Gender Studies

Literary Representations of Female Identity: Feminisms in Arab-Muslim Societies and Clashing Paradigms on Conceptions of Modernity, Tradition, and Selfhood

The essay examines the texts of the two women writers – Leila Abouzeid (from Morocco) and Nawal El Saadawi (from Egypt) – as offering two female perspectives within what is commonly referred to as “feminine” writing in the Arab Muslim world. My main interest is to explore the various discursive articulations of female identity that are challenged or foregrounded as a positive model. The essay points to the serious pitfalls of some feminist narratives in Arab-Muslim societies by dealing with a related problem: the author’s setting up of convenient conceptual dichotomies, which account for the female experience, that reduce male-female relationships in the given social context to a fundamentally antagonistic one. Abouzeid’s novel will be a case study of a more positive but also realistic and complex perspective on female experience.


The question of Muslim identity in the face of shifting cultural paradigms has long been at the heart of the debate on modernity and tradition in the Arab–Muslim world. As suggested by the epigrammatic words of Foucault and al-Ghazzali above, these shifting cultural paradigms revolve (among other things) around changing perceptions of the (female) body as a locus of identity. In Nawal El Saadawi’s Woman at Point Zero1 and Leila Abouzeid’s Year of the Elephant,2 this question of the “female body” acquires more specificity and complexity, as well as more urgency, insofar as it is tied to the definition of female space and selfhood as understood and experienced by the female protagonists. Such a selfhood appears, until recently, to have long been relegated to non-discursive positions within a given Arab-Muslim social and cultural context, with a few remarkable exceptions in every society and historical period.

Case studies of feminism and female writers in Arab–Muslim societies typically reveal two main tendencies. The first one is to define Arab–Muslim feminisms mainly from the perspective of Middle Eastern feminists from Egypt, while giving comparatively little academic attention to North African female writers, as Elizabeth Fernea rightly notes.3 The second one is to categorize them uncritically in terms of movements that replicate certain western models of liberalism, many of which are exclusively secular in the general direction of their political aspirations and social goals. The main shortcoming of such approaches is to sum up feminisms in Arab–Muslim societies in terms of privileging the materiality of existence as the primary anchor for female identity formation in those societies. Consequently, the crucial role of the spiritual heritage is overshadowed. although it goes into the very construction of individual and collective centers of consciousness in Arab–Muslim societies. The work of Fatima Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist, offers some good insights on the diverse and complex sociocultural and political realities of various manifestations of feminism in the Arab–Muslim world. 4

Nawal El Saadawi (an Egyptian physician and writer) and Leila Abouzeid (a Moroccan journalist and writer) are two professional middle-class women who have held leading roles in their respective governments. Both of them use fiction to explore and represent patterns of relationships that situate them as individuals in relation to “authority,” “tradition,” and “modernity.” Their respective texts feature female protagonists who, although seemingly caught in the same kinds of personal crises and social dilemmas, are given notably different ways of expressing and rationalizing them. The ideological paradigms informing the two novels’ worlviews (varying between an exclusively secular and dissident view and a nationalist and conforming one) seem to represent different determinants of female identity in its two dimensions: the way it is as well as the way it ought to be.

In this essay, I will examine the ways in which the novels produce these two different viewpoints. As the victimization of the female protagonists is not the focus of this analysis, it will not be discussed. The central issue is the overarching viewpoint framing the two women’s stories: the one that describes the causes of their misery and the effects of their marginalization, and that articulates viable alternative means and modes of self-expression and self-affirmation.

I will compare the main protagonists’ perspectives on their personal and social realities in order to reveal two fairly distinct female representations of identity within Arab–Muslim societies. I will argue that both texts seem to diagnose related identity problems from two standpoints that, although not mutually exclusive, have significantly different consequences for their vision of a content, independent, and unified female self. The choice of El Sadaawi and Abouzeid is meant to emphasize the diversity (cultural and geographical) in female narratives on identity within Arab–Muslim societies. My main interest is to explore the various discursive articulations of female identity that are challenged or foregrounded as a positive model. In the essay, I target the cultural and sociopolitical contexts, as well as the intellectual persuasions, informing the two authors’ representations in order to underline the variety and difference in women’s experience within Arab–Muslim societies.

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