Breaking the Silence: Nationalism and Feminism in Contemporary Egyptian Women’s Writing
thesisposted on 16.08.2012 by Chia-Ling She
In order to distinguish essays and pre-prints from academic theses, we have a separate category. These are often much longer text based documents than a paper.
The works I examine in this thesis for Egyptian women’s narrative liberation strategies span from the nationalist-feminist works of the 1920s in Egypt throughout the twentieth century. I include works by Huda Shaarawi, Zainab al-Ghazali, Nawal El Saadawi, Latifa al-Zayyat, the post-1970s generation such as Ibtihal Salem, Alifa Rifaat and Salwa Bakr and finally, Ahdaf Soueif. The works for examination are organised chronologically and surround anti-colonial independence struggles in Egypt. I argue that writing corporeality for contemporary Egyptian women complicates the modern national space and histories. Qasim Amin (1863-1908) is deemed Egypt’s feminist founding father. His modernist reformist discourse is one of the attempts to create the interstitial space for Egyptian women’s liberation in Homi Bhabha’s concept. Amin’s ‘imitative’ Western gender equality discourse renders the heterosexual relationship complex within Egyptian nationalist heteronormative discourses. It kindles numerous debates about Islamic definitions of womanhood. Not only does this cause the tension between Islam and Egyptian feminism but it also makes Islamic culture open to changes and a plethora of discourses. This thesis aims at assessing narrative strategies through female bodies, which form an interstitial space in Egypt’s histories. Romantic love narratives in contemporary Egyptian women’s writing re-signify national space. Re-writing heterosexual relationships in El Saadawi’s (1931-) secular gender politics unsettles heterosexual constitution in Egyptian modern fiction, which disrupts a sense of a linear time in inventing national identities. Writing against Freudian masculine discursive power, El Saadawi distinguishes her feminist stance from Western feminist colonialist discursive hegemony. Her strategy renders an instantaneous frame of time, to use Bhabha’s concept. It targets the assumption of tradition as a nationalist discourse. Latifa al-Zayyat (1923-1996), through the creation of Layla in The Open Door, suggests that female sexuality can articulate historical perspectives of Egyptian modernity which has been dominated by male-centred views. The central space conferred on female sexuality in The Open Door reveals the symbolic representation of female sexuality in the male-led nationalist and nationalist-feminist debates. In Return of the Pharaoh, al-Ghazali (1917-2005) demonstrates her body to be able to endure tortures better than men; it involves a complication of the nationalist invention revolving around feminine ‘spirituality’, dependent on women’s roles of respectability. Her autobiographical writing is fluid between the personal and political and it becomes a vehicle for negotiating the national and female selves. Therefore, writing corporeality constitutes strategies for creating narrative time and space in Egypt as a nation. Also, Egyptian women’s writing techniques bring forth narratives of the lower class in Egyptian women’s movement. In the writing of the post-1970s generation, Ibtihal Salem’s (1949-) daily description of women’s lives disrupts the masculine national linear time. For Salem, sexual life expresses disillusionment toward Jamal Abdel Nasser’s socialist nationalism, lament for neo-colonialism and the fundamentalist revival. Alifa Rifaat’s (1930-1996) representation of female genital mutilation integrates suturing, i.e. healing, and infibulations. Rifaat’s writing renders nationalist discourse split by demonstrating this practice as a sense of belonging and a wound, and thus, she creates an alternative space for nationalist discourses. The short story genre is a strategy of conveying Egyptian women’s culturally mixed daily life. Salwa Bakr (1949-) devises female madness as a strategy to create new space within the domestic sphere. Her approach is based on revisiting Islam. She describes female psychological problems and carves out a representational possibility for Third World urban female subalterns. The zar ritual and psychoanalytic institutions introduce feminine circular time in Bakr’s works. Ahdaf Soueif (1950-) adopts the feminine romance genre to seek narrative possibility for female sexuality and for formulating space for historical subalterns. I suggest that women’s corporeality in Egyptian modern fiction articulates a series of performative ever-changing national identities.