Novelist Salwa Bakr spoke to CASA students this past week about women and Arabic literature, beginning with the 1980s, when, “Every day you would open the window and find a female author writing a new book”:
By Elisabeth Jaquette
Salwa Bakr, prominent Egyptian author and critic, explored the challenges facing women writers in a lecture at CASA (the Center for Arabic Study Abroad) at the American University in Cairo on Monday, November 12th. “A question like this reflects the kind of writing that society expects women to be able to produce,” she said.
Salwa Bakr is acclaimed for her portrayal of women’s personal lives and Egypt’s poorer social classes. Her first collection of short stories, Zinat at the President’s Funeral, was published in 1985, and she has since published six additional short story collections, seven novels and a play.
Four of her books have been translated into English, including The Wiles of Men and Other Stories, Such a Beautiful Voice, The Golden Chariot, and The Man from Bashmour, which was listed as one of the 105 best Arabic novels by the Arab Writers Union.
Bakr is a passionate speaker, committed to the power of literature to address and change social inequalities. She began by highlighting the discrepancy between women’s political and social gains over the past century and the limited roles still reserved for them in literature. She celebrated the broad participation of women in the 2011 revolution, emphasizing that whether recognized or not, women have participated in every stage of Egypt’s history.
The dilemma, however “is the old idea that women create life and men create the world: women have all the roles related to pregnancy, childbirth, and the family, but it is men who create history.” There is a gap between women’s position in society and society’s expectations of them, Bakr said: even though today, women are active in politics and work in more professions fields than ever, it socially unacceptable to portray them in any role other than mother, sister, wife or daughter.
The responsibility for this contradiction lies across the political spectrum: “It’s not just the Salafis, or the Islamic political current, or the Muslim Brotherhood responsible for the deterioration of the situation of women in the Arab world. Secular, liberal parties are equally unable to offer new, more advanced or radical steps for improving women’s situation in society.”
Bakr suggested that the lack of political support explains the surge of women seeking to express these contradictions through literature, especially in recent decades.
The wave of women writers that emerged in Egypt and the Arab world during the 1980s marked the beginning of this trend: “Every day you would open the window and find a female author writing a new book.” These initial attempts were trials at self-expression; women writers were often from elite social classes, unconcerned with giving voice to problems facing the vast majority of women. Yet the movement laid the groundwork for those who began to reconsider systemic barriers against women and express their desires to achieve things in society as citizens.
For Bakr, writing is ultimately an act of social justice. “I consider women’s writings a way to express the dilemmas of women,” she said, “especially during the days of the women’s political movement, and especially to express the concerns of women living in poverty in poor countries like Egypt.”
Yet the critical and societal reception of women’s writing has remained a challenge. Most critics remain unable to differentiate between the woman as a person and the woman as a writer. Some presume Bakr’s stories are autobiographical, and that a woman author would only be able to write about her own experiences. Many consider women’s writing to be overstepping the boundaries of decency, criticizing them for talking openly about their personal or sexual concerns. Society’s politics and its position on women define the borders of freedom of expression, which in turn leads to self-censorship, especially with regards to religion, politics, and sex.
Bakr also critiqued the representation of women in literature, criticizing both men and women authors for failing to write good female characters. “In most cases, women continue to write from a man’s point of view on the world, because the foundational literary references are those written by men. For example, when a female author describes a woman, she writes as a man would, saying ‘She was like an apple, or a flower.’ As a woman, I don’t notice these things in other women. I would say that a character is clever, or heroic, because I don’t see a woman through the eyes of a man, I see her through my own eyes. I don’t see her physical features alone, or see her as an object, the way a man sees her. This isn’t just a problem in Arab literature, but in world literature throughout its history.”
By contrast, Bakr strives to present a woman’s perspective in her own writing. “I think a woman has her own point of view, different from a man, and that’s natural, due to the context of the environment, her upbringing, and the role of society. I try to present small details that may seem trivial to some, with the idea that a woman’s perspective is different.”
For those seeking literature that succeeds in presenting good female characters, Bakr recommended The Chrysalis (al-Sharnaka) by Soliman Fayyad, Little Songs in the Shade of Tamara (Taraneem fi Zil Tamara) by Mohammad Afify, and Beginning and End (Bedaya we Nehaya) by Naguib Mahfouz. Little Songs in the Shade of Tamara and Beginning and End are both available in English translation.
Bakr ended her lecture with thoughts on what defines good writing and what it means to be a good person in the world today. “Good writing is writing that changes you, where you can’t return to how you were before you interacted with it; writing that takes you from where you began to someplace entirely new. The role of literature now, in this complex moment in human history, is an extremely important one with regards to knowledge. It’s a question related to good and evil. In this world, good and evil have become very complex. What is good, and what is evil? Literature enables us – as readers and as recipients – to address these human complexities and answer difficult, complicated questions like these. Is this enough to be a good person in this world, today? Is it enough? It isn’t. We need more knowledge, and for that we need literature, which at its core deals with humans and their world. We need literature that can lead us to other regions of knowledge, from one world to another.”
Elisabeth Jaquette is a MA student in Anthropology at Columbia University and a CASA fellow at the American University in Cairo. She has lived in Cairo since 2007, where she runs an Arabic-English book club and tweets at @lissiejaquette.