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Arabic Literature

Rebecca Gould, miriam cooke, Caroline Seymour-Jorn
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Islam and Women What is This? A single source for accurate overview articles covering the major topics of scholarly interest within the study of women and Islam.

    Arabic Literature

    [This entry contains two subentries:


    Although women have been actively involved in the evolution of Arabic literature from the very beginnings of Arabic literary culture, their visibility has fluctuated over the centuries. This article traces some of women writers’ most outstanding contributions to Arabic literary history at this tradition's most pivotal moments and across multiple genres.

    Lyric Genres.

    Among the many genres of classical Arabic literature that are associated with women's writing, the mourning poem (rithāʾ) recurs most frequently in the classical Arabic literary tradition. As a genre, the rithāʾ idealizes the past and commemorates the deceased. Specific instances of this paradigmatic women's genre are known as marāthī (sing. marthiya). The best known early rithāʾ improviser is al-Khansāʾ (“Snub Nosed”), a seventh century Bedouin poetess who lamented the death of her brothers Muʿāwiyah and her half-brother Ṣakhr. Confounding expectations of female passivity, al-Khansā also called for her brother's deaths to be avenged in her poetry.

    In the medieval period, the most significant exponent of the rithāʾ genre is a woman from Andalusian Spain named Laylā al-Akhyaliyya. Whereas al-Khansā lamented the loss of her brothers, Laylā al-Akhyaliyya laments the loss of her would-be lover Tawba ibn al-Ḥumayyir. Concomitantly with a tendency to idealize those she has lost, Laylā's predilection for genre-crossing made a lasting impacting on Arabic literary forms. Rejecting the “gender-prescribed literary norms” that presumed that women writers could produce only mourning odes, Laylā al-Akhyaliyya composed satires (hajw) and panegyric odes (qaṣīdas) in addition to marāthī.

    The marāthī of al-Khansā and Laylā al-Akhyaliyya dominate the pre-Islamic and medieval periods, respectively. The genre was revived by the Palestinian poet Fadwā al-Ṭūqān (1917–2003) in a famous lament on the death of her brother. The consistent deployment of the mourning poem by Arab women writers across the centuries attests to both the cross-generational solidarity that women writers have been able to forge with each other as well as to the ability of this genre to transmit creatively the experience of bereavement to multiple audiences.

    When they were not composing rithāʾ, premodern women poets worked in other short genres such as the ghazal (love lyric) and the qitaʿ (fragment). Supplementing the marāthī repertoire that was one of the few literary genres permanently available to female poets, the eleventh-century Andalusian poetess Wāllada (994–1091) composed love poetry for Ibn Zaydun, as well as invective (hajw) against this same lover. In her capacity as hostess for a literary salon in Cordoba, Wāllada also set the tone for literary culture in eleventh-century Andalusia.

    In the medieval period, women's writing functioned as a repository for traditional literary values. But with the passage of time and the increasing sophistication of this body of work, women writers facilitated the revival of past forms of knowledge by way of formal experimentation. To take just one example, the introduction of free verse (al-shiʿr al-ḥurr) to Arabic literature by the Iraqi poet Nazik al-Malaʾika (1923–2007), which radically departs from traditional poetics through its orientation to syllabic progressions and intonations rather than rhyme or meter, permanently changed the literary scene.


    Even as Arab women continued to produce traditional belles-lettres, above all in poetry, beginning in the nineteenth century, they also assumed new roles as social reformers and campaigners for women's equality. One of the best known such women authors who contributed to the emergent Arab public sphere, Malak Ḥifnī Nāṣṣif (1886–1918), did so under the pseudonym Bāḥithat al-Bādiyah (“Seeker in the Desert”). Nāṣṣif polemicized directly against Qāsim Amīn's influential The Liberation of Women (Taḥrīr al-marʿa, 1899) and The New Woman (Al-marʿa al-jadīda, 1900), two acclaimed treatises that sought to replace the veiling of women with a conception of gender relations based on Victorian moral norms. In her polemics, which were published serially and collected only posthumously in book form, Nāṣṣif deftly shows how Amīn reinforces patriarchal norms under the guise of reformist values. Even as they cultivated distinctive literary voices that transformed a primarily masculine public sphere, Arab women writers such as May Ziadeh followed the example of the Andalusian poetess Wāllada by regularly hosting salons where the literary community gathered to debate the burning issues of the day.

    In A Difficult, Mountainous Journey (Riḥlah jabalīyah, riḥlah ṣaʿbah, 1985), arguably the most accomplished twentieth century Islamic autobiography, Fadwā Ṭūqān (who first made her mark as poet by reviving the pre-Islamic mourning elegy) memorably portrays Palestinian society's encounter with modernity through the lens of a young girl coming of age in British mandate Nablus. Ṭūqān journeys to Oxford and later returns to her homeland with a renewed commitment to the Palestinian cause.

    In narrating the emergence of her literary voice and the historically induced politicization of her poetics, Ṭūqān powerfully encapsulates within a single text the experience of being an Arab woman and a dispossessed Palestinian—two experiences that are not frequently brought together in the masculinist discourse of national liberation. By bringing the distinct facets of gender and political dispossession in modern Arab history together into the same text, Ṭūqān gestures toward the many ways in which Arab women's writing sheds light on the core of the modern Arab experience.

    While women's contributions to Arabic literature were overwhelmingly in poetic genres before modernity, modern women authors such as Ghāda al-Sammān and Ulfat Idilbī of Syria, Saḥar Khalīfah and Lina Badr of Palestine, Leila Aboulela of Sudan, and Hanan al-Shaykh of Lebanon have more recently made substantial contributions to the development of Arabic prose genres. The novel, autobiography (al-sīra al-dhatiyya), and other forms of nonfictional literary reflection are the three most notable areas of achievement by Arab women writers. Although some contemporary women writers, such as Ghāda al-Sammān and Ulfat Idilbī, do not wish to apply the label “woman writer” to themselves and prefer to see their works as addressed to a nongendered general public, these writers too are embedded in a community of female readers that is becoming increasingly skilled at finding linkages between past and present forms of women's writing.


    • cooke, miriam. “No Such Thing as Women's Literature.” Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 1.2 (2005): 25–54.
    • cooke, miriam, and Badran, Margot. Opening the Gates: An Anthology of Arab Feminist Writing. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004.
    • De Young, Terri. “Love, Death, and the Ghost of al-Khansa’: The Modern Female Poetic Voice in Fadwa Ṭūqān's Elegies for her Brother Ibrahim.” In Issa Boullatta Festschrift: Tradition, Modernity, and Postmodernity in Arabic Literature: Essays in Honor of Professor Issa J. Boullata, edited by Kamal Abdel-Malek and Wael Hallaq, pp. 44–75. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
    • Hammond, Marlé. Beyond Elegy: Classical Arab Women's Poetry in Context. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
    • Sajdi, Dina. “Trespassing the Male Domain: The Qasidah of Layla al-Akhyaliyyah.” Journal of Arabic Literature 31.2 (2000): 121–146.
    • Ṭūqān, Fadwa. A Mountainous Journey. Translated by Olive Kenney. London: Women's Press, 1990.
    • Women's Autobiography in Islamic Societies. www.waiis.org.
    • Zeidan, Joseph T. Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond. Albany SUNY Press, 1995.

    Rebecca Gould

    Gender in Arabic Literature

    Most twentieth-century Arabic fiction is informed by an Islamicate consciousness, even if relatively few authors have chosen specifically Islamic themes. Many writers question the place of tradition in a rapidly modernizing world, but few examine religion as a social, symbolic system. Those novels and poems that have dealt with Islam specifically have three foci: criticism of the institutions of orthodox Islam, the spiritual role of Islam and of the prophet Muḥammad as a counter-project to Westernization, and Islamist activism. Such texts tend to exaggerate traditional conceptions of gender roles and behaviors. Gender is here used to refer to the images, values, interests, and activities held to be important to the realization of men's and women's anatomical destiny. As women have added their voices to the corpus of literature on Islam, so have the understandings of gender changed.

    Muslim intellectuals began to write fiction that reflected political and socioreligious concerns in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Members of the Egyptian Madrasah Ḥadīthah exposed the oppressive treatment of women and the unchallenged power of religious authorities. Maḥmūd Ṭāhir Lāshīn's 1929 short story, Bayt al-ṭāʿah (House of Obedience), criticizes men who use what they consider to be an Islamic institution to crush women's will; the “house of obedience” authorizes the husband of a woman who wants a divorce to become his wife's jailer. One of the earliest Arabic novels is Ṭāhā Ḥusayn's autobiographical Al-ayyām (The Days, published serially in 1926–1927 and as a book in 1929). In this Bildungsroman that traces the triumphs of Egypt's blind doyen of letters, the pro-Western Ṭāhā Ḥusayn criticizes the all-male, tradition-bound al-Azhar system and its hypocritical ʿulamāʿ (religious authorities). He constructs himself as a strong man in defiance of social expectations that blind men should be as marginal to society as are women.

    While some intellectuals were attacking the corrupt institutions and agents of modern Islam, others were invoking the power at the core of a well-understood, timeless faith. The neoclassical court poet Aḥmad Shawqī was one of the first to write long poems on Muḥammad; his Al-hamzīyah al-nabawīyah (The Hamzīyah Poem in Praīse of the Prophet) and Nahj al-burdah (Trail of the Cape) inspired others to write about Islamic history and the life of the Prophet. The 1930s in Egypt saw the publication of fiction and drama by leading modernist writers lauding the Islamic exemplar and showing that Islam is no obstacle to progress, for example, Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm's unwieldy play Muḥammad (1936), Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal's Ḥayāt Muḥammad (The Life of Muḥammad), and Ṭāhā Ḥusayn's ʿAlā hāmish al-sīrah (On the Margin of the Prophet's Life, 1937–1943). During the post-Revolution period, two more important works focusing primarily on Muḥammad were published. In 1959, the Egyptian Nobel laureate Najīb Maḥfūz (Naguib Mahfouz) published Awlād ḥāratina (Children of the Alley), an allegory based on the lives of several Islamic prophets that was considered blasphemous and was censored. Qāsim-Muḥammad is the revolutionary with the widest vision, the toughest foe whom the unruly gangs of the alley had yet confronted; yet he, like his predecessors, was doomed to find his revolution coopted. ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-Sharqāwī's Marxist study, Muḥammad rasūl al-ḥurrīyah (Muhammad the Messenger of Freedom, 1962), presents the prophetic mission as an exploitative obsession. Each Muḥammad is at once an ordinary man and a driven reformer. The women characters in the Prophet's life are presented as, at best, foils to his greatness.

    One of the first attempts to consider Islam in tandem rather than in mutually exclusive competition with modernity was Qindīl Umm Hāshim (The Lamp of Umm Hashim, 1944) by the Egyptian adīb (man of letters) Yaḥyā Ḥaqqī. It tells the paradigmatic tale of the rejection of Islam in favor of Western science, the failure of this science, and the recognition of the need to meld the spiritual and the material. Women act as vehicles of each culture's values; at times, they shake Ismail's convictions and masculinity, but they also finally shape his decisions.

    During the globally troubled decade of the 1960s, Arab men and women began to question the role of religion in the rapidly changing life of the modern individual. While Saudis such as 'Abd al-Raḥmān Ṣāliḥ al-ʿAshmāwī and Ṭāhir Zamakhsharī were writing pious poetry, Egyptian secularists were targeting religion. Najīb Maḥfūz laments the transformation of Islam into an ideology and the concomitant loss of soul in society. Several characters search in vain for an absent father-figure, a transparent symbol for God. These desperate quests involve Ṣūfī masters and chaste prostitutes, the latter often providing greater solace than the former. With time, however, the sympathetic women of the earlier fiction disappear. The Sudanese al-Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ seems less pessimistic: in Urs al-Zayn (Zayn's Wedding, 1966), Zayn, the saintly fool, wins the love of the village beauty and assumes his real persona when he becomes united with her. Both writers create women who merely facilitate a man's access to the spiritual realm.

    While some women were writing overtly feminist texts, others turned to Islam to find a legitimate space for women as active agents. In 1966, the leader of the Egyptian Association of Muslim Ladies, Zaynab al-Ghazālī, published Ayyām min ḥayātī (Days from My Life), her memoir of six years in prison under Nasser. In a remarkable gender reversal, she projects herself as much stronger than her male co-inmates. She describes torture so great that only she, and not the men, could bear it. Her purpose in citing men is to demonstrate her spiritual superiority. At about the same time in Iraq, another pious woman was producing religiously didactic, yet also arguably feminist, literature. In the 1960s and 1970s, Amīnah Ṣadr, also known as Bint al-Hudā, participated in the Islamist revivalism in Najaf; in 1980, the Baʿth regime executed her. She wrote several novels (notably Liqāʿfī al-mustashfā [Meeting at the Hospital], c. 1970), short stories, and poems in which she created models of ideal behavior for Muslim women. These women embrace domesticity and advocate the veil, yet they are not subservient to men.

    With the rise of Islamist movements during the 1970s and 1980s, a few women chose to devote their literary talents to Islam. These women do not try to support or oppose gender bias in Islam or its texts. They see rather the hand of patriarchy at work in the misappropriation of scripture to oppress women. The prolific Egyptian feminist novelist Nawāl al-Saʿdāwī wrote two novels that concentrate on Islam. The heroine of Suqūṭ al-Imām (The Fall of the Imam, 1987, trans. 2002) is called Bint Allah, or Daughter of God; not only is her name a blasphemy, but she also has dreams of being raped by God. Jannāt wa-Iblīs (The Innocence of the Devil, 1992; trans. 1994) delves into the psyche of the Islamist movement to expose men's expedient uses of religion. When God declares Satan to be innocent, the binary of good and evil is undermined. Saʿdāwī's fearless condemnations of those who abuse religious privilege earned her a place on the death list of a powerful fundamentalist group. Another Egyptian to write about women's role in Islam is Salwā Bakr. Her 1986 novella MaqāmʿAṭīyah (Atiya's Shrine) explores the relationship between Islamic sensibilities and the pharaonic heritage. Should the shrine of Lady ʿAṭīyah be removed to give access to archaeological remains that hold a secret that will transform modern Egypt? Her next novel, Al-ʿarabah al-dhahabīyah lā taṣ ʿadu ilā al-samāʿ (The Golden Chariot Does Not Rise to Heaven, 1991), takes place in the women's prison, by now a familiar place for readers of Egyptian women's writings, where a “mad woman” assesses her companions’ eligibility to join her in the golden chariot that will whisk them all off to heaven.

    The 1970s also saw the rise of Arab women's novels that explore gender roles in the context of war. Palestinian Saḥar Khalīfeh's 1976 novel al-Ṣubbār (Wild Thorns; trans. 1991) deals with the post-1967 Israeli occupation of the West Bank, the effect of occupation on individual psyches, and changing gender roles. Although primary characters are male, female characters serve to critique women's role in reproducing oppressive patriarchal institutions (Usāma's mother), and they also illustrate the potentially slow process by which women may come to terms with their own passivity (Nuwār). The almost absent character Līna represents women's emerging agency in society and politics, as she serves in the Palestinian Resistance. In 1980, Lebanese novelist and short story writer Ḥanān al-Shaykh published Ḥikayat Zahra (The Story of Zahra; trans. 1986). Set during the Lebanese civil war, the novel explores the effects of sexism and emotional and sexual abuse on the female psyche. The novel's literary significance lies in its fine interweaving of nationalist and feminist causes, as the author creates parallels between the disturbed mentality of the protagonist, Zahra, and the chaotic state of her homeland.

    During the 1990s, more Arab women turned to a study of Islam and the Prophet. The Algerian Assia Djebar's Loin de Médine (Far from Medina, 1991) provides pen portraits of the many strong women who both supported and opposed Muḥammad during his life. A story about Fāṭimah's rebellion against the Companions’ misogyny reveals the forthrightness of seventh-century women in Arabia. The Saudi Arabian Rajaʿal-ʿAlim has written several novels about women struggling to assert themselves against social expectations in Mecca, often using a magical realist approach to her topic.

    Women of the new avant-garde in Egypt built on innovations of their predecessors in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly as the latter developed literary styles that involve experimentation with language to express women's experience of their bodies, sexuality, and emotions. Novelist May Telmissany's Dunyāzād (Dunyazad, 1997; trans. 2000) intimately explores the physical and emotional experience of a woman who has lost her child. Mīrāl al-Ṭaḥāwy takes this experimentation into a new subcultural context as she explores the complex family relationships in Bedouin society and the impact of conservative mores on the female psyche in al-Khib’ (The Tent, 1996; trans. 1998).

    The events of September 11, 2001 produced an alarmist trend: several Muslim women published auto-ethnographies in which they exposed and expanded on their view of the misogyny of Islam. Their sensationalist insider stories have been snatched up by European and American presses and promoted by neoconservative interest groups in the West who use these exposés to bolster their claims of Islam's inherent barbarism.

    Over the past hundred years, men and women have both extolled and criticized Islamic texts and institutions. Men have depicted the Prophet as the perfect man (al-insān al-kāmil) who might serve as a model for all, and women have looked to the founding moments of Islam and into the scriptures for right guidance in their search for power and position in society. Whereas the pioneers of modern Arabic literature, educated in Enlightenment values and norms, eschewed religious topics, early twenty-first century littérateurs are finding inspiration for new engagement with Islam. Of note is the Egyptian ʿAlāʾ al-Aswāny's best-selling novel ʿImārat Yaʿqūbyān (The Yacoubian Building, 2002; trans. 2004), which provides a sweeping critique of Islamic fundamentalism and corruption at several levels of Egyptian society. Sometimes described as pulp fiction in part for its treatment of homosexuality, the novel takes on issues of gender and sexuality as it condemns social mores that provide a double standard of sexual behavior for men and women.

    [See also GHAZāLī, ZAYNAB AL-.]


    • Al-Aswāny, ʿAlāʾ. The Yacoubian Building. Translated by Humphrey Davies. Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press, 2004. English translation of ʿImārat Yaʿqūbyān, originally published in 2002.
    • Bakr, Salwā. Maqām ʿAṭīyah: riwāyah wa-qiṣaṣ qạsīrah (Atiya's Shrine). Cairo, Egypt and Paris: Dār al-Fikr lil-Dirāsāt wa-al-Nashr wa-al-Tawzīʿ, 1986.
    • Bakr, Salwā. Al-ʿarabah al-dhahabīyah lā taṣʿadu ilʿ al-samāʿ (The Golden Chariot Does Not Rise to Heaven). Cairo, Egypt: Sīnā lil-Nashr, 1991.
    • Bint al-Hudā. Liqāʿ fī al-mustashfā (Meeting at the Hospital). Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-Taʿārif lil-Maṭbūʿāt, c. 1970.
    • cooke, miriam. Women Claim Islam: Creating Islamic Feminism through Literature New York: Routledge, 2001.
    • Ghazālī, Zaynab al-. Ayyām min ḥayātī (Days from My Life). Cairo, Egypt: Dār al-Shurūq, 1978.
    • Ḥakīm, Tawfīq al-. Muḥammad. Cairo, Egypt: Maktabat al-Ādāb, 1936.
    • Ḥaqqī, Yaḥyā. The Lamp of Umm Hashim and Other Stories. Translated from the Arabic Qindīl Umm Hāshim by Denys Johnson-Davies. Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press, 2004.
    • Haykal, Muḥammad Ḥusayn. Ḥayāt Muḥammad (The Life of Muhammad). Cairo, Egypt: Dār al-Maʿārif, 1969.
    • Husain, Sarah, ed. Voices of Resistance: Muslim Women on War, Faith, and Sexuality. Emeryville, Calif.: Seal Press, 2006.
    • Ḥusayn, Ṭāhā. ʿAlā hāmish al-sīrah (On the Margin of the Prophet's Life). Cairo, Egypt: Dār al-Maʿārif, 1966.
    • Ḥusayn, Ṭāhā. The Days. Translated from the Arabic Al-ayyām by E. H. Paxton et al. Cairo, Egypt: American University of Cairo Press, 1997.
    • Khalīfeh, Saḥar. Wild Thorns. Translated by Elizabeth Fernea and Trevor Legassick. Northampton, Mass.: Interlink Publishing 1991. English translation of al-Ṣabbār, first published in 1976.
    • Lāshīn, Maḥmūd Ṭāhir. Bayt al-ṭaʿah. Cairo, Egypt, 1929.
    • Maḥfūz, Najīb (Mahfouz, Naguib). Children of the Alley. Translated from the Arabic Awlād ḥāratinā by Peter Theroux. New York: Doubleday, 1996.
    • Mernissi, Fatima. The Veil and the Male Elite. Reading, Mass: Addison Wesley, 1991.
    • Religion and Literature 20.1 (Spring 1988). Special issue devoted to Middle Eastern literature, with an Islamic focus.
    • Saʿdāwī, Nawāl al-. The Innocence of the Devil. Translated from the Arabic Jannāt wa-Iblīs by Sherif Hetata. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
    • Saʿdāwī, Nawāl al-. The Fall of the Imam. Translated from the Arabic Suqūṭ al-Imām by Sherif Hetata. London: Saqi, 2002.
    • Ṣālīḥ, Al-Ṭayyib. ʿUrs al-Zayn (Zayn's Wedding). Beirut, Lebanon: Dār al-ʿAwdah, 1969.
    • Sharqāwī, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān al-. Muḥammad rasūl al-ḥurrīyah. (Muhammad the Messenger of Freedom) Cairo, Egypt: Dār al-Hilāl, 1965.
    • Shaykh, Ḥanān al-. The Story of Zahra. Translated by Peter Ford. New York: Anchor Books, 1986. English translation of Ḥikāyat Zahra, originally published in 1980.
    • Ṭahāwy, Mīrāl al-. The Tent. Translated by Anthony Calderbank. Cairo, Egypt: American University in Cairo Press, 1998. English translation of al-Khibā’, originally published in 1996.
    • Telmissany, May. Dunyazad. Translated by Roger Allen. London: Saqi Books, 2000. English translation of Dunyāzād, originally published in 1997.
    • Whitlock, Gillian. Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
    • Zeidan, Joseph. Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond. Albany, N.Y.: SUNY Press, 1995.

    miriam cooke Updated by Caroline Seymour-Jorn

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