Unraveling Hanan al-Shaykh

What is an Arab women writer but a voice for the female Arab, or perhapsĀ a voice for all women?

What is an Arab women writer but a necessary lampshade to shine of the iniquities and the injustices of Arab society?

What is an Arab women writer but a vessel and an inspiration for other women to look up to and follow?

While I may not stretch very broad in my paper, the COR-330-03 classes have been reading and learning about the works of these women, taking in the issues which they broadcast to us and the world beyond the classroom, as well as diving into the world of Arab women and exactly how their lives are very different from our own. I have focused on one of the many Arab women writers out there, and her name is Hanan al-Shaykh.

We’re talking about a Lebanese-born contemporary writer who has penned great stories, whether in novel form or as short stories, and has set herself up as one of the leading figures in her field. Beginning at the age of 16, fueled by pent-up anger and frustration at the controlling men in her life (her father and brother), al-Shaykh learned the tricks of the trade and even studied under another the tutelage of another well-known Arab women writer in Lebanon (Layla Baalbaki). From there, she traded up to the world of journalism, working for various magazines and newspapers until she made her debut in 1970. Ten years later, al-Shaykh self-published a novel called The Story of Zahra, which became an international hit. And much like other writers akin to her, it was one of her first few banned books. From there, she dabbled in other forms of expression such as short-story writing and play-writing, but was back to novel writing in almost no time, with 1989’s Women of Sand and Myrrh receiving recognition as one of the fifty best books on 1992 (the year it was translated). It was also banned in select Arab nations.

Though the focus of my paper heavily lies on one of her short stories published in Arab Women Writers: An Anthology of Short Stories, titled “Sun, I Am the Moon“. Focusing on the protagonist, Qamar, the story’s focus is placed on the prevalence and practice of polygamy in Lebanon, as over half of their population is Muslim. As such, polygamy is mandated by the Qur’an and it becomes a common occurrence in the country. In the story, our protagonist is the third wave of the primary antagonist, Qahtan – a sixty-year old man. The other two wives in the household are Zamzam, a motherly figure who takes to Qamar as a daughter of her own, and Fatima, who is distinctly opposite, being highly jealous of Qamar being favored over her. During the course of the story, we see Qamar in the midst of a plan to free herself from the household, or to at least keep herself safe from Qahtan’s advances.

My take on the story is very much in line with al-Shaykh’s as she exposes the nature of polyamorous relationships to be nothing more than a harem of subservient women obeying their husband, for fear of being exiled or killed. Perhaps even deeper, I note the allegorical sense of each of the characters in regards to who they represent – Qahtan being the patriarchal system, Zamzam and Fatima as those who the system has already converted, and Qamar as the covert deviant who wants to break away from the system who wants to convert her. There is also a mention of the Qur’an’s say on such an activity, and how Fatima is able to expose how it isn’t being followed, as it states that all women should be treated fairly, yet Qahtan’s pursuit of Qamar has overshadowed his fairness. In regards to the society, we also see how entrapped women can be in a marriage, where their only way out is by divorce (which the husband has a right to), or death.

To conclude my vertical slice, I’d would say that Hanan al-Shaykh is truly inspirational in her own ways, though there are many more Arab women writers that are paving their way towards being recognized for their talents, and for the stories they have to tell. Women like al-Shaykh exist as the standout stepping stones which allow for women to question the society which judges them on every possible parameter possible, and leaves no room for any perceptible freedoms that they may have in terms of how to dress, behave, or to generally express themselves in other forms.

One thought on “Unraveling Hanan al-Shaykh

  1. Olivia Hatch

    I noticed a lot of similarities with my research on Latifa al-Zayyat. She was studying at a university in the 1940’s and became an active student leader in leftist politics. During this time, a whole bunch of feminist movements were sprouting due to the weak state power. My paper was largely focused on the history al-Zayyat was a part of. Like you, I focused on her identity as a woman and what being a woman meant during this time period.

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