Reading:The Role of Women in Arabic Literature

Mona Mikhai
(Reprint of an original piece published by Arab Perspectives in its October, 1980 issue, Vol. 1, No. 7)
Mona Mikhailis ,Associate Professor, of Arabic and lslamic Studies at New York University. She has written numerous articles and made many translations of contemporary Arabic literature. Dr. Mikhail won the P.E.N. Prize for her translations of the short stories of Yusuf ldris.
Portrayals of women in Arabic literature serve as a barometer by which we can measure that status and role of Arab women in society. Some may argue that literature and real life are two different matters, that Arabic letters tell us something about literature and not necessarily about conditions in Arab societies. Nevertheless the value of literature in understanding, indeed in bringing about change, regeneration, and transformation within the very fabrics of these societies is not to be underestimated.
The literature of the Arabs is so vast that sifting through the numerous works ftom the seventh century to this day to obtain a “definitive” view of women in Arabic literature is a monumental task. Poets and writers, both men and women, speak to us unveiling their innermost selves. A sampling of this infinitely rich body of literature gives only a glimpse at the changing roles, values and desires the Arab world has witnessed. In both theory and practice women have been and will continue to be an inspiration, as well as part of and instrumentat in bringing about a revitalizing change.
Tumadir bint Amru al-Harith-bint al-Sharid, better known as ‘al-Khansa’, the dauntless poetess of the seventh century, reknowned for her eloquence and outspoken courage, remains to this day a legend in Arabic literary annals. Her famous “lament for a brother” rings with timelessness and poignant immediacy:
What have we done to you death that you treat us so, with always another catch one day a warrior the next a head of state charmed by the loyal you choose the best iniquitous, unequalling death I would not complain if you were just but you take the worthy leaving fools for us.
Nazik al-Mal’aika, the poet, critic and innovator of poetic techniques, attracts attention to the endemic plight of her sisters and the unlegislated inequities imposed upon them in our contemporary societies. Her most moving poem, Insignificant Woman, speaks not only of women but of the alienated human race estranged in an indifferent world to its fate:
No eyes followed her coffin to the end of the road Only a memory of a lifeless form passing in some lane… A moon mourned in silence.
Walladah hint al-Mustakfi, famed beauty and daughter of the ruler of Cordova, held literary gatherings that attracted the best known poets of the day, composed as well as inspired some of the greatest eleventh century Andalusian verses. Her liberated ways, advanced even by today’s standards, serve as paradigms for the status of women in her times.
I am fit for high positions, by God And am going my way with pride
were words embroidered, we are told, on one of her garments.
Forsooth, I allow my lover to touch my cheek, And bestow my kiss on him who craves it.
Since the early 1900’s Arab women have forcefully reflected in their writings the multiplicity of social, intellectual, and political beliefs of their societies. Voicing some of the “ills that flesh is heir to”, Therese Awwad pinpoints one of the more devastating diseases of our modern age, loneliness and alienation:
My loneliness ages like wine I arrest it between parentheses bridle it together with the tumult paste doubt to it
Fadwa Touqan rejects the constrictions that outside forces impose on her freedom as a woman and as an Arab:
Freedom My freedom I shall carve the words in the earth chisel their sounds over every door in the Levant… below the slope at every street corner inside the prison within the torture chamber.
In more recent times men have made a substantial contribution to literature in this vein. Jamil Sidqi a]-Zahawi, Ma’ruf al-Rusafi, Ahmad Shawqui and Hafiz Ibrahim were ardent pioneers for the emancipation of women at the turn of this century. Their words, vitriolic at times, unquestionably accelerated the movement towards the shedding of archaic beliefs and restrictive mores. Half a century later, Hamid al-iryani attacking the last vestiges of shackling traditions that seem to linger stubbornly, writes:
Tear it This veil Discard it Tatter it And Leave death parade To join the wedding procession and sing Destroy Destroy fears with violence…
Striking an equally forceful note Nizzar Qabbani focuses on his urbanized, superficially Westernized companions. He has idolized women in the traditional style, but has also succeeded, perhaps more than any other contemporary poet, in exposing rauses which perpetrate the victimization of women. Speaking for all women, he cries out:
My dear sir lfear lo say what I have to say Ifear if I do The skies will burn your East, dear sir Confiscates blue missives Confiscates the dreams stored in women safe…
Qabbani is equally critical of the vain, superficial woman who perpetuates her subservience to material possessions.
You want You want like all women Solomon’s treasures Like all women
Pools of perfumes Combs of ivory A horde of slaves…
Shahrazad Like all women You want me to give you the stars in the heavens…
Perhaps no fictional persona has dominated the Arabic literary ethos as much as Shahrazad, the heroine of the Thousand and One Nights, and no comparable literary figure has been more maligned. Shahrazad, the narrator of one of the most influential masterpieces of world literature, was not merely the prototype of All women, but more specifically woman who through her exhaustive knowledge of human nature and accomplished scholarship not only saves her life and those of her sisters, but succeeds in “humanizing” her misogynic husband. As the tales unfold, there emerges a discernible pattern of a studied strategy to bring about a radical change in the disposition of her opponent. The battle of the sexes is peacefuly resolved after the purging of the residual enmity lingering in Sharayar’s soul. The ethics, the language and the mores of Arab medieval societies are inextricably woven into this colossal work.
Contemporary Arabic fiction deals less dramatically with women than this classical antecedent did. The novels, novellas and short stories of major Arab writers, by and large, treat women more as symbols than individuals in control of their destinies. Yet Fathiyya, the heroine of Yusuf Idris’s novella Al-Naddaha (The Siren), abandons husband and child in search of her true identity and destiny. Unconventional as this behavior may seem for an illiterate peasant, the great master craftsman spins a tale that convinces. Women writers have, in varying degrees, attempted to delineate their struggle to assert their personalities and individualities as human bcings. Laila Baa’lbaki and Ghada al-Sama have been the focus of many an argument for their daring treatment of the subject. From North Africa, Assia Djebar, in a series of novels, assiduously investigates the opposing forces between the sexes, the long unresolved, often tenuous relationship between man and woman. Like ldriss, Assia Djebar traces and follows the growth of her heroines. In Les Alouettes Naives, Nfissa, a freedom fighter in the Algerian War of Independence, lives in a world of conflicting ideals. She is painfully aware of the plight of her Arab sisters:
All our women are afraid… They who are so talkative, never speak ofthefact that they are afraid. They are busy having child after child to stifle their fear…
Nfissa, like her Arab sisters, attempts and eventually succeeds in escaping the imposed asphyxia bequeathed by generations of ignorance. Assia Djebar tells us:
Nfissa in the process of loving didn’t lose herself, but rather awoke to herself held herself high as a marble statue but also a statue of clay that could take new forms.
Literature, we are told, is subversive because it probes the deepest strata of the psyche and the imagination and remains unanswerable to governments. Arab writers, both men and women, heroes and heroines, are in constant search of their authentic selves in an attempt at understanding their realities and, more crucially, redefining the meaning of their lives. Arab women, in fact and fiction, have been dynamic and changing factors. Underlying their “feminism” is not just the assertion of a new hope for themselves, but a hope for a new kind of world for both men and women.

Post here a well-crafted response of the introduction assigned this week. Use your entry to think through the value of stories not usually recorded, but which are of timeless value to the daily development of culture. Remember, too, that stories often play a roll in the actual shape that culture takes over time, so we can’t underestimate even stories that seem “trivial” or “dowdy” or “off-color.”
Remember, an entry should always be about primarily one thing and always be worth writing and worth reading. Be sure to vary the kinds of journal entries you write. Try out different kinds of responses, different kinds of writing. Since journals will be a primary means of communicating your ideas to your classmates and to me, it is important that they be well thought out. Don’t be surprised that in writing, you begin to discover meaning in the reading that hadn’t occurred to you until just the moment you began to write. Feel free to draw upon your own interests, education, experience, and strengths as you explore the texts, and to bring questions to the conversation.

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