Obituary: Soheir el-Qalamawy

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas