Forgetting and Remembering the Fearless Zaynab Fawwaz

There has been a growing scholarly and popular interest in author and independent scholar Zaynab Fawwaz (d. 1914). Booth, this year’s Man Booker International-winning translator and the Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud Professor for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at Oxford University, has long been reading and writing about Fawwaz, and has a new Fawwaz book forthcoming: 

By Marilyn Booth

When Zaynab Fawwaz died in early 1914, long obituaries appeared in Egypt’s newspapers: she was not forgotten in her own time. Although she had been Egypt-identified through her adulthood at least, over in her natal region, Jabal ‘Amil in the south Lebanon, she was remembered then and later by the redoubtable editor of the important ‘Amili periodical al-‘Irfan (est. 1909), Ahmad ‘Arif al-Zayn – who, however, was critical of what he called her “extremist” (feminist) tendencies.

When Fathiyya Muhammad published her bio-bibliographical anthology Balaghat al-nisa’ fi l-qarn al’ishrin (Women’s Rhetoric/Eloquence in the Twentieth Century) in 1925, Fawwaz was there. But by then, also, the canonization of men of the nahda as those who spurred the intellectual and social “getting-to-one’s feet” of the late nineteenth century – and as
“founders” of women’s “awakening” – was also well under way in Egypt, partly as a way of highlighting Egyptians’ foundational work in a period of high nationalism: the work of Ottoman Syrian intellectuals as also significant in that history of intellectual and institutional ferment was understandably muted in historical memory, particularly of course since some of the most prominent amongst them had sided with the Occupation authorities over the nationalists. (But the historically accreted ideological layers entailed in an overly simplistic distinction – still often made – between Egyptian/Muslim/nationalist and Syrian/Christian/westernist demand a lot more nuanced work and thought, especially when one adds gender and gender issues to the mix.)

Qasim Amin as “the father of Egyptian feminism” was by then canonized, though still vilified by some – controversial then as he remains now, for not entirely different reasons.

In the more recent past, many scholars have contributed to our present recognition of the crucial, steadfast, courageous roles of women and men in addressing gender problematics before Qasim Amin was writing. As many fine works of scholarship have also recognized in various ways, questions of gender – of what one’s assigned gender meant for one’s possibilities in life, alongside other life-shaping aspects of how and where and as whom one came into the human world – were absolutely central to the nahda. As I and others have discussed, this was strongly about “Woman” as a marked category, a collective body on which work had to be done, and just as strongly about “Man” as a less vocalized and less obviously targeted gender category but in fact, just as present in the discourse. We now know that many “forgotten” writers – women and men – contributed strongly to the truly furious debates around gender from the 1880s into the new century.

And being “forgotten” of course has to do with what works are reprinted, available. When I first started working on Zaynab Fawwaz, years ago, it was difficult to get most of her writings. Thankfully that has changed, although one thing I’ve had to address is the lack of scholarly editing in reprinted editions. I still rely on the original editions, and I trace the differences between versions of the “same”When I first started working on Zaynab Fawwaz, years ago, it was difficult to get most of her writings. Thankfully that has changed, although one thing I’ve had to address is the lack of scholarly editing in reprinted editions. essay published in different journals in the 1890s.

Escaping the ‘woman issue’ corral

It has often been observed that activist women in Egypt and elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire were coopted into various nationalist programs that subordinated their desires/needs/dreams to “larger” political projects – a trajectory that is sadly familiar the world over, and from at least the nineteenth century into the twenty-first. But reading the Arabophone gender debates of the nineteenth century closely, you can’t ignore the intensity of argumentation or the resistance to these generally male-led projects on the part of some women and some men. What fascinated me early on about Zaynab Fawwaz and what keeps me working on her is that I believe – for most of her career, anyway – she did not subscribe to the masculinist nationalist program (which was in itself not of one voice, of course), and she actively interrogated those who tried to corral “the woman issue” into a masculinist sphere of interest and a patriarchalist program.

In doing so, she was deeply political throughout her oeuvre. This is a central theme in the book manuscript I’m finishing (finally!! maybe!!) on Fawwaz’s writings. Equally – and this also has long drawn me to her work, but it requires a lot of careful unpacking – not only did she and other women have to argue their corner, they had to enact a feminine intellectual presence by the very ways in which they argued, marshaled evidence, and conducted themselves as writers in the face of misogynist attacks on the brain power of women. To demonstrate this requires close analysis of these debates. (I don’t use the term ‘misogynist’ lightly: but it is utterly appropriate in this context. Another theme I’m working through is how, in 1890s Egypt, misogyny and patriarchy were distinct but mutually enhancing approaches – not a new topic, of course! But the nuances are interesting and important.)

I was also drawn to Fawwaz years ago because of her incredible work on historical biography – and I now have no hesitation in calling her massive biographical dictionary of women (published 1893-6) a work of feminist history. In 2015, I published a book history of her dictionary. My book on her book, Classes of Ladies of Cloistered Spaces: Writing Feminist History in Fin-de-Siècle Egypt (Edinburgh University Press) sets her project into a number of contexts. Classes of Ladies in Cloistered Spaces was originally supposed to be a chapter in the book I’m finishing now. But how could I do any justice to her great book in just one chapter?

Fawwaz – who did not have much if any formal education – was canny about linking her work to Arabic letters’ venerable traditions, in this dictionary and also in some of her essays and her poetry. For the biographical dictionary, I study her use of sources – how she drew on and drew away from classical works of biography, history and rihla – and how dependent she was on the al-Bustani family’s multivolume encyclopedia. But also, considering her named sources, I ponder the limitations for women scholars at that time, who couldn’t use mosque libraries, for instance. Fawwaz was not wealthy; she could not commission or buy manuscripts. I found a strong correlation between works that had been published in Egypt by the early 1890s and what she used. (I started down this trail when I realized that she did not cite Ibn Sa‘d among her sources.) These institutional traces are important, and more work needs to be done on them.

In Classes of Ladies, I also consider Fawwaz’s dictionary in the context of the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, and the debate on participation in it amongst women (and men) in Beirut and Cairo. Yet another point of fascination for me is that Fawwaz clearly considered herself – made herself – a worldly subject, a subject of the world. One of the things I love about her is that she commented on everything (or, at least, on a lot of things). In print, she appears to have been fearless, at least in the early 1890s. Like her peers, she wrote across genres. In the book I’m completing now, I’m also looking at how the themes she raises in her essays return in her fiction and her one play.

One of the huge frustrations in working on Zaynab Fawwaz is that her personal life is not satisfactorily documented – even her birth date. That’s important, because the two birth dates that are mentioned (1846, 1860) put her in different generations, and therefore in different relationships with people we know were important in her life and whose birth dates we do know. (And one can possibly adduce circumstantial evidence for both dates!) As in the case of so many biographies of women writers, her fiction has at times been used as a “document” on her life. Moreover – as I discuss in Classes of Ladies – I suspect that she rewrote her own biography late in life to present a more Egypt-centred experience. But, of course, I could be wrong!

If Zaynab Fawwaz were on Twitter…

And yet, in the end, what we have, what matters most, is her writing, her responses to others, her determined and persistent engagement in munazara (debate, disputation) with other public figures. If she lived now, she’d be on Twitter (constantly). And she would be challenging the Trumps and Trump-a-likes of this world. I’m sure of that. That’s my sense of her persona, but it is also because what she was writing in the 1890s is all too relevant today: in the US as well as in Egypt or in the south of Lebanon.

I’m considering translating all of her essays, too. They remain powerful, and, I believe, unique for their time. What other woman then (or later) would advise her female readers to remain single rather than chancing married life with “a bad man”? Don’t think you can reform him, she warned them. And all the cards are in his hand.

Publications of mine in which I discuss Fawwaz include:

Feminist thinking in fin-de-siècle Egypt: the career and communities of Zaynab Fawwaz (forthcoming)

Jeanne d’Arc, Arab hero? Warrior women, gender confusion, and feminine political authority in the age of high colonialism. In Boyd Cothran, Joan Judge, and Adrian Shubert (eds), Women Warriors and National Heroes: Global Perspectives. London: Bloomsbury Academic, forthcoming.

Peripheral Visions: Translational polemics and feminist arguments in colonial Egypt. In Anna Ball and Karim Mattar (eds), Edinburgh Companion to the Postcolonial Middle East. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018. 183-212.

Women and the Emergence of the Arabic Novel. Chapter 7 in In Wa’il Hassan (ed.), The Oxford Handbook to the Arabic Novelistic Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017. 135-53.

Classes of Ladies of Cloistered Spaces: Writing Feminist History through Biography in Fin-de-Siècle Egypt. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2015.

Locating women’s autobiographical writing in colonial Egypt. Special issue: Women’s Autobiography in South Asia and the Middle East, ed. Marilyn Booth, Journal of Women’s History 25: 2 (Summer 2013): 36-60.

Zaynab Fawwaz al-‘Amili. In Roger Allen(ed.), Essays in Arabic Literary Biography 1850-1950. Weisbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010. 93-98.

May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001. Translated into Arabic as: Shahirat al-nisa’: Adab al-tarajim wa-siyasiyyat al-naw’ fi Misr. Trans. Sahar Tawfiq. Cairo: Al-Markaz al-qawmi lil-tarjama (no. 1265), 2008.

Fiction’s Imaginative Archive and the Newspaper’s Local Scandals: The Case of Nineteenth-Century Egypt. In Antoinette Burton (ed.), Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History. Durham: Duke University Press, 2006. 274-95.

Exemplary Lives, Feminist Aspirations: Zaynab Fawwaz and the Arabic Biographical Tradition. Journal of Arabic Literature 26: 1-2 (March-June 1995): 120-46.


‘Sharafiyya daughter of Sa’id the Captain’, by Zaynab Fawwaz (translation and introduction) in Tarek El-Ariss (ed), The Arab Renaissance: A Bilingual Anthology of the Nahda (New York: Modern Languages Association, Texts and Translations Series, 2018). 261-73.

[other biographies translated as appendix to Classes of ladies…]

Fair and Equal Treatment (1892) by Zaynab Fawwaz, Opening the Gates, ed. Badran and Cooke, 221-6.