Omnia El Shakry: Genealogies of Female Writing

Arabic

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.

When the Women Set Sail

In 1852, after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Elizabeth Barrett Browning urged her friend, art critic and memoirist Anna Jameson to read the novel, and expressed her indignation when Jameson found the subject of the novel too incendiary for a woman to tackle. Barrett Browning wrote in her letter to Jameson: “[I]s it possible that you think a woman has no business with questions like the question of slavery? Then she had better use a pen no more.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s assertion of her obligations as a female writer and poet is just one example of female writers’ active participation in the debates about the crucial concerns of civil society. Instead of concerning themselves solely with their domestic lives, women writers over the centuries have devoted themselves to aspiration, adventure, and public discourse. With stories about traveling, emigration, escape, and exodus, they have confronted ideas such as class formation, slavery, warfare, feminism, globalism, and the clash of cultures.

At Home in the World by Maria DiBattista and Deborah Epstein Nord is a reevaluation of the works of women writers, from canonical figures such as Jane Austen and George Eliot, to contemporary writers like Nadine Gordimer and Anita Desai. The authors argue that a complicated relationship and a recurring dialectic of home and abroad remain central in the literary expression of women’s experiences over two centuries. Searching for a “promised land” or a site of true belonging (the Home with a capital “H”), these women writers find the idea of Home in need of constant rediscovery and reinvention.

And rediscover they do. At the conclusion of Jane Austen’s Persuasion, Anne Elliot takes a brave step to liberation by accepting a future life of possible distress and impending war. Anne ends in a “non-place,” her possible life on a ship will be a life with indefinite location; however, this might offer her a true Home alongside Captain Wentworth, which promises conjugal happiness and a loving companionship. In Charlotte Brontë’s Villette, Lucy Snowe leaves England abruptly and impulsively for the town of Villette, and starts a journey of adventure and dislocation. She increasingly comes to “mark her place”, not as wife or keeper of a household, but as traveler, writer, and teacher. She retreats from bourgeois domesticity and begins to envision a new model of Home: a place that enables a woman to live and thrive alone in the world. Stepping out of the private realm and a conventional home provides a space of possibility—a new incarnation of Home begins to take shape at the moment when the women set sail.

When explaining the title of their book, DiBattista and Nord write: “Our title is meant to conjure the image of those dauntless women writers who ventured across the threshold that leads from home into the public thoroughfares of thought and action where history is made, the world reformed and reimagined. The peripatetics whose work and tradition we chronicle in these pages are determinedly and inventively moving toward a promised land—for so many called it that—where they hope to feel, at last, at home in the great world” (11). However, the discovery of a true Home is always problematic or even impossible, for its discovery or search often takes the form of “creating, writing, recording, and reporting back—activities that never really find a terminus” (248).

Public engagement by women writers is an ongoing process. Through continued dissent and active involvement with the most pressing issues in public life, they continue to forge an artistic path home in the world.

You can read the introduction to At Home in the World: Women Writers and Public Life, From Austen to the Present, by Maria DiBattista and Deborah Epstein Nord here.

Women’s History Month Book List

We have just welcomed March, which happens to be National Women’s History Month. Each year, the National Women’s History Project chooses a commemorative theme. This year’s theme is “Weaving the Story of Women’s Lives.”  Read more about the theme, here. To celebrate Women’s History Month, we have curated a must-read book list.

 

bookjacket The Match Girl and the Heiress
Seth Koven

 

bookjacket On Elizabeth Bishop
Colm Tóibín

 

bookjacket

Mothers of Conservatism:
Women and the Postwar Right

Michelle M. Nickerson

 

bookjacket

Why Gender Matters in Economics
Mukesh Eswaran

 

bookjacket

The Silent Sex:
Gender, Deliberation, and Institutions

Christopher F. Karpowitz & Tali Mendelberg

 

bookjacket The Great Mother:
An Analysis of the Archetype
*
Erich Neumann
Translated by Ralph Manheim
With a new foreword by Martin Liebscher

*published April 2015