In academic studies, Arab women’s writing is often framed as connected to their “selves”, with the authors perceived as being driven by the need to disentangle the intricate web of threads forming the self, in order to express their inner worlds.
However, the same could be said of men’s writings. Why is it then that women’s writings are more prone to being read as expressions of the self, rather than as narratives of a wider scope?
Dispelling the misconception that women write solely about their subjectivities, the private, and the domestic was the focus of an international bilingual workshop held recently at the British University in Egypt.
The four-day workshop, titled “Diverse Pedagogy and Reception: (Re)forming Subjectivities in Arab Women’s Writing”, was presented as part of a larger partnership between the British University in Egypt, the University of Bamberg, in Germany, and Cairo University. The partnership aims to present a series of workshops, seminars and conferences that bring together young M.A. and Ph.D. scholars of Arab women’s writing.
The workshop was held December 5 through 8 at BUE under the auspices of Shadia Fahim, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Humanities.
Participants included scholars from the University of Bayreuth, the American University of Beirut, and the American University in Cairo, as well as the three sponsoring institutions. The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) funded the cost of scholars coming to Egypt to participate.
The Personal and the Political
Key issues raised during the workshop included questions about voice, agency, genre, positionality, gender performativity, subjectivity formation, and the politics of teaching and translating Arab women’s writings.
Participants offered readings and analyses of texts, television series, and caricatures that showcase various Arab women writers and artists. Their presentations explored the private and the public, as well as the personal and the political, reviving a rallying cry of feminism in the 1960s and ’70s, “the personal is political”.
The participants included researchers studying the writings of pioneering Arab women writers like Huda Shaarawi (1879–1924), Latifa al-Zayyat (1923–1996), May Ziadeh (1886–1941), and Gamila El Alaily (1907–1991), as well as contemporary authors and artists like the Syrian poet Mohja Kahf and the Egyptian cartoonist Doaa El-Adl, among others.
Framing the presentations were keynote speeches by two Cairo University scholars, Shereen Abouelnaga, a professor of English and comparative literature, and Khairy Douma, a professor of Modern Arabic literature.
Abouelnaga’s speech examined “the fabula and the syuzhet”, or the event and the re-presentation of that event, in relation to writings by Arab women.
Speaking about her own experience of teaching Arab women’s writing, Abouelnaga said academics need to “go transnational” if they want to teach to transgress boundaries. Transnational feminism, she said, is the path to understanding local and global specificities when reading and teaching Arab women’s literature in particular.
In his speech, Douma critiqued readings of the new autobiographical novel as embodied in the debut novels of Egyptian women in the 1990s. His remarks illustrated how, until the turn of the twenty-first century, Arab women’s writings were considered almost as a separate genre.
Challenges for Teachers
The workshop also addressed various limitations the study of Arab women’s writings may encounter. In both Arab and non-Arab universities, there are often challenges pertaining to the framing and teaching of these writings in the classroom.
Professor Lale Behzadi, of the University of Bamberg, foregrounded her remarks by underlining the need to address critical perspectives on Arab women’s writings through multiple locations of intersection that include not only gender.
From her own teaching experience, Behzadi highlighted how finding texts in translation (and even in the original Arabic) can be a major challenge when teaching Arab women’s literature to non-Arab students. She also pointed to how contextualizing a text takes a different shape in a classroom at a Western university than it would at one in the Arab world.
The workshop was the inaugural event of the partnership between the three universities. The organisers plan to hold more events to keep the discussion on the reading and reception of Arab women’s writing alive in both the Arab world and outside.
Rana Elbowety is a Ph.D. candidate in English language and literature at Cairo University. She was one of the workshop’s organisers, along with Safinaz Saad, a research associate at the Institute of Oriental Studies at the University of Bamberg.
- ‘Harir Al-Ghazala’: An Omani Novel Reveals Heritage’s Implications on Women’s Lives
- May Ziade’s Writings on Women’s Education Are Republished
- A Stateless Poet Finds Her Home and Identity in Literature
- The Legacy of Fatema Mernissi, Moroccan Feminist and Scholar