With pure virtue’s hand I guard the might of my hijāb and with faultless self-shielding, among my peers I rise With my thoughts taking fire and my gift for sharp critique I have brought my poet’s skills to new and perfect highs I composed poetry expressing an assemblage: before me, women sheltered, most noble, esteemed, …
Also known as al-Taymuriyya (‘the female Taymur’), ‘A’isha Taymur (1256 AH/1840 CE – 1320 AH/1902 CE) was an Egyptian poet and prose writer born into an elite and intellectual Ottoman Turkish family of Kurdish origins. Taymur was among the earliest women writing in Arabic, in the modern period of print media, to publish works and gain renown during her lifetime. Her legacy includes poetry in Persian, Turkish, and Arabic as well as an allegorical novel and essays on the politics of gender in Egypt.
Famously, Taymur tells of the early support of her father for her intellectual pursuits: Isma‘il Taymur Pasha (1230 AH/1815 CE – 1289 AH/1872 CE), who spent his adult life as a career bureaucrat for the Egyptian state, seemed to prefer the life of the mind. Taymur’s mother, like so very many women in world history, is not known to us by name or by life dates. She survives only as ‘the Circassian’, suggesting that she was a jariyah (slave/concubine) of ‘A’isha’s father but (as was often the practice) she was freed, probably after the birth of a child. Taymur writes about her mother as a forceful personality and this may be where ‘A’isha got some of her own force, which shines through the poem translated below. But her mother (according to the preface to Taymur’s novel) wanted little ‘A’isha ‘Ismat to focus on her embroidery, while the young girl tried to elude this task by hovering near her father’s literary soirees with his friends. The Pasha told ‘the Circassian’ to instruct their younger daughter in needlework; he would train ‘A’isha in the arts of Arabic rhetoric and poetry. He brought tutors into the household (as was often done for elite daughters as well as sons—and this was before the appearance of girls’ schools in Egypt), and from them she learned the Qur’an and studied Islamic legal science as well as the grammar and poetic heritage of Arabic, Turkish, and Persian.
Taymur’s education and emerging poetic bent were curtailed by her marriage, at age 15 (standard for her class and era), to a distant relation and senior bureaucrat. Their daughter, Tawhida, played a clearly supportive role in her mother’s artistic leanings, handling the household so that after the husband and father’s death, ‘A’isha could go back to her linguistic and literary interests. Tawhida’s early death intervened, and from her mother’s poetry, it was clearly an anguishing event. Taymur elegized her daughter in a heartbreaking ode. That features in Taymur’s diwan (collection) of Arabic poetry, probably the earliest book by a female author to be published in Egypt (Hilyat al-tiraz [Brocade Decoration], Cairo, 1303 AH/1885/86 CE)—and the poem below was the first in the volume, though a later rendition (1952) buried it deep inside (Lajnat nashr mu’allafat Taymur, Diwan ‘A’isha al-Taymuriyya, ma‘a al-qasa’id allati lam yusbaq nashruha [The Poetry Collection of ‘A’isha al-Taymuriyya, with the poems which have not previously been published], Cairo, 1952).
Taymur’s allegorical novel, published two years later, is a long and quite traditionally composed narrative but its focus on the practical and moral consequences of poor child-raising and education is in line with late 19th-century discourse. Her sixteen-page essay Mir’at al-ta’ammul fi al-umur (Mirror of Contemplation into Matters, Cairo, 1310 AH/1892/93 CE), confronted an equally resonant topic, marriage, by offering brief analysis of Islamic practice in the context of contemporary needs. Men’s authority over women, argues Taymur, comprises a web of reciprocal rights and duties. A man who does not keep his family properly cannot rightly exercise authority over family members. Taymur’s class background is evident when she worries about elite women’s vulnerability to servants who play on their desire to see a wider world. She sees the end of slavery in Egypt (1877) as meaning a dangerous new social relationship: at least slaves, dependent on households, were loyal and did not divulge family secrets (she claims).
Taymur is known to have had at least a few exchanges of correspondence with other female intellectuals, and she praised their books in print, also linking her own accomplishments to others, as in the poem below. Composed as a traditional monorhyme ode, the poem plays with levels of rhetoric and meaning: almost every line offers at least double possibilities, which cannot be conveyed fully in a translation. The connecting thread is a strong statement of women’s abilities and persistence in intellectual pursuits despite their formal ‘invisibility’ (at least in the upper classes). Indeed, Taymur exploits the tropes of veiling and gender-based sequestration (both of which can be conveyed in the Arabic word hijāb) to assert women’s pre-eminence as intellectual and artistic heavyweights. She also uses masculine (and masculinist) discourse on manly chivalry to debunk the notion of ‘stallion poets’ whose masculinity is essential to their poetic prowess (dare one say, longevity?). She marshals the stellar poetry of pre-modern women—al-Khansa’, ‘Aliya bint al-Mahdi, Layla al-Akhyaliyya—as beacons of her own artistic presence. And thus, it is no wonder that this poem appears in Zaynab Fawwaz’s biographical dictionary, for it asserts al-Taymuriyya’s personality as it also gestures to the importance of recognizing and celebrating a feminine genealogy.
Booth, Marilyn. ‘A’isha ‘Ismat bint Isma’il Taymur. Essays in Arabic Literary Biography 1850-1950, edited by Roger Allen. Weisbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010. Pp. 366-76.
Booth, Marilyn. “Biography and Feminist Rhetoric in Early Twentieth-Century Egypt: Mayy Ziyadah’s Studies of Three Women’s Lives.” Journal of Women’s History 3 (Spring 1991): 38–64.
Hatem, Mervat. “’A’isha Taymur’s Tears and the Critique of the Modernist and the Feminist Discourses on Nineteenth-Century Egypt.” In Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East, pp. 73–87, edited by Lila Abu-Lughod. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Taymur, ‘A’isha. “Family Reform Comes Only through the Education of Girls” and “Introduction to The Results of Circumstances in Words and Deeds.” Translated by Marilyn Booth. Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, pp. 129–33, 126–8, edited by Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke. London: Virago, 1990; Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990.