Classics, Revisited: Zaynab Fawwaz

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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Zaynab Fawwaz (1850?-1914) was a Lebanese poet, novelist, and historian of famous women:

Classics Zaynab Fawwaz,

Fawwaz is unusual among nineteenth-century women authors in that she was born into modest circumstances. According to Joseph Zeidan, writing in Arab Women Novelists: the Formative Years and Beyond, Fawwaz was “born to a poor, obscure, and illiterate Shiite family in the village of Tabnīn in southern Lebanon. Most sources agree that when she was young, Fawwaāz served as a maid at the palace of ʿAlī Bey al-Asʿad al-Ṣaghīr.” According to Marilyn Booth, in “Exemplary Lives, Feminist Aspirations,” Fawwaz emigrated to Egypt around 1870, “possibly as a domestic employee to a wealthy family.”

By the 1890s, when Fawwaz was in her 40s, she began to gain renown for her essays, published in Egyptian newspapers.

Although she wrote novels, a play, and poetry, Fawwaz was also interested in other women’s accomplishments. She corresponded with Egyptian poet Aisha Taimour and Lebanese poet Warda al-Yazigi, and she is particularly known for her encyclopedia of famous women.

In the introduction, Fawwaz wrote — here translated by Marilyn Booth — that although Arab historians have been interested in writing about many renowned men, “I have not observed anyone who has gone to extremes and set aside a single chapter in the Arabic language for half the human world, in which is brought together those women who were famed for their merits and who shunned bad qualities, even though a group of these women has excelled, having writings to their names with which they have rivaled the greatest learned men and engaged in poetic competition with the master poets.”

Fawwaz probably didn’t quite mean that, about a single chapter: there is Ibn al-Sa’i’s Consorts of the Caliphs, for one, and Booth notes that Maryam Nahhas Nawfal (1856-88) had composed a biography of renowned women and published it in 1879. But, according to Booth, Fawwaz’s words were aimed less at the ancients (or at Maryam Nahhas Nawful) than at her male contemporaries.

A classic of women's history from the 1890s: pioneering Arab feminist writer Zaynab Fawwāz's encyclopedic biographical dictionary of more than 450 prominent women in world history, a large folio-size volume of 552-pages published in 1894–96 by the official press at Bulaq, Cairo.

— Musannaf (@afzaque) March 8, 2019

She also wrote essays and sometimes fierce polemics, such as “Justice,” where she argued for women’s social and intellectual equality with men.

I sat down to choose a reading by the 19th-century poet and feminist thinker Zaynab Fawwaz for my Arabic literature seminar this term, and ended up flagging a dozen of her newspaper articles. What a fascinating figure.

— Elias Muhanna (@QifaNabki) February 26, 2019

Surely there’s work to be done in bringing her words to contemporary readers.

Also read:Exemplary Lives, Feminist Aspirations: Zaynab Fawwāz and the Arabic Biographical Tradition,” by Marilyn Booth

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