Female Poets and the Egyptian Revolution
An avid reader or a person interested in poetry often find that certain lines and images become indelible and keep recurring. A father cawing like a crow or a woman baking bread in the ruins of a war, as in the poetry of Hoda Omran, Egyptian sociologist and writer. We first met in Kairo through Shaerat, a project aiming to bring together women poets to translate current Arabic poetry into Swedish, and I was struck by how the body and the address in her poetry exuded both lust and brutality. In the assault on her body and the reclaimed violence of the new order women are the major victims of the revolution, writes Omran in this essay about the literary history of Egypt. Only in their writing have women been allowed to explore themselves within and beyond this violence, and unless they have internalized the oppressive logic in order to be regarded on a par with their male colleagues—to thereby live on in the cultural memory—history has propelled these women writers into the margins or into oblivion. In her inventory of 20th Century literature Omran shows that history is perpetually being rewritten and that a fraught poetic memory need not stand in the way of discovering women writers who have spoken through the decades, and still speak, with clear, distinctive voices.
Burcu Sahin, Swedish poet
Egypt had known few female poets before the January 25 Revolution. While critics and scholars can now easily see that, serious question arises. The question is not why is now an abundance of female poets, but rather why there were so few female poets before the revolution. One can wonder if there had been any female poets before the revolution. So why is there now an abundance of them?
There might have been female voices who wrote poetry but it was so faint that we never heard from them? Still, it seems that those voices only came to existence in the 1990s, and that they were scattered and used a neutral tone in their poetry. It was an embarrassment for women to write poetry in Egypt. A female poet would either be stigmatized by the then radical generation of the nineties as showing "excessive sentimentalism”, or her feminine voice would be demoted from a “peer poet” to being a “female writer”, which signals weakness and humility.
Preserving a place within the literary community was an important issue before the January 25 revolution. The community ensures communication channels, means of publishing, and most importantly, it ensures a dialogue about art, which is necessary for literary experience and enrichment.
I asked the Egyptian writer Yasser Abdul Latif about female women poets before the nineties. He managed to mention two names: Malak Abdul Aziz and Jamila al-Alayli. He tried to remember the name of a third female poet from Upper Egypt, but failed. I asked him why he thought he could not recall any other names. He said that the poetic memory is often defective, and even with the well-known poets, no one can recall their poetry. We agreed that this ambiance is exclusively masculine, and he added that even female prose writers were limited in number and they were only known because of their work at the universities, such as Latifah al-Zayat and Aisha Abdul Rahman (Bint al-Shati), for example.
Jamila al-Alayli published her first collection of poems, The Echo of My Dreams (Sada Rouhi) in 1936, 11 years before her Iraqi counterpart, Nazik al-Malaika, published her first book, The Woman in Love with Night (Ashiqat al-Layl). Jamila was completely forgotten from literary memory, because she was a female poet. Nazik has been remembered because she was the leader of a revolution in poetry, shifting the Arabic poetry from the classical metric-pattern into the new free poetry. A woman had to be inimitable or ahead of her time in order for literary memory to preserve her name for a long time. A male writer on the other hand did not need to be a revolutionary writer, he would have a better chance of being remembered from history.
Were there other Egyptian poets in the pre-nineties era who stood out as female writers? Egypt has witnessed more than one revolution: the 1919 revolution, the movement of students and workers in the forties, and the soft military coup in 1952, which was accompanied by a social revolution. Women have played a significant role in all those uprisings, and some have sacrificed their lives and waged a long struggle for a better society. But has that been reflected in the literary milieu? Unfortunately, it has not. All the names we now remember, such as Joyce Mansour or Andre Shadid and others, are women who chose to move away from Egypt and write in a foreign language. Consequently they all belonged to a European culture and were helped by their education and belonging to higher classes or foreign families. Every other singular attempt to tweet out a tune was unsuccessful.
In the nineties, a new literary movement ascended, breaking the idols of social duty and class affiliation in writing. These young writers were trying to form conglomerates parallel to the state-owned institutions that had the upper hand in deciding who could publish their works and who would shine as writers. These youth groups made room for female voices such as Iman Mersal and Fatima Qandil. At this time, Arwa Saleh wrote her book, “The Stillborn” (Al-Mubtasarun) and presented it to the new generation who ridiculed and criticized the book, as Arwa herself writes in her introduction. Arwa was absorbed with ideas of how she could break out from the shell of the 1970s generation to which she belonged, and how to understand what happened to that generation and to the female intelligentsia within it. Subsequently, Arwa Saleh committed suicide, feeling bitter, that she had lived her entire life under a nom de guerre chosen for her by the political group. Arwa Saleh suffered psychological harm at the hands of the intellectuals, and her suicide was a cry against them, Nawal el-Saadawi later said.
In her book, Al-Mubtasarun, Arwa debates what she called "the historical mistake", in which she found herself. She belonged to a generation that did not accomplish any of their dreams or projects, which they have remained attached to. Arwa Saleh said that the men of the 1970’s created a “bourgeois” class of who dealt with women, whether their partners in the political struggle or female writers, as a subject for sexual exploitation. Love for the "bourgeois" man is dependent on desire; once he satisfies this desire, women, writer or not, he would stigmatize them with all social judgements, just like any traditional man. Hence came the new view of the female writer – a sexual subject for all men, who must pay for her freedom, and remain in an inferior position to men, for she is not known for her writings but because she is a woman or for her relationship with some men.
Time goes on but these judgements never change, even now. Women always make a good subjects for gossip in cafes. Topics ranged from defamation, demeaning comments, to refusing to acknowledge them as writers, claiming women cannot write well.
A never ending violent era that replaces the physical violence of the Egyptian family against women, such as beatings, torture and confinement, with a sophisticated, cultured violence, whose sole aim is to squash women, or at the very least, subjugate them.
Pierre Bourdieu defines symbolic violence as a type of soft, non-physical violence. It is often unconsciously agreed upon by both parties and is manifested as an imposition of the norms of the group and possessing greater social power on the subordinate members of the group. It is a violence that is exercised in symbolic ways and means – communicating and dictating knowledge, particularly through confession. It can also be defined as a set of behaviors, rhetoric, actions, movements, and writings, which are likely to harm the psychological or physical balance of a person, endanger their work and their life, and cause a disruption and poisoning of the work environment. Symbolic violence can, in other words, be defined as cultural violence that can be detected in the hegemony exercised by those with influence over their followers in a deceptive manner, as they impose their moral and intellectual assumptions on their followers, which generates a deep feeling of evidence, inferiority, and a sense of inferiority.
Just as in wars, women are the first to reap the losses of revolutions. Their bodies become subject to assault in three ways: killing, torture or imprisonment. Some of them are humiliated with virginity checks when they are arrested for participating in the protests, in order to abuse them and crush their reputation in their conservative communities, or to deprive them of any legitimate rights that they have earned and make them a target of legal restrictions, or to restrict their freedom.
In Iran, when the religious authority achieved control after the revolution, the first thing they did was to force women to wear the hijab; and that is exactly was what the Muslim Brotherhood government was calling for in Egypt. While the government of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi did not follow this pattern and promised a secular state, it did, for example, arrest girls who recorded dances on TikTok, and through the media ,forcefully imposed a certain image of what a righteous and socially acceptable woman should look like.
What the official state authority does against women is reflected and complemented by another sort of violence from the intellectual community, in which female writers try to seek protection, in order to be freed from the family’s authority. They try to express their ideas and their new personalities. It seems, however, that there is a vicious cycle of violence: the traditional family violence create a new rebellious generation that tries to find new sets of values, but instead they use a different type of violence against one another, but particularly against women.
The most miserable circumstance any individual can suffer is to be a revolutionary woman in a non-democratic country; and it will be more miserable if the revolution fails. The catastrophe, however, is when this woman is an artist, or a poet.
What adds to the complexity of the cultural scene in Egypt is that it is an ancient country, which has witnessed all sorts of arts. People in Egypt believe that everything has been said or written before. Informal institutions control everything; therefore individuals resort to forming their own small communities that quickly set their own laws and seek to crush other groups, or to crush individuals outside their groups.
No matter how talented an Egyptian artist is, they will not rise to the surface until they pass through the role assigned to them, and prove that they can conform to the rules set by both the group and the authority. For a man, this compatibility may be an agreement on the style and ideas of writing itself, but for women the prices can be much higher. Although the act of writing is certainly individual, everything that surrounds us seeks to destroy this individuality, by attempting to dominate the writers or ignoring them. If the writer is a woman the domination/ignorance equation is more demeaning, until she gives up trying to be an equal peer, who has her own views on life, politics or social relations.
Unfortunately, intellectual circles in Egypt create a harsh model that violates women, and pushes them to either abandon their gender in writing and in their lives, or submit to a specific form of writing in which the writer is merely a gentle woman, a beautiful flower deprived of sexual life.
Worst of all is when women practice the same violence against others, playing the masculine role to exercises their authority – if they ever hold authority – to deprive any other female writers of the opportunity to surface. Such women would not refrain from using bullying and verbal violence, competing with other writers and portraying themselves as the best and more competent.
Still, there is one type of writing, which the intellectual community will not comfort, and even discourage. It is when female writers write about problems with their bodies, deprivation and the constant pain of ardent desire.
While this writing is quite legitimate for women, men will only use it as a way of enhancing the male imagination and the fantasy image of the tough man who has multiple relationships with women, a cliché which male intellectuals like to spread about themselves most of the time.
But why do most female writers begin with writing about the body? Some of them stick to this phase, while others manage to skip it into something wider. And why has a strong female poetry movement now started in Egypt. A strong movement that allows us to claim that the poetic scene in Egypt is now definitely feminine.
I believe the reason is the nature of poetry itself. Poetry is a synthesis of revelation and feelings, which in the past was difficult for women to show, as they would be confronted and suppressed. Today, however, with the technological revolution, new boundless spaces for publication have opened up to women. Furthermore, a new social trend has smashed the old image of society, even though there is no social alternative for the smashed one. Now, any female poet can publish her poetry without having to know somebody who can do her a favor and help her surface as a poet. Now, it is the poem itself that has the power to impose itself.
The revolution may have failed in dismantling power. However it managed to dismantle the old social fabric, through rebellion within the family and sometimes by destroying the image of the family within the individual. This deconstruction is always enhanced with constant satire: a satire of nostalgia, history, norms and traditions. The new generation attempts also to be independent and leave the family house. In the past, a young woman had to get married in order to leave the family house. Now, young women face their fate away from their families, or confront their families’ dominant violence. In most cases they manage to leave the house and be independent, which reflects itself in the literary scene.
In the aftermath of the revolution, photography and poetry were at the forefront. Women wrote with a great momentum, bearing in mind that they were the launchers of the new revolutionary and using the radical discourse that has been open for decades, but has never been fulfilled. At the revolutionary moment, women’s confidence in themselves was stronger than ever. It was a key moment and to undo that moment was simply not possible. Meanwhile the poetry of men could not compete, as it had not changed the old ground it has been standing on before the revolution, unaware of the sweeping social change.
Was poetry in need of feminine energy? Or was it in need of a revolution within the family, which must begin with women, since the religious texts and masculine society both accomplish themselves by suppressing women. This circle needs to break and the first step to break it is to freely discuss the notion of the body, in order to go beyond it into a wider world.
Alaa Khaled, an Egyptian writer who has spoken repeatedly about female poets in recent times, tells me that this moment has come after a period of long self-contemplation, something that poetry requires and women are much more capable of doing. Men on the other hand, have used up their energy and they are now in dire need of introspection.
In a previous interview, Alaa said that women may have a stronger presence in the new poetry scene, because they are more capable of concentrating on a women’s needs, with which they conduct a dialogue and build their poems. Love/friendship/The Other, all these are basic pillars in their lives and are the locomotive for their poems. Men, in their poems, appears as an equal partner, who like women is suffering from the hardship of the world around them. He also noted that feminism is no longer a central theme in the new female poetry.
Alaa and I discussed the wide variety of the new poetry by Egyptian women. In Alaa’s opinion, this variation – albeit beautiful – may mean dispersion in the poetry scene, as there is no solid ground to build on. However, he admits, a new feminine poetry has emerged, even if it does not go any further.