Gender Studies

Reading Arab Women’s Autobiographies: Shahrazad Tells Her Story

Nawar Al-Hassan Golley, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003. 236 pages.

In writing Reading Arab Women’s Autobiographies: Shahrazad Tells Her Story, Nawar Al-Hassan Golley’s goal is to fill a critical gap. Recent books like Marilyn Booth’s May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001) analyze women’s relation to biography from Zainab Fawwaz’s Scattered Pearls  (1894) onward. However, any critical analysis of Arab women’s autobiography is scarce, if not non-existent. In its efforts to fill this critical gap, Reading Arab Women’s Autobiographies carves out a dual readership. Delineating past and present meanings both within and without Islam of “Arab,” “Arab world,” “hijab,” and “harem” with an eye to the non-Arab reader, Golley’s analysis of five autobiographical texts and three anthologies of women’s collected stories simultaneously participates in a conversation with other Arab women scholars about modes of text production, distribution, and the overall place of women’s autobiography within Arab feminism.

Part 1, “Political Theory: Colonial Discourse, Feminist Theory, and Arab Feminism,” contains three chapters: “Why Colonial Discourse?”; “Feminism, Nationalism, and Colonialism in the Arab World”; and “Huda Shaarawi’s Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist.” In the first two, the author argues for the inclusion of gender-related issues within colonial discourse analysis and for the necessity of adopting Spivak’s “strategic essentialism” when speaking of “Arab women.” In outlining a brief history of Arab feminism, Golley strives to both demystify the “aura of exoticism” that has surrounded Arab women and to demonstrate that Arab feminism “is not alien to Arab culture.”

The final chapter provides a textual example of how colonialism, nationalism, and feminism converged in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century life of an upper-class Egyptian Arab woman. The memoirs of Huda Shaarawi, founder of the Egyptian Feminist Union in 1923, are presented as portraying early feminist struggles “embedded” in reformist and later nationalist movements. Golley also broaches differences between Shaarawi’s text originally dictated in Arabic in the 1940s to the recent 1986 English version by Margot Badran, illustrating how the title, accompanying photos, and editorial selections of this latter make it marketable to western consumers and contribute to a loss of aspects of Shaarawi’s life significant for Arab feminism.

Part 2, “Narrative Theory: Autobiography,” is divided into two chapters: “Autobiography and Sexual Difference” and “Arab Autobiography: A Historical Survey.” Chapter 1 traces the theoretical debates within a western literary context, showing how definitions of this genre have changed over the last forty years to accommodate both a deconstructionist approach to language and subjectivity as well as a concern for analyzing gender issues. The author rejects a deconstructionist view, as articulated by Paul de Man, but finds recent scholarship by such well-known figures in the field as Sidonie Smith and Estelle Jelinek equally unsatisfactory.

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