"عقل النساء بين أفخاذهن"... والنار ملتهبة في ألسنتهن
In his book “The Logic Behind Forbidding Women from Writing”, Khaireddine Nu’man Bin Abi al-Thanaa’ al-Alousi writes, “As for teaching women how to read and write; God forbid, for I see no greater harm to them. They are hard-wired to treachery, and their possession of this ability will be the greatest cause of evil and degradation.” The reasoning behind Abi al-Thanaa’s claim is that writing will supposedly allow women to contact their lovers. Thus, it is seduction and a means for their ‘bodily needs’, rather than a means of intellectual enlightenment as with men. Similarly, in his book “The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight”, Sheikh Muhammad al-Nefzawi tells a parable in which a wise woman is asked where the mind of women lies — to which she replies, “between their thighs.”
Sheikh Muhammad al-Nefzawi — in his book “The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight” — tells a parable in which a wise woman is asked where the mind of women lies and she replied: “Between their thighs.”
Over the years, these types of stories and narratives shaped the mentalities of entire civilizations of women. A woman’s sex became her mind and sole focus. This wasn’t an intrinsic part of her character, but a bodily trait forcibly projected on it; nothing a woman does can escape the realm of her gender. Yet, the claims of al-Alousi and al-Nefzawi are not merely a transgression on women, but also on men, for their manliness becomes measured by the size of their members because it pleases the woman and quenches or satiates her desire.
These authors preach the best ways for men to deal with their women, giving them advice on how to live with these utterly ‘unreasonable creatures.’ Al-Alousi, for instance, declares to men, “a smart man leaves his wife in a state of ignorance and blindness, for it is better and safer for them.”
It does not escape the reader that these recommendations are not issued in fear of women’s seduction; rather, they come out of anxiety over the empowerment of women by passing on knowledge to them. Constructing female identity as such is the product of an entire culture trying to paint the female figure as sexually driven to seduce men. It denies women their mental capabilities to be viewed only as sensual and sexual beings, while men do their thinking for them. Thus, language became masculinized, and a woman using her intellect became perverse and undesirable. Through jokes and hearsay, these misogynistic beliefs turned into a culture widespread and entrenched in societal values today — making such books like “The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight” remain in print and circulation today!
A smart man leaves his wife in a state of ignorance and blindness, for it is better and safer for her
As such, the woman’s body became weaponized against her. Her mind was discounted and ascribed to her sex, while men uphold the values of reason and intellect and speak in her stead. Her voice and language became questioned, which is why, it is said that during the Middle Ages in Europe, a strongly-vocal woman (one who uses her words and reason to argue and persuade) was tied to a chair by men of authority and repeatedly dunked into the river’s waters in order to ‘put out’ the fire raging in her tongue. Otherwise, she would be trapped in a metal cap with a mask-like extension meant to seal her mouth.
And while a woman’s inaptitude to mental reasoning was considered intrinsic to her character and composition, men’s abilities were observed in the arts, sciences, and literature. Working simultaneously on two parallel fronts, the first saw women’s inadequacies established in misogynistic books about their lack of knowledge in jokes and linguistic cunning; while the second manifested in how intellect and adroitness were designated solely to men. This reached the extent of stigmatizing and questioning having a female writer discussing the sciences the way she would discuss her body: How would she do that when it has been man’s mission for hundreds of years?
But a Woman Writes!
Scholars and academics like al-Alousi and al-Nefzawi consider women to be passive creatures; they cannot be active, be it in writing, sex, or life. When she speaks, she is rude and sour-tongued; if she appears smart, argumentative or a clever writer, she is cunning and manlike. When she’s undeniably accomplished, she is questioned and suspected. Ibn Hazm’s sentence is often revoked in different contexts today; in his book “The Ring of the Dove”, he writes, “unoccupied with anything but sex, consummation, and its reasons.” So, how can women be accomplished when all they think of all day is sex?
Despite “The Ring of the Dove” being considered one of the books defending women’s status, and although Ibn Hazm had acknowledged the importance of women in his life by saying, “I grew up in their arms and was nurtured by their bosoms… They taught me the Qur’an and read me poetry and trained my penmanship.” Yet, he simultaneously questions their importance in the same paragraph — stating that he was raised to second-guess women: “this stems from the extreme envy planted in [the woman], and my mistrust and reservations were thus nurtured.” Both these excerpts are from his book “The Ring of the Dove”.
How can women be accomplished when all they think of all day is sex?
While times are changing and more female writers are raising their voices and fighting erasure — and it’s getting harder to overlook their accomplishments — the two genders have undergone changes, albeit minimal. Many men have been able to reconstruct their lives around and in tandem with female authors. Yet, the centuries-long communal culture perpetuates negative tropes about women at every turn — be it consciously or accidentally.
When the Body Becomes an Accusation
Despite calls for the freedom and rights of women to authorship, the charge of the body remains inevitably tied to them. As per Ibn Hazm, ‘this [female] novelist is successful because a man writes for her’, and ‘that one offers or makes use of her body to gain favor and publish books’, while ‘this one is only famous because of her beauty’. There are no distinctions made between women’s brains and their crotches, according to the authors and scholars of numerous books and volumes. It might seem absurd today to say, “Don’t you know that women’s numen is their sex?!” Yet, writers and publications, alike, can easily accuse accomplished female authors of selling their bodies in order to obtain success.
These obstacles stem from a person’s gender and the fact that women are the most marginalized. Abbas Akkad, for one, considers the time we are living in as more supportive of and maybe even biased towards women, while he writes of them critically. Furthermore, he believes societal and parlor values supersede literary values and competencies in this regard. According to Akkad, he (as a male writer) faces similar challenges to a female writer in her cultural and societal environment.
Discrediting women’s struggle arises from men’s desire to preserve the spaces they have been accustomed and conditioned to occupy throughout the ages. A female presence in these spaces wreaks havoc in man’s cultural echelon — as though a woman would steal what was previously his. Thus, men are driven to undermine her talent in any means possible, unless she is co-opted and taken under his wing; at which point she is constructed as the new product of masculinity. And the man (as her mentor), takes all the credit for her success, and for rescuing her from the dark ages, gently holding her hand and facilitating her entry to this dangerous and alien world, “the world of writers”.
Doubting Women’s Creativity and Prowess
In “How to Suppress Women's Writing” by Joanna Russ, the opening quotation on the book cover embodies the predicament of female authors and the second-guessing of their work:
“She didn't write this work. (But if it's clear she did the deed…)
She wrote it, but she shouldn't have. (It's political, sexual, masculine, feminist!)
She wrote it, but just look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women!)
She wrote it, but she wrote only one work from it. (“Jane Eyre, poor dear, that's all she ever has…”)
She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist, and her work isn't serious art. (It's a thrilling story, a romance, a children's book. It’s sci-fi!)
She wrote it, but she had help (Robert Browning, Branwell Brontȅ. It was written by her “masculine side”)
She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard’s help…)
She wrote it, but …”
Russ uses witty sarcasm to explain the methods behind the suppression of women’s writing, or not crediting them with their own success, and even the undermining of their works’ literary value. Despite being nearly 30 years old, her book remains relevant and applicable today.
Russ opens her text with the “Prohibitions,” such as not educating women, low wages, class divisions and discrimination, and the constant fragmentation of attention that results from duties to family, house, children, and caring for others. Additionally, ‘writing’ is presented as antithetical to femininity, as it may render a woman unattractive or undesirable to men. Russ also assembles the ways women’s literary contributions are undermined, such as denying their creativity and skill, questioning it, and wrongfully categorizing it as perversion. She draws on the works of several female authors, such as American poet Anne Sexton, who was accused of sleeping with her publisher in order to release her book!
Moreover, another mode of trivializing a woman’s work when it comes to a successful piece of literature is to repeatedly assert that a normal woman could not have written it. Rather, she would have had to be neurotic or insane. There seems to be a never-ending cacophony of reasons to undermine women’s work. For instance, British novelist and Nobel Prize winner Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul — known disparager of women’s literary labor — claims that a woman’s writing is ‘unmatched’ or ‘unequal’ to his own, because of her “sentimentality [and] narrow view of the world.” Naipul justifies his views by asserting that a woman ‘is not the complete master of her house, so she cannot possibly be the same in her writing too’!
Forgotten Authors... Great Writers
It is not surprising, after all this marginalization and trivialization of female literary contribution, that women have been caught in the frays of hypermasculinity and withdrawing under a macho industry on the one hand, and searching for a female writer on the other. Acclaimed author May Ziadeh says, “If a woman truly loves herself, she becomes father, mother, sister, friend, and guide to herself. She would assert her property with her work and ensure her independence by her hand.” Yet, May herself contradicts her own assertions through writing. By creating defeated female protagonists who revert to the male character after failing to accomplish their goals, May negates her own anti-patriarchal rhetoric.
Since sex was women’s only brainpower for centuries, the battle of female writers is a long one — at the forefront of which lies the innovation of a new language and imagination of their own in order to create harmony, not friction with men.
Women’s entry into the realm of literature was not easy and has been fraught with difficulties. The ‘pen’ is a man’s tool — a poisonous serpent, as Abdullah al-Ghatham writes. Throughout the millennia, man has been known to tame it, and woman was no more than a subject of writing and an object for the desire of writers and poets. Thus, today we have a ‘masculinized language’ that — in all its nouns and pronouns — conceals layers of aversion to the female presence. It is no coincidence, then, that a female judge or representative in Arabic are called ‘qadiyah’ (the feminine form of ‘judge,’ also meaning ‘executioner’ or ‘deadly’) or ‘naa’ibah’ (the feminine form of ‘representative,’ also meaning ‘disaster’ or ‘calamity’) respectively.
Furthermore, even women reaching success is contested. For instance, one recalls the controversy surrounding American essayist and 2020’s Nobel Prize winner in Literature, Louise Glück. Glück, who writes about family and her relationship with her husband and children, was the target of campaigns questioning the literary merit of her work. How can a woman writing about the home win over men writing about human tragedy and wars? Classical literature tells us that the highest standards of its art lies in stories of human tragedy. But isn’t it better to expand our notions of the topics that are considered ‘high literature’? Aren’t the home and the family subjects that pertain to the human throughout his/her entire life too?
Due to a long history of stigmatizing women’s literary labor and painting them as ignorant and regressive, many female authors resorted to adopting male pseudonyms. Mary Ann Evans, for instance, is widely known by her pen name George Eliot. What Mary did was a confirmation of the superior status of male authorship and an added marginalization of other female authors who were looking to publish their work under their true identity. Evans also resorted to her pen name to evade a sexual scandal following her elopement with George Henry Louis, who was a married man. According to Rosemarie Bodenheimer, who penned Eliot’s biography, Evans adopted a pen name because she wanted her work to be judged without “the sexual scandal” of her status as a “fallen woman” attached.
The long history of exclusion, marginalization, and pseudonym-adoption has virtually erased all traces of female writers and poets. Books were lost and forgotten, or even went by unnoticed at times. For women to make a true comeback into the realm of literature, it is not enough to understand the historical and societal context of female authorship. Rather, we must scour through history to reclaim the contributions of female writers. This process is no less important than women’s writing itself, leading several organizations and institutions, like UK-based publisher Persephone Books for example, to begin this undertaking. Persephone Books has been reprinting forgotten and neglected books, mostly by women writers from the mid-20th century up untill today.
So does American author and critic Anne Boyd Rioux, who is devoted to uncovering the stories of forgotten women writers and fostering renewed appreciation for their forgotten or undervalued works. She has reclaimed seminal and provocative works by forgotten American women such as writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, who was a famous author in her day, but was later marginalized with the rise of a hypermasculine literary landscape in America.
Since sex has been considered women’s sole focus and brainpower for centuries, and perhaps will remain so for a long time, the battle of female writers is a long one. At the forefront of their struggle lies the innovation of a new language and imagination specifically of their own, in order to create harmony, not friction with men.”