Tracing the Origins of Early Feminism in the Arab World

Al-Fatah magazine was the first Arab women’s periodical. First published on 20 Nov 1892.

Asma Char
University of Exeter

The 1938 and 1944 pan-Arab conferences in Cairo, Egypt, were the events that “cement[ed] Arab feminist consciousness” (Golley, 2004) and the feminist debate was to erupt in the Arab world from the 1950s onwards. Hadidi and Al-Qadi have since investigated pioneering women’s writing in Syria and acknowledge the existence of new-woman characters, but they argue that the phenomenon only appeared in fiction from the 1970s onwards. They write: “[the] new woman is a type of female character almost wholly absent in previous periods; she starts to appear in the novels of the 1970s, which opened up to collective concerns and constructed fictional worlds based on the political and social reality in Syria and the Arab world” (2008, 87). Arab women’s feminist struggle, however, appeared much earlier — within fin-de-siècle Arabic fiction. 

Early Arab Feminists, Social Class, and Activism

In terms of social class, Golley (2004) maintains that a social transformation was taking place in Egypt during the reign of Muhammad Ali, which extended from 1805 to 1848. Middle and upper classes were in the rise due to Muhammad Ali’s modernising policies, on one hand, and their good relationship with the “colonial British”, on the other. As a result of the new capitalist order, women encountered considerable competition and lost their jobs, and this, in turn, drove them back to the home, which was “the only sphere where they enjoyed some kind of authority and a restricted form of management” (531). This situation caused the seclusion of the women of middle and upper classes. It also deprived them from any opportunities for public education, but because they belonged to wealthy families, the latter could afford to provide them with private education in the home despite high costs. The women who belonged to the lower social classes were less fortunate as they could not pay for private education. Nonetheless, they were fortunate enough to be able to enjoy “a less secluded life simply because their unpaid help was needed by their husbands, who were small merchants, shopkeepers or even labourers” (531).

This duality of social seclusion and access to private education, which many resources refer to as encompassing foreign languages, greatly contributed in making middle- and upper-class women the initiators in the quest of a new woman identity in Egypt and the Arab world.

Early Arab feminists sought to achieve gender equality and empower women through rejecting the separate-spheres ideology to find their place in the public sphere that was previously exclusive to men. To cross the male-imposed boundaries, they used different strategies ranging from writing (especially in the periodical press), political activism, rejection of marriage, and the establishment of literary salons and associations. Although some of these tactics only blurred the lines between the domestic and public spheres, others marked Arab women’s successful entry into the public sphere began at the fin de siècle.

Feminism, the Periodical Press, and Fiction

The rise of fiction writing in the Arab world was aided by the increased publication of newspapers and periodicals. Periodicals like Silsilat al-Fukahat (Beirut 1884), Diwan al-Fukaha (Beirut 1885), Ar-Rawi (Alexandria 1888), Hadiqat al-Adab (Cairo 1888), and longer lasting periodicals such as Al-Hilal (Cairo 1892), Al-Mashriq (Beirut 1898), Ad-Diya (Cairo 1898), and Fatat el-Sharq (Cairo 1906) are examples of the press that popularised the publication of short and long stories.

As early as 1899-1900, the debates on feminism and the New Woman were gaining momentum with the publication of Amin’s books.

The increasing popularity of the periodical press was also reflected in the improvement and acceptance of fiction writing and reading. However, the attitudes towards fiction were still differing among the elite. On the relevance of literature in the early feminist movement in the Arab world, Shaaban (2009) asserts that: “[it] is in literature more than any other domain that Arab women have an identity, a recognisable voice, and a long history, albeit intermittently recorded, of excellence” (1). Likewise, Golley (2004) argues that literature, in both poetry and prose, was the main area that early Arab feminists focused on.

Mohammed Hussein Haikal’s novel Zainab (1913) is commonly assumed to be the first modern novel written in Arabic. However, recent scholarship maintains that this narrative dismisses earlier novels written by Arab women like Alice Butrus al-Bustani’s Sa’iba (1891); Zaynab Fawwaz’s Husn al-Awaqib aw Ghadat al-Zahira (1899) and Al-Malik Qurush (1906); Labiba Mikha’il Suya’s Hasna Salunik (1904); Labiba Hashim’s Qalb al-Rajul (1904) and Shirin: Ibnat al-Sharq (1907); and Farida Atiyya’s Bayn Arshayn (1912) among others.

Fawwaz’s Husn al-Awaqib is considered one of the earliest novels written in Arabic, first published in 1899.

Zaynab Fawwaz’s Husn al-Awaqib (1899), for example, presents men and women as equals; while the villains, male and female, resort to similar extreme and abhorrent actions, the protagonists are also equals in loyalty, suffering, wisdom, and literacy. The author’s use of psychology in the depiction of suffering of both sexes reveals a vision of equality between men and women rather than the traditional writings that depict women as weak and men as strong. The protagonist Fari’a refuses to be forcefully married to Tamir, but he “swears that he would definitely take her captive and impose the life of slave girls on her” (80). When she is eventually captured by Tamir’s men, Fari’a acts very defiantly. One of the men threatens to silence her by his sword, but she remains unfazed and asks him: “do you think I fear death, you scoundrel of a man?” (111) This level of defiance and insistence on acting by her free will reflects Fari’a’s pursuit of independence and her New Woman spirit.

Arab Feminism and Colonial Double Discourse  

Using their literary talents to raise awareness concerning women’s rights and to call for reform shows that early Arab feminists at the fin de siècle inspired later feminists and paved the way for them. This despite the fact that colonial officers in Egypt and elsewhere depicted Muslim and Arab women as backward. This happened

Even as the Victorian male establishment devised theories to contest the claims of feminism and derided and rejected the ideas of feminism and the notion of men’s oppressing women with respect to itself, it captured the language of feminism and redirected it, in the service of colonialism, toward Other men and the cultures of Other men (Ahmed, 1992, 151).

Ahmed notes that a glaring example of this attitude was embraced by Lord Cromer, who used the feminist discourse as a weapon of colonialism as British consul-general of Egypt, at the same time that he was a founding member of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage back in England (153).


Early Arab feminist thought emerged in fiction and press articles from the fin de siècle, decades before the more widely recognized feminist writings in the era of Decolonization. This earlier phenomenon was mostly associated with the middle and upper classes and reflected raising awareness of the woman question. The study of the history of feminism in the Arab world sheds light on both native and colonial perspectives towards this movement in its early days. It also informs our understanding of today’s Arab feminism and the contemporary fiction associated with it.

Asma Char is a PhD candidate at the department of English, University of Exeter. Her thesis provides a comparative study of fin-de-siècle feminism in the Arab world and Britain.

Works Cited

Abdel-Meguid, Abdel-Aziz. The Modern Arabic Short Story: Its Emergence, Development, and Form. Cairo: Al-Maaref Press, 1955.

Ahmed, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992.

Ashour, Radwa, et al. Arab Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide 1873-1999. Translated by Mandy McClure. Cairo and New York: The American University in Cairo Press, 2008.

Golley, Nawar Al-Hassan. “Is Feminism Relevant to Arab Women?” Third World Quarterly, vol. 25, no. 3, 2004, pp. 521-536.

Shaaban, Bouthaina. Voices Revealed: Arab Women Novelists, 1898-2000. London and Colorado: Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc., 2009.