August is the Women in Translation Month. To commemorate women’s contribution to world literature, we take a look at four Arab women authors who have revolutionized Arab literature and the Arab world itself.
Al Khansa, a moniker signifying “snub-nosed” and metaphorically referring to the grace of a gazelle, a symbol of beauty in Arabian culture, emerged as a prominent poetess during the 7th century in the Arabian Peninsula. Al Khansa excelled in the composition of elegies, a role predominantly reserved for male poets. Her master in composing elegies was sculpted following the demise of her brothers Mu’awiya and Sakhr, and she used poems to mourn their loss for the rest of her life. She is today considered as the finest of elegies authors, and one of the greatest Arab poets of all times.
Born in the late 19th century, May Ziadeh was a pioneering figure in Arab feminist literature. Of Lebanese and Palestinian roots, she established literary all-women salons which were a haven of feminist ideas. She was an emblematic figure of the Nahda, the movement of renaissance in the Arab world, using her pen name Isis Copia.
As we approach #InternationalWomensDay, here's an illustration of May Ziadeh (1886-1941) by @DinaRazinArt. The Lebanese-Palestinian poet, essayist, translator + feminist was an advocate for the emancipation/education of Arab women. Her books are yet to be published in English… pic.twitter.com/fDxXx6IoDq— Ruth Millington (@ruth_millington) March 6, 2023
Zaynab was a Lebanese luminary born in the 19th century. Hailing from a humble background in Jabal Amil, Southern Lebanon, Fawwaz became an established women’s rights activist, novelist, plawrith, poet and historian. Fawwaz’s seminal novel Husn al Awaqib is the first Arabic novel penned by a woman. Her play Al Haawa wa al-Wafa also occupies the slot as the maiden Arabic play written by a woman. Fawwaz’s extensive corpus also features a biographical dictionary of prominent women across global history.
A classic of women's history from the 1890s: pioneering Arab feminist writer Zaynab Fawwāz's encyclopedic biographical dictionary of more than 450 prominent women in world history, a large folio-size volume of 552-pages published in 1894–96 by the official press at Bulaq, Cairo. pic.twitter.com/36N5QnH8DD— Belated Antiquity (@afzaque) March 8, 2019
Often lauded as the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world, the Egyptian writer was an iconoclastic voice in the Arab world. Saadawy was born in Cairo with roots from Upper Egypt, and she pursued studies in medicine in Cairo University and Columbia University. But her writings focus on the experiences of women in Islamic societies. Saadawy’s corpus comprises a prolific array of novels, short stories, and nonfiction works, all of which gravitate towards the promotion of women rights in the region. Notably, her seminal work “The Hidden Face of Eve: Women in the Arab world” has earned her widespread recognition for dissecting and analyzing gender dynamics in the region.
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