticulous documentation, of an analysis of women's contribution to the communist movements, and of women's perspectives renders the story of Egyptian communism a story of male communists and their great sacrifices. Such narratives obfuscate the impact of emotion, anxiety, aspiration, and frustration that inspired both thought and practice. …

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