Obituary: Soheir el-Qalamawy

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The Independent Online
The Egyptian author Soheir el-Qalamawy was a prominent literary figure who not only influenced modern Arabic writers and critics, but helped shape Egypt's cultural scene both as a scholar and as a feminist.

She was the last of the post-First World War generation of suffrage campaigners who reignited the embers left by 19th-century Egyptian feminists. Having spent some 50 years in the vicinity of King Fuad (later Cairo) University, she seemed more comfortable in academe than on a picket-line. Qalamawy sent out subtle feminist messages from her typewriter, like her 1965 pioneering short-story anthology ("The Devils' Play"), or in her television talk shows, and later made good use of her various powerful posts, albeit given by a non-democratic government.

Born in Cairo in 1911, the young Qalamawy witnessed Egyptian women led by legendary feminists like Huda Sharawi and nationalist figures like Safia Zaghloul ("the mother of Egyptians") take to the streets during the 1919 Revolution. It was a turning-point as Egyptian feminists took their crusade out of the arena of intellectual debate and into the street and workplaces in a far-reaching movement that went beyond the Middle East to touch many Muslim nations.

The term "first" has always been applied to Qalamawy, from the time she left Cairo's American College for Girls in 1928 to become the first woman at King Fuad University all the way to when she established the Middle East's first international book fair in 1967 - the Cairo book fair.

In 1956 Qalamawy became the first woman professor of Arabic Literature at King Fuad University, and two years later the first woman to head the Department of Arabic Studies (1958-67). In 1934 she had been the first woman to infiltrate the exclusive all-male B'etha - a state-funded scheme introduced by Mohammed Ali Pasha in the early 19th century to enable Egyptians to complete their post-graduate studies in France. Qalamawy's 1937 dissertation at the Sorbonne covered new territory in revealing aspects of dissent in folk literature.

Four years later she became the first woman ever to hold a PhD in Arabic Literature. Her thesis on Alf Lillah wa Lillah (One Thousand and One Nights) laid the foundation of her life-long mission to create the new woman - intelligent, cultured, wise, yet conspicuously feminine, in full charge of her life and family. Like Scheherazade, the new woman employs her wits and virtues not only to reach parity with men - which is the feminist message in Qalamawy's interpretation of the ancient epic work that opens with a bloody war of sexes - but also to win that war by the peaceful means of re-educating men. This insight was foreshadowed in her 1935 book Hykayat Geddety ("Tales by my Grandmother") in which she suggests that old wives' tales and grandmothers' bedtime stories contain a deep feminist message.

She developed this message in her books on literary criticism, "Limitation in Literature" (1955) and "The World Between Two Bookcovers" (1958). Her translation-cum-interpretation into Arabic of works such as Chinese stories by Pearl Buck (1950) and Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew (1964), illustrates women's struggle against impossible odds and the need to re-educate men.

However, Qalamawy presented feminist historians with a dilemma: she made an undeniably valuable contribution to the women's movement; yet there was a political blot on her career, namely her powerful official posts from 1963 within the non-democratic apparatuses of Colonel Gamal Nasser's unconstitutional one-party system, the Arab Socialist Union.

This was at a time when Nasser had forced the 1928-founded Egypt's Feminist Union to shrink into a non-political organisation, and threw hundreds of intellectuals and artists into jail or labour camps. In 1967 Nasser placed Qalamawy at the helm of the state-controlled General Book Organisation, which monopolised book distribution. Although the organisation subsidised publication of thousands of books by young writers, it also barred dissident writers from airing their views.

Another controversial post was her 1982 Presidency of the Board of Censorship. She believed that, just as in One Thousand and One Nights when Scheherazade sheltered behind King Shehryar's sword, Nasser's autocracy shielded women from backward trends. In contrast, her contemporary Amina el-Said challenged Nasser's dictatorship several times, arguing that the enlightened pre- Nasser social trends - to which the women's movement contributed - made the Egyptian soil infertile for the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. Qalamawy argued that Nasser's blow to the pluralist liberal parliamentarian system was compensated for by new opportunities for the underprivileged and the secular nature of his National Socialism checked Islamic fundamentalism.

This logic was to crumble before Qalamawy's own eyes. Nasser's 1950s coup was indeed a blow to democracy, muzzling secular dissent, and left the arena free for Islamic fundamentalism in the mosques. She admitted, during her last three years' illness, that the number of veiled female students passing under her window in one day, outnumbered all the veiled women she saw in her young years before the revolution - she didn't say which one.

Adel Darwish

Soheir el-Qalamawy, Arabic scholar, writer and politician: born Cairo 1911; Member of Parliament 1958-64, 1979-84; Professor of Arabic Literature, Cairo University 1956-67; Head of the National Film Organisation 1967; Head of the General Book Organisation 1967-71; President of the Board of Censorship 1982-85; died Cairo 4 May 1997.