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Reading Arab Women's Autobiographies

Reading Arab Women's Autobiographies
Shahrazad Tells Her Story

The author applies a variety of western critical theories, including Marxism, colonial discourse, feminism, and narrative theory, to the autobiographies of several Arab women to demonstrate what these critical methodologies can reveal about Arab women's writing.

December 2003
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254 pages | 6 x 9 |

Authors of autobiographies are always engaged in creating a "self" to present to their readers. This process of self-creation raises a number of intriguing questions: why and how does anyone choose to present herself or himself in an autobiography? Do women and men represent themselves in different ways and, if so, why? How do differences in culture affect the writing of autobiography in various parts of the world?

This book tackles these questions through a close examination of Arab women's autobiographical writings. Nawar Al-Hassan Golley applies a variety of western critical theories, including Marxism, colonial discourse, feminism, and narrative theory, to the autobiographies of Huda Shaarawi, Fadwa Tuqan, Nawal el-Saadawi, and others to demonstrate what these critical methodologies can reveal about Arab women's writing. At the same time, she also interrogates these theories against the chosen texts to see how adequate or appropriate these models are for analyzing texts from other cultures. This two-fold investigation sheds important new light on how the writers or editors of Arab women's autobiographies have written, documented, presented, and organized their texts.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Part One. Political Theory: Colonial Discourse, Feminist Theory, and Arab Feminism
    • Chapter One. Why Colonial Discourse?
    • Chapter Two. Feminism, Nationalism, and Colonialism in the Arab World
    • Chapter Three. Huda Shaarawi's Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist
  • Part Two. Narrative Theory: Autobiography
    • Chapter Four. Autobiography and Sexual Difference
    • Chapter Five. Arab Autobiography: A Historical Survey
  • Part Three. Analysis of Texts
    • Chapter Six. Anthologies
    • Chapter Seven. Fadwa Tuqan's Mountainous journey, Difficult journey
    • Chapter Eight. Nawal el-Saadawi
  • Conclusion. The Literary and the Political
  • Appendix
  • Translation of the Introduction to the Arabic Edition of Memoirs from the Women's Prison by Nawal el-Saadawi
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Nawar Al-Hassan Golley is Assistant Professor of English at the American University of Sharjah in United Arab Emirates.


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The idea for this book began as an attempt to investigate the common belief among many, both in the academic world and outside it, that women write differently and about different things than men. This investigation led to examining such questions as: Why is it taken for granted that a woman writes in a different way, and about different things, than a man? When writing about the self, is it true that a woman writes about "private" and domestic matters while a man is more interested in "public" and political issues? What is "private" and what is "public" after all? Is it adequate to define a text in terms of the sex of the writer in the first place and then to generalize about what and how a woman or a man writes? Do women express themselves in the same way across cultures?

To this end, I am exploring the representation of female subjectivity and the construction of identity in a selection of autobiographical writings by Arab women. I believe that many recent theories have something to offer to the interpretation of texts. In addition, it is difficult and incomplete to rely on one theory alone due to the complexity of the question of identity and the even more complex situation of Arab identity This is why I draw on a wide range of theories from Marxism, colonial discourse, anthropology, and psychoanalysis to deconstruction. I do not prioritize theories which emphasize only colonial issues, for example, in their analysis of representation and identity. Neither do I use crude Marxism, which reduces all questions to the class struggle, or crude feminism, which looks only at patriarchy. Factors addressed by all of these theories are essential to the constitution of identity, but so are many other factors such as national consciousness, religious belief, family, ways of upbringing, and educational background.

The aim of this book is twofold. First, it examines examples of Arab women's autobiographical writings in the light of various fields of modern western critical theory, in particular feminism and narrative theory. Second, it interrogates such theories against the chosen texts in order to see how adequate or appropriate these models are to analyze texts from other cultures. In this regard, my study may be described as applied theory, for it does not add to theory as such, but I hope that the interplay of theory and texts will be mutually illuminating.

I am using aspects of feminist narrative theories in order, first, to examine the ideological positions from which the writers/tellers of their stories write—to see whether writing these texts is part of a struggle against oppression; and, second, to explore other questions, such as: Are these women writing from within any kind of tradition, whether local or influenced by writing from other parts of the world? To what extent are they writing about themselves? Why do they feel it essential to write about themselves? What difference is there between writing explicit autobiography, semifictional narrative, and fiction?

Autobiographical writings of any form have the tendency to publicize the "private." I want to make it clear that I use these two terms, the "private" and the "public," cautiously; for they also have different meanings in different cultural contexts and for different classes within the same culture. In a bourgeois and western context, it has been a feminist concern to break the private/public dichotomy; for women traditionally have been restricted to the "private" world, while men have always enjoyed access to both spheres. The "private" and the "public" were (and still are) supporting for men, whereas for women they were (and perhaps still are to a large extent) two opposing spheres. Neither in practice nor in theory were women expected to violate the sacred world of men, the "public." Writing about the "private" used to be considered one of the weak aspects of women's writings. But now, and in feminist terms, representing the domestic can be a political act in itself; for the goal is to change the situation imposed upon women. In its critique of the family and of the division of social life into "private" and "public," feminism also puts the private in the public sphere. We shall see how Arab women may use the "harem" and the hijab (the veil), two concepts associated with the private world of women, to enter the public sphere without supposedly incurring the risks to be found therein.

One of the issues here involves cultural representations, especially the prevailing image in the west that women in Arab countries probably suffer more oppression than women anywhere else in the world. I, for one, should know that not all Syrian women are downtrodden. I have never suffered sexual discrimination within my own family; but I have seen bad forms of sexual discrimination in my society. Indeed, women's oppression takes different shapes from one society to another; it operates in a complex way in every society. Hence, the term "patriarchy" should not be used indiscriminately and without definition, for it is often taken to refer to a universal and transhistorical category of male dominance which leaves little hope for change. In this book I use the term from time to time to refer both to modes of thinking which tend to promote the subordination of women and to social practices which are oppressive. We should bear in mind, however, that women's oppression cannot be simply measured and compared between cultures or countries, as if all women in a certain culture or country lived under the same conditions regardless of class, education, religious affiliation, or other social factors.

Since the publication of Edward Said's Orientalism (1978), it has become very easy to label as "Orientalist" every attempt to represent an "other" even when this representation tries to challenge some existing stereotypes from within. My book may also be labeled in this way. Nonetheless, I tend to believe that, no matter what side of the "border" one is on, questions of representation are always problematic. To some, there is no escape from Orientalism when one speaks of others. However, as long as one offers a persistent critique of what one is up to, as I frequently do, representing the other should not become trapped in homogenization: constructing the "other" simply as an object of knowledge. Still, if anyone is capable of seeing the "real others," it is someone from within rather than from without, someone sympathetic rather than antagonistic, critical rather than romanticizing. I try to look at a culture of which I am part without reducing it to a homogeneous body. I try to show that what is seen as unified from the outside may be very different within.

Like many today, I am uneasy using terms such as "west" and "east," "western" and "nonwestern" or "eastern," "developed" and "undeveloped" or "Third World." Although I sometimes do use them for mere convenience, I do not think it is adequate to separate the world rigidly into these oppositional categories. Colonial discourses tend to divide world culture into a monolithic "western" culture which is contrasted with an equally monolithic "nonwestern" culture or cultures, such as the "Arab world," which is seen in homogeneous, collective terms. I use terms such as "west" and "Arab world" strategically and without capitalization because I do not consider them to be referring to homogeneous entities.

The question of authenticity is another issue that needs to be challenged here. Different cultures have been influencing each other for centuries. In our age of mass communication, it seems inadequate to talk about any culture as if it were completely pure and indigenous, except in a very few examples. In this book, I try to raise problems of selfhood when it comes to both the person who knows and the person who is known. In other words, I represent myself as a problematic self and not as an authentic Arab woman offering the "real" or correct alternative to the representation that has been offered before by western selves. I note the difficulty of defining personal and cultural identity in the matrix of Arab societies. I also show how problematic my own position has been in looking at the texts produced by women's identities as complex as my own.

This is not to say that lines cannot be drawn—there are still elements of cultural specificity wherever we go. For feminism to be universally useful, it has to take into account cultural differences and cross-racial, regional, social, and economic boundaries. I myself am cross-cultural; so is my book. As an Arab who has been educated in both Arab and western institutions, I am using western critical theory to look at texts by and about women from Arab countries from a double stance. Many of these women, like myself, are under the influence of at least two different cultures. Their texts should be seen in this light.

This multicultural context makes me challenge the usefulness of another problematic division: between the "literary" and the "nonliterary." The "literary" cannot be the main issue in relation to texts written or recited by illiterate or uneducated women and textualized, in differing ways and to different degrees, for English consumption. Hence I believe it is as important to raise questions of readership and audience as questions of authorship. Indeed, language is an instrument of power; but one is also overpowered by one's readers, wherever they come from. Throughout this book, questions about who the texts are written for, how they are received, and the nature of their conditions of publication, distribution, and translation have higher priority than aesthetic questions. In addition, like Janet Wolff, I believe that literary or artistic creation does not differ from any other form of creative action; and for this reason, art and literature "have to be seen as historical, situated and produced, and not as descending as divine inspiration to people of innate genius."

Indeed, notions of "good" writing undergo transformation in any culture. In my analysis, I draw on theories that assign historical significance to women's daily experience as a cultural activity. Hence, I am interested in the role that writing plays in women's social consciousness and in encouraging a feminist voice that will end the silencing of women.

To explore the textual constitution of identity through modes of autobiography where the parameters are "Arab" and "women," I have divided the book into three parts. Part One works out the politico-theoretical positions and the frame within which I am reading the texts in hand. In Chapter 1, I situate my study in relation to the arguments of colonial discourse, because such discourse is very useful for what it has to say about subjectivity and the reception of female autobiographical narratives. In Chapter 2, to demonstrate the interaction of class, race, and gender in the constitution of self-image, I consider the main arguments offered by feminism and Marxism in the light of the Arab situation. In Chapter 3, I look at Huda Shaarawi's Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist, to which the issues raised in Chapters 1 and 2 are relevant. Part Two considers questions of identity and subjectivity within a study of autobiography and cultural and sexual difference.

In Part Three, I examine the texts themselves in the light of the theories studied in Parts One and Two. First, I look at three texts based on interviews with women, mostly those who cannot write for themselves: Khul-Khaal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories, edited by Nayra Atiya; Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women, edited by Fatima Mernissi; and Both Right and Left Handed: Arab Women Talk about Their Lives, edited by Bouthaina Shaaban. Second, I look at a text based on Fadwa Tuqan's autobiography, Mountainous Journey, Difficult Journey. Third, I analyze three texts by Nawal el-Saadawi: Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, Memoirs from the Women's Prison, and My Travels around the World.

Throughout I consider to what extent the texts I am studying still bear the traces of story-telling under oppression and how far this consciousness of oppression leads to expressions of selfhood similar to those which emerged in western feminism. Like Shahrazad, the heroine of A Thousand and One Nights, a metaphor of both oppression and liberation through the as of story-telling, these women and their narratives need to be seen in sociopolitical contexts.

My concern in this book is to find out how literary theory, colonial discourse, and feminism can help in looking at Arab women's expressions of the self. Although there has been an increasing interest in women's narratives of self generally in western literary and critical theory, there is an almost complete lack of any theorization of Arab women's autobiographical texts specifically. I hope that this book will make a contribution toward filling this gap.



“This book is theoretically well-grounded, wide-ranging in its coverage of texts and theories, and eminently readable. Al-Hassan writes with verve and . . . without relying on jargon, a refreshing change in a book dealing with texts and textualities.Asma”
Barlas author of Believing Women” in Islam: Unreading Patriarchal Interpretations of the Qur’an


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