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.