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The Role of Social and Political Criticism of the Arab Feminist Memoirs

By Abukar Sanei
November 24, 2010

The arrival of modernism in the Arab world in the 19th century by the colonial power can
be considered as one of the contemporary factors that transformed the social and political role of
the modern Arab women. The introduction of the press in Egypt by the French colony, for
instance, had, in fact, played a positive role in the development of the early Arab elites, who
have engaged the writing process of the Arabic novel. Taha Hussein, the blind Egyptian writer, is
one example among those elites who have been influenced by the colonial power and become a
voice for the Arabs as he was considered one of the great writers in his time. However, the goal
of the imperial power to establish the press in Egypt was not to elevate the social condition of the
Egyptians, but it was to know more about the oriental culture, and produce more Western
orientalists who will be able to effectively administer and rule the Oriental societies. Having this
in mind, however, in order to understand the classification process of the Arabic novel, it’s
important to briefly discuss The Transformation of Reality and the Arabic Novel’s Aesthetic
Response by Sabry Hafez. In his paper, Mr. Hafez brings three phases of changes that shape or
have shaped the Arabic novel in the pre and post-colonial periods.

The first phase is socio-political changes. In the pre-colonial period, “the national self was then
at its most cohesive for it defined itself as a collective and monolithic entity in contrast to a
clearly foreign other” (Hafez, 94). This cohesiveness was used for the quest of independence
from the colonial rule. Also, the traditional system, which is based on patriarchal, is in place in
this pre-independence period, and the level of individual education is limited. On the other hand,
in the post-colonial period, “the traditional rural/tribal vision has given way to one which is
generally urban and quasi-modernistic” (Ibid). As a result, “wider access of education
encouraged social mobility and at the same time threatened the old stability…as it fostered socio-
cultural awareness” (Ibid).

The second phase is cultural changes. In the pre-independence period, cultural changes “were
marked by the pan-Arab attempt to establish a modernistic project based on Western models”
(Hafez, 96). In other words, the nationalist figures in this pre-independence period were blindly
imitating and considering their colonial masters as the only source of “development.” However,
in the post-colonial period of cultural changes phase, rival groups, including modern women
writers started to fight back to debunk the blindly replication of the European model.
Consequently, “after being on defensive for decades, the traditionalists consolidated and went
onto the offensive…and the demand for authentic literary and a return to indigenous cultural
roots” (p. 97) has been propagated. This is the period that Latifa al-Zayyat’s novel, The Open
Door, comes to the scene as part of the confrontation of the cultural and political imperialism.

The third phase that Sabry Hafez brings to the table is what he calls as aesthetic and textual
changes. In this phase, Mr. Hafez compares and contrasts how the literary techniques that both
the old and the new novel are articulated to convey its message to the readers. Describing the
author’s point of departure in the pre-independence period, Hafez writes that it was “associated
with the adoption of the Western cultural model in the early period” as it “was the considerable

self-confidence expressed in the novel through the prevalence of the omnipresent and omniscient
author” (p. 101). Omnipresent and omniscient terms are referred to the awareness of the author
about his/her narratives and how the main characters/protagonists are interchangeably used in the
novel. The style of literary writing reveals the big gap between the old and the new novel based
on the social and the political phenomenon that these writers were interacting with.

However, the post-colonial period, which deals with the literary writings that were produced
after the independence— is the period that has produced another voice of the Arab writers. This
voice is the feminist Arab women writers, who have been struggling to awaken themselves, and
actively engage the social and political discourse that has been taken place during the post-
colonial period. And in fact, the Arab feminist memoirs play a critical role to the social and
political life of the Arab society.

The power of women to be critical and change social conditions that exist comes from the
mythical story of Shahrazad. However, one may ask: why does Matthess, the author of
Shahrazad’s Sisters: Storytelling and Politics in the Memoirs of Mernissi, El Saadawi and
Ashrawi, connect Shahrazad with these authors? And if there is a connection, what that
connection between Shahrazad and these three memoirists might be? One fact that can be stated
here is that Shahrazad’s ability to narrate stories for the King enabled her to save her life by just
telling stories night after night. The power of storytelling is the way to criticize and change
negative perceptions and activities, and this is how Mernissi narrates Shahrazad’s story in her
memoir by asking the mother, “But how does one learn how to tell stories which please kings?”
And the mother replies, “This is the work of women’s lifetime…all I needed to know for the
moment was that my chances of happiness would depend upon how skillful I become with
words” (Mernissi, 16). In addition, to present the core purpose of memoirs, Matthes writes, “by
centering the narrative on events and the deeds of others, the memoirist seeks to illuminate the
particular context in which history is made, rather than on his or her personal development” (p.
68). In other words, memoirs are not just tools used to present someone’s life story, or in other
words, they are not autobiographies, but they are representations of collective story that is shared
by a society or a nation with the same goals and interests.

Moreover, the power of Shahrazad to be creative and entertain the king is similar to the power of
Um-Kalthoum, the Egyptian singer, to entertain the entire Arab society with her voice in the late
1950s -60s, as she was nicknamed as “the star of the East.” However, the notion of undermining
the status of women in the Arab world originates from the pre-Islamic history where inequality
of gender is widely practiced. In this pre-Islamic period, girls were buried alive, because of the
preconceived notion that they will “dishonor” the family; they will not be able to participate in
the tribal wars that are based on accumulating resources, and they will just be a heavy burden on
the family. Despite the fact that this misconception against girls was recorded by the history
where women do not have rights even to live or deal with them as “second class citizens,” here
Shahrazad and Um-Kalthoum prove otherwise and challenge the inherited status quo regarding
the status of women in the society. Furthermore, comparing and contrasting Asmahan and Um-
Kalthoum, Mernissi rejects the alien European modernism and approves Um-Kalthoum, a
traditionalist voice that has shaken the entire Arab world, and is part of the liberation movement
from the colonial power, as a pure social/cultural icon over Asmahan. Mernissi describes Um-
Kalthoum as someone, “who could warble for hours about the Arabs’ grand past and the need for

us to regain our glory by standing up to the colonial invaders” (Mernissi, 104). On the other
hand, and in the case of Asmahan, Mernissi writes, “Asmahan was the exact opposite of Um-
Kalthoum,” she was “a small-chested and lanky woman who often looked both completely
confused and desperately elegant, she dressed in low-cut Western blouses and short skirts” (p.

The metaphorical usage of the term “harem” gives the barriers between the male and female in
the society, and Mernissi has a message by even adding “harem” in the title of her memoir. “The
word “harem” she writes, “was slight variation of the word haram, the forbidden, [and] the
proscribed” and continues, “it was the opposite of halal, the permissible” (Mernissi, 61). In
addition, there is an analogy that is used to explain more about what “harem” is all about. The
city of Mecca is a “harem,” because it “belongs to Allah and you had to obey his shari’a or
sacred law if you entered his territory” (p. 61). For instance, Mernissi brings different
perceptions that people have had about “harems.” People considered harems as “wonderful
things….all respectable men provided for their womenfolk, so that they did not go out into
dangerous unsafe streets.” But all women were not locked in harem. “It was only the poor
women like Luza, the wife of Ahmed, the doorkeeper, who needed to go outside, to work and
feed themselves” (Mernissi, 46). So, what is the main issue that Mernissi is criticizing here? In
fact, even though Mernissi herself is a traditionalist because of her rejection of Asmahan, her
critics about the harem targets the social condition of women. However, Mernissi admits that
there is something wrong with this “harem” situation. “Samir and I often felt overwhelmed by
these contradictory opinions” (p. 46) Mernissi writes. Contradictory opinions can be seen from
Mernissi about the different descriptions that she makes in the narrative. Um-Kalthoum is not
confined in a “harem” and her voice is heard by the masses. On the other hand, Asmahan is an
icon of “western apologist” and the values that she is propagating are not welcome in “our”
social life. This tone is exactly the literary movement that Sabry Hafez associates with the post-
colonial Arabic novel. However, Mernissi would like to see a social condition that woman can
get out from the “harem” and play her role in the society at large without violating the Devine
boundaries when man and woman come together and work for the purpose of the society.

Furthermore, the critical role of feminist memoirs can be seen from the political issues that are
taking place within the boundaries of the memoirist’s target geography. Marnessi, El-Saadawi
and Ashrawi are all in a generation that struggles for the rights of women in their societies
respectively. In comparing these memoirists to Shahrazad, Matthes writes, “These contemporary
memoirists…take Shahrazad’s crucial task of addressing dual audience. Shahrazad told her
stories to a sympathetic but powerless sister and a hostile, all powerful monarch; these
memoirists likewise address to their own people” (Matthes, 72).

In the case of El Saadawi, according to Matthes’ article, it’s clear that she is politically active,
and because of her political activism, she is thrown in prison. Nawal Saadawi obsessed with the
political system of her own country and chose to speak on behalf of Arab women. In her own
words describing why she was imprisoned, Saadawi says, “I am imprisoned because I am a
writer, not because I am a member of any particular party or group, but simply because I
expressed myself of variety of subjects having to do with Arab women” (Matthes, 77). In
addition, El-Saadawi, more or less, resembles Shahrazad in the way that she confronts the
political reality that she is living with. However, the role of political criticism of Shahrazad to

change the king’s mentality and the role of El-Saadawi are the same in principle, but different in
action. Shahrazad uses soft tones in her communication with the king by not telling him that his
perception that all women are “cheaters” is wrong, and therefore, he is wrong by murdering
every girl that he sleeps with in next morning, and should stop doing it. Not all of that, but
simply, she just narrates stories after stories. On the other hand, “in prison, El-Saadawi discovers
that the confines of prison invite and inspire her rebelliousness. While others are overcome with
despair, she generates within herself an illogical optimism; while in prison, El-Saadawi continues
to disturb the political clichés and slogans which are the product of what she names a technology
of false consciousness” (Matthes, 78-9). This shows the steadfastness of El-Saadawi and how she
devoted herself as a narrator, which is the same profession of Shahrazad.

Another political criticism comes from a Palestinian political figure. This is Hanan Ashrawi, and
in her case, we are dealing with the issue of the oppressed Palestinians, and their quest for
liberation, as Ashrawi is part of the struggle for nationhood. So, Ashrawi, not only is she a
memoirist, but also a political icon for Palestinians. Moreover, in the case, of Ashrawi, it is fair
to say that it’s the level that feminist memoirists want to see from Arab women to reach at the
level of serving as Ashrawi serves for her Palestinian people politically. In her memoir entitled:
This Side of Peace: A Personal Account, she writes, “my life has been taking shape as a
Palestinian, as a woman—as mother, daughter, wife---as a Christian and a humanist, as a radical
and a peace activist as an academic and a political being” (Matthes, 82). It seems that Ashrawi
speaks on behalf of every Arab woman as capable of fighting for the cause of her society.
Gender and religion affiliation should not be the case, according to Ashrawi’s above statement,
but how you can use your talent, and confront your enemy is the tool for measurement. In fact,
despite all the obstacles that the Arab woman faces from her society to reach the level of political
participation, Ashrawi reveals that these obstacles can be overcome as women can have a role for
the quest of nationhood.

In conclusion, the role of Arab feminist memoirs is apparently critical to the social and political
conditions that Arab women have been going through in the post-colonial period. The access of
the modern education enabled most of these feminist memoirists to speak up against the male
dominated social and political norms of their countries. Fatima Mernissi’s voice of being critical
to the social and political condition of women is supported by the modernism process. And the
concept of “modernism” here is not meant blindly imitation of the Western world, but
modernism in a sense the local culture, which equality of both gender can be found. The
acceptance of Um Kalthoum as a local cultural icon, and not confined in “harem”, and rejection
of Asmahan as foreign shows the quest for modernism without borrowing from outside can be
found from Mernissi’s narrative. Therefore, Mernissi narrates the confined women of Fez, and
directly or indirectly rebuffs the whole concept of “harem.” In addition, she is equipped with the
powerful narration of Shahrazad, as she uses the same voice to be critical on the situation, and
try to emancipate those women, who are confined in the “harem” system.

The political criticism of Nawal El-Saadawi and the right of women to be part of the quest of
nationhood by Ashrawi is another powerful way of borrowing from Shahrazad. For only her
political activism, which she expresses in her writings, El-Saadawi goes to prison, because she is
a “threat” to the widely accepted male dominated political system that the Arab women have no
place to be seated in. On the other hand, Hanan Ashrawi has become an icon for the Palestinian

cause as a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). By being in that level from
a political organization, Ashrawi challenges the status of Arab woman, and “it is her own
visibility in the political process which challenges deep seated convictions that politics must
remain only the province of men” (Matthes, 84). However, the common goal that these Arab
feminist memoirists want to reach from their narratives is “to engage readers now in a struggle
for narrative primacy and thus political transformation” (Matthes, 69). Nevertheless, it seems
that feminist memoirist efforts have positively contributed to the transformation of the social and
political realities of the Arab world.

Works Cited

Hafez, Sabry. “The Transformation of Reality and the Arabic Novel’s Aesthetic Response.”
Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London,
Vol. 57 (1994): 93-112.
Matthes, Melissa. “Shahrazad’s Sisters: Storytelling and Politics in the Memoirs of Mernissi,
El-Saadawi and Ashrawi.” Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, American University in
Cairo No. 19 (1999): 68-96.
Mernissi, Fatima. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of A Harem Girlhood. Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Perseus Books, 1994.