For centuries, women had low status in Arab culture. Starting in the second half of the nineteenth century, Western influence and processes of modernization led to a change in the status of women, and feminist ideas began to germinate. Women started going out of their homes to study and became increasingly aware of their liberation, both their own and that of others around them. Thus the nineteenth century saw the birth of a feminist discourse among Arab women on such topics as education, work, marriage, suffrage, and breaking out of their isolation. The feminist discourse continued to develop—at first, theoretically and literarily. Women met and talked about their situation and their status and wrote philosophy and literature about them. Then the discourse developed in practical terms: Women became national and feminist activists and founded associations that promoted women’s rights. Women may have won the struggle for education in the Arab world, but in other areas their progress is still impeded by conservative elements, and the process of achieving equal rights between the sexes is still incomplete.
In recent years, the study of Arab feminism has developed. The studies examine the ways in which women cope with power structures that dictate the frameworks of their lives, how they behave in light of these structures, and how they reshape the limits of their liberty. Scholars like Layla Ahmed, Miriam Kook, Denise Candiotti, Beth Baron, Iman Alkachi, Butheina Shaaban, Fatima Mernissi, Layla Abu Lughod, Valentine Moghdem, Margot Badran, and Nawal El Saadawi started delving into the issues and theories concerning women’s writing in general and women’s writing in Arabic in particular. In Hebrew, one can find studies and articles by scholars like Mira Tzuref, Ofra Benjo, and Camilla Bader-Aref. There are also translations of feminist philosophy into Hebrew— for example, the translation of Nawal El Saadawi’s book Behind the Veil.
The Arab Feminism Research Initiative, comprising Arab and Jewish scholars of Arabic literature and culture who met for two years at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute, sought to discuss Arabic philosophy, culture, and literature from the end of the nineteenth century to our day and to understand the main ideas in Arab feminist thought. The aim was to examine the main writers and thinkers and the important phenomena representing the foundations of Arab feminist thought in this period. Because the group included participants from various disciplines, each participant presented a text or a phenomenon representing a particular aspect of Arab feminism related to her area of expertise and which she and the other participants considered important and representative. Each presentation provided the basis for a through critical discussion by the group. The discussions focused on three main areas: feminist philosophy, feminism in the media, and feminist literature and culture.
Dr. Tal Meler, whose field is gender studies, led the discussion of feminist philosophy, considering the outlines of Western feminist discourse and of Arab feminism and the similarities and differences between the two types of discourse. We learned about the main arguments of contemporary feminist literature regarding “women in the Middle East” or “women in Muslim society.” The lecture included a brief survey of the prominent voices in the feminist discourse, such as Margot Badran, Denise Candiotti, Nawal El Saadawi, and Fatima Mernissi.
Dr. Janan Faraj Falah led the discussion of the philosophical writing of the well-known theoretician Nazira Zain al-Din, her personal commentary on the Quran—especially in relation to the granting of rights to women—and the influence of writing on her life. In another meeting, Lena Wahaba presented the book One Hundred Years of the Arabic Novel, by the pioneering feminist scholar Butheina Shaaban. This book was the basis of the statement that Arab women writers (as opposed to Arab men writers) were the true pioneers of women’s writing in Arabic.
Another important scholar we discussed was Fatima Mernissi. Salwa Alinat led the discussion in which she presented her work on Mernissi, a feminist scholar from Morocco, who studied, among other topics, the situation of Muslim women in North Africa and in the Middle East. We discussed the special discourse that Mernissi introduced, linking Islam, history, modernism, colonialism, and gender. We discussed the way in which Mernissi portrays the contemporary Muslim woman, her views on the Islamic culture that she is studying, and whether she sees herself as part of it or as standing outside it.
Feminism in the media
Dr. Inbal Tal introduced us to the world of women in the Islamic movement in Israel, through study of the women’s monthly A-Sharqa, published by the northern faction of the Islamic movement in Israel since July 2001. We discussed the content of this monthly, the women’s voice in it, and its influence on the movement’s activities.
Dr. Mary Totry discussed with us the struggle of the civil society organizations in Egypt against sexual harassment. We watched a movie that documents the phenomenon of sexual harassment in Egypt, and after the movie Dr. Totry analyzed the orientation and discourse of the campaigns against such harassment. We discussed such questions as whether there has been a change in the orientation and the discourse of the women activists and of the civil society organizations combating sexual harassment since the January 25 revolution in Egypt and whether the revolution has empowered women or weakened them.
Feminist literature and culture
We also considered Arabic literature. Dina Abid discussed the novel of the well-known Palestinian writer Layla Halabi, who lives in the United States. In this context we discussed the social and cultural status of Palestinian women in the United States and how, through their writing, they achieve female empowerment and a higher status in a society that is foreign to them, on the one hand, and patriarchal, on the other.
Another meeting was devoted to the writer Amana Al-Janidi, a young contemporary feminist writer in the West Bank. Dr. Dorit Gottesfeld pointed out a woman writer’s subversion of the accepted literary norms of the West Bank. We saw how Al-Janidi introduces the national-political reality of life in the West Bank into the fantasy world that she creates, weaving clearly feminist values into her work.
Dr. Hila Peled took us to the other, male, side and spoke about the writings of the Iraqi author Aib Taama Parman, who wrote the first modern literary novel in Iraq. We talked about the image of women and issues pertaining to women in his work, as part of the author’s attempt to convey a social and political message and to reflect the national-political reality in Iraq in the second half of the twentieth century.
Finally, Adi Katz, who comes from the world of art, spoke about gender and nationality in the work of Manar Zuabi, a Palestinian-Israel artist. We discussed Zuabi’s work in terms of the iconology and iconography by analyzing the gender aspect and the dualism in her work, in which the 'weight' of the Palestinian feminist discourse is equated to the weight of the Palestinian national struggle.
The group also met for two years with three Arabic women writers: Raja Bakria, Misoun Asadi, and Ruya Barbara. These meetings included discussions with the writers about their works, which the group members read, and a question-and-answer period.
To summarize, this initiative provided the participants with an opportunity and the ability to hold interdisciplinary discussions and thus to become familiar with insights and materials that were new to them. These certainly will be expressed in the participants’ future research. This undertaking also created relationships, both professional and personal, between the participants. Evidence of this is their intention to continue meeting in the same type of framework, outside the Institute. And perhaps most important are the excellent conditions that the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute provided, the constant cooperation, and the willingness to help solve any problem.
Participants, in alphabetical order
Dina Abid: Doctoral candidate at Bar-Ilan University and lecturer at al-Qasemi College of Education. Her doctoral thesis focuses on the works of Palestinian women writers who have emigrated.
Effie Aharon: Doctoral candidate in the Gender Studies Program at Bar-Ilan University. Her doctoral thesis deals with themes that characterize the fiction written by women in Western countries who are children of immigrants from Eastern countries.
Salwa Alinat: Doctoral candidate in the Middle Eastern Studies Department of Bar-Ilan University and lecturer in the Sapir Academic College and the Open University. Her thesis is on the construction of religious identity among Muslim women activists in the Islamic movement in Israel, from the 1980s to 2013.
Dr. Janan Faraj-Falah: Head of the Gender Studies Department in the Arab Academic College for Education, Haifa, and researcher at the Jewish-Arab Center at the University of Haifa. She has published many articles on language education, comparative (Hebrew and Arabic) medieval poetry, and the status of women. Her book The Druze Woman was published in 2005.
Dr. Dorit Gottesfeld: Lecturer in the Arabic department of Bar-Ilan University. Her research focuses on contemporary women’s writing in Arabic. Her book on Palestinian women’s fiction appeared recently.
Adi Katz: Has a master’s degree in the history of art from Tel Aviv University. Her thesis deals with gender and national aspects of the work of Manar Zuabi.
Dr. Tel Meler: Lecturer in the Safed Academic College and the Jezreel Valley Academic College. Her areas of expertise: sociology of the family, gender and Islamic feminism, Palestinian society in Israel, and particularly, Palestinian-Israeli women.
Dr. Hila Peled-Shapira: Researcher in Arabic literature at Bar-Ilan University. Her research focuses on the link between poetics and ideology, and the psychological, linguistic, and metaphoric aspects of Iraqi Communist literature. She has published studies on the perception of time and the urban aspects of the poetry of exiled poets, and rhetorical means and gender aspects of Iraqi novels.
Dr. Inbal Tal: Lecturer in the Communications Department at the Jezreel Valley Academic College. Among her areas of expertise: Islamic feminism, Islamic radicalism in the Palestinian sphere, and neo-media in the Arab world. Her article “Women’s Activism in the Islamic Movement in Israel: Influences and Characteristics” appeared recently in the book The Muslim Brotherhood: Religious Vision in a Changing Reality, edited by Meir Hatina and Uri Cooperschmidt (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2012).
Dr. Mary Totry: Head of the Civics Department at Oranim Academic College and lecturer at the University of Haifa. Among her areas of expertise: women in the Arab world, communications in the Arab world, and the Arab minority in Israel.
Lena Wahaba: Doctoral candidate at Tel Aviv University. Her doctoral thesis is on Syrian women’s fiction.
Keywords: Arabic literature, women writers, feminism