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Women and the Islamic World

By Andrew Hammond
May 1 2013




This spring The Samosa will be covering many of the fantastic literary events that have been curated by Festival of Asian Literature 2013 at Asia House.

Proceedings have kicked off in the pre-Festival season already with Asia House playing host to four prominent writers from around the Middle East.

Examining the lives of women across the ‘Islamic world’ as well as contrasting the differences between countries the writers looked to discuss how literatures can affect societal change. The panel brought together perspectives from across the region featuring Turkish novelist, Elif Shafak, Iraqi author, artist and activist, Haifa Zangana and Iranian writer, Kamin Mohammadi.

Shafak stood out as one of the best speakers on feminism I have ever heard. Indeed, never so clear and vivid has the overwhelming struggle against patriarchy that we all face, been planted into my conscience. Despite the invariable questions I got from other audience members, “you’re a man, why are you here?”, (FYI women’s rights is an issue that is important to all of humanity not just women), the talk has made me, a relative newcomer to issues facing women in the Middle East, now extremely eager to hear a lot more on this topic.

With such a broad remit of discussion the talk started out by dissecting its own title, which is of course laden with controversies. The speakers took no time in denouncing the idea of a homogenous ‘Islamic world’ or a catch-all ‘womanhood’. Shafak was keen to argue that the oppression of women shouldn’t be attached to any particular region, ethnic group or religion. Patriarchy is a global issue and should be considered as such, and not confined just to men but to the women that raise them.

The writers also challenged the same notion that Spivak bemoaned of the eastern women’s passivity, “white men saving brown women from brown men”. Shafak pointed out that the role of the woman’s movement in the Ottoman Empire. Indeed this movement was a comtempory of the Suffragettes, demanding rights for women that were as non-existent at the time in the Ottoman sphere as they were in the UK, Russia and France.

Perhaps jarring strongly against this, Zangana brought the case of Egyptian literature to the fore as an example, stating that in the last 100 years, four hundred books have been published by women writers in Egypt as against ten thousand in the UK. Modernity in the Arab world, she claims has seen a rise not in freedoms but restriction.

Whilst Turkey may be viewed by most external observers as the most advanced in relation to women’s rights and allowing women to become writers, Shafak counters this perception by stating there are still huge barriers. In Turkey, she told us, “if a female writer: you are seen as a woman first then a novelist, but if a male writer: a novelist first then a man”. Perhaps not so dissimilar to the marketing of women writers in the ‘progressive west’, though, where most literature penned by a woman author is thrust into a pastel cover and disregarded as ‘chick lit’.

All three speakers raised issues around the weight of representation that is placed on the shoulders of the few women writers that manage to raise their head above the parapet. Shafak proclaimed that “the novelist is not a teacher”, all she can do is create a story to ask the right questions, but it is up to the reader to interpret the novel and to answer them. The power in literature comes from the fact that “not everyone talks to each other but everyone can read the same book”.

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