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Zaynab Fawwaz (c. 1850–1914) was born in the largely Shi‘i region—a centre of Shi‘i intellectual activity—of Jabal ‘Amil in southern Lebanon, into a family of limited means. She received her earliest education from the wife of a local feudal ruler, but at some point left the region and ended up in Cairo. There, she gradually inserted herself into the journalistic world of Cairo, particularly into the domain of late Ottomanist and religious nationalist figures, notably Hasan Husni Pasha al-Tuwayrani (c.1849–c.1896) whose newspaper al-Nil (The Nile) published Fawwaz’s essays in the 1890s. She was one of a growing number of elite Arab women who wrote on issues of gender right, specifically women’s status with regards to education, marriage and the family, and labour. Many were of Levantine Arab Christian background, but Fawwaz wrote from an Islamic-nationalist perspective.
In the 1890s, too, appeared her biographical dictionary of famous women (as well as one of her two novels, and her play). In this work of over 500 pages, Fawwaz draws on the tradition of Arabic biographical writing to offer brief lives of famous women across the world, and centrally, Arab and Turkish and Muslim women. Al-Durr al-manthur fi tabaqat rabbat al-khudur (Scattered Pearls Among the Classes of Cloistered Ladies) came out in 1894 and seems to have inspired early editors of women’s magazines to publish “famous woman biography” as encouragement to young (and older) female readers, and as evidence for doubters that women could combine—and had long combined—stellar public careers, intellectual production, and the domestic and child-rearing tasks that they were called upon to assume.
The text below is drawn from this work. However, unlike almost all of the other biographical sketches in Scattered Pearls, this one treats a woman unknown beyond her immediate social circles, and one furthermore whose life story came to Fawwaz through oral sources rather than having been textualized in books or journals. This life story enacts, through narrative, issues that were live in Fawwaz’s day: the right of young people to choose marriage partners; the shifting socioeconomic patterns of urban Egypt and issues of class vs. lineage vs. personal life choices; the plight of single women abandoned by husbands (in this case, the mother of the young man in the story); new educational patterns and institutions, and the questions this raised for social and economic status among those not of a recognized elite. These were all issues that late 19th-century intellectuals across Arab and Ottoman lands lived and debated. Rather than treating them polemically or abstractly (as she did in certain of her essays), Fawwaz shows their effects on real people in this tragic biographical tale.
How, then, is this text “autobiographical”? As well as suggesting that lives and their stories are relational—Fawwaz learned of this life because of the feminine social circuit she inhabited—this narrative raises some experiences that Fawwaz faced in her own life: attempted coerced marriage, issues of class difference, the dependence of single women on others and the difficulty of being a single woman (whether through choice or abandonment), the efficacy of women’s networks, and the hardship of loneliness and grief. In this time and place, Arab women could not write their own stories openly; Fawwaz wrote her own story by writing those of others. At the same time, that Fawwaz frames this life as an “odd and wondrous story” suggests that she does not see it as either normal or normative—perhaps, more, as a story that indicates past rather than future, and commemorates a woman who was caught up in the transitions of the moment.
Fawwaz, Zaynab. “Fair and Equal Treatment.” In Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, edited by Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, pp. 221–226. Translated by Marilyn Booth, original published 1891/1892. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.
Booth, Marilyn. “Fiction’s Imaginative Archive and the Newspaper’s Local Scandals: The Case of Nineteenth-Century Egypt.” In Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History, edited by Antoinette M. Burton, pp. 274–295. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. Study of Fawwaz’s first novel in the context of gender debates and newspaper representations of women in 1890s Egypt.
Booth, Marilyn. May Her Likes Be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press , 2001. Chapter 2 is an extended study of the biographical dictionary and its links to the early women’s press in Egypt, and there are references to Fawwaz as a biographical subject throughout.
Booth, Marilyn. “Zaynab Fawwaz al-Amili. ” In Essays in Arabic Literary Biography 1850-1950, edited by Roger Allen, pp. 93-98. Weisbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2010. Longer bio-bibliographic essay on her life and work.
Zeidan, Joseph T. Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995. Brief treatment of Fawwaz as a novelist in the context of early modern Arabic writing by women.