The legacy of North African Women’s writing: A review of “Women Writing Africa: The Northern Region”

Little known stories from North Africa are told in this volume published by the Feminist Press.

For millennia, women in North Africa have expressed themselves through writing first in hieroglyphics and then in Latin, Greek, Arabic, French and English alphabets. This is a distinct advantage that North Africans as a whole have as compared to the rest of Africa in which a writing tradition is not as old.

“Women Writing Africa: The Northern Region” is a fascinating journey down history through the eyes of North African women. The book is an ambitious collection that carries over one hundred pieces of literature: letters, poems, song lyrics, essays and short stories written by women.

In an introductory section to the book, the editors write that in the context of their realisation of the untapped potential of international feminist scholarship, they realised that it was important to collect stories from women in Africa. And collect they did: the book spans many centuries, languages, cultures, religions and class distinctions.

The texts in “Women Writing Africa: The Northern Region,” go back as far as the 15th century BCE, when in a celebration of her power, Hatshepsut the female Egyptian pharaoh confidently wrote: “My command stands firm like the mountains and the sun’s disk shines and spreads rays over the names of my august person; and my falcon rises high about the kingly banner unto all eternity.”

The religious, social and cultural diversity of North Africa is well reflected in this book. Although today the region’s inhabitants are predominantly Arab and Muslim, the northern part of Africa has been part of many empires, each of which has left traces of itself in language, culture and belief systems.

The volume contains much of what the editors call the dailiness of women’s lives and it is interesting to see what commonalities and differences ancient and modern women share, not only in North Africa, but all over the world as well. “[T]oward women generally there is much hostility in the world,” observed the Egyptian Christian Saint Syncletica in the 4th century CE; her sentiments are not foreign in the 21st century. Many women today would identify with the Egyptian woman who wrote a letter to her brother in the 9th or 10th century CE recounting her desperate financial situation and asking for help.

There are sharp contrasts too. The Egyptian Nikaia, daughter of Nikias wrote to King Ptolemy in 218 BCE requesting for a guardian now that her father and son were dead and she had no male guardian. Nikaia took it for granted that she needed a male guardian. Thousands of years later, some women still accept male guardianship, but many others reject it and its attendant implications or roots. In an essay written a short time before Mother’s Day 2006, Mona Nawal Helmi, daughter of the celebrated writer Nawal el Sadaawi, eschewed the false pedestals on which mothers are placed every Mother’s Day. Instead, she chose to honour her mother in another way. “From that day on,” she declared. “I will salvage by force one of my rights. It will be the proper gift to my mother. From this day forth, I will carry my mother’s name.”

Many of the women in the book relate their involvement in social and political leadership in their days. Hatshepsut was proud in her description of her reign. Women played key roles in struggles against colonial rule in the 20th century. Moroccan political prisoner Saida Menebhi wrote in 1977: “My perseverance together with yours and that of all others runs in our blood. It comes from the People.”

North Africa women have written about women’s rights, education, marriage, governance, religion, science and the arts. A Moroccan writer calling herself “Al Fatat” which is Arabic for “young woman” urged girls’ education for religious and literary knowledge. Setting her ambitions at secondary school education for girls, she did not aim as high as the Egyptian feminist Fatma Ne’Mat Rashed who called for the opening up of the prestigious Al-Azhar University to women.

To many women, religion, which is a potential and practical divider, is not that at all. Moroccan poet Hafsa Bekri-Lamrani’s 2001 poem “The Call of Hagar,” refers to the historical and genealogical point of departure between Muslims and Jews (and hence Christians), but more importantly, draws on women’s commonalities despite religious differences. The institution of religion tending to be solidly in the hands of men, Bekri-Lamrani highlighted men’s exploitation of religion to foment hatred. Her poem exhorted women to unite and reject patriarchally constructed enmities between Muslims, Jews and Christians. “Come, Sarah,” she urges in her poem. “Leave their false paradise behind you… Mary will join us tonight and we will be the same Mother.”

The book is well overdue. A valuable resource, it challenges the often monolithic and outsider modern perspectives on women in North Africa. It publishes texts that originate directly from women authors who have written or published pieces that demonstrate – whether or not they knew it - the depth and diversity of individual experiences, identities and perspectives in the region. It is difficult to imagine that any other regional collection of women’s writing can span the time period that this book does, and at the same time neatly tie in themes that dominate women’s lives thousands of years ago and today, all these many years later.

“Women Writing Africa: The Northern Region” is an impressive and comprehensive tome which undertakes – very successfully – to document North African women’s self-recorded experiences and perspectives over several centuries. At a scholarly and visceral level, this book will be of immense appeal to amateur and professional historians and sociologists and anyone who is interested in human nature and social justice.

____________________“Women Writing Africa: The Northern Region” is edited by Fatima Sadiq, Amira Nowaira, Azza El Kholy and Moha Ennaji and published in 2009 by The Feminist Press.

West Asia