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«Thesis submitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University of Leicester by Chia-Ling She School of English University of Leicester ...»

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BREAKING THE SILENCE: NATIONALISM AND FEMINISM IN CONTEMPORARY

EGYPTIAN WOMEN’S WRITING

Thesis submitted for the degree of

Doctor of Philosophy

at the University of Leicester

by

Chia-Ling She

School of English

University of Leicester

September, 2010

Abstract

The works I examine in this thesis for Egyptian women’s narrative liberation

strategies span from the nationalist-feminist works of the 1920s in Egypt throughout the twentieth century. I include works by Huda Shaarawi, Zainab al-Ghazali, Nawal El Saadawi, Latifa al-Zayyat, the post-1970s generation such as Ibtihal Salem, Alifa Rifaat and Salwa Bakr and finally, Ahdaf Soueif. The works for examination are organised chronologically and surround anti-colonial independence struggles in Egypt. I argue that writing corporeality for contemporary Egyptian women complicates the modern national space and histories. Qasim Amin (1863-1908) is deemed Egypt’s feminist founding father.

His modernist reformist discourse is one of the attempts to create the interstitial space for Egyptian women’s liberation in Homi Bhabha’s concept. Amin’s ‘imitative’ Western gender equality discourse renders the heterosexual relationship complex within Egyptian nationalist heteronormative discourses. It kindles numerous debates about Islamic definitions of womanhood. Not only does this cause the tension between Islam and Egyptian feminism but it also makes Islamic culture open to changes and a plethora of discourses.

This thesis aims at assessing narrative strategies through female bodies, which form an interstitial space in Egypt’s histories. Romantic love narratives in contemporary Egyptian women’s writing re-signify national space. Re-writing heterosexual relationships in El Saadawi’s (1931-) secular gender politics unsettles heterosexual constitution in Egyptian modern fiction, which disrupts a sense of a linear time in inventing national identities. Writing against Freudian masculine discursive power, El Saadawi distinguishes her feminist stance from Western feminist colonialist discursive hegemony. Her strategy i renders an instantaneous frame of time, to use Bhabha’s concept. It targets the assumption of tradition as a nationalist discourse. Latifa al-Zayyat (1923-1996), through the creation of Layla in The Open Door, suggests that female sexuality can articulate historical perspectives of Egyptian modernity which has been dominated by male-centred views. The central space conferred on female sexuality in The Open Door reveals the symbolic representation of female sexuality in the male-led nationalist and nationalist-feminist debates. In Return of the Pharaoh, al-Ghazali (1917-2005) demonstrates her body to be able to endure tortures better than men; it involves a complication of the nationalist invention revolving around feminine ‘spirituality’, dependent on women’s roles of respectability. Her autobiographical writing is fluid between the personal and political and it becomes a vehicle for negotiating the national and female selves. Therefore, writing corporeality constitutes strategies for creating narrative time and space in Egypt as a nation.

Also, Egyptian women’s writing techniques bring forth narratives of the lower class in Egyptian women’s movement.

In the writing of the post-1970s generation, Ibtihal Salem’s (1949-) daily description of women’s lives disrupts the masculine national linear time. For Salem, sexual life expresses disillusionment toward Jamal Abdel Nasser’s socialist nationalism, lament for neo-colonialism and the fundamentalist revival. Alifa Rifaat’s (1930-1996) representation of female genital mutilation integrates suturing, i.e. healing, and infibulations. Rifaat’s writing renders nationalist discourse split by demonstrating this practice as a sense of belonging and a wound, and thus, she creates an alternative space for nationalist discourses. The short story genre is a strategy of conveying Egyptian women’s culturally mixed daily life. Salwa Bakr (1949-) devises female madness as a strategy to

–  –  –

for Third World urban female subalterns. The zar ritual and psychoanalytic institutions introduce feminine circular time in Bakr’s works. Ahdaf Soueif (1950-) adopts the feminine romance genre to seek narrative possibility for female sexuality and for formulating space for historical subalterns. I suggest that women’s corporeality in Egyptian modern fiction articulates a series of performative ever-changing national identities.

–  –  –

This study has been made possible by the support of many people. I especially thank my supervisors, Prof. Gordon Campbell and Dr. David Farrier for their invaluable guidance and detailed comments on the numerous drafts. The patience they demonstrated is immense. I thank Prof. Campbell for giving directions and knowledge in the Middle Eastern context. I am thankful for Dr. Farrier’s offering of many concrete ideas in details and instruction on places that need clarification. I am also indebted to him for many useful references. Learning how to argue and write in accordance with academic conventions is one of the best things I experience during this study. I am also grateful for my thesis committee members, Dr. Emma Parker and Dr. Victoria Stewart, for their direction and significant comments on academic writing in the APG exam. The problems and errors in this thesis remain mine. Miss Vickie Abusidualghoul in the language teaching workshop for students whose first language is not English offers informative techniques on thesis writing.





I thank Dr. Claire Chambers and Dr. Corrine Fowler for offering significant feedback in the viva. Finally, Prof. Naifei Ding and Prof. Josephine Ho during my undergraduate study and during M.A. program at National Central University, Taiwan, remain unforgettable in my career. I consider the process of the PhD thesis one of searching ways for women’s self-empowerment through discursive engagement. Prof. Spencer Lin, Prof. An-Kuo Tseng and many others, encourage me in the process of study. It is by God’s grace and love that I can embark on and complete this journey. This PhD thesis is dedicated to my family and especially to my mother who left this life a long time ago.

–  –  –

Abstract

Acknowledgements

Introduction

Chapter One: Disruptions and Tensions: Egyptian Women’s Writing and the Quest for Independent National and Personal Identities

Chapter Two: Images of the Liberated Women: Nawal El Saadawi’s Nationalist-Feminist Politics and Textual Strategies

Chapter Three: Re-writing the Patriarchal System: Contemporary Egyptian Women’s Writing and the Imagined National Communities

Chapter Four: Ahdaf Soueif: Embodying Egyptian Women’s Histories in the Transnational World

Conclusion

Bibliography

–  –  –

This thesis seeks to explore the tension and ambiguities between feminism and nationalism in writing by Egyptian women. This project manages to create a balance of Egyptian women’s writing, in terms of religious or secular-based writing and Western or indigenous inspired writing, during the century-long feminist history in Egypt. It aims to look at the strategies that Egyptian women have developed in order to engage in the making of the Egyptian national identities, whilst being able to form Egyptian women’s autonomous voices.

This study will explore the different strands of Egyptian women’s resistance within and without the nation and investigate their strategies to cope with the double patriarchal and colonial oppressions of modernised Egypt. I treat Egyptian women’s writing as acts to create national identities and also as acts that posit Egyptian women in opposition to the forms and positions adopted by the newly independent nation. The various feminist positions, discourses, writing techniques and strategies throughout the history of modern Egypt have contributed to and conflicted with the collective struggle for the birth and re-generation of the nation. I examine Egyptian women’s liberation through the re-creation of the Egyptian imagined communities and the strategies that empower and dispute nationalist discourses. In the introduction, I utilise Nawal El Saadawi’s works to explain my approaches of the study relating to Egyptian women’s performative identities.

In this study, I propose that the concept of Egyptian womanhood undergoes a process of re-signification. The thesis establishes and evaluates the strategies, and it describes how the strategies produce a continuous creative process of negotiation, thereby playing a part in the polyvocal space of the nation. Through this study, I intend to contribute to the narrative strategies of Third World women’s liberation. It recommends, from the Egyptian modern context, the ways in which female narratives intervene in the male-centered national space.

–  –  –

provide an understanding of female narrative strategies that disrupt the homogenous imagination of Egypt. I investigate interactions between cultures and map the changing meanings of ‘womanhood’ in Egypt’s postcolonial era. More specifically, this study regards Homi Bhabha’s national hybrid space from the perspective of gender politics. I also suggest the privileged position of the writers who are able to write in English. Egyptian women articulate their voices and discursive struggle to challenge the concept of national identities as ‘authentic’ and homogeneous. I employ Western feminist theories to illustrate that the creative space managed by the Egyptian writers complicates postcolonial history.

I argue that an ‘instantaneous’ time exists in Egyptian women writers’ works as a strategy to capture subaltern voices. As Homi Bhabha indicates, the ‘meanwhile’ time in the nation disrupts the coherence of its communities.1 His theory refers to immigrants in the Western metropolitan centres. It can be applied not only to Ahdaf Soueif’s works in English but also to the translated works from Arabic because they address the Western audience. For instance, in the Islamic works, such as Alifa Rifaat’s, the depiction of the traditional Islamic domestic lifestyle exceeds the Western Orientalist imagination of the oppressed docile Islamic woman. Also, tradition, which secures Rifaat’s narrative world, becomes split, as she grasps women’s radical voices in Islamic terms. As Bhabha argues concerning the unspeakable aspect of the national continuous time, ‘There is, however, always the distracting presence of another temporality that disturbs the contemporaneity of the national present […]’.2 The daily life time that Rifaat’s heroines demonstrate creates the splitting discourse that incessantly disturbs between the national continuous narratives and the unspeakable narratives that Bhabha states. In this thesis, I map the descriptions of femininity in Egyptian women’s writing as ways to grasp peripheral voices in history. In the following 1 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 2006), p. 226-27.

2 Ibid., p. 205.

–  –  –

communities, and discuss the narrative strategies they deploy in order to articulate their voices.

Egyptian Women’s Writing and the Imagined Community The introduction discusses the deployment of female strategies that contemporary Egyptian women writers forge. I establish a historical and methodological context for their textual alternative space in the face of the layered discursive oppressions. I organise the texts chronologically. Huda Shaarawi is the key figure in the early generation of nationalistfeminists in the 1920s. For the nationalist-feminist generation in the 1950s and 1960s, I inspect Zainab al-Ghazali, Latifa al-Zayyat and Nawal El Saadawi’s texts. I move onto the post-1970s generation, including Alifa Rifaat, Salwa Bakr and Ibtihal Salem, and finally, Ahdaf Soueif’s transnational works written originally in English at the turn of the twenty-first century. This study considers eight writers and draws attention to the genres such as autobiography, novels and short stories with relation to national construction and Egyptian

women’s independent voices. The works I examine are organised according to the time frame:

the turn of the twentieth-century, Egyptian independence during the 1950s, the period after the June war in 1967, and finally, the globalisation after the 1980s.

Due to Muhammad Ali’s rule in the latter half of the nineteenth century, Egypt was modernised.3 Ali not only enhanced Egypt’s modernisation in terms of agricultural, industrial and commercial aspects but he also centralised his control over Egypt.4 In order to build a dynasty ruled by his family, he disrupted traditional village lifestyle and guild organisation.5 He strengthened governmental interventions on economic affairs and opened Egypt to foreign 3 Selma Botman, Egypt from Independence to Revolution, 1919-1952 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991), p. 15.

4 Op. Cit.

5 Op. Cit.

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