Dr Salwa Gouda – The challenges
facing Arab Women Poets and Writers
Guest editorial

Gouda LE Arab Women P&W April 2024

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Live Encounters Arab Women Poets & Writers April 2024.

The challenges facing Arab women poets and writers,
Guest editorial by Dr Salwa Gouda,
Egyptian literary translator, critic, and academic
at the English Language and Literature Department
at Ain-Shams University.

She has gathered Arab women poets and writers from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq,
Algeria, Palestine, Morocco, Tunisia, UAE, Libya and translated their work for this special edition.

The Disk of Enheduanna: The world’s first known author is widely considered to be Enheduanna, a woman who lived in the 23rd century BCE in ancient Mesopotamia (approximately 2285 – 2250 BCE). Enheduanna is a remarkable figure: an ancient “triple threat”, she was a princess and a priestess as well as a writer and poet.
The Disk of Enheduanna: The world’s first known author is widely considered to be Enheduanna, a woman who lived in the 23rd century BCE in ancient Mesopotamia (approximately 2285 – 2250 BCE). Enheduanna is a remarkable figure: an ancient “triple threat”, she was a princess and a priestess as well as a writer and poet.

When I started writing this editorial, several questions arose: What does the world expect from women poets? Do Arab women poets write a different language?

Do they lament their fortunes because they belong to Third World societies? Do they demand more freedom through their poetry? Are there themes that are suitable for men and not suitable for women?

For shaking the dogmatic social structures and answering these illuminating questions, I find that it is suitable to trace the position of women in world history which bears witnesses to the marginalization of women, particularly within patriarchal societies. Women are denied the freedom to express themselves in such societies; in societies where they are not given the right to self-expression, they often project a weak image of themselves to satisfy the egos of male chauvinists. Women are deemed to have a low social status, regardless of their position, because of the gender ideology propagated in male-dominated societies. Each act of theirs is judged with a microscopic eye to detect even the minutest blunder to prove that they are less competent than men.

The impact of this gender ideology is so strong that a vast majority of women develop a negative self-image and tend to believe that they are inferior to men in every respect, while some of them, because of this injustice, develop a strong hatred for men, assuming that men are responsible for all the injustice against women in the world, which of course does not hold true in all cases.

What women fail to realize is that their own gender has an equal role to play in the disempowerment of their female identity. We should also realize that Arab women poets and writers are part of world tradition, and they suffer the same patriarchal rule with its restraints as the rest of women writers across the world.

Throughout the ages of Arabic poetry, the female poetic voice has remained a synonym for weakness and absence. If we exclude rare female poets such as Al-Khansa’ in pre-Islamic times, Laila Al-Akhailiyya in the Umayyad era, Al-Fari’a and Rabi’a Al-Adawiya in the Abbasid era, Walada bint Al-Mustakfi in the Andalusian era, and Aisha Al-Taymuriyah in the modern era, then we hardly find anyone included in the group of female poets except female slaves, from whom we receive stray verses and fragments. It only expresses their contributions to the festivals of fun, and thus the predominant image of their productions has become associated with the emotional model and controlled by methods of seduction and arousal of pleasure and anecdote. Although, Enheduanna, the Sumerian poet, preceded the Greek poet Sappho by 700 years.

Within this context, the classical critics did not highlight women’s poetry except what promotes social virtue, sincerity, and where there is no vulgarity. In their view – the uttering of poetry is something that is aroused by the intensity of her passion and the feeling of sadness and enormity in her. Otherwise, they would not have prioritized Al-Khansa over the most powerful poets, because of her elegies about her brother Sakhr, or Laila Al-Akhailiyya for her elegies about Tawbah bin Al-Himyar. Other than that, the critics did not like the poetry of the councils of fun, as it seemed soft, seductive, and lacking in emotion.

The woman poet’s mission extended from merely composing poetry, to fit within an artistic school that had its own components, characteristics, and artistic taste. However, criticism and discourse parallel to her poetry continued to view her only as a model of the crying poet who was only good at shedding tears. This attitude reminds me, in one way or another, with the role played by female characters, including queens, in Shakespeare’s History Plays, as there was no vital action or rational ideas provoked by them, only lamenting words and tears.

There was a degrading vision that saw women’s literature as weak, of little value and not comparable to men’s literature, which made women afraid to engage in literary activity, and they were condemned to remain outside its arena or battle within society. This view continued to guide the overall activity of literature, as if it had become a kind of authority of cultural norms, established by the institution of literature and accepted by the dominant taste, and it did not budge successively except with the call, since the beginning of the twentieth century, to liberate women and grant them the rights that were stolen from them.

From the middle of the twentieth century, the collective voice of the literary woman began to emerge, in successive waves, to remove from her the traits of negativity, submissiveness, and hesitation, and to break the barrier of fear of speaking her ego and its hidden things. From there, an intense need emerged for her to express, at first under pseudonyms, her personal suffering, her private concerns, the aesthetics of her femininity, the details of her body, and her painful personal archive, and she found in all its genres of literature, poetry and narrative, what responded to this urgent need.

In this context, there was a discussion about what was termed “women’s literature” within the field of literature, in response to some cultural studies, and the study of gender or sexuality. Such expressions carried a gender division of the concept of literature and its function, and raised a debate that has not subsided to this day, between supporters and denouncers. Just as awareness of “feminism” has been awakened among many female poets, story tellers, and novelists, and those working in cinema and documentary art in recent years.

With the spread of prose poetry, women poets turned their experiences to a new poetic stage, perhaps its most important feature: the rooting of the feminine dimension of the poem with its linguistic characteristics and its rhetorical and artistic components, including the tendency towards subjectivity and interest in the body with its various details and revelations. This has allowed scholars to sense the emergence of a feminine poetic discourse, betting on its patterns and self-being to achieve different aesthetics, to the extent that it refuses to be subservient to the authority of masculine discourse, or to imitate it and subjugate it, but rather challenges it and rebels against it.

Thus, it seems that women’s language is regaining its legal rights through the localization of its specific language and stage as a system of signs into the space of poetic writing, in a way that brings women back to writing forcefully, and allows them to reside in the world, as they see it and defend it. It was like a soft revolution to extract recognition of their existence, recognition of their presence, and their rights to determine their creative and human destiny, and they paid a heavy price for this, and for the establishment of the policies of their vital field.

Women poets excel in poetry about motherhood, romance, homeland, family, and humanity, delving into emotions and values. On the other hand, men shine in poems of enthusiasm, chivalry, flirtation, values, homeland, and humanity.

The difference between their poetry lies not in creativity; both female and male poets are equally creative. However, women’s romantic poetry is vivid, while men’s is more direct. Women tend to have limited experiences with enthusiasm, whereas men navigate battles, challenges, anger, and intensity, which enhances the masculinity of their poetry and gives it wider recognition. When we consider men’s freedom and control over areas like administration, governance, and media, they use these resources to reinforce their roles with a determined and explicit presence.

The field of cultural authority was crowded with prohibitions and taboos of all kinds, and the woman’s voice was struggling between life and death, until it proved its right to exist, and created forms of residence in it with merit. Nowadays, the voice of women writers imposes itself on the literary scene with boldness, strength, and efficiency. Surprisingly, it was the man who supported her and opened the doors of poetry arenas, magazines, and festivals to participate in, with her poetry and publish it as well, as more than 90% of publishers are men. This, in fact, explains the increasing number of women poets and writers in the field of creative writing.

© Dr. Salwa Gouda

Salwa Gouda is an Egyptian literary translator, critic, and academic at the English Language and Literature Department at Ain-Shams University. She holds a PhD in English literature and criticism. She received her education at Ain-Shams University and California State University in San Bernardino. She has published several academic books, including “Lectures in English Poetry, and “Introduction to Modern Literary Criticism” and others. She has also contributed to the translation of “The Arab Encyclopedia for Pioneers,” which includes poets and their poetry, philosophers, historians, and men of letters, under the supervision of UNESCO. Additionally, her poetry translations have been published in various international magazines.

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