SOAS University of London

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

Arabic Women's Writing: Theories and Practices

Module Code:
Taught in:
Full Year


Advanced level of Arabic reading proficiency.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

At the end of the course, a student should be able to demonstrate…
• Analyse Arabic texts, both primary and secondary, in terms that are language- and gender-specific
• Situate Arabic women’s writing in Arabic literary history, contextualising this tradition with respect to other literary cultures
• Theorise correspondences between literary texts as well as extra-textual historical and cultural phenomena
• Engage with both English and Arabic-language literary theory and criticism in a comparative fashion
• Synthesise evidence from primary and secondary readings in the formation of an original argument, achieving a balance between theoretical concerns and philological matters
• Exercise time management in the conception, formulation, substantiation and revision of an argument


This module will be taught over 20 weeks with a 1-hour lecture and a 1-hour seminar per week.

Scope and syllabus

The syllabus will typically be divided into 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 course, 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 course 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

An essay of 2,000 words to be submitted on Friday, week 7, term 2 (20%); an essay of 3,000 words to be submitted on Friday, week 1, term 3 (30%); 2 x 20 minute oral presentations (40%); one textual analysis of 1,000 words (10%).

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: AUC Press, 2008).
  • Beth Baron, The Women’s Awakening in Egypt (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).
  • Rashida Bin Mas‘ud, al-Mar’a wa-l-kitaba: su’al al-khususiyya /balaghat al-ikhtilaf (Casblanca: Ifriqiyya al-Sharq, 1994).
  • Raja’ Bin Salama, Bunyan al-fuhula: abhath fi l-mudhakkar wa-l-mu’annath (Tunis: Dar al-Ma‘rifa li-l-Nashr, 2006).
  • 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).
  • Hoda Elsadda [Huda al-Sadda], Zaman al-nisa’ wa-l-dhakira al-badila (Cairo: Women and Memory Forum, 1998).
  • 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).
  • ‘Abdullah Muhammad Ghadhdhami, al-Mar’a wa-l-lugha, 2nd printing (Casablanca: al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-‘Arabi, 1997).
  • 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).
  • ‘Abd al-Majid Jahfa, Satwat al-nahar wa-sihr al-layl: al-fuhula wa-ma yuwaziha fi l-tasawwur al-‘Arabi (Casablanca: Dar Tubqal, 1996).
  • 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).
  • Nazik al-Mala’ika, Qadaya al-shi‘r al-mu‘asir (Beirut: Dar al-‘Ilm li-l-Malayin,1981).
  • Fedwa Malti-Douglas, Woman’s Body, Woman’s Word: Gender and Discourse in Arabo-Islamic Writing (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1991).
  • Suaad A. al-Mana [Su‘ad ‘Abd al-‘Aziz al-Mani‘], ‘al-Shi‘r wa-l-naqd wa-l-mar’a’, Fusul 13.3 (1994), 317-38.
  • 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