Resident Expert: Early Writings in Arab Feminism

Marilyn Booth is a Senior Research Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi and the author of Classes of Ladies of Cloistered Spaces: Writing Feminist History through Biography in fin-de-siècle Egypt, published in early 2015. The book brings focus to Zaynab Fawwaz, a journalist, novelist and playwright, who immigrated from Ottoman Lebanon to Egypt and established herself as distinct from most Arab women writers of her time.

Booth's recent work demonstrates how scholarly research can work: you never know what will catch your attention. "The book I published this year was originally supposed to be just one chapter in my next book," she says with no hint of chagrin. In an interview with Salaam, Booth, a NYUAD Senior Research Fellow, explained how she has used her time in the Middle East to deepen her knowledge of the life and work of Zaynab Fawwaz.


Zaynab Fawwaz was born in Lebanon, in 1846 we think, and died in 1914. Living in Cairo she wrote prolifically, but she's best known for her 453 biographical sketches of women in history, collected in a 552-page book; I translated the title as Pearls Scattered in Times and Places: Classes of Ladies of Cloistered Spaces. It's really a work of feminist history.

This February Edinburgh University Press published my book about her book. I used the second part of her title as the first part of mine: Classes of Ladies of Cloistered Spaces: Writing Feminist History through Biography in fin-de-siècle Egypt.

At NYUAD I've been looking at her more broadly, linking her work with what else was being said about gender in Cairo, in the late 1800s, in the context of all the conversations about occupation and nationalism and identity. And I'm looking at how her work was in conversation with the work of others around her.

In those days, under de facto British occupation, Cairo was an intellectual hotbed, then?

Cairo was the center of so much. In the 1880s and 1880s the non-official periodical press really took off in Cairo, and in Beirut, and there were also a lot of small private publishers. You know it's well-established historically that a vigorous press really helps to build a sense of community, even if the number of readers is small.

Remember, the Arab intellectuals of the 1890s were not so different from their peers in Europe. Conditions were different but women of the same class in England were not necessarily better off. For instance, they had fewer rights to ownership of property.

In Egypt people were struggling with the concept of modernity, saying "we want to be a modern nation but the British are here running our country. And we don't always like the way 'modern' Europeans believe, either."

So your new book will put Fawwaz in the context of her time and place?

I wrote some articles about her early in my career and I always wanted to get back to her. There hasn't been a lot of work done on her, although her works have now mostly been re-published in Egypt.

Many of the intellectuals in Egypt at the time were immigrants from the Ottoman Arab provinces that are now Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel-Palestine. Fawwaz was from a southern-Lebanese Shiite community. She wasn't well-educated, she taught herself. There's a lot we don't know; we're not even sure what decade she was born in. And there's no verified photo of her.

But these Arab intellectuals coming to Egypt were important in the rise of journalism, the theater, the novel and more. And she was quite different from her contemporary female writers. She gets into sharp debates with other intellectuals, male and female. She was extremely fierce about issues, about women's right to participate in waged labor, for example. Like others in her time, she was against arranged marriage except with the consent of both parties. Her two novels and her one play are critiques of coerced marriage.

So the new book will tell us about her contemporaries, and her debates with them?

And the issues of the time. We don't want to see her in isolation. She talks for example about being a Muslim woman who has to honor the customs and practices of gender segregation.

I'm writing a chapter now about her play. She was the first Arab woman to ever publish a play. I don't know that it was ever performed, but the question is why did she write a play? So the chapter will talk about theatre at that time, and issues of gender in theater, and theater as a form of moral education.

And when I talk about her fiction I look briefly at other novels written around the time. There's always so much to say …

Is it fair to say that women's history in the Arab world has made long strides since Fawwaz's day?

There's loads of stuff being done now. Arab women's history, written in Arabic and in other languages, is a very vigorous field now in the Middle East, and in Europe. What my work adds, I think, is that I'm tightly focused on what these texts say; their internal fabric and their precise rhetoric; the tension between what is said and how it is said; who the texts are directed to.

When you look at writing about the veil, for example, you see that more attention was paid to the issue by men at the time, but men wrote about it in the abstract, whereas women looked at practical things, the dailyness of it. They mentioned the veil only in very specific contexts. And they didn't see it as necessarily an impediment, nor as something that would be around forever. A fine-grained examination of texts lets you see things like that.