Mona N. Mikhail’s book, Seen and Heard: A Century of Arab Women in Literature and Culture highlights the changes for women in the Middle East during the 20th century in everything from high culture – literature, politics, and low culture in areas such as soap operas, religion. Mikhail gives a new image of Arab women since she relates their stories as authors, activists, active members in their respective societies via contributions to culture, history, and religion. This in effect shifts the paradigm of victimhood the West seizes upon as an excuse to pity Arab women and demonize Arab men and it legitimizes the narrative since the narrator is also an Arab telling her own story critically. The problems of political, religious, economic, legal and sexual issues do exist, but women are not waiting for reform they are actively engaged in brining it about through political activism, writing, and working.
The areas touched upon by Mikhail are diverse and they are always through the critical lens of culture. One chapter which will definitely be examined by many a Westerner is the one on veiling titled “A New Vision of the Veil” written by Iqbal Barraka, the Editor-in-Chief of the oldest and most prominent women’s magazine, Hawa. It is one of four chapters that are written by another author and translated from Arabic by Dr. Mikhail. The translated chapter is from a book that Barraka has written over a period of several years and her masterful research skills give the overdone (in the West particularly) subject a new interpretation through an analysis of the Quran, Hadith, and other relevant Islamic texts. Though Barraka includes reasons for why women don hijab and why it is difficult for some to decide to don it the text she uses to find reasoning against it is fascinating. She uses the Emancipation of Women by Qasim Amin who at the end of the 19th century called for a lifting of the veil and stated that in donning the veil could cause lust to arise since much was left to the imagination. Amin also believed in the rights of women and believed that hijab was donned by the wives of the Prophet as is generally interpreted and there is not a true reason in the sura for other women to don it. Barraka cites others and turns the Western belief that Arab men subject women to enslavement and abuse on its head.
Though Dr. Mikhail is a Professor of Arabic and Contemporary Literature, her historical, anthropological and sociological observations are the most interesting because they give images of women’s lives in different countries of the Middle East and in various cultural and social contexts.
A beautiful chapter on Egyptian women’s lives at the turn of the 20th century, Growing up in Egypt at the turn of the 20th Century, gives a glimpse of how the middle and upper middle class families prepared their daughters for adult life. Many were educated in schools founded by Catholic and Protestant missionaries or secular schools where they were taught in one of the colonial languages of French, Italian, English, or German. Within these schools women of the elite were trained to take prominent roles within their respective society and social circle by learning the rules of etiquette and running a proper household and learning their proper role in society.
Mostly these foreign-run schools, along with Arab elite schools who gave instruction in Arabic, functioned as preparatory schools wherein young women were prepared for becoming the culturally aware wives of socially or politically powerful men who had usually been educated abroad.
Some of the women did marry prominent and rich men but others instead chose to work on important social issues and take on careers of their own but they were in the minority. It is evident that the most important aspect of these schools was the fostering of friendships and networks which carried into adulthood and into the istiqbals of these women. This is further evidenced by the importance of portraits during this era and the oral histories of the time as well.
The portraits also served another purpose, that of securing an amenable partner and these portraits were used in marriage arrangements and the chapter is related to chapter two, The Mother of the Bride Frantically Prepares: Egyptian Wedding Customs where Dr. Mikhail’s describes the use of traditional wedding customs by contemporary women in the 20th century. It is interesting to note that the author views the use of traditional wedding customs as more common among the educated classes in the contemporary society when in the past it was the something practiced by the lower classes. Within current society these traditional customs are practiced by the upper classes which are in turn imitated by the lower classes who aspire to be in vogue with the current bridal style.
Laylat al-hanna and Katb al-Kitab are two ceremonies which are practiced before the wedding ceremony and are both for happiness in marriage. Katb al-Kitab occurs during the signing of the marriage contract wherein the bride sucks on a sugar cube which is then dunked in a glass of water given to the groom to drink to assure a sweet relationship between them.
Ballanas were women who helped with the bathing of the rich and went to their homes to afford them the luxury of being scrubbed and washed down by their expert hands. By being allowed into the homes of the rich they were given access to a private world and were extremely trusted by those who patronized them. Over time due to the ties to the socially important they began to function as matchmakers between families with marriageable children. The significance of ballanas in the past and in contemporary society provided a means for contact between prominent families and a discreet method for families to join their marriageable children.
The chapters on literature are interesting and they all have issues of identity tied to them as well as having the preponderance of literature written by men and the portrayals of women by these men. The most interesting of these chapters is, Masculine Ideology or Feminine Mystique: A Study of Writings on Arab Women. In it, Mikhail details how social changes have helped with the transformation of Arab society and have facilitated the advent of women authors even though this has not been without problems. Emancipation and education have been instrumental in the process and writings have moved to more secular themes since the 70s. Also the ever-present them between tradition and modernity exists in women’s works as it does in men’s.
The book gives a thoughtful analysis of women mostly through the cultural lens but that is what makes it interesting and the topic of Arab women remains interesting throughout. There is a void in publishing that needs to be filled by more works such as Mikhail’s which gives us a gaze from an Arab woman about Arab women.
Teresa Camacho is a writer, editor, translator and critic of books of fiction, art, culture, history and religion from the Middle East focusing on Iran, Lebanon, Turkey, Algeria, Palestine, Spain, Mexico and Latin America. Camacho is a Comparative Literature (Spanish, French, and Italian) graduate of UC Berkeley and current student of Iranian/Middle Eastern Studies.
This book review in a different version was originally accepted for publication by Al-Raida journal in Beirut though it has yet to be published. It is the copyrighted intellectual property of Teresa Camacho.