Beginnings of Arab Feminism

The invisibility of Arab feminism to the Western world is not indicative of its existence as the thriving, yet complex, form in which it manifests. In 1909, Malak Hifni Nasif published a collection of works in a book titled “Al Nisaiyat”, which was the first time the term connoting feminism first appeared. “… Nisaiyat conventionally signifies something by or about women. However the content of Al Nisaiyat revealed its feminism: it advocated improvement of women’s lives, including new education and work opportunities, and the recuperation of lost freedoms understood to be granted by Islam ” (Badran  xv).  As Nasif’s publication became more widespread, and reached audiences across the Middle East, by 1923 the term “nisai” began its use as the Arabic term for feminism by the Egyptian Feminist Union (Badran xv).

Even though the term for feminism did not arise until the 1900’s, feminist action and thought began  much earlier. If one was to isolate the manifestation of Arab feminism through the written word, evidence appeared through the publishing of Arab women poets around the 1860’s. Due to widespread illiteracy of women and evidence of modern school systems becoming available to Arab females in 1829 (Egypt), 1835 (Lebanon) and 1898 (Iraq) (Al-Qazzat 1), feminism through action or art was the primary form of communication between women and to the outside world. One must broaden their definition of feminism when interpreting the activism of Arab females.

Feminism  is understanding, rejecting and acting upon the discrimination of women in order to advocate for their equal consideration in political, social and economic area’s of life. This definition considers the Trifecta of Arab Feminism, in that the plight of feminism is carried out in different methods depending on the circumstances that the females society bears.

If These Pillars Could Talk, by Hanna Ali Khliefat

Arab feminism is of the three components of the Trifecta; awareness, activism and rejection. In this definition, becoming aware of one’s own discrimination is being a feminist – unlike the common perception in Western activism that being aware is not enough, there must be direct and intentional action towards one’s cause. Awareness that one is systematically disadvantaged or marginalized, due to societal circumstances in the Arab world, is an action and therefore an activism for Arab feminists.

“When one woman writes to another praising her poetic expression, as al-Yazji wrote to Warda al-Turk, one might ask, ‘How can this be feminist?’ It seems to be no more than an exchange of poems between women. However, when we recall the circumstances in which these women lived, when visiting was at best confined to female family members, when most women did not write because the act of writing was considered inflammatory and a moral threat, such a communication takes on special meaning. An analysis of Arab women’s discourse allows us to see feminism where we had not previously thought to look” (Badran xxxiii).

As far back as ancient Egypt, we find feminisms through illiterate forms of communication by Arab women who embroidered silk threads onto cloth to show the stories of their lives. I remember stories that my mother would share with my sisters and I, about the different embroidery patterns she learned from her mother and grandmother. The story of Cleopatra and her beauty, the story of two birds fighting on one embroidered scene and making up in another (to depict the relationship of in-laws)… were all ways that women communicated with each other and passed stories of their circumstances from one generation to another. Historical documentation has shown an awareness of circumstance and the action and intention of wearing their messages, like a protesters sign, for their local community to view and interpret – or to send like a letter with a messenger from one town to another. The stories of embroidery and their role in Palestinian and Arab women’s lives is currently being written in detail in my book, co-authored by my mother, titled “Behind the Thoub”.

Embroidery was and is a form of autobiography and personal memoir for many generations of Arab women.

“Personal memoirs can offer special insights into the workings of patriarchal institutions and ideology because they can show how their imperatives are internalized ans suppressed or how they cause conflict and inspire attempts to escape from their control” (Badran 41).

To continue to uncover different feminisms and to appreciate the complexity of circumstance for women within that society, depending on what part of the world they are from, enriches academic discourse and results in serving the plight of global feminism.

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