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  Women Writing Africa - The Northern Region

   Women Writing Africa – The Northern Region portrays the ebb and flow of women’s lives in North Africa over the course of more than 5000 years. Over the millennia, from Egypt west to Morocco and Mauritania, women sometimes ruled empires and sometimes ruled the men who ruled empires. From Pharonic ancient Egypt through to the rise and fall of the Greco-Roman world and the advent of Islam, women challenged the proscriptive limits of custom and female propriety to lead armies, accumulate wealth, and exercise authority over kin and public affairs. Some were merchants engaged in international trade; some owned vast swaths of land in multiple provinces of the empire. At all times and throughout the region—as in all of Africa—women farmed. Many were also street hawkers who sold produce in village stalls or from baskets balanced on their heads. More often than not they were unpaid workers on the land and in households that suffered the vagaries of floods, famines, tax collectors, and invading armies. And many were slaves, a few literate, and most nonliterate.

   Rich, poor, well connected, orphaned, free, and slave women in North Africa participated in the greatest cultural transformations of written history. The poets, scholars, and religious teachers among them recorded the emotions and conflicts of their times. Nonliterate singers of songs and tellers of tales, who were respected and even feared in communities where the written word was rarely invoked, have preserved an oral tradition of intergenerational transfer that has assured the continuity of women’s memories. Together they have left a body of literature about the momentous events in women’s lives—from marriage songs, laments, and celebrations of valor, to women’s yearnings and religious rites. They have left a record of women who celebrated Isis and women who led the first ascetic movement into the Egyptian desert to foster the early Christian search for Grace. And in the seventh and eighth centuries, when poverty and tribalism supplanted the institutions of civil authority across North Africa, women’s stories tell of joining the new conquerors from Arabia who brought Islam with them.

   With the advent of Islam a new society emerged from the older Greco-Roman world. As in preceding eras, class and race along with ethnicity and religion controlled women’s lives. Land remained the basis of wealth and status. Islam incorporated advanced ideas about women’s independent ownership of property which were also at the center of Roman statutory law. Islam also intensified and codified ideas about women’s seclusion and about men’s right to polygamy; both practices shifted relationships between women and men. While Islamic conventions with regard to literacy redefined women’s possibilities for achievement especially among the wealthy and those who might manifest political influence, the greatest number of women, continued as for millennia, working the land in households that suffered the vagaries of floods, famines, tax collectors, and invading armies.

   In the nineteenth century Europeans colonized North Africa. Women gained a new self-consciousness that transformed their efforts for enlightenment and empowerment from individual achievement to collective action. Education became the avenue to a new articulation of women’s place in the public spheres of North African society. Nationalism mixed with self-empowerment turned women into members of an organized resistance to colonial power. During the later twentieth century, women struggled to change the social order in accord with their own altered consciousness that demanded equity and equality. The new twenty-first century finds their efforts unfinished but in progress.

   This book is not the first effort to give North African women a voice. Nor, we hope, the last. Nonetheless it is unique. Its geographical and chronological scope allows an unusually long perspective that suggests both continuity and change. Insights about social class, family organization, literacy and orality, education, autocracy and democracy, colonialism and post-colonial independence wrap around female experience with sorrow, fear, loss, and pleasure to mark moments in time and place. Often North African women also transcend their own time and illuminate for all women their past and, possibly, their future as well.


   Details on the book:

  Title: Women Writing Africa - The Northern Region
  Editors: Fatima Sadiqi, Amira Nowaira, Azza El Kholy, and Moha Ennaji
  Publication year: 2008
  Publisher: The Feminist Press





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