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Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

May Ziadeh: Pioneer of Feminism and Writing

may ziadeh
Pictures of May Ziadeh. Source: Adnan Masoud

Youssef Sharqawi

To be a pioneer in writing and feminism, May Ziadeh kept a distance from the world. She neither wanted to belong to an abstract thought nor a group to defend. All she wanted was to empty herself from the whole world and belong to herself.

The approach of Ziadeh influenced the feminist movement greatly. It made this movement more concrete. In addition, her approach influenced writing, making it more persuasive and has more impact on society. May Ziadeh did not care for direct, passive or submissive writing. Instead, she wanted to use a different linguistic representation of women that suits their nature. She needed a different writing style that fulfils her objective: breaking down the prevailing cultural and traditional writings conditions.

May Ziadeh sarcastically criticized these conditions. Being was aware of them helped her to refuse to be another victim of these conditions. However, Ziadeh did not emotionally react against these conditions. Therefore, she did not use complaining writings centred around the defeated female self. In this context, it is worthy to note that Ziadeh used to say: “I am writing this, laughing while biting down my forefinger.”

Nowadays, we still feel the impact of May Ziadeh, as she made the feminist movement distinctive. Through her writing style, Ziadeh empowered feminism. She effectively discussed an old-fashioned society that diminishes culture and weakens critical sense in favour of a consensus that only leads to degradation and regression. As Ziadeh says, the woman gave in to her wounds and her conditions. In her opinion, women wanted the status quo to remain to provide them with the comfort of complaining and bringing attention to themselves. However, Ziadeh insists that following such an approach would keep the conditions as they are. Consequently, this approach would keep women fragile and ineffective. In this case, words will never turn into actions.

May was one of the few that could integrate action with writing. She wanted to create an activity that leads to empowering women and changing their status quo and personality. That mission was also a part of May Ziadeh’s daily routine. Ziadeh attended political trials to convey her vision to public opinion. Along with the lectures and speeches in The East Club, Young Egypt party and the American University in Cairo, Ziadeh brought together the intellectuals and pioneers of the Egyptian Renaissance and called them to do their best to lift the oppression of women.

At the forefront of the feminist movement

May Ziadeh is considered one of the most prominent pioneers and figures of the literary renaissance in the history of Arab feminist literature. She was born in Nazareth in Palestine in 1882 to a Lebanese father and a Palestinian mother then the family moved to settle in Egypt.

There, Ziadeh started her journey when female writings were scarce. She was all about women’s issues, so she got to know the pioneers of the feminist movement in Egypt, such as Huda Sharawi. Being one of the pioneers in actual critical writings about feminism, Ziadeh was the first to use the term “feminism cause”.

May Ziadeh came to realize that women have to liberate themselves. Otherwise, they would fall into a different kind of oppression. During a lecture titled “The Purpose of Life” at the Young Egypt party, Ziadeh said: “Qasim Amin shouted at the people to guide them. Nevertheless, he knew that the liberation of women is in their hands more than in the hands of men.”

For May Ziadeh, Women’s freedom consists of two fundamental elements: education and work, but “women drowning in slavery bring up a generation of enslaved women”. Ziadeh referred to an entire society still reluctant to make room for female writers, thinkers, or innovators. That reluctance depends on putting women under a watchful eye more than men.

In the preface of her book Sawaneh Fatat (Platters of Crumbs), May Ziadeh said that “some thinkers, especially those who believed themselves to be thinkers, have exaggerated in separating women from mankind, which they almost made exclusive for man”. She said that to assert that women are a part of “the comprehensive humanity, and every deficiency in them is a part of the common human impotence, and every trace of their intelligence is one of the aspects of the general human thought.”

In her book al-Mosawat (Equality), May Ziadeh critiqued the socialist discourse because it simplifies the notion of equality. She addressed this notion by passing through several terms and authoritarian approaches. After referring to social classes, she descended towards aristocracy. Later, Ziadeh discussed the phenomena of slavery and democracy. She also refuted socialism in its peaceful and revolutionary forms. She did that by dealing with the term anarchism and its European history.

May presented her famous feminist trilogy Aʼishah Taymur, Bahithat al-Badiyah and Warda al-Yaziji, about three famous women who were also pioneers in the Renaissance.

may ziadeh
A photo for the statue of May Ziadeh in Shatul. RAMZI HAIDAR/ AFP

The Wounded Arab Name

In the preface of his book “May Ziadeh – al-Ahram Articles”, Azmi Abdulwahab gives her the title “the Wounded Arab Name”. According to Abdulwahab, “she was an Arab since birth and until death, with all that the past holds. She lived in an Arab world that has “a legacy and a history of subjugating women just because they are women.”

May Ziadeh lived with a wounded name and a wounded identity. Until she passed away, she kept asking: “Where is my homeland?” She lived with people who told her: “You are not one of us because you are from another sect.” Others told her: “You are not one of us because you are from another gender.” Therefore, Ziadeh said: “I was born in a country. My father is from one country. My mother is from another country. Spirits of mine travel from country to country. To which of these countries do I belong? And which of these countries am I defending?”

These existential crises Ziadeh suffered led her later on to an unfair fate. One time, she wrote: “I am a lonely human, suffering in silence. No hand reaches me from the forest of hands that used to stay up under the moonlight. I write my love letters on (flowers petals), or I compose poems and articles praising my intelligence and brilliance.”

Many framed May Ziadeh and her visions in the image of a woman whom men loved. This framing was created by the same pioneers of the Egyptian Renaissance who frequently used to visit her literary salon every Tuesday. May Ziadeh’s significance to this day was limited to her relationship with the Lebanese writer Gibran Khalil Gibran. This is a kind of siege imposed by society on women, especially its intellectuals, which sees women’s real significance through their relationship with men.

Some of who welcomed May Ziadeh and admired her literature were writers known in the Egyptian Renaissance era. The list includes, and others, Taha Hussein, Abbas Mahmoud al-Aqqad, Mostafa Saadeq Al-Rafe’ie. Those writers admired Ziadeh because she was an educated woman who was good at writing. In other words, they did not praise her because she was a writer in the first place. Their admiration was like “patting on the shoulder” and encouragement rather than acknowledging her excellence and rivalry with them.

Concerning this ambiguous encouragement, Ghada Al-Samman said: This sycophant crowd is a lonely presence. As a clever and delicate person, May Ziadeh was for sure aware of the pain of underestimating her creativity as a writer. Most of those around praised her gender before her creativity. Such an admiration underestimates her creativity. The free verbal praises do not show that evasive denial. Instead, the few moments where people wrote in critical honesty about her illustrate that denial.”

The Arab literary critique in Ziadeh’s era and beyond was affected by advanced literary critique movements and approaches. However, Writer Suad Alenzi points out that the profiling nature of studies dealing with May Ziadeh is astonishing. Interestingly, these studies impressionistically minimized the impact of her efforts. The critique negligence for her books and intellectual efforts exposes the untold part of this story. Ziadeh has never been approached, intentionally and unintentionally, from a critique point of view in a way that befits her achievements.

Virginia Woolf and May Ziadeh

May Ziadeh and Virginia Woolf lived in the same period, with all its political circumstances, world wars, and major social and economic changes at the time, whether in the United Kingdom or Egypt.

In her book “Women in Virginia Woolf’s Room”, Suad Alenzi points out that both the English writer and the Lebanese-Egyptian one researched the contradictions of masculine culture. Both rationally critiqued these contradictions. They clarified the masculine biases against women, in addition to making sharp comparisons and marking paradoxes produced by the ideas of philosophers.

Virginia Woolf criticized the dominating patriarchal culture, which was dominant in the 18th century. That dominance relied on some customs such as preventing women from enrolling in universities and participating in public meetings in cafes and intellectual discussions that were taking place at the time. Likewise, Ziadeh was extremely active in this domain, whether by writing, translating, publishing articles, or participating in lectures. She did that in addition to her literary salon in Cairo, which was a remarkable cultural phenomenon at that time. In addition to her feminist commitment, Ziadeh was also socially and politically committed, which at the time was manifested in boycotting artistic products and such of anti-Semitic and anti-human values countries.

“One can compare between Virginia Woolf and May Ziadeh. On the one hand, Virginia Woolf has officially lost her sanity. However, her society, husband and family supported her until her condition improved. After her rehabilitation, Woolf could produce her literary masterpieces. On the other hand, May Ziadeh, who was completely sane and used to provide the best literary masterpieces in her forties, was sent to a mental hospital. She was burdened with sadness and loss when her family confined her. That killed what left of her feelings, dignity and pride, by which she lived her entire life defending and preserving them. This comparison is a paradox revealing the crisis of two worlds: a developed and advanced one that respects its women and another world that pushes women to the depths of misery. That other world forces women to live in the labyrinths of madness, the perils of cruelty, injustice and tyranny.”

After the death of May Ziadeh’s parents and the man she loved, she returned to Lebanon. Her family admitted her to a mental hospital. No one cared about her absence until the press intervened, so she left and returned to Egypt. However, people turned away from her, and when she died in 1941, only three people came to her funeral: Ahmed Lutfi al-Sayed, Khalil Mutran and Antoine Gemayel.

May Ziadeh left a wish in her diary: “After my death, I hope that someone will do me justice and find the sincerity and honesty contained in my small writings.” However, did her wish come true as a writer and thinker whose impact is still present today? It does not seem so. Her image has been reduced to “the woman whom men loved”, while she fought against that all her life because “a woman is a woman before she is a beauty.”

Sources:

  1. Al-Bitar, K., May Ziadeh: Jasmine of Renaissance and Freedom, Syrian General Authority for Books, 2012 (Arabic version).
  2. Ghazi, M.K., May Ziadeh: Her biography, Literature and Unpublished Papers. Arab Press Agency. 2015 (Arabic version).
  3. Kuzbari, S.A., May Ziadeh or the Tragedy of Genius. Nofal Foundation. 1987 (Arabic version).
  4. May Ziadeh: The Literature Butterfly, Aljazeera Documentary: (Arabic version).
  5. Ismael, S.M., Virginia Woolf Gets out of her Room to visit May Ziadeh in her Egyptian Salon. (Arabic version).
  6. Abdulhasan, A., Arab Feminism and Feminist Writings, Al Alam AlJadid. (Arabic version).
  7. AlBaze’i, S., May Ziadeh and Confronting the Feminist Writings. Al-Sharq Al Awsat. (Arabic version)

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