SOAS University of London

Department of the Languages and Cultures of the Near and Middle East

Arabic Womens' Writing

Module Code:
Module Not Running 2017/2018
Year of study:
Year 4
Taught in:
Full Year

This module explores ancient and modern Arabic women’s writing through the prisms of Arabic literary criticism and feminist theory.  In the realm of Classical Arabic literature, the module will lead students through an array of pre-modern textual genres including the pre-Islamic elegy, Umayyad and Abbasid love poetry and Andalusian strophic verse, as well as prose forms such as speeches, letters and hagiography.  Then, in the modern domain, the module will survey women’s contributions to free verse, the essay, autobiographical writing, the short story and the novel. Theoretical and critical approaches will focus on grammatical gender, sexualised imagery, women’s association with the oral, the interplay of literature and folklore, and structures of narrative voice.  The module will be taught through weekly interactive lectures with a high degree of student input.  Each week students will be expected to prepare brief comments on their readings in order to contribute effectively to class discussions.


Successful completion of the year abroad programme, or equivalent knowledge of Arabic.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of the module, a student should be able to demonstrate the ability to: 

  • Analyse Arabic primary texts in terms that are language- and gender-specific
  • Situate Arabic women’s writing in Arabic literary history
  • Theorise correspondences between literary texts
  • Engage with English-language literary theory
  • Synthesise evidence from primary and secondary readings in the formation of an original argument
  • Exercise time management in the formulation and substantiation of an argument


Total of 20 weeks teaching with 2 hours classroom contact per week consisting of a 1 hour lecture and a 1 hour tutorial.

Scope and syllabus

This module is aimed at BA Arabic students returning from their year abroad who have a high degree of reading fluency and are able to engage in close readings of Arabic texts.  Most of the secondary literature will be in English, but extracts from Arabic-language theory and criticism will also be assigned. The syllabus will typically cover the following thematic units:

Elegy and the ‘Poetess-Persona’

This unit will discuss the emergence of the woman poet as mourner in pre-literate pre-Islamic Arabic verbal culture and question its premises and assumptions through interpretations of selective elegies by poets such as al-Khansa’ and Layla al-Akhyaliyya.  The mournful stance of the female poet will be assayed against the nostalgia and machismo that characterise much of the male-authored poetic canon.

Gendered Interlocutions

In this unit we will consider the ways in which women’s verse—and particularly amorous and satirical verse—occurs in a kind of dialogue with men’s, both insofar as their poems are composed in a call-and-response mode and also as women’s poetic voices are embedded in prose narratives which are often folkloric in nature.  Verses attributed to Fadl al-Sha‘ira, ‘Ulayya Bint  al-Mahdi, Nazhun, and various heroines of the so-called ‘Udhri love stories will be studied in this regard.

Sacred Herstories

An examination of the figure of the female soothsayer with her bits of wisdom as well as the more elusive character of the katiba (or scribe) will introduce this unit on prose genres, where we will study speeches and letters as well as hadith literature.  Prominent women from early Islamic history feature centrally here, as we will read texts by Fatima al-Zahra’ and ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr.  Hagiographical writing by the 16th-century mystic and scholar ‘A’isha al-Ba ‘uniyya may also be explored.

Textual Formulations of the Early Modern Women’s Movement

In this section of the module, students will read pioneering texts from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, exploring women’s forays into poetry and learning about prose forms characteristic of this period, such as the narrative essay.  The unit will feature writers such as ‘A’isha Taymur, Malak Hifni Nasif, and Mayy Ziyada and will concentrate on articulations of women’s rights and conceptualisations of women’s authority.

Feminism and Free Verse

This part of the module will focus on women poets who emerged in the mid-20th century, such as Fadwa Tuqan, Salma Jayyusi and Nazik al-Mala’ika and explore their poetic, contributions to what is known as the free verse movement, and their theoretical and critical formulations of woman’s poetic voice.

Women Writers and Narrative Voice

Under this theme students will engage with fictional and autobiographical genres with respect to their narrative structures and especially their construction of the voices of their narrators.  Featured writers may include Suhayr al-Qalamawi, Latifa Zayyat, Radwa Ashur, Hanan al-Shaykh, and Latifa Baqa.

Method of assessment

A textual analysis to be submitted on day 5, week 10, term 1 (20%); an essay of 2,000 words to be submitted on day 5, week 7, term 2 (30%); an essay of 2,000 words to be submitted on day 5, week 1, term 3 (30%); an oral presentation of 15 minutes (20%).

Suggested reading

  • Kamal Abdel-Malek and Wael Hallaq (eds), Tradition, Modernity and Postmodernity in Arabic Literature (Leiden: Brill, 200).
  • Lila Abu Lughod (ed), Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).
  • Nadje Sadig Al-Ali, Gender Writing/Writing Gender (Cairo: AUC Press, 1994).
  • Roger Allen et al (eds), Love and Sexuality in Modern Arabic Literature (London: Saqi, 1995).
  • Radwa Ashour et al (eds), Arab Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide, 1873-1999 (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2008).
  • Beth Baron, The Women’s Awakening in Egypt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).
  • Marilyn Booth, May her Likes be Multiplied: Biography and Gender Politics in Egypt (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).
  • Hoda Elsadda, Gender, Nation, and the Arabic Novel: Egypt, 1892-2008 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012).
  • Fadia Faqir (ed), In the House of Silence: Autobiographical Essays by Arab Women Writers (Reading: Garnet, 1998).
  • Shoshana Felman, What does a Woman Want?  Reading and Sexual Difference (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).
  • Marlé Hammond, Beyond Elegy: Classical Arabic Women’s Poetry in Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  • Luce Irigaray, Je, Tu, Nous: Toward a Culture of Difference, trans. Alison Martin (New York: Routledge, 1993).
  • Suad Joseph et al (eds), Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures, vol. 1: Methodologies, Paradigms and Sources (Leiden: Brill, 2003).
  • Julia Kristeva, The Kristeva Reader, ed. Toril Moi (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986).
  • Susan Sniader Lanser, Fictions of Authority: Women Writers and Narrative Voice (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992).
  • Lisa Suhair Majaj et al (eds), Intersections: Gender, Nation and Community in Arab Women’s Novels (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002).
  • Fedwa Malti-Douglas, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991).
  • Vladimir Propp, Theory and History of Folklore, trans. Ariadna Y. Martin and Richard P. Martin, ed. Anatoly Lieberman (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
  • Elaine Showalter (ed), The New Feminist Criticism (New York: Pantheon, 1985).
  • Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry and the Poetics of Ritual (Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univesrity Press, 1993).
  • Joseph T.  Zeidan, Arab Women Novelists: the Formative Years and Beyond (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995).


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules