This book is an intellectual biography of early Arabic feminist Zaynab Fawwaz (c.1850-1914) and a study of her life in Ottoman Syria and Egypt, in the context of Arabophone debates on gender, modernity and the good society, 1890s-1910. Chapters take up her writing and debates in which she participated, concerning social justice, girls’ education, marriage, divorce and polygyny, the question of ‘Nature’ and Darwinist notions of male/female, and intersections of nationalism, anti-imperialism, and feminism. Fawwaz’s two novels and play are analysed in the context of fiction rewriting history, and on theatre as a reformist tool of public education. The book also comprises a study of some important periodical venues for public debate in Egypt in this period, particularly the nationalist press and one early women’s journal, and it highlights the writings of lesser-studied journalists and other intellectuals, within the context of the Arab/ic Nahda or intellectual revival. The talk will focus particularly on a central argument: that Fawwaz’s feminism, based on an Islamic ethical worldview, was distinct from prevailing ‘modernist’ views in posing a non-essentialist, open-ended notion of gender that did not (for instance) highlight maternalist discourses and that rejected fixed notions of sex-gender identity. Fawwaz’s background was Shi’i, an element that is quietly present in her work.
Marilyn Booth is Khalid bin Abdallah Al Saud Professor for the Study of the Contemporary Arab World, University of Oxford. Her most recent monograph, The Career and Communities of Zaynab Fawwaz: Feminist Thinking in Fin-de-siècle Egypt (2021), is amongst numerous publications on early feminism, translation, and Arabophone women’s writing in Egypt and Ottoman Syria. Translator of eighteen works of fiction and memoir from the Arabic, she was co-winner of the 2019 Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Jokha Alharthi’s Celestial Bodies.