Fiction as a tool of resistance against the reality of womanhood: Arab women writers’ approach to truth

On the power of truth and resistance in fiction by Arab women.

Art by Amelia Mertha.

“If you are creative, you must be dissident.”

Nawal El Saadawi

When I sat down at the dinner table with my mum over the sahlab she’d made for dessert, I explained (in my broken Arabic and hand gestures) that I was writing a piece on Arab women writers. Her face instantly lit up as she attempted to help, scrambling to remember all the women writers she’d come across in her life, with Google Translate filling the language barrier between us for words such as feminism and revolutionary. She consoled my concerns that this piece would be a mere comparison of the freedoms that are offered and to whom they are offered, stating that it is hard to study women in the Middle East as a stand-alone topic without the inclusion of men. This is a case that extends beyond literary regards.

The Arab literary scene, whilst having long overcome the initial barrier of excluding women, remains largely problematic in the sense of liberties and standards of writing offered to women in contrast to those that men freely utilise. Due to the multitude of restrictions placed on Arab women attempting to make their ideas known in the literary scene, the preferred (more so safest) style of writing utilised is fiction. Fiction gives women the ability to tell their stories as the main character, full of the hard truths that they’ve had to endure, yet in the veil of a fabrication that protects them from the otherwise harsh consequences awaiting them, should they choose to speak it as though it were real. 

Nawal El-Saadawi, like many other Arab women who have pursued literary careers, was a living testament of the brilliance and resilience of women in an Arab country, in a role most commonly dominated by men. El-Sadaawi utilised fiction in her published works, of those including Woman at Point Zero, in which she uses two main characters in an attempt to re-tell real life scenarios drawn from her own experience. Both the doctor and the prisoner in this novel resemble Nawal’s own experiences in life, be it in profession, sexual history and encounter with prison life. The topics that Nawal addresses highlight issues that Arab women must face whether due to culture or religion, or more commonly, both. The characters within this book are carefully handpicked to represent the person that El-Sadaawi was throughout her life, or the one that she needed. Created as a testament to the oppression of a woman in a man’s world, these characters live within the pages to tell stories too often left untold. The story mirrors El-Sadaawi’s own experiences regarding the genital circumcision of men and women, as Firdaus (the prisoner) explains the reason why she, a prisoner awaiting death row, feels no fear in leaving a world in which she was never meant to thrive in to begin with. 

When women attempt to unmask their ideas and publish non-fiction works as social commentaries, as Nawal El-Sadaawi has with Women and Sex, the punishments are severe and discriminatory. Her book, banned in several Arab countries, led to her being dismissed from her post as Egypt’s director-general of health education due to the uproar that it caused. El-Sadaawi’s experience as a physician in rural Egypt, as well as her own experience of being an Arab woman in a conservative society, enabled her to piece together the unmistakable connection between gender and class inequality. Women and Sex candidly addresses topics of sex and women’s reproductive health, debunking common Arab myths such as a woman’s hymen needing to be intact at the time of marriage to symbolise chastity. As these are truths which can shake up a society that benefits from having them kept silent, her medical and scientific input on reproductive health and sex was shunned.

Fiction further enables women to provide a political commentary that they otherwise would not be able to express without their opinions being labelled invalid. Sahar Khalifeh captures the alienation of the Palestinian diaspora through her novel The Inheritance. The occupation of Palestinian land by illegal Israeli settlers has led to generations of Indigenous Palestinians dispossessed of their land and identity, leaving many to flee and living a life between two homes. In The Inheritance, Sahar places a particular emphasis on the struggle for individual identity and nationhood of Palestinian women through the lense of young Zaynab. Not only is this character brought up in a land far from the homeland that her Father tells her the sweetest stories of, but she also has an American mother, creating further divide in how she perceives herself. As well as touching on existential issues, Khalifeh encapsulates the heavily protected idea of a woman belonging to a man; initially to her father and then, bound by customs and traditions, to her husband. The time during which Khalifeh wrote this was during the Oslo Accords and the Gulf War, providing a woman’s perspective on a politically saturated era which was largely determined by men, both Arab and non-Arab alike.

All I had ever known about Iraq, from being born there to fleeing shortly after, during Saddam Hussien’s reign, was a war-torn country full of grief. This is directly reflected in the poetry style most commonly attributed to Iraqi writers, that being the third century Qasida; which, according to the Collins dictionary, is defined as “an Arabic poem of mourning or praise.” This particular type of poem was commonly used amongst male Arab poets, aptly chosen due to the conditions in which most (due to non-negotiable conscription during the many wars waged) experienced the height of mourning or praise. This style of poetry has also been utilised by women, shedding light on the shared struggle of war from the frontlines of the home. Dunya Mikhail, best known for her work “The Beekeeper of Sinjar ”, reflects on her own writing as a media-labelled ‘war poet’, a title that Iraqi authors of the time she had been writing in had been assigned to. Mikhail comments on this label, questioning whether Iraq will ever see a time of post-war poets. As war has been a part of an Iraqi’s daily life since the last Century, and continues to impact the daily lives of Iraqis today, a post-war era of living becomes hard to imagine, let alone a post-war era of writing. Familiarity as a muse, regardless of the work’s contents, enables a collective narrative to be expressed and received by those who have experienced its realities.  

Arab women writers give Arab women everywhere an invaluable sense of comfort, knowing that another has the words to articulate their battles, ones often fought in silence and submissiveness. Fiction and non-fiction works alike written by Arab women delve into deeper layers of the human condition incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it firsthand. Whether it be a story on a woman’s success or her strife, reading a text with an Arab woman as the main character, one not devised by/for the male gaze, is in itself an act of resistance. Women like Nawal, Sahar and Dunya  allow Arab women to dream. They enable them to first be consoled of the burdens that come with being born as an Arab woman, then they allow them to dream. Because when a woman’s words can shake up a society that functions on the exploitation of women, the power that comes with those words becomes evident. When a woman’s words can comfort mothers who have watched their children die fighting for the preservation of their homelands and their identity, there is a degree of personal experience to those words. When a woman’s words are able to stand beside a man’s grievances of war, making way for the grieving women whose pain is often dismissed, the void of unspoken apologies and admiration can be filled. 

Reading list:

  • Woman at Point Zero – Nawal El-Sadaawi
  • Women and Sex – Nawal El-Sadaawi
  • The Inheritance – Sahar Khalifeh
  • The Beekeeper of Sinjar – Dunya Mikhail 
  • Our Women on the Ground – Zahra Hankir
  • We Wrote in Symbols –  Elif Shafak
  • Silence is a Sense – Layla Alammar
  • Women of Sand and Myrrh – Hanan al-Shaykh 
  • The Waiting List: An Iraqi Woman’s Tales of Alienation – Daisy al-Amir