Egyptian women rewriting history
The women and Memory Forum (WMF) was founded in 1995 by a group of women academics, researchers and activists, who wanted to redress the negative representations of Arab women in the cultural sphere.
WMF has a research library for gender and culture, and in corporation with KVINFO they have founded the database Who Is She in Egypt.
Besides the work with gender sensitive rewriting of fairy tales, folk tales and the popular narrative, WMF also arranges workshops and seminars on gender research as well as they publish litterature about gender research and women's history in Arabic.
Read more about the Women and Memory Forum
It began at the end of the 1990s. A group of women associated with the Women and Memory Forum in Cairo – Egypt’s research library and centre for gender and culture studies, and a partner of KVINFO – began rereading Egypt’s history books and listening to the traditional popular story-telling narratives. Something was missing in all of these stories – namely the woman’s perspective.
Their analytical read-through quickly developed into a new project: from an equality standpoint, they began rewriting history and the popular folk tales. Today, the number of new stories totals over 100, covering everything from documentary portrayals of great figures in Egypt’s history and the rewriting of folk stories to the creation of more contemporary stories that are written in tune with the established Arab story-telling tradition.
Recapturing the Arab epics
“The whole idea began with a rereading of the history books, which then developed into a process of rewriting. We wanted to recapture popular culture, recapture folk tales and the Arab epics, and rewrite them from a feminist gender-based perspective”, explains Maissan Hassan, who since 2007 has been working as project coordinator at the Women and Memory Forum.
The group of women who started rewriting the popular stories consisted of a mix of women literature historians, writers, cultural sociologists and dramatists. All of them had felt provoked by the fact that there were no active women protagonists to be found anywhere in Egyptian popular history.
The approach that they took in their work was a new one – they believed that the purpose of popular narrative and folk epics should not merely be to entertain, but that these should also act to support and uphold social and cultural structures and norms.
“For many of the members, their commitment stemmed from their own personal experience. The often experienced that they actually didn’t care for the stories that they were reading aloud to or retelling their children. The stories lacked a gender perspective. The women in them always played the role of the one who needed to be rescued, whereas the man had all the adventures. One of the results from our rewriting workshop has therefore been a collection of children’s stories that are more aware of this gender perspective. Some are newly written stories; others are rewritten versions of existing folk stories”, explains Maissan Hassan.
A tradition for the living word
As in much of the Arab world, Egypt has a vibrant and widespread tradition for oral storytelling. The oral narrative is always an evolving process through which the story is both told and elaborated upon whilst still maintaining its underlying, formal structure. For the story-telling group that arose out of the Women and Memory Forum’s workshop, it was important that the oral storytelling transgressed easily the social class divisions.
“At the end of the 1990s, we began holding story-telling events in different areas around Cairo. They quickly became very popular, and the story-telling group is now working as an independent entity from the original group. Some of the stories are old folk tales related in a revised gender-sensitive version; others are modern stories packaged in the recognisable universe of the classic folk tale. The stories appeal to all generations and are not merely intended for a well-educated and academic audience.”
"At the end of the day, you can harp on about gender and equality until you’re blue in the face, but when a story is related with humour, it opens things up in a completely different way”
“The story-telling group is, in the nature of the project, highly mobile, and it can travel around all parts of Egypt. I think that this is very important because it makes it possible to open up a discussion which otherwise would not have been able to be opened up had I merely written an academic article on gender. The stories appeal to a different audience. For example, we have worked with low-income areas of Cairo – here, the stories, and the accompanying ‘cartoons’ that we developed, have had a major impact. At the end of the day, you can harp on about gender and equality until you’re blue in the face, but when a story is related with humour, it opens things up in a completely different way”, explains Maissan Hassan.
Documentation as empowerment
A significant part of the Women and Memory Forum’s story-telling project also deals with documenting the profiles of those Egyptian women who have distinguished themselves within their specific field.
The documentation project began as a historical project. As virtually none of these women existed in the history books, it was important to document their lives and their contributions to Egyptian society before they are forgotten. Some of them were artists or actors; others were lawyers, doctors or school principals. These were women such as Marie Asaad, the now almost 90-year-old women’s activist, who for a generation has worked to prevent female circumcision in Egypt and who is now included within the Women and Memory Forum’s database.
The work of documenting these women has now reached the present day. Profiles of those women who distinguished themselves during the revolution in and around Tahrir Square are being presented to a contemporary audience and preserved for posterity.
“Our story-telling project is getting bigger and bigger. We are now in the process of including stories of women who participated in the revolution. We are currently working on a major project that we call Documentation as empowerment. We are convinced that all social movements use orally passed-down stories as a form of resistance – this is going to be a documentation of the movement”, tells Maissan Hassan.
Translating ‘gender’ into Arabic
One of the problems areas that the Women and Memory Forum works with is facilitating a gender discussion in the Arabic language. Almost all of the work in the area is undertaken in English, which means that a usable Arabic vocabulary that can support gender research never develops.
“We’re trying to build bridges between research and activism. The problem is that the amount of knowledge being produced about gender in Arabic remains very limited. The vast majority write in English, among other reasons because the only gender studies programme in Egypt is linked to The American University in Cairo. This makes it hard to come up with the correct terminology for communicating gender and feminism in Arabic. To address this, we’ve started up an ambitious project translating readers of seminal texts in the fields of humanities and sociology from English to Arabic”, explains Maissan Hassan.
“We’re trying to build bridges between research and activism. The problem is that the amount of knowledge being produced about gender in Arabic remains very limited. The vast majority write in English(...)"
In order to get these texts to make sense, the work often requires the translator to come up with new words during the translation process.
“For example, we have been working with and using the word for ‘gender’ that is used in the field of sociology. But often we experience that a translator of psychology or historical texts, for example, has raised objections to this definition. In this way, it has been extremely interesting to work with the language. We have had to simultaneously create a gender-specific vocabulary in Arabic.”
Language’s entry into the Egyptian constitution.
The work opening up the Arabic language for a possible gender debate has enabled the Women and Memory Forum to stamp their mark on the political grassroots work by shaping Egypt’s forthcoming constitution.
“Right now, we actually have an opportunity to be politically active through our work. We undertake our work without legal aid, without political participation and without activism as such. On the other hand, we’re able to collect information – and this can be important in the political process. To begin with, we have raised the issue of language use in the proposed constitution. For example, in Arabic the word for ‘citizen’ is always either masculine or feminine; therefore, we have proposed a clause to be inserted at the beginning of the constitution upholding that the use of the plural form, ‘citizens’, always includes and applies to both men and women”, explains Maissan Hassan.
Maissan Hassan, private photo
"We know that the struggle about family law and legislation is just around the corner, but here we have the opportunity to make politicians aware that we want to have our equal rights. They won’t be able to dismiss this as a private grievance on this basis – no, it is a public issue”
An overall mainstreaming of gender within the language has, as a result, made it possible for women’s rights to be written in into the feminist groups’ constitution proposals in more general terms. For example, rather than including a separate clause against the discrimination of women in the workplace, the gender perspective can now be written in as fundamental elements of the entire constitution.
“Our work with the constitution has been highly significant as it has enabled us to create awareness about the equality aspect from a civil-rights perspective, rather than from just a women’s rights perspective. We know that the struggle about family law and legislation is just around the corner, but here we have the opportunity to make politicians aware that we want to have our equal rights. They won’t be able to dismiss this as a private grievance on this basis – no, it is a public issue”, concludes Maissan Hassan, who, despite the currently unresolved political situation in the country, has a positive outlook for Egypt’s future.