Writing women’s desires and domestic lives in 20th century Egypt

Alia SolimanAlia Soliman holds an MA in Comparative Literature from The American University in Cairo. She is currently an external PhD student of Intercultural Studies at University College London. Her PhD studies revolve around the manifestation of the doppelgänger figure across mediums in contemporary culture. Soliman, a freelance researcher and cultural consultant, is currently involved with several cultural entities such as The Library of Arabic Literature and the Dubai Literature Festival, among others. Her two articles “Double Identity: Age Representation and the Female Doppelgänger in Carlos Fuentes’s Aura” and “Digital Doppelgänger: Between Self-Perception and Public Image” were published in 2015.


One of the very first texts I read during my freshman year as a student of comparative literature at The American University in Cairo was Alifa Rifaat’s collection of short stories, A Distant View of a Minaret. Our department was tiny and the seminar room was even tinier. Yet this intimate and confined space was the perfect one to study Rifaat’s description of latent female sexuality and unsatisfied desires of the Egyptian Muslim woman living in the mid 20th century.

Celebration and acknowledgment of the female body and female sexuality is the legacy Rifaat leaves us. A pioneer in breaking taboos, Rifaat’s imprint lingers as someone who dared speak of female desire in what was at the time an almost completely patriarchal society.

Born in 1930 as Fatimah Rifaat (d.1996), she wrote under the pseudonym of Alifa Rifaat to avoid embarrassing her family. Not a stranger to oppression herself and like many women of her generation, Rifaat wished to attend the College of Fine Arts yet was married off instead to her cousin. She spoke only Arabic and her life and writing were deeply rooted in the Arabic and Islamic traditions. Rifaat’s husband, after initially allowing her to write under the nom de plume of Alifa, later denied her to publish her stories for more than a decade. Her themes of eroticism and sexuality posed a threat and embarrassment for her family.

Rifaat stands with the likes of de Beauvoir in shining a light on the problematic expression of the feminine body and further on the existential loneliness of married life. Challenging firmly established expectations and demanding the right to the preservation of the female body, denouncing circumcision in “Bahiyya’s Eyes”, and expressing and fulfilling the female flesh. Her scathing criticism of arranged marriages, the separation of male and female lives, as well as husbands who do not provide sexual satisfaction for their wives, are at the center of her oeuvre and philosophy. In her most popular story, “A Distant View of A Minaret”, Rifaat challenges the male’s right within marriage to dominate, control, and deny his wife’s achievement of pleasure:

When they were first married she had tried to will her husband into sensing the desire that burned within her and so continuing the act longer; she had been too shy and conscious of the conventions to express such wishes openly. Later on, feeling herself sometimes to be on the brink of the experience some of her married women friends talked of in hushed terms, she had found the courage to be explicit about what she wanted. At such moments it had seemed to her that all she needed was just one more movement and her body and soul would be quenched, that once achieved they would between them know how to repeat the experience. But on each occasion, when breathlessly imploring him to continue, he would – as though purposely to deprive her – quicken his movement and bring the act to an abrupt end. Sometimes she had tried in vain to maintain the rhythmic movements a little longer, but always he would stop her. The last time she had made such an attempt, so desperate was she at this critical moment, that she had dug her fingernails into his back, compelling him to remain inside her. He had given a shout as he pushed her away and slipped from her ‘Are you mad, woman? Do you want to kill me?’

Rifaat in her stories does not only denounce this deprivation but also questions the over-indulgence of men of their sexual desires. In “The Long Night of Winter”, she exposes how the tradition of stepping out on the wife and sleeping with other women, some of which would be domestic helpers living in the same household as the wife, is a tradition in which the women’s fathers as well as husbands partake.

Rifaat gave volume to that very tentative voice inside every woman to seek what men receive as a matter of birthright. Her stories also point to the genesis of male superiority drawn from wrong interpretations of the Quran and Muslim religious teachings. A pioneer on many levels for body awareness, Rifaat, through her stories, criticizes males for not honoring women according to the teachings of Islam. Under Islam, the man is responsible for the happiness and well-being of his wife. Cultural misinterpretations of Islam lead to the supremacy of men and the marginalization of women’s needs.

Although Rifaat’s heroines do not take concrete actions against their oppressors, they defy them through a different mode of rebellion. The heroine of “A Distant View of a Minaret” quietly sips her coffee, one that she made for her husband, mere moments after she finds him dead in their marital bed: cruelty breeds indifference. The aged heroine Bahiyya, in “Bahiyya’s Eyes”, breaks the collective silence by recounting her story since childhood to her daughter and of the numerous injustices she endured since birth: resistance through storytelling. Denys Johnson-Davies’s translation of Rifaat’s volume (1983) makes accessible the paradigm of the Arab women for the world to see. Showing us the other side of the domestic, submissive housewife, the voyeuristic stories are a narrative of what can be described as a quasi journal of the Arab woman’s sexual awakening: an awakening that Rifaat conveys to us through the stream of consciousness of her heroines.


A Dangerous Woman

Rifaat is a powerful voice in the history of Arab women thought that challenges both indigenous and external views of what a woman should be and how she should think. To me she is dangerous on two levels. On one level, Rifaat candidly portrayed domestic inequalities and the normalization of such inequalities. On another level, she did not subscribe to Westernized notions of liberation.

In true Muslim form, the family and its unity remain a priority for her heroines. In Islam the mother is the nucleus of the family and the warm womb around which all other members huddle. Similarly, Islam dictates that the man is, in turn, responsible for the happiness and well being of the members of his household. Her stories are subversive spaces in which Western depictions of Muslim women as silenced, complicit, abject, and helpless are challenged. She does not equate liberation from oppression with abandonment of cultural roots and Muslim traditions.

As a monolingual woman, educated in Arabic and never attending university, Rifaat was untouched by Western influences. Unlike many women intellectuals, she lived her whole life in her home country. Her stories are set in Cairo or rural areas of Egypt. Further, Rifaat’s stories are punctuated with the Muslim call for prayer, a dear sound to any Muslim, drawing attention to the presence of Islam in all aspects of social life in Egypt. Her uniqueness and “perceived danger” emerge from coupling devoutness and mental liberation.

Giving a voice to the female body thus breaking the collective societal silence made Rifaat a dangerous woman. Considered by many as literature of protest, Alifa Rifaat’s stories ruffled many feathers and raised awareness of Arab women’s desire for dominance over their own bodies and their own voices. Rifaat even ventured into the world of the homo-erotic as a parable for the suppressed desires of a middle-aged woman in “My World of the Unknown”, a story that stirred a storm of positive and negative feedback. Writing during the 1950-60’s, she ran contrary to the dominant discourse of power. Rifaat planted the seed and voiced a protest for dissent from which the contemporary Arab woman arguably benefits.

Her stories were banned in her own country and to this day she remains a controversial and censored voice, her narratives deemed too erotic, too forward, in which feminine taboos are discussed through women who think and express themselves like men. By creating a unique discourse in which the previously solo voice of the Arab male finds a worthy counterpart, Rifaat offered a nuanced portrayal of the private realm of the Arab Muslim woman, one strikingly different from the reductive image of Muslim women found in Western depictions. Stripped of basic rights and yet unequipped with tools for rebellion, Rifaat’s women are dangerous in as much as they mentally rebel against the hands that touch their bodies. Hands that take pleasure without reciprocating and hands that mutilate through circumcision or FGM, “a wrong that could never be undone”, to insure that such pleasure is never to be attained, as relayed to us in the story of “Bahiyya’s Eyes”.

Change starts with awareness and Rifaat’s stories allowed such awareness to breath, grow, and become vocalized. Her accessible oeuvre gives comfort and companionship to the Arab housewife whose desires are often disregarded and whose silence is often mistaken as assent. Freedom over her life choices, freedom over her body, and freedom to think and rebel against all odds is the message Alifa Rifaat conveys of the Arab woman through her beautiful prose.