Middle East Lecture Series: Marilyn Booth

Authorizing feminist readings of Islamic history: Zaynab Fawwaz and the gender politics of Egyptian public discourse in the fin-de-siècle

Lebanese-Egyptian Zaynab Fawwaz (c1850-1914) was an unusual presence in 1890s Egyptian discourse: a largely self-taught immigrant from Shiʿi south Lebanon, a woman who wrote and published without major family support, a forthright voice on women’s needs as distinct from ‘the nation’s’. Like most Arabophone writers on ‘the woman question’, Fawwaz addressed girls’ education, but she focused less on domestic training and more on work and income, gender-defined dependency and exploitation, and the uses of religious knowledge. She addressed the relationship between female mobility and feminine intellectual self-realisation. Framing her arguments within terms of engagement defined by Islamic shariʿa, she appropriated keywords to redefine them for an indigenous feminism. She repurposed the premodern Islamic-Arabic genre of biographical writing for feminist-inflected history writing. I consider how Fawwaz deployed terminology and genre to contest patriarchal readings of Islamic practice sustained by assumptions of masculinist authority. Fawwaz’s writings remind us that secularism was never inherent in Arabophone feminist theorizing, nor were the earliest Arab feminisms Western derivatives. Particular historical assemblages and perspectives shaped by Islamic (and Christian) worldviews yielded creative syntheses that were firmly indigenous.

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