About Arab women

David Tresilian , Tuesday 23 Aug 2022

This year’s Arab History Days at the Arab World Institute in Paris explored women and gender in the Arab world, writes David Tresilian


This year’s set of Arab History Days, the eighth, taking place at the Arab World Institute in Paris over the long weekend of 10, 11, and 12 June, took women and gender in the Arab world as its theme, exploring issues relating to both and drawing on material from the present and the recent or more distant past.

Starting in 2015, the History Days have established themselves on the Paris calendar as an annual opportunity for French and European audiences to gain an overview of some of the issues animating academic discussion of the Arab world in France, as well as to learn about each year’s crop of new French publications.

Previous years have focused around themes such as the Arabs and the world in 2021, revolts and revolutions in 2020, and the body in 2019, and in addition to the History Days being an opportunity for academic and other authors to present their work to the general public, they also host the Grand Prix of the Arab World Institute. Awarded with the sponsorship of the Institute and the Moroccan Royal Academy, the announcement of the annual Prize is a highlight of the first Day’s meetings.

This year’s History Days took place on a weekend of early summer sunshine in Paris, with the plaza in front of the Arab World Institute on the left bank of the Seine attracting skateboarders, tourists, and speakers and audience members from the History Days, the latter no doubt grabbing a moment out from the busy schedule of lectures, roundtable discussions, and presentations taking place within the Institute’s signature glass-and-aluminium building.

Much of the difficulty for those attending was deciding which individual events to attend. With four taking place simultaneously in different parts of the building, choices had to be made. This was all the more the case this year, since unlike during previous editions of the History Days the discussions were not being broadcast on the radio station France Culture – perhaps they will be again in future years – and there was only limited live-streaming.

Three events on the first day of the History Days caught the Weekly’s eye, presenting the kind of mix that makes the occasion as a whole so rewarding. As was the case in previous years, the theme itself had been broadly interpreted, with women and gender allowing everything from a discussion of contemporary feminism in the Arab Maghreb states of Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia to a lecture on the harem in pre-modern Morocco, followed in the evening by the presentation of this year’s Prize.

On the second day, there were discussions of Arab women in the Middle Ages, women’s participation in the Algerian War of Independence, and 19th and early 20th-century women’s magazines in the Arab world. They once again presented a mix of contemporary and considerably older history, with speakers working on various periods and areas of Arab history sharing the results of their research with a wider public than the one they might ordinarily reach.

There was a strong shortlist for this year’s Grand Prix, exhibiting what president of the jury Henry Laurens, professor of the history of the contemporary Arab world at the Collège de France in Paris, described as a “tropism” towards the Maghreb. It included Histoire de l’Algérie et de ses mémoires, des origines au hirak by Emmanuel Alcaraz, a full-scale history of Algeria drawing on new source materials, Partis politiques et protestations au Maroc, 1934-2020 by Mounia Bennani-Chraibi, a political history of modern Morocco, and Algérie 1914-1962. De la Grande Guerre à l’independence by Jacques Frémeaux, a survey of 20th-century Algerian history by a French specialist on the country.

There was one Egypt-related title on the shortlist in the shape of Les Papyrus de la Mer Rouge: L’inspecteur Merer: un témoin oculaire de la construction des Pyramides by Egyptologist Pierre Tallet describing a papyrus cache discovered at Al-Jarf on the Red Sea in 2013 that records the work of the workmen who moved the stone to build the Great Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu) on the Giza Plateau in around 2570 BCE. Tallet has already published the text of the most important papyrus fragments in two scholarly volumes published by the Institut francais d’archéologie orientale. The present book, co-written with US Egyptologist Marc Lehner, introduces them to a wider audience.

However, in the event, none of these titles won the Prize, which instead was awarded to Vincent Lemire for his book Au pied du mur: Vie et mort du quartier maghrébin de Jérusalem (1187-1967), a study of the nearly thousand-year-old Maghreb quarter of Jerusalem, founded by the Ayyubid sultan Salah al-Din (Saladin) to house pilgrims from the Maghreb countries in the city in 1187 and destroyed in the 1967 War. Lemire is the author of several other books in French on Jerusalem, and Arabic and English translations of his new one are forthcoming.

Emerging from the History Days into the Paris sunshine at the end of three days of stimulating meetings, the value of the exercise was abundantly clear. Possibly some of the speakers had had to simplify their work to meet the needs of a general audience probably not having the kind of background that can be assumed in an audience of their peers.

However, this allowed bridges to be built between such academic work and the general public, reminding the former of their responsibility to explain their preoccupations and encouraging the latter to pursue their interest in issues of general concern. Judging by the impressive turnout for the meetings, perhaps particularly later in the day, these bridges are still up and functioning in France as perhaps they are not in some other countries.

If one criticism might be made of this year’s History Days, it would be that the event might benefit from greater representation from the region. Researchers were present from the Maghreb countries, perhaps because of the close links between institutions in the Maghreb and France. But there were no representatives from other parts of the Arab world, a pity because Paris audiences would surely have gained from learning about their research, and all concerned would have benefitted from the exchange of ideas.


THINKING ABOUT WOMEN: Activists and academics Sana Ben Achour, Lydia Haddag, and Nouzha Guessous were on hand to talk about developments in feminism in the Maghreb countries on the first day of the History Days, with French academic Jocelyne Dakhlia later giving a lecture on aspects of the pre-modern Moroccan harem.

For Ben Achour, professor of history at the University of Tunis and speaking by video conference to the audience in Paris, Tunisian feminism has always consisted of a coalition of different groups, making it more accurate to speak of Tunisian feminisms. However, three main periods can be discerned.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the first generation of Tunisian feminists were concerned above all with themes like women’s access to education and employment and their roles and visibility in the public sphere, with this first feminist wave later giving way to a second linked to the struggle for independence from France and seeing national emancipation as being linked to the emancipation of women. A third wave of Tunisian feminism, active since the 1980s, was pursuing the feminist agenda in different spheres.

Something similar seems to have been the case in neighbouring Algeria, Algerian author and activist Haddag said, noting that the hirak movement that over recent years has seen widespread demonstrations against the Algerian government notably by younger people had revealed some of the tensions within Algerian feminism.

There had of course been a strong feminist component to the independence struggle against France in the 1950s, as there had in Tunisia, but this had given way in more recent years to a rethinking of the relationship between feminists and the state and the important role that feminists can play in civil-society groups in Algeria more generally, particularly when it comes to pushing for legal and other reforms.

For Guessous, a professor at Hassan II University in Casablanca in Morocco, feminism in the Maghreb countries today is linked by a common emphasis on legal reforms, whether of the family law in Morocco or of similar codes in Algeria and Tunisia. In each of these countries, feminists have come together to press for changes in the law, sometimes in the face of opposition from other sectors of society. These may see feminist demands as a “luxury” in the light of other issues facing society, Haddag said, citing experience in Algeria, or they may be suspicious of feminists as somehow representing foreign interests or seeking to spread dissent.

Later in the day, Jocelyne Dakhlia talked about what the source materials may tell us about the institution of the harem in pre-modern Morocco, suggesting that the reality was very different from later European orientalist representations. These were constructed by European men for European consumption and were characterised by the idea of a closed space set aside from other areas of society. However, the truth may be, at least in the Moroccan case, that the harem was far less of a closed space and far more a part of a jockeying for position than the orientalists thought, Dakhlia said in a presentation reporting on recent research.

On Day Two of the History Days, a panel consisting of French historians Julien Loiseau and Vanessa Van Renterghem and Tunisian historian Sobhi Bouderbala pursued the historical theme by asking what the mediaeval Arab source materials can tell us about the lives of mediaeval Arab women. These materials, almost entirely written by male authors and, though produced for different purposes, also almost entirely directed at male audiences, nevertheless contain intriguing clues about women’s lives.

While women are seen as playing a restricted range of roles in society, usually only in relation to men, the source materials provide evidence of other activities. A specialist on the Abbasid caliphate, Van Renterghem said that Abbasid source materials, particularly the collections of biographies of individuals that were popular at the time, show women being talked about in a similar way to men, often buying and selling property and making decisions as independent economic actors.

Something similar could be seen in later Mameluke materials from Egypt and Syria, Loiseau said, where women are sometimes presented in the period’s biographical dictionaries as founding or administering charitable foundations and playing roles in real-estate and other transactions. In the male-authored literature of the time, women are shown as exercising “feminine wiles” – not necessarily a flattering representation, but one that at least shows them as not being without means – and early Mameluke history also contains at least one example of a female sultan in Shagaret al-Durr.

On the death of her husband the Ayyubid sultan Al-Salih Ayyub during the Seventh European Crusade against Egypt in 1249 CE, Shagaret al-Durr became sultan of Egypt in her own right. However, while the sources present her as being a remarkable woman, quite up to outmanoeuvring her masculine peers, it is difficult to see her biography as saying much about the general run of women’s lives. Panel moderator Emmanuelle Tixier du Mesnil noted in her opening remarks that when women are presented as achieving leadership roles in the mediaeval sources it is implied that this is because of a breakdown in the regular order, with their promotion being seen as the “symptom of a malfunction” in the masculine order of things.

Later in the day, another panel considered the role of women in the Algerian War of Independence against France in the 1950s, with similar attention being paid to what can be gleaned from the sources. Historians Raphaelle Branche, Denis Leroux, and Tramor Quemeneur cited recent oral-history projects carried out in France, suggesting that while these do not necessarily disprove the pictures painted of women’s roles by Egyptian director Youssef Chahine in his film about Algerian activist Djamila Bouhired or French psychiatrist Frantz Fanon in his writings about the War, they do allow the question of women’s participation to be approached with a historian’s eye.

Finally, the Weekly attended a session on late 19th and early 20th-century Arab women’s magazines, including those sponsored by Egyptian feminists Ceza Nabarawi, Hoda Sharawi, and Doria Shariq. The panelists had been through these with a view to detecting feminist messages, and they spoke on how these magazines, flourishing in Lebanon and Syria as well as Egypt, promoted the development of a women’s nahda, or movement for societal and cultural modernisation, and provided new professional opportunities for women.


8e Journées de l’histoire de l’Institut du monde arabe, Femmes et genres, 10, 11 and 12 June.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 25 August, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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