Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Suhayr al-Qalamawi: The Face of the Modern Egyptian Woman

Suhayr al-Qalamawi is known in Egypt as the first woman to achieve many academic and professional feats at a time when women were marginalised.

Suhayr al-Qalamawi
Suhayr al-Qalamawi. (2023, February 8). / Wikipedia.

Yousef Sharqawi

Suhayr al-Qalamawi is known in Egypt as the first woman to achieve many academic and professional feats. Her achievements are significant because they were achieved at a time when Egyptian women were scientifically, academically, and socially marginalised.

Al-Qalamawi was a student of Taha Hussein. She was also the teacher of enlightenment thinker Jaber Asfour, who presented his master’s thesis and PhD, The Artistic Image in the Critical and Rhetorical Heritage of the Arabs, under her supervision. Besides inspiring many Egyptian and Arab women, al-Qalamawi was an encyclopaedia of knowledge and literature.

The Modern Woman

Suhayr al-Qalamawi was born on 20 July 1911 in Cairo, where she spent her entire life. She benefited from her father’s library, who worked as a doctor in Tanta. She grew up during the 1919 revolution and was greatly influenced by the female Egyptian activists of the time, including feminist Huda Shaarawi and nationalist Safiya Zaghloul. Feminist activists at the time took the feminist debate to the streets to inspire a far-reaching movement.

In 1928, Suhayr al-Qalamawi graduated from the American College for Girls. Despite her aspirations to study medicine at Cairo University like her father, she was rejected for being a woman. With the support and encouragement of her father to specialise in Arabic literature instead, she became the first woman to attend Cairo University despite not speaking Arabic well.

Rashad Kamel says, “To master Arabic, her father, a prestigious surgeon, recited Qur’an and read Tafsir (exegesis) books with her. He also hired teachers to tutor her in Arabic, including grammar, rhetoric and literature.”

As Mahmoud Ali wrote in his book Suhayr al-Qalamawi, Icon of Arab Criticism, she soon became one of the first four girls to join the Faculty of Arts at the Egyptian University (Cairo University) in 1929,

Out of 14 students, al-Qalamawi was the only female student in the Arabic Language Department.

Ihab al-Mallah wrote about al-Qalamawi attending university, “Her father sought assistance from Taha Hussein, a highly esteemed professor in the Department of Arabic Language at the Faculty of Arts, to address the issue of her university admission. Hussein, however, persuaded her to join his department instead. It seems that his personality had charmed the girl. She considered him a second father, teacher, supervisor and role model. In her, he saw the Egyptian woman intellectuals had dreamed of since Qasim Amin published The New Woman in 1900.”

Al-Qalamawi graduated from the Arabic Department at the top of her class. During her studies, she wrote for magazines such as al-Lata’if al-Mosawwara, al-Arousa wa al-Hilal, Apollo and Arrissalah. Taha Hussein appointed her assistant editor-in-chief of Cairo University Journal in 1932. She was the first woman to receive a permit to practice journalism in Egypt.

At the start of Egyptian Radio in 1934, al-Qalamawi was chosen to host a talk every Tuesday. She received her first-ever paycheck of 150 piasters for her work as the supervisor of the radio’s magazine. Taha Hussein assigned her to supervise the literature and women’s pages in the al-Wadi newspaper he bought. The well-known thinker Ahmed Amin offered her to write three articles in Arrissalah Magazine for five pounds, but she refused because, as she said, “I don’t want to be a writer for hire yet.”

Al-Qalamawi became the first Egyptian woman to obtain a master’s degree. Her thesis was on Kharijite literature during the Umayyad dynasty. Prior, she had become the first female lecturer at Cairo University in 1936.

In 1941, al-Qalamawi was the first woman to receive a prize from the Arabic Language Academy and the first woman to obtain a PhD in Egypt through her One Thousand and One Nights thesis.

Taha Hussein introduced her paper by saying, “This is an accomplished thesis in the Faculty of Arts at Cairo University. Its ingenuity comes from the author herself. It is Suhayr al-Qalamawi, after all. She is famous for My Grandmother’s Tales, her radio segments and other newspaper publications.”

Al-Qalamawi continued her career and became the head of the Arabic language department at Cairo University from 1958 to 1967. She became president of the first meeting for folkloric arts in 1961 and formed a committee for female Palestinian students to highlight her interest in the Palestinian cause.

In 1967 al-Qalamawi became the first woman to head the General Egyptian Book Organization. In the same year, she assumed the presidency of the Egyptian Feminist Union and the Egyptian General Authority for Cinema, Theatre and Music. Her publication New Works introduced Ahmed Fouad Negm‘s first collection, Pictures from Life and Prison, and fifty other promising young men to the public.

In 1968, she became president of the Children’s Culture Society. She also founded the first book fair in the Middle East, the Cairo International Book Fair. From 1982 to 1985, she was head of the Censorship Authority.

The Tales of al-Qalamawi

Suhayr al-Qalamawi said the following about My Grandmother’s Tales:

In 1935, I wrote a story for the al-Wadi newspaper ‘A Kind Nation and the Doves’ where I remember my days with my grandfather. When my father passed away, my mentor, Taha Hussein, advised me to bury my sorrows by writing: “Why don’t you write other stories and publish them as a book?” This is how My Grandmother’s Tales was born, exploring the deep gap between my generation and my predecessors’. I printed 4000 copies at my own expense in the Committee of Authorship, Translation and Publishing. My mentor said, “You are crazy. I, Taha Hussein, print only 3000!” I said, “People read your works because you are an accomplished writer, and so am I; plus, I am a woman, and this twist will attract readers.” The book sold only 900 copies, and when the war broke out, it disappeared from stores because its elegant cover was essential for the manufacture of block notes; it was made of fortified paper that was not available in the market.

In My Grandmother’s Tales, al-Qalamawi analyses the social role of women as preservers and renewers of societal history through oral storytelling. The work details a grandmother sharing stories from her past with her granddaughter. According to Mohamed Abdel-Rahman, each story criticises society from the perspective of wartime civilians. The book was the first work to be published by a woman in Egypt.

Al-Qalamawi went on to write numerous other books: The Devils Play and Dance, Then the Sun Set, On Literary Criticism, Mimesis in Literature and The World in a Book. She translated many books, including Stories of China by Pearl Buck, My Ántonia, Plato’s Ion Dialogue and ten plays by Shakespeare, in addition to twenty books in the Thousand-Book Project. Her research includes The Woman of al-Tahtawi and The Crisis of Poetry.

Critique Legacy

The General Egyptian Book Organization has republished new editions of al-Qalamawi’s complete works: On Literary Criticism and Mimesis in Literature. According to Ihab al-Mallah, the former includes valuable lectures on literary criticism from the perspective of the New Criticism School, one of the 20th century’s most famous currents of criticism, which focused on the text and its aesthetics instead of its content and social significance.

Mimesis in Literature, first published in 1953, dealt with the earliest and most critical literary theories in the history of artistic philosophies and aesthetics: Aristotel’s Mimesis Theory. Al-Qalamawi’s book was one of the most important Arabic books on this theory, its foundations, its philosophical and intellectual pillars, and its impact on the developments of literary and critical schools of thought, from classicism to romanticism to realism.

As Suhayr put it: “A critic is not truly critical unless what they improve in their specialisation is equal to what they improve in other fields, and their mastery of Arabic knowledge equals that of their non-Arabic counterparts.”

Al-Qalamawi taught many famous Egyptian writers, including Salah Abdel-Sabour, Abd al-Munim Tallimah, Rajaa al-Naqqash and Jaber Asfour. Her work extended to radio and politics, where she became a member of parliament in 1979. Throughout her career she received numerous accolades. She was a prominent Egyptian literary and political figure who shaped Arab writing and culture through her works and her contribution to the feminist movement.

Women’s Issues, Philosophies and Politics

Al-Qalamawi significantly influenced Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi who wrote about her in her books:

I was a child in primary school when I heard her voice on the radio, a strong voice, similar to that of Umm Kulthum, except she did not sing, but spoke about literature, culture and women’s education. When I went to university, I asked about her, and they said that she was in the Faculty of Arts, and I was in the Faculty of Medicine. I did not know how to reach her, she was a well-known professor, and I was young. I graduated from medicine but practised literature. I published short stories, and my first long novel, Memoirs of a Doctor, was published in Rose al-Yusuf. One day the phone rang, and the strong voice I had heard on the radio 20 years ago spoke to me: “I am Suhayr al-Qalamawi. I read your novel, and I liked it. Keep writing, Nawal.”

Al-Qalamawi paved the way for Egyptian women to defend their right to learn and teach and their fundamental right to life.

According to El Saadawi, however, the feminist cultural movement remains marginal in Egypt: “It is a movement dominated by men, history and political power. Partisan conflicts dominate and tend to deprioritise women’s issues. As a result, the works of many female Egyptian pioneers have disappeared in their lives and after their death.”

She added, “The history of Suhayr al-Qalamawi and her work is relatively unknown to the newer generations; I fear that she will completely disappear as happened to many other women; the women’s movement is targeted under the pretence of religion or politics, and the number of female historians is so few, most of them are busy writing about male pioneers.”

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