Omnia El Shakry: Genealogies of Female Writing


Throughout Women’s History Month, join Princeton University Press as we celebrate scholarship by and about women.

by Omnia El Shakry

In the wake of the tumultuous year for women that was 2017, many female scholars have been reflecting upon their experiences in the academy, ranging from sexual harassment to the everyday experiences of listening to colleagues mansplain or even intellectually demean women’s work. Indeed, I can vividly recall, as a young assistant professor, hearing a senior male colleague brush off what has now become a canonical text in the field of Middle East studies as “merely” an example of gender history, with no wider relevance to the region. Gender history rolled off his tongue with disdain and there was an assumption that it was distinct from real history.

Few now, however, would deign to publicly discount the role that female authors have played in the vitality of the field of Middle East studies. In recognition of this, the Middle East Studies Association of North America has inaugurated new book awards honoring the pioneering efforts of two women in the field, Nikkie Keddie and Fatima Mernissi. I can still remember the first time I read Mernissi’s work while an undergraduate at the American University in Cairo. Ever since my freshman year, I had enrolled in Cultural Anthropology courses with Soraya Altorki—a pioneering anthropologist who had written about Arab Women in the Field and the challenges of studying one’s own society. In her courses, and elsewhere, I was introduced to Lila Abu-Lughod’s Veiled Sentiments, an ethnography of poetry and everyday discourse in a Bedouin community in Egypt’s Western desert. Abu-Lughod’s narrative was sensitive to questions of positionality, a lesson she both drew from and imbued with feminism. A second piece of writing, this time an article by Stefania Pandolfo on “Detours of Life” that interpreted the internal logic of imagining space and bodies in a Moroccan village gave me a breathtaking view of ethnography, the heterogeneity of lifeworlds, and the work of symbolic interpretation. 

In hindsight I can see that these early undergraduate experiences of reading, and studying with, female anthropologists profoundly impacted my own writing. Although I would eventually become a historian, I remained interested in the ethnographic question of encounters, and specifically of how knowledge is produced through encounters­—whether the encounter between the colonizer and the colonized or between psychoanalysis and Islam. In my most recent book, The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt, I ask what it might mean to think of psychoanalysis and Islam together, not as a “problem” but as a creative encounter of ethical engagement. Rather than conceptualizing modern intellectual thought as something developed in Europe, merely to be diffused at its point of application elsewhere, I imagine psychoanalytic knowledge as something elaborated across the space of human difference.

There is yet another female figure who stands at the door of my entry into writing about the Middle East. My grandmother was a strong presence in my early college years. Every Friday afternoon I would head over to her apartment, just a quick walk away from my dorm in downtown Cairo. We would eat lunch, laugh and talk, and watch the subtitled American soap operas that were so popular back then. Since she could not read or write, we would engage in a collective work of translation while watching and I often found her retelling of the series to be far more imaginative than anything network television writers could ever have produced.

Writing for me is about the creative worlds of possibility and of human difference that exist both within, but also outside, of the written word. As historians when we write we are translating between the living and the dead, as much as between different life worlds, and we are often propelled by intergenerational and transgenerational bonds that include the written word, but also exceed it.

Omnia El Shakry is professor of history at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt.

Nancy Woloch: The roots of International Women’s Day

WolochInternational Women’s Day has roots on the left. The idea for such a day arose among socialist women in the US and Europe early in the 20th century. A New York City women’s socialist meeting of 1909 endorsed the plan. So did the International Socialist Women’s Conference that met in Copenhagen in August 1910 as part of the larger Internationalist Socialist Congress. The hundred delegates from seventeen nations who attended the women’s conference shaped a demanding agenda. In what manner would socialist women support woman suffrage? Might they join forces with “bourgeois” feminists to accept restricted forms of enfranchisement, as urged by British delegates? Or did the socialist campaign for woman suffrage involve “the political emancipation of the female sex for the proletarian class-struggle,” as claimed by German delegates? The Germans won that point. In other areas, the women delegates found more unity. Denouncing militarism, they spoke for peace. They urged international labor standards for women workers, such the 8-hour day, limits on child labor, and paid support for pregnant workers and new mothers. Finally, they endorsed a day of activism around the globe to promote women’s emancipation, a counterpart to the May Day marches of socialists. “[W]omen of all nationalities have to organize a special Woman’s Day, which in first line has to promote woman suffrage propaganda,” wrote German socialist Clara Zetkin and her comrades. “This demand must be discussed in connection with the whole woman question according to the socialist conception of social things.” As of 1913, socialist women chose March 8th as the date for International Women’s Day.  

Women activists of the 1960s in Chicago revived the socialist strategy to promote women’s emancipation. Adopted by the United Nations in 1975, International Women’s Day now sponsors less politicized and more broadly inclusive goals; proponents celebrate facets of women’s achievement and champion action to achieve gender equity. Over the decades, on March 8 of each year, events around the globe underscore common themes such as equal rights, women and peace, and opposition to violence against women. In the recent words of the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, the celebration of International Women’s Day seeks “to overcome entrenched prejudice, support engagement and activism, and promote gender equity and women’s empowerment.”

Workplace rights are key issues for advocates of International Women’s Day, just as they were for defenders of labor standards a century ago. The growth of labor standards—such as maximum-hour laws and minimum wage laws—is the subject of my book, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s. With global roots and global impact, labor standards remain vital for women workers today. Women constitute almost half the workforce of the world and half of migrant workers, often the least protected of employees. Current concerns include the minimum wage, overtime pay, paid family leave, workplace safety, and opposition to sexual harassment. Labor organizers worldwide focus on job segregation, the gender wage gap, and the need for policies to integrate work and family. Celebrants of International Women’s Day share such goals and seek to uphold labor standards around the globe.


Nancy Woloch teaches history at Barnard College, Columbia University. She is the author of A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s–1990s.

Report of the socialist party delegation and proceedings of the International socialist congress at Copenhagen, 1910 (Chicago: H.G. Adair, 1910), pp. 19-23.
Temma Kaplan, “On the Socialist Origins of International Women’s Day,” Feminist Studies 11, no. 1 (Spring, 1985), pp. 163-171.
Nancy Woloch, A Class by Herself: Protective Laws for Women Workers, 1890s-1990s
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).