Women as Authors
The stereotype known as “the veil” pictures Arab and Muslim women as imprisoned behind both the physical veil—that is, the dress forms (headscarf, long robe, and/or face veil) that many women wear—and within a larger social prison symbolized by those garments, as deprived of the opportunity for authorship, influence, and self-expression.
Like their counterparts across the world, women authors in the Middle East have had to confront patriarchal structures of family, custom, and religious interpretation.
For her role as one of the primary authors of hadith accounts, Muhammad’s youngest wife `Aisha (d. 678 CE) earned the epithet umm al-umma (“mother of the [Islamic] community.”). Zaynab (d. 682), the granddaughter of Muhammad, emerged as a theologian and also as a model of courage after she confronted the Caliph who had ordered slaying of her brother, Imam Husayn (d. 680). Women such as the seventh-century CE al-Khansa’ (d. after 630) composed major works in the genre of elegy (ritha’). Rabi`a (d. 801), a freed slave, carved out for herself a major place in Sufi traditions; indeed, the accounts of her words and actions taken down in later biographies show her constantly contesting (and defeating) the major (male) saints of her age. Women across the Middle East also mastered and performed a large repertoire of ghazals and composed ghazals of their own, but only a tiny portion has been discovered, at this point, in the manuscripts of the classical poetry collectors.
In the modern period, Nazik al-Mala’ika (d. 2007) of Iraq helped usher in the modern style of Arabic verse. In Iran, Forugh Farrukhzad (d. 1967) emerged as one of the most important figures in modern Iranian literature and remains almost universally read in Iran today, while the human-rights lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi (1947-) has written against both the gender repression that exists in Iran and the arrogance of Western nations that have used the gender issue to justify their own agendas in the Middle East. Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi (1940-) charts the role women in society while studying, exposing, and refuting the misogynist traditions with Islamic religious scholarship. For their works in French and Arabic respectively, the Algerian Assia Djebar (1936-) and the Palestinian Sahar Khalifa (1942-) have emerged as among the most influential novelists of the past century.
Forogh Farrokhzad. Link to resource (accessed February 5, 2010).
John Henry Barrows Professor of Islamic History and Literature, Divinity School, The University of Chicago
1. How is the American metaphor of a “glass ceiling” related to the metaphor of “the veil” in the Middle East?