Thoughts from the Waiting Room: Contemporary Arab Feminisms and the Early 19th Century

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In most social circles today, when the question of Arab feminism is brought up, eyebrows are raised and the question shifts to whether or not Arabs have a feminist history to begin with. Is feminism a Western construct that, we, the locals of this world,  are trying toadapt to suit the needs of our own contexts? When I  claim, with all my might, “I am a feminist” – Am I tapping into an identity  that is actually void of local or regional historicity?

For the purposes of this article, I could have begun with a historical  timeline of women’s struggles among Arabs, if only to shove it in the faces of all skeptics who, before reading this fantastic article, once had  doubts. Unfortunately, questions of identities and constructs are  unavoidable, especially when most women’s voices have not had a place in history textbooks or within major political discourses of our region.  Even today, the overarching cross-cultural argument that “women must wait for their rights because there are more urgent national priorities at hand,” is still very much in use. And so it looks like we, the women, are doomed to wait for a while – and lucky for us, this waiting room is not one without character. In Lebanon, it also happens to host over 400 000 Palestinians who are waiting for their rights to social justice and freedom; thousands of Ethiopians, Filipinos, Sri Lankans, Madagascans, who are waiting for proper labor laws; tens of thousands of lesbians, gays, bisexuals, queers and transgender persons who are waiting for the abolishment of Article 534 and its replacement with a law that recognizes and protects them. And the list goes on. This waiting room keeps getting more and more crowded with individuals and groups of people who face institutionalized discrimination on a daily basis and who, oddly enough, also manage to discriminate against each other. But what does any of this have to do with feminism or our very own feminist history anyway?

You see, when you spend most of your life in the waiting room, where most things that happen go unrecorded, it becomes less urgent for you to question whether “feminism” is the right word to describe your experiences or your ideologies, whether the term “homosexual” can even begin to encompass your understanding of your sexuality, or whether English is strategically even the right language to write this article. At the end of the day, these are words, and words can never fully capture the complexity of your emotions, experiences and histories. These words begin to take their place at the heart of your struggle the minute you realize that without language on your side, you will never have a chance of winning the battle for social justice.

Throughout the region and as early as 1892, women caught on to this idea, and began printing and publishing their own journals, magazines, books, and flyers. While mainstream publications had little if any concern in publishing women’s writings, the early 19th century witnessed the creation of numerous independent printing presses owned by women across the region and especially in Cairo, Damascus and Beirut. Women’s rights activist and writer Bouthaina Shaaban recounts that “there were more than 25 Arab feminist journals owned, edited, and published by women — all before the First World War. These editors stated in their editorials that their most important concern was women: women’s literature, women’s rights, and women’s future.”[i]

At the turn of the century, we, the people of this region, were in the process of creating a history of anti-colonialist struggles that were nationalist at heart, and which inevitably influenced the women’s movements of the era. This became clear in Egypt for the most part, during the 1919 revolution, where “the veiled gentlewomen of Cairo paraded in the streets shouting slogans for independence and freedom from foreign occupation. They organised strikes and demonstrations, boycotts of British goods and wrote petitions protesting British actions in Egypt.”[ii] This margin, through which women were able to get into the streets, was made possible because these women fought against a system that oppressed the population as a whole. Theirs was not a struggle that was essentially focused on women’s rights, but a rather holistic struggle from which feminist issues could not be disentangled. Nevertheless, fighting off the misogyny that existed within nationalist ideologies that constantly put their issues at the back of the agenda was not uncommon then and neither is it today.

One of the prominent figures of Al-Nahda, was Palestinian-Lebanese poet, essayist and journalist May Zaide, who also happened to be a fervent women’s rights advocate. At a time when women were either perceived as child bearers or as objects of sexual pleasure, Zaide spoke passionately on the importance of proper education, of equality between men and women, and of women’s place in the workforce. In 1912, Zaide established a literary salon in Cairo, which distinguished literary circles of the time visited frequently. May Zaide, perceived as a liberated woman and radical thinker by her contemporaries, was diagnosed with depression by the end of the thirties, and then confined to a psychiatric asylum by relatives who sought to take over her properties. She passed away shortly afterwards, in 1941. Whether or not she was disappointed in the world she had left behind is hard to tell; nevertheless, this woman – like many others who preceded her and whose thoughts are yet to be unearthed – exhausted every platform available to her to advance her cause.

In that spirit, it is vital for us today to continue with our foremothers’ tradition in creating a multitude of sites, through which discourses that call for social justice, with their variations and different focuses, can emanate and bolster our movements.

[i] Shaaban, Bouthaina. “The Hidden History of Arab Feminism.” MS. Magazine. May/June 1993. 76 – 77.

[ii] Jayawardena, Kumari. Feminism and Nationalism in the Third World. Zed Books. 1986.

This article is based on hours of conversations between Shant and Lynn and short attempts to excavate histories that were not taught to either of us in schools or universities. This is still a work in progress that aims to explore and build on our own experimentations with writing historical narratives.

Contributed by Shant & Lynn

Lynn is actively involved in Meem, a community of queer women and trans folk. She's also into pixels, among other things.

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