Eight Egyptian Female Writers You Should Check Out
By: Noureldin Mohamed/Arab America Contributing Writer
Literature in the Arab world is one of the most important aspects of the culture where writers and authors express their ideas, opinions, and values. Specifically, writing in Egypt is a popular way of expressing freedom to critical issues at home and abroad. Arab American Contributing Writer, Noureldin Mohamed, introduces 8 of the most notable Egyptian female writers till date.
AHDAF SOUEIF(1950- )
Named one of Egypt’s “most talented female writers” by Harper’s Magazine, Ahdaf Soueif has received wide critical acclaim since she published her first novel in 1993, In The Eye of the Sun(1992). She studied for a Ph.D. in linguistics at Lancaster. Her second novel, The Map of Love(1999), reached global fame, having been translated into 21 languages and selling over one million copies worldwide. The novel was also shortlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize. Soueif writes primarily in English, but her Arabic-speaking readers say they can hear the Arabic through the English. She translated Mourid Barghouti’s I Saw Ramallah (with a foreword by Edward Said) from Arabic into English. In 2008 she initiated the first Palestine Festival of Literature, of which she is the Founding Chair. In 2020 Soueif was arrested for demanding the release of political prisoners during the COVID-19 pandemic in Egypt. Her books I Think of You(2007), and Cairo: My City, Our Revolution(2012) also are popular reads by her.
SABRINA MAHFOUZ (1958- )
Sabrina Mahfouz is an up and coming British-Egyptian female poet and playwright, quickly gaining notoriety for her witty and politically powerful spoken word poetry. Being a British Egyptian from South London, England, earned a BA in English Literature and Classics at King’s College London and an MA in International Politics and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. Her published work includes poetry, plays, and contributions to several anthologies. She also earned a BA in English Literature and Classics at King’s College London and an MA in International Politics and Diplomacy at SOAS, University of London. Mahfouz began her career in “Her Majesty’s Civil Service Fast Stream Program,” working with the Ministry of Defence and other departments. She recently appeared alongside renowned Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti at the “Shubbak Arab Culture Festival” in the British Library in London. She is famous for Chef (2015), Layla’s Room (2016), and How you Might Know me (2016).
NAWAL EL SAADAWI (1931- )
Nawal El Saadawi was born in 1931 in the small village of Kafr Tahla. As well as being one of Egypt’s most outspoken radical feminists, she is a literary force to be reckoned with. Her father was a government official in the Ministry of Education, who had campaigned against the rule of the British occupation of Egypt and Sudan during the Egyptian Revolution of 1919. Also, her mother’s family was of Turkish origin. Nawal El Saadawi graduated as a medical doctor in 1955 from Cairo University and went on to be a doctor at her Village in Talha. She was imprisoned for her feminist books like Woman and Sex (1972) and Confrontation (1982). Having published over forty novels, which have been translated into over 30 languages, the 83-year old intellectual powerhouse has conquered a number of obstacles – including her gender, class, and race – in order to become one of the last century’s most prolific female writers. Although, some of her books are seen as radical and unusual to sections of the Arab world. Still, her novels tackle many of the key global issues of our time, from capitalism to nationalism, and sex. She is also famous for books like Daughter of Isis (1999), Woman at Point Zero (1975), The Fall of the Imam (1987), and The Hidden Face of Eve (1977).
MIRAL AL TAHAWY
Miral Al Tahawy is an award-winning novelist and short story female writer who published her first collection of stories in 1995. Her most recent novel, Brooklyn Heights, is one of her most critically acclaimed works and follows the hopes and disappointed expectation of Hend, an Egyptian immigrant living in Brooklyn. Brooklyn heights won her the Naguib Mahfouz medal in 2010 and was nominated for the Arabic Booker Prize in 2011. Originating from a Bedouin background, Al-Tahawy is often considered to be one of the few writers able to bring the Egyptian Bedouin story to life beyond stereotypes. Born in a village in the Sharqia Governorate in the eastern Nile delta, and received her BA in Arabic literature from Zagazig University and then worked as a schoolteacher, which allowed her to avoid early marriage. She then continued her education at Cairo University, moving to the city at the age of 26. She is proficient in Hebrew, Classical Arabic, Persian, and English. Other works like the Gazelle Tracks, and The Tent are also quite popular. Tahawy is currently an associate professor at Arizona State University.
HUDA SHA’ARAWI (1879-1947)
A pioneer in many senses of the word, Huda Sha’arawi’s decision to record her early life story in her memoir Harem Years: The Memoirs of an Egyptian Feminist 1879-1924 was a pivotal moment in the Egyptian feminist movement. Heavily involved in the nationalist movements of the time, she was also very politically active and helped organize the largest women’s demonstration against British colonialism. Although her feminist goals were severely limited by her privileging of issues affecting upper-class women, Sha’arawi can still be credited with pioneering an important tradition of Egyptian women’s writing. More about Huda Shaa’rawi can be found in the recent article ‘Huda Shaarawi: The Early 20th Century Egyptian Female Activist’.
Doria Shafik (1908 – 1975)
This one’s a bit sad because while Shafik was known for her poetry, editing, translation, philosophy, and part of the women’s liberation movement in Egypt, she had a tragic ending. She was born in Tanta and educated in French missionary schools, and at the age of 19, she was granted a scholarship to study at the Sorbonne in Paris! When she returned, she was due to teach at Cairo University’s literature department, but the dean dismissed her for being too modern. She took on her feminist activities, she stormed the parliament, went on a hunger strike, took a trip around the world to speak on Egyptian women’s conditions, got women the right to vote in 1956, and published works like her novel The Slave Sultane, in French, as well as her memoirs, and poetry. She also translated the Quran from Arabic to English and French. However, in 1975, she committed suicide after being placed under house arrest for almost 20 years (since 1956) by President Nasser for protesting him.
Leila Ahmed (1940- )
First professor of women’s studies in religion at Harvard’s Divinity School in 1999, the Egyptian scholar obviously had an impact both in Egypt and the United States. She won the University of Louisville Grawemeyer Award for her analysis on the topic of “veiling” among Muslim women in the United States. Born in Heliopolis of an Egyptian father and a Turkish mother. She earned her Bachelor’s and Doctorate degrees from the University of Cambridge in 1960. She is a critic of Egypt’s recognition in relation to the Arab nationalism movement. Books like A Border Passage: From Cairo to America—A Woman’s Journey. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux (1999), Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven: Yale University Press (1992) and Arab Women: 1995, in The Next Arab Decade: Alternative Futures (1988) among other articles paved the way for her to be one of the most influential Egyptian female writers and scholars.
Salwa Bakr (1949- )
Born in the Matariyya district in Cairo in 1949 to a father who was a railway worker, Bakr’s work dealt with the poor and impoverished. She studied business at Ain Shams University, gaining a BA degree in 1972. She went on to earn another BA in literary criticism in 1976, before embarking on a career in journalism. Her books The Wiles of Men and Other Stories (1993), Such a Beautiful Voice (1992), and The Man from Bashmour (2007) were translated into several European languages. Her earliest book The man from Bashmour is on the lest of 100 best Arabic novels, winning a European award and giving her international presence.
Check out our Blog!