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The Review - ONLINE SPECIAL - Middle East Eye
Published: 20 October 2006
Mansoura Ez-Eldin

The women who are far from veiled

Mohammad Al-Urdin looks at how Arab women are at the forefront of a literary revival in the Middle East

UNBUTTONING THE VIOLIN – A collection of short stories and poems by contemporary Arab writers including Mansoura Ez-Eldin. The writers took part in the UK tour organised by Banipal Magazine and the British Council.
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IF you believe what you read then you probably imagine Arab women are quiet victims of oppressive, hopelessly backward societies. But the truth is that far from being veiled and subdued they are at the forefront of transforming the modern Middle East – and there are few arenas where this is more visible than in literature.
After years of playing second fiddle a new generation of 30-something Arab women writers are stepping into the limelight and, with women and families bearing the brunt of war and religious violence in the region, there has never been a more important time for their voices to be heard.
Few have been more prominent than Egyptian novelist and journalist Mansoura Ez-Eldin. A senior figure at the prestigious magazine Akhbar Al-Adhab, her short story collection Shaken Light won awards and her debut novel Mariam’s Maze, already a runaway success in the Middle East, is to be published in English next spring. Recently she took part in a UK tour by Arab authors organised by Banipal, the London-based magazine for English fans of Arab literature.
Talking after addressing a packed event at the Edinburgh Festival she said during the tour she had been pleasantly surprised by the level of interest in the renaissance.
“Arab women authors are nowadays writing with more audacity than ever before, especially in Egypt,” she said. “They are writing about the female body and sexuality, religious and political issues in a much more open way. In fact they are the most daring group of writers, having the most impact on the new writing scene.”
That may come as a surprise to mainstream audiences in the West raised on the stereotype of Arab women as passive victims. But for those prepared to lift the veil, Arab women writers have been at the cutting edge of social change and revolution for more than a century.
More than 100 years ago, for example, women writers, then aristocrats for whom writing was more of a hobby than a living, were demanding social and political rights so that they could take part in the national liberation struggles. Unsurprisingly for a culture that has always had a love affair with literature, there were as many as 25 feminist literary journals owned, edited and published by women long before the First World War. Linked to the international Women and Peace movement, the journals were already arguing that women are the first and hardest hit by war and called on Arab women to demand an end to violence.
By the Second World War feminists, mostly from the aspiring middle-classes, were freely calling for the Arab patriarchies to be turned on their heads and for women to given a crack at top jobs. By the late 1960s the Egyptian doctor-turned-novelist Nawal Al-Saadawi was blazing a trail with frank descriptions of women’s brutal oppression and when her first novel “Woman at Point Zero” appeared in English in the early ‘80s she became the most visible Arab woman in the West.
But over the last couple of decades a genre of post-feminist writers have evolved a more sophisticated, nuanced style. It has moved on from the firebrand feminism of writers like Al-Saadawi, which new writers are openly criticising for being old hat and pandering to Western stereotypes of backward, misogynistic Arabs.
Their quality has never been in doubt. Translated novels by the Iraqi Alia Mamdouh, the Lebanese Hoda Barakat, the Syrian Hamida Na’na and the Egyptian Salwa Bakr have won international plaudits. But opportunities for international audiences to read them have been few and far between. Big publishing houses, risk averse and conservative, have by and large stuck with the big names from the canon of established Arab authors like Nobel winner Naguib Mahfouz, Elias Khouri, Abdelrahman Munif and Gamal Al-Ghitani – all of whom are men.
Now with the glass ceiling coming down faster than ever there is fresh hope for the latest generation of writers – and the timing couldn’t have been more auspicious. Many come from conflicted backgrounds like the Shi’ite community of southern Lebanon, and the industrial and peasant areas of Iraq, Egypt and Tunisia – all troubled regions of which Westerners understanding is at its lowest ebb.
Ez-Eldin explained: “Nowadays women’s writing differs a lot from Al-Saadawi’s. She treats men as an enemy, subjugating women. But the new women writers – and I am one of them – feel Arab men and women are both the victims of political and social oppression; that we are all, in different ways, suffering together”.
Wary of the habit of Western audiences to demand Arab writers like her act as a mouthpiece for all women in the Middle East, she is reluctant to be labelled a “feminist” without pointing out, “firstly I’m a writer and as a writer I’m a human being who is against all human suffering”.
But she went on: “Yes, I’m also a feminist but I believe if a writer sticks to an ideology too rigidly there’s a danger she can be blinded to other things around her. A woman writer must consider many different viewpoints. For instance I like to write male characters with a range of different voices because I want to take a wide look at life in Egypt with all its problems.”
Just 30 years-old Ez-Eldin’s rise has been a Cinderella tale of striking proportions. Growing up in a small village near the Nile with four brothers and sisters, her father died when she was nine years old. For many children a blow like that might have been devastating but Ez-Eldin’s mother, a tough and independent woman, took care to keep her daughter’s dream alive.
At 18 she left home for Cairo where she graduated in journalism before turning her back on traditional village life altogether, taking a job in television. Flush with confidence Ez-Eldin started writing short-stories, something she had dabbled in at university, and by the time she was 25 her first collection was published to critical acclaim. A job followed at Akhbar Al-Adhab magazine, one of the most prestigious in the Middle East and edited by the famous author Al-Ghitani. In just a few years Ez-Eldin has been handed the important job of literary editor while her husband Yasser Abdalhafez, also a successful novelist, co-edits the magazine. Her daughter Nadine, four, has just started kindergarten.
Discussing her personal life does not come easily to Ez-Eldin who, seemingly ill at ease with the interest her remarkable success has brought, smiles modestly in a slightly self-effacing manner, preferring to bat away intrusive questions. But she is clear however about the turning the points in her life, including her father’s death and her mother’s two years ago.
“It was very difficult when my father died,” she said. “Traditions meant that my mother had to ask my uncles for permission for me to leave the village. I was the first girl from the village to leave for Cairo. The deal was that I’d go to Cairo to study and return to the village but when I’d graduated but I just didn’t go back.
“My mother was the only one to really encourage me to be the person I wanted to be instead of what was expected of me. She wanted me to have a different life from her own. She’d always wanted to be a doctor like her brothers but back then girls from her kind of background weren’t allowed to study to such a level and she was refused permission to finish school. “It was a tragedy because my mother was very intellectual, a very smart woman and she was always convinced that her life would have been very different if she’d been allowed to study.”
Instead her mother pressed her daughter to write, watching her daughter’s flowering career with delight – something Ez-Eldin is hoping to enjoy too. “My mother was very proud of the idea that her daughter was going to be a writer,” she said. “She used to say, ‘If Mansoura wants to be a writer she must be as good as Naguib Mahfouz or Yusef Idris’ – both legendary writers – because she wouldn’t accept her daughter achieving less than those men.”
And her daughter Nadine? “I want her to live her life the way she wants to – to be an artist, a doctor, a writer, whatever she wants because the ability to choose is the most important gift”.
She paused then suddenly confessed that she had her heart set on a one-child family – highly unusual in the Middle East: “I love girls so much that I’m glad I had a girl not a boy. Of course, when I was pregnant I worried about Nadine being pretty but I’m so glad I had a daughter. The proof is that I couldn’t be happier with Nadine and now I don’t want anymore children.” 
A regular visitor to her village, Ez-Eldin’s success has also been an eye-opener and an inspiration for the rest of her family, including her uncles who are encouraging their daughters to take a cue.
But hailing from a religious family in the conservative heart of rural Egypt left Ez-Eldin with a passionate interest in women’s issues that is now reflected in her daring writing style. Unafraid to overstep traditional boundaries, she has excited controversy and admiration for her characters which tackle difficult issues like femininity, sexuality and violence. Her style blends her sense of social equality and women’s freedom with that of Arab history and, drawing on her journalistic background, her sense of modern Middle East society. Yet unsurprisingly for a child who grew up hearing from her grandmother’s knee stories of the goblins, ghouls and fairies that haunt the Nile, she also weaves in a wealth of Arabic folklore and religious imagery, to link Egypt’s past with life today.
“I want to get to the roots of backwardness in Egypt, a backwardness that still exists despite the nationalist revolution of 1952,” she explained. “After fifty years we’re still suffering as if we got rid of colonialism only to become victims of military regimes. But I don’t like to write about it directly in an obvious way. No, I like to deal with it powerfully but with an artistic touch so I use exotic imagery and fantasy dreams, which is a very important tradition in Arabic and Islamic culture.
“The body is also something I’m very interested in. For many Arab women writers it’s a symbol of freedom, used as a way of expressing liberal ideas. For me it’s slightly more ambiguous because the body is also a source of suffering and a key to understanding a personality. But the thing I’m most interested in is the dark side of the human psyche – the exotic and how through the exotic and fantasies we deal with daily issues.”
But if Ez-Eldin and the new post-feminist writers are less polemic than Al-Saadawi and the earlier generation, she certainly not prepared to let men off the hook altogether. 
“A man has a huge responsibility for a women’s suffering in a country like Egypt, in any Arab country,” she said. “But he’s not the only reason. It’s not just individual men denying women’s freedom. Above that there’s society-wide oppression and there’re dictatorships. These are to blame for the oppression of women and men too.
“Then there is another, difficult side too because one of the main reasons women suffer is other women. In the family, especially in rural areas, matriarchs have a lot of power, so for instance grandmothers who have control over the whole family often, because of traditions, demand men are stricter with the women.”
The hard won rights Arab women do enjoy are not spread evenly with urban, middle-class women doing far better than those in peasant areas.
On the crest of the anti-colonial euphoria of the 1950s and 60s women made rapid advancement on social and political fronts. But following Israel’s overwhelming defeat of Arab armies in the 1967 Six Day War defeatism settled over the region prefacing, over the next decade, a rise of reactionary politics – in Egypt President Sadat co-opted Islamic forces to brutally crackdown on the Left, in Iraq Saddam made his bloody power-grab, the Syrians lurched to the right under Assad and in Iran the ayatollahs seized control.
“In Egypt a backwardness descended,” said Ez-Eldin. “Now even the movement of veiling women is taking a hold again. In the 1960s and 70s it was ordinary to see women in skirts or relaxed clothes but now you see women with the hijab or completely veiled.
“This return to religion has roots in the wars fought in the Middle East. A lot of girls and women believe America is against Arabs just because they are Muslims and as a reaction to this they hold their religion closer to them. It’s become their main identity, a challenge to America.”
The long term future, she added, depends on political developments over the next few years, particularly in Egypt which is a cultural and political lightening rod for the whole region.
“Real democracy is the only way forward,” she said. “Democracy, the chance to take part in decision making, makes people feel responsible and in control of their lives, able to change their government. This is the way to more co-operation between people and it affects women directly because a man often becomes an oppressor in his house when he has no control outside his house, in his life. When men have no freedom of speech, no control over their political future they turn on their families if women or children try to express themselves.
“If there were honest elections and a liberal, progressive government in Egypt the situation could be much better for women but if Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood take power it will be even worse. Islamic governments, as we can see in Saudi and Iran, suppress women’s freedoms. They declare the liberal, educated, intellectual and working woman their enemy.”
Historically the region may be at a tipping point, taken to the precipice by brutal puppet regimes, the American-led invasion of Iraq and Israel’s war on Palestine and Lebanon. In Iraq, said Ez-Eldin, “the main victims of the barbaric occupation are the women. They have become easy prey for the American soldiers to torture, humiliate and even rape as well as for the violent Islamic groups that deprive them of their rights.”
Lebanon, she points out, “used to be the castle of freedom and beauty in the Middle East and Lebanese women enjoy more freedoms.” But their “curse is war. From the civil war to the Israeli invasion to Beirut in 1982, and from Qana in the first war to the last war, the Lebanese women and children are the ones who pay the price of wars they never choose.”
But she is hopeful the tradition of intellectual free-thought and progressive ideas in Egypt means there is a chance her country will lead the region back from the edge. “It’s very hard for the reactionaries to smash these layers in Egyptian society so there is always hope,” she said.
If the situation is to improve Egypt will have to first emerge from a storm however. By common consent Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak engineered the recent elections to hold onto power and has since cracked down on public criticism of America and Israel, a situation replicated in Saudi and Jordan. In Cairo there are weekly attacks by police and government strongmen on protesters and worshippers outside mosques where anti-Western, anti-government messages are broadcast. In a recent sign of growing opposition to the regime one of the largest opposition movements the progressive, liberalist Kifaya (Movement for Change) led mass protests against Mubarak and the war on Lebanon and Palestine backed by the Nasserist Party, the Socialist Labour Party and even the Muslim Brotherhood.
And there the problem comes full circle – occupation, war, suffering by women and families and, finally, Palestine – the unresolved catalyst.
For Ez-Eldin the equation is painfully straightforward – freedom from war means freedom from suffering for women and families, and progress for Arab society.
On the spur of the moment she improvised an elegy for Palestinian women. Closing her eyes, absorbed into the character of a Palestinian mother, she recited: 
“No peace without justice. Is that very difficult for the American president and the Israeli prime-minister to understand?
I lost my home, lost my opportunity to live in peace – but I’ll never lose my dreams. They are the only thing that I have now. The life of the Palestinian woman is more difficult than the life of any woman anywhere else. I’m not saying that to gain your sympathy. I no longer believe in the justice of our world. One day after another I discover that we live in a blind world. I’m speaking about our difficult life because speaking and writing about it is my way to resist, to understand the violent and crazy events. Does anyone know what it is like to stand before a military checkpoint for hours just to go to work; to lose your home, your children, your life and your memories; to lose and lose all the time without committing any crime except being a Palestinian in this wild and blind world?”
She finished and looked up. Her eyes were wet and she smiled tightly.  Her writing – her “weapon of choice,” as she calls it – has moved thousands; but in the end she finds in it no sanctuary from the pain felt by women all across the war-torn Middle East.

Mansoura Ez-Eldin’s novel ‘Maryam’s Maze’ will appear in English in March 2007 and will be widely available published by American University of Cairo (AUC) Press.
Banipal Magazine of modern Arab literature is available from
BANIPAL, P O Box 22300, LONDON W13 8ZQ, UK
Tel: +44 (0)20 8568 9747
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