Opening the Gates: An Anthology of Arab Feminist Writing
Reviewed by Heba M Sharobeem
Opening the Gates, a new edition of Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke's
classic anthology of Arab feminist writing in English translation, is an
interesting and informative book, which truly opens the gates to new
horizons, those depicted by Arab women writers. It contains texts from
almost everywhere in the Arab world and presents famous names such as
those of Huda Shaarawi, Fadwa Tuqan and Nawal al-Saadawi, as well as
unknown writers whose works are published here for the first time.
headnotes provided by the editors to their selections are always
illuminating, presenting the authors' fascinating life stories, which
pains and pleasures and show women's particular fight to make their
voices heard. The glossary at the end of the book will also help
familiarise non Arabic- speaking readers with Arabic vocabulary and help
appreciate the cultural contexts of the texts.
Themes discussed in this book cover a wide range of topics that concern
feminist scholars, from gender segregation and women's internalisation
of the sense of inferiority, to the power of the male gaze and the
oppression of patriarchy, aided sometimes by matriarchy, circumcision
and social hypocrisy. The editors' classification of the texts into
three sections, "Awareness," "Rejection" and "Activism" is a brilliant
suggesting the typical steps that characterise the birth of a movement
and leading naturally to a final step, "Transition," the final section
and a new addition to this second edition of the book.
The editors' introduction also gives an enlightening survey of the
movement of feminisms in the Arab world, the term being used in the
plural "to acknowledge plurality within unity." The new introduction and
the new fourth section also highlight the new contexts of the nineties,
with the appearance of many NGOs dealing with women's issues and the
discourse of Islamic feminism.
Each section of the book begins with a poem that reflects its major
theme. In the first section, in addition to revealing the awareness of
their authors, the texts reflect a clustering of themes, though this
organising principle is not mentioned in the introduction. For example,
the first four selections reflect gender segregation and highlight the
importance of writing and literary composition as a means of liberation.
The texts written by Huda Shaarawi, Shirley Saad, Samira Azzam and Ulfa
Idelbi focus on women's abuse in the institution of marriage, Saad's
short story, "Amina," for example, revealing the pain and guilty
feelings of a mother who has just given birth to her fourth daughter.
Ironically and bitterly, the scene is presented as one of scandal.
"Lectures on Clitoridectomy," "Who Will Be the Man?" and "Honour," also
in this first section, deal with the issue of female circumcision. The
last pieces in this section tackle different themes, prominent among
them the neglect of the Algerian women fighters who were relegated to
the margins after the war of independence against France.
The book's second section, "Rejection," includes texts that reflect
their authors' refusal of many current social habits and practices.
Aysha al-Taimuriya, Bahithat al-Badiya, and, more than 50 years later,
the Syrian and Lebanese writers, Ghada Samman, Emily Nasrallah, and
Hanan al-Shaikh, all criticise women's position within the family and
marriage, and society's persistence in moulding them to fit within
Al-Taimuriya rejects the typical education in domestic skills, such as
needlework, offered to women, for example, and Bahithat al-Badiya
denounces the institution of polygamy, being herself a victim of it. The
three last writers express their refusal of the commodification of women
within the institution of marriage. Samman also criticises society's
insistence on keeping women as "colourful mummy/slaves," causing them to
internalise a false sense of inferiority, which she compares to "the
slave who loves her bonds." Similarly, Nasrallah depicts a girl's desire
to "decide [her] tomorrow," instead of waiting for a man to come and
marry her. Al-Shaikh, too, makes clear her heroine's refusal to be
treated as saleable or "unsaleable merchandise".
Ihasan Assal tackles another issue related to marital relationships,
that of Bait al-Taa, or the house of obedience, the title of her short
story. In the selections by Assal, Evelyne Accad, Andree Chedid, Samar
Attar, and Nawal al-Saadawi the common setting is one of the house as a
site of confinement, with its most repressive effects being found in
al-Saadawi's article "Eyes". This piece is based on the true story of a
young girl who was veiled from a young age and isolated from men. Fadhma
Amrouche's autobiographical extract deals with a taboo issue, that of
illegitimate children, the writer herself being "a child of sin".
The book's section on "Activism" begins with two of the oldest texts by
female activists, Hind Nawfal and Zainab Fawaz. Like Samman's text,
written 70 years later, Fawaz's article criticises women's
of gender segregation by denying the call made by a contemporary women
of letters to confine women in the home, claiming that they cannot
handle responsibilities both outside and inside their homes (ironically
ongoing argument even today). Bahithat al-Badiya takes over where Fawaz
leaves off, and she advocates women's right to work, instigating them to
An extract from a novel by Qut al-Qulub continues the discussion of
marriage from the perspective of the heroine, Ramza. This young women is
not only aware of the crime of forcing women into marriage, as is the
case in the texts by Shaarawi and Idelbi, and she does not only reject
the idea of being treated as a commodity, as in the selections from
al-Shaikh and Nasrallah. Instead, she takes action when she defies her
father's patriarchal power, telling him that "My ambition, Father, is to
marry the man I have chosen freely, the man I have loved and not to be
passed on like an inherited good...." In the novel, Ramza marries the
she loves, and when he lets her down she makes him divorce her, being
the agent of both her marriage and divorce.
Social and religious hypocrisy and common misconceptions of women's
faculties are discussed by Nabawwiya Musa, Saiza Nabarawi and Nazira
Zain al-Din. The latter's text sets a precedent in its vigorous exposure
hypocrisy. Al-Din rightly argues that "honour is rooted in the heart,
and chastity comes from within, and not from a piece of transparent
material lowered over the face." This tone gets louder and stronger in
the work of Zoubeida Bittari, who speaks bitterly here of the injustices
of patriarchal society, which repudiated her at the age of 14 for going
to the dentist alone. As a result, she was divorced and kicked out of
the house, not only by her husband's family, but also by her own.
The activism section of the book also contains a group of texts that
document the efforts of feminists in Egypt to assist women in gaining
their rights, presenting these in chronological order. They include
texts by the older generation of feminist activists, women such as Huda
Shaarawi, Zahiya Dughan, a Lebanese activist, Inji Aflatun and Duriya
Shafiq, as well as the new, represented by Amina Said, Nahid Toubia
(representing the Arab Women's Solidarity Association) and a group of
Egyptian women working in different fields. With Amatalrauf al-Sharki's
"An Unveiled Voice" we move from Egypt to Yemen, where activism is
expressed through the oral narrative of the life of a woman who has
developed a feminist consciousness. She unveils her face while working
for radio, and she speaks of the veil as "a big lie."
The book's final section, "Transition," contains interviews and writings
that reflect contemporary transitions in feminist discourse,
consciousness and modes of activism. Interviews with Amat al-Aleem
Alsoswa, the first woman minister in Yemen, and Tahani al-Jibali, one of
the first three Egyptian women to be appointed a judge, give a vivid
image of two brave women who have fought to attain their rights in
societies tending to deny them. They also reveal the power of Islamic
feminist discourse and its intersection with secular feminism. In her
"Testimonial of a Creative Writer" Egyptian author Latifa al-Zayyat
asserts her "woman-ness," which she had earlier denied: "Why do we
shrink from calling our creative works women's ( nisa'i ) writings or
feminist ( nisawi ) writings," she asks.
In this section we also hear the voices of Kuwaiti activists for the
first time in translation, recorded in an interview whose title
indicates the transition in Kuwait "From National Resistance to Feminist
Activism." This is followed by an autobiographical piece by the Kuwaiti
woman Layla al-Uthman, in which she compares the harshness of her father
who forced her to wear the abaya with the Iraqi invaders in 1990 forcing
people out of a supermarket while they were looting inside.
On finishing this book, the reader can only feel grateful to the editors
who have offered her or him this wonderful chance to discover many
silenced and veiled voices and who have opened the gates to so many
unknown territories. The various texts document the movement of
feminisms in the Arab world, proving wrong the common fallacy that
Arab women lack awareness of their own rights, and that they have
necessarily influenced and initiated into action by western feminists.
This influence, though not denied here, is not exaggerated either.
As a result, reading this book is a must for anyone interested in
feminist studies or gender issues in general, whether a scholar or a
member of a broader audience. The book is also very timely as it
highlights a new stage in the development of feminisms in Arab
societies, and it gets us past divisive or degrading stereotypes that
freeze off genuine communication and allow a more positive and accurate
image to be built.
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