Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, eds., Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing (Indiana, 1990).

Introduced by the editors as “the first collection of Arab women’s feminist writing,” Opening the Gates is both an important and problematic anthology. Following the basic format of two previous collections, Middle Eastern Muslim Women Speak and Women and the Family in the Middle East (both edited by Elizabeth Fernea, the first in collaboration with Basima Bezirgan), Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke seek to correct widespread misconceptions and ignorance about Middle Eastern women’s lives by presenting a collage of Middle Eastern women’s voices.

Nearly 50 different women “speak” through a variety of genres, including memoirs, short stories, poetry, drama, articles, interviews and speeches. The texts cover a range of relatively familiar issues — the problems of early, arranged or polygamous marriage, veiling and clitoridectomy — but also provide a look at issues related to colonialism which have been less often associated with “feminist” concerns. In bringing together this significant body of texts, the editors have added appreciably to the availability of Middle Eastern women’s writing in English. The presentation itself is indicative of a wide range of theoretical problems facing feminist inquiry as it seeks to internationalize its import.

How does “feminist” become a meaningful category in a culture where, as the editors note, an unambiguous term for feminism does not exist? Continuing along the theoretical lines which informed their previous works, The Harem Years (Badran) and War’s Other Voices (Cooke), the editors argue for their inclusion of women in Opening the Gates who did not call themselves feminist. They say that they are using:

a working definition of feminism deriving from the expression of Arab women’s voices and activism over nearly a century and a quarter. It involves one or more of the following: an awareness by women that as women they are systematically placed in a disadvantaged position; some form of rejection of enforced behaviors and thought; and attempts to interpret their own experiences and then to improve their position or lives as women.

The texts are organized under headings which reiterate this three-part definition: “Awareness,” “Rejection” and “Activism.” The editors intend these categories to function as “loose arenas” that “do not pin down the discourse.”

This typology often seems forced. The short story “Hasan’s Wives,” for instance, describes in a comical way the trials of a poor Muslim Bedouin man as he tries to provide for his troublesome “menage” [household]. Wadida Wassef tells the story as a recollection from her childhood lived in a well-to-do neighborhood disrupted by Hasan’s presence. Her manner is patronizing and her description of Hasan’s wives decidedly anti-feminist.

To say that Subhiya was the least attractive is, in fact, an understatement. Actually, in form and substance she was all beef. Haunches and haunches. Enormously fat, her skin was the color of mud. A strong odor of cow dung clung stubbornly to the air wherever she happened to be. Anyone who doubted had only to look at Subhiya to recognize that a mother’s surroundings had a powerful impact on the fetus from the moment it was conceived. From too much proximity to her cattle Subhiya’s mother had their image printed on her subconscious, like a film negative, which in turn stamped itself on poor Subhiya while yet in the womb.

How this story illustrates feminist “awareness” is difficult to see.

In view of significant differences in the historical and geographical conditions (summarily alluded to in the introduction) which produced the women who contribute to the collection, such a fluid organization scheme seems to confuse rather than to free the discourse. By blurring the specific political circumstances which contributed to the evolution of different “feminisms” in the Middle East, the editors fail to demonstrate their proclaimed awareness of the dangers of essentializing Arab feminism.

Quick shifts from autobiographical to fictional accounts pose an additional problem, as they may leave some readers uncertain as to which selections are firsthand documentations of lived experience and which are either fictional reworkings of experience or pure projections. Noha Radwan’s story of marital rape, for instance, which she describes as “based on my imagination of what a real situation is like,” should perhaps have been more clearly set apart from non-fiction memoirs.

In their introduction, Badran and Cooke recapitulate what they perceive to be misconceptions and misrepresentations of Arab feminism, suggesting that such misunderstandings will be redressed by Opening the Gates. Ghada Samman and Nabawiya Musa, both of whom wrest Islam from conservative clerics in order to argue for women’s rights within the rubric of their religious system, eloquently refute the Western notion that Islam makes indigenous Arab feminism impossible. Unfortunately, the mainstream Arab attack on feminism is only partially challenged by this collection.

According to Badran and Cooke, many Arabs have seen feminism as being: “Western — the cultural arm of imperialism or neo-imperialism out to destabilize local society and to destroy indigenous cultural identity; anti-Islamic — undermining the religious foundations of the family and society; and elitist, and therefore irrelevant to the majority.”

The charge that feminism is the cultural arm of imperialism requires a complicated rebuttal. Judging from the biographical sketches which precede each selection, the vast majority of the contributors were either educated in foreign schools operating in their countries or sought education abroad. At the same time that living between cultures has allowed such women new perceptions into the problems women face in Middle Eastern cultures, their dual vantage point has also engendered a sophisticated critique of Western values and their deleterious effects on Eastern societies.

This important feature, one which sets Middle Eastern women’s writing apart from Western feminist writing, is highlighted in selections where personal struggles with Westernization are as much in evidence as struggles with Arab patriarchy. An excerpt from Emily Nasrallah’s novel, September Birds, tells of the transformation of Siman, a young Arab man, into Simon, the Americanized overweight aging man who returns to his village when he is approaching 50. Having succeeded in the world of finance, “Simon” comes home to take a bride. The plight of Laila who is “sacrificed to save her family from poverty” (married to Simon) is rendered more poignant by the new truth that the village youths observe: “Dollars, brother, are what counts nowadays. They take the most beautiful girls in the village…. The best thing to do is to leave.”

The tragedy of the narrator’s homeland is fused with the tragedy of Laila’s sacrifice:

Behind every valley is a man who emigrates. And in every branch is a longing for the strong brown arms plowing up the soil and pruning the trees, and returning youth to the land.
The fields continue to groan their barrenness. The roots dry out in the fertile vineyard. The desiccation reaches the press, and the pressers wash their hands and legs, then they lock the doors or they smash them as they follow those who are leaving.

Is it feminism that connects the two losses? Writers like Nasrallah, who show that “feminist” thinkers are very often quite active critics of Western incursions into their cultures, help to debunk the myth that feminism is “the cultural arm of imperialism.” However, given the educational backgrounds of most of the writers in the collection, and the early uncritical valorization of the Western woman which some of these texts record, it is not difficult to see why such a view persists.

The other widespread Arab belief — that feminism in the Middle East is elitist — is not proven false by this anthology. Of the 49 women anthologized, nearly 40 are identified explicitly or implicitly as belonging to the upper class. In two cases where subaltern women are presented — the selections listed under “Zainaba” and “Chaibia” — the pieces were authored by a Peace Corps volunteer (Elizabeth Oram) and a Western-educated Arab sociologist (Fatima Mernissi) respectively. Zainaba and Chaibia are the only women who are not identified by full names; in place of a biographical note for Zainaba, we get Elizabeth Oram’s discussion of the practice of clitoridectomy in Mauritania. Such differential representation of the “common” woman is indicative of a tendency toward tokenism which feminist scholars should avoid.

In addition to packaging this collection as espousing a single ideology, Opening the Gates groups the texts according to a unitary ethnicity which belies the diversity of the women represented. Badran and Cooke assert that the women selected for this anthology “share a broad Arab-Islamic culture” and “a common language, Arabic.” The first essay, “Growing Up to be A Woman Writer in Lebanon,” demonstrates the misleading nature of this identification. Etel Adnan describes herself as multi-cultural and ethnically mixed, the product of a Syrian father, a Greek mother and a French Catholic education. A number of contributors to the collection have similarly mixed cultural or ethnic backgrounds. About a third of these pieces were written in English or French. This, the editors explain, is for reasons of colonial influence or class. Even so, it seems disingenuous to present the contributors as sharing a single common language. Dialects are distinct from one Arab country to the next. More than likely, the common language of a well-educated Syrian or Lebanese woman and a well-educated Egyptian woman would be a salad of French, English and Arabic. What the polyglot, multicultural, upper-class women represented in this anthology share is a keen intelligence which was sharpened by living through a period of unprecedented contact between East and West. What women like Nawal El Saadawi and Fatima Mernissi, first world women in terms of privilege, share with women like Alifa Rifaat and Chaibia is debatable.

In their prefatory remarks, Cooke and Badran write, “we became excited about what might happen if more Arab women’s feminist voices spoke directly to Western audiences.” The key word here is “directly”; a great deal of anthropological and literary theorizing has been devoted to showing just how complicated and mediated cultural exchange between First and Third World women generally is.

As Gayatri Spivak argues in her essay, “The Political Economy of Women”:

The privileged Third World informant crosses cultures within the network made possible by socialized capital, or from the point of view of the indigenous intellectual or professional elite in actual Third World countries. Among the latter, the desire to “cross” cultures means accession into the elite culture of the metropolis — this is done by commodification of the particular “Third World culture” to which they belong. Here entry into consumerism and entry into “Feminism” have many things in common.” [1]

The dominant subject position of the editors vis-à-vis the excavated “other” shows through when they write, for instance, that “Opening the Gates is a recovery of a debate presumed not to have existed,” or that “While Eastern feminisms are being uncovered and studied, understanding of Western feminism is being refined.” Such objectifying statements illustrate the danger Spivak alludes to when she writes that Third Worldist theoretical feminism runs the risk of “merely making up its object in the tradition of benevolent imperialism.”

As useful as this anthology will no doubt prove to be both as a teaching resource and as a general introduction to Middle Eastern women’s writing, the reader should not lose sight of the fact that these women’s voices have been selected, organized by an artificial typology and presented with interpretive commentary for a Western market. Very few Arab women have chosen to or have been able to speak “directly” to the West. We should perhaps be wary of well-intentioned ventriloquism which makes it seem that Middle Eastern women speak to Western discursive concerns. The texts that Badran and Cooke have collected are wonderfully rich reading in their own terms, sometimes explicitly feminist, sometimes not. If some of these women do not call themselves feminists, if others do not identify themselves as Arab, should they be marketed as such?


[1] In Elizabeth Weed, ed., Coming to Terms: Feminism, Theory, Politics (London: Routledge, 1989), p. 221.

How to cite this article:

Zjaleh Hajibashi "Feminism or Ventriloquism," Middle East Report 172 (September/October 1991).

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