Al Fataah: Feminism and Journalism in the Making

A while back I went into the Diwan bookstore in Zamalek only to find out that a book that I had spent around two weeks proof reading for publication is finally out (though as expected my name is not mentioned in it). This book is a compilation of all the issues of Al Fataah (The Young Woman), the first ever Women’s magazine in Egypt (and most probably in the Arab world) which was published from November 1892 till March 1894 by Hind Nofel.

What is impressive about this magazine is not just that it provides insight into the birth and development of women’s rights movement in the country but it also provides insight into the birth and development of journalism. Also, the hundreds of articles it contains are very representative of the age from the too ornate and flowery language that uses too many synonyms and images to the strong class consciousness that lurks behind many of the op-eds.

The magazine contains everything that is thought to be of benefit to the making of an upright and enlightened new woman. There are autobiographies of important and influential women (most of whom are European royalty or intellectuals and interestingly the very first woman portrayed in the very first issue of the magazine is Queen Victoria!). Many articles are dedicated to the art of home making, etiquette and health and every once in a while you find glossy magazine prototype articles describing the weddings of daughters of Egyptian nobility and the contents of their new houses. There are even articles summarizing some of the wacko 19th century scientific theories on race.

My favorite articles are the op-eds in every issue, reading them you learn a lot about the contradictory conservative and liberal aspects that struggled for control within the minds of these early feminists. Thus, while for instance they strongly defended their belief that gender roles in society are manmade and not natural, you find them criticizing European and American suffragettes for wanting to trespass into the world of politics which is described as solely for men!

The women writing in the magazine show strong awareness of and ties with other contemporary women’s movements not only in Europe as expected but also in the USA. In fact, one of the magazine’s contributors, Estir Azhari, was invited and went to the 1893 Congress of Women that was held during the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

You can find the book, which was compiled and reprinted by the Women and Memory Forum as part of their goal to bring to light the underestimated size of women’s contributions to the Arab social and cultural history, at Diwan Bookstores in Zamalek and Heliopolis or at the headquarters of the WMF itself (83 Shehab St. Mohandesin, third floor). This compiled book also contains an interesting introduction by Professor Hoda Elsadda. However, in it the WMF made a few alterations to how some words are spelt to make them follow today’s modern standardized spelling (eg. In the 19th century many Arabs tended to spell anything with a hamza with a ya’).

If you are in the USA, you can find the original copies of the magazine at the Yale University Library.

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2007 Book List

If you are into Arabic literature, I strongly recommend you read the following books:
  • كأنها نائمة (Ka'annaha Na'ema) : This novel by Elias Khoury is one of the most complex Arabic novels I have ever read. By taking the stream of consciousness narrative technique to a higher level, the novel raises many metaphysical questions through an eerily familiar context of never ending dreams. In it the boundaries between reality/dream, life/death, sleep/death as well as poetic inspiration/religious revelation are blurred. Set in the Levant of the early 20th century, just before European Jews occupied Palestine, the novel draws on a lot of Eastern Orthodox Church tales of ancient prophets and predicts the wars to be fought in the region. The novel is incredibly rich and deep and needs to be read at least twice before some of its many meanings can be grasped. Elias Khoury has actually just received the prestigious Sultan ibn Al Al Ouwais cultural award for this novel.
  • نون (Noon): In this novel, by Sahar El Mougy, the life journey of a group of Egyptian friends towards self knowledge is narrated by Hat-hoor the Egyptian goddess of love. The title of the novel does not refer to the "noon" of the Arabic alphabet but to the Noon of the Egyptian myth of creation. According to that myth Noon is the womb and the darkness from which the god Ra' (the sun) emerged allowing the world to come into being thus symbolizing the growth of the characters from ignorance (darkness) to knowledge (light). The beauty of this novel lies in how (though at first it is difficult to see the connection) ancient Egyptian mythology is revived and immersed with a strong and vivid contemporary middle-class Egyptian atmosphere.
  • قطعة من اوروبا (Qet'a men Oroppa): If you enjoy reading historical novels then this is a must read. The novel, by Radwa Ashour, traces Egypt's history during its transition from a kingdom to a republic through the first person narrative voice of a man living and experiencing the changes in downtown Cairo, the Egyptian neighborhood that was modelled like European cities (hence the title of the novel). The novel is not just about the political but also the social changes in a neighborhood that was one of the most cosmopolitan places in Egypt until the 1960s.
Both Sahar El Mougy and Radwa Ashour won the Greek Cavafy award for Arabic literature.
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