#100AfricanWomenWriters: 17. Alifa Rifaat

by - 19:56

Source: Author Photo. Heinemann AWS edition of Distant View of a Minaret.

A caption under a picture of Alifa Rifaat in a 1993 Middle East Times (Egypt) captures Rifaat's intentions for writing about women's lives and sexuality: she is inspired, the caption reads, 'by a woman's Islamic right to a fulfilled emotional and sexual life'. - Barbara A. Olive on Alifa Rifaat's Short Stories.

Alifa Rifaat (the pseudonym of Fatimah Rifaat, who was born in Egypt in 1930 and died in 1996) began to write early - when she was nine she wrote her first story, about the village where her family lived in the summer - with rural Egypt becoming the setting for most of her stories. Unfortunately, writing for Rifaat came with its (external) challenges. Starting early in her life when Rifaat was strongly reprimanded by her older sister for writing.

Rifaat attended Misr al-Jadidah primary school, the Cultural Centre for Women, and the British Institute in Cairo from 1946 to 1949 - where she studied English. When Alifa Rifaat expressed interest in continuing her education by enrolling in the College of Fine Arts in Egypt her father first arranged a marriage for her to a mining engineer - this marriage lasted eight months, and then arranged for her to marry her cousin, a police officer.

For the first few years of their marriage Rifaat’s husband let her write and publish stories under her pseudonym. She published her stories from 1955 until 1960, but later her husband denied her the right to publish her stories. This period of denying Rifaat the ability to right happened for more than a decade, with her husband even forcing her to swear on the Qu'ran that she would stop writing. As noted in a 1985 The Middle East journal,

Her husband was furious, not so much because of the subject matter, but because writing gave her a kind of independence and was perceived as undermining his authority as a husband and head of the family. She continued to write, using pen-names, but when he found out, her husband forbade that too. He threw her out of the house. She went back to her own family, but received no sympathy from her father, who also said she should stop writing.

But against those people who urged her to get a divorce, Alifa Rifaat argued that "it is better to be an unknown wife than a well-known writer". For the next 15 years she wrote a little, and then only in secret. But being forced to repress the urge to be read brought her close to a nervous breakdown, a state vividly evoked in some of her stories.

Finally, in the early 1970's, her husband relented and she began to write again. The result was her collection of short stories, 'Distant View from a Minaret', which dwell on the tensions, dilemmas and dreams of women in marriage.

Rifaat continued to publish short stories through the 1980s following the death of her husband - she was widowed at the age of 48 and raised three children on her own. Her best-known work in English is Distant View of a Minaret (1983), consisting of fifteen short stories which are set in provincial Egypt. One of the stories, My World of the Unknown, follows the female narrator's sexual encounter with a djinn.

As expressed in the 1985 article in The Middle East Journal,

While much of Rifaat's later writing is deeply rooted in her experience, the most important theme in her stories centres on the sexual and emotional problems encountered by women in marriage. ... in the years she spent travelling around Egypt with her husband (in the course of his work as a policeman) she met many other women and learned of their problems. "We used to talk freely and we discussed especially the question of sexual fulfilment - because our society does not allow us to experience sex as freely as a Western woman does", she told Sarah Graham.

Rifaat, however, is not a feminist in the Western-sense. 'Women', she says, 'have a right to be fulfilled in their sexual and emotional lives', though she does not question marital relationships as such. What she does argue is that men should wield the power they have over women in marriage much more responsibly than they usually do. She also argues for more sexual education for women, 'if only through books'.

Rifaat's fiction has met with a range of responses, from conservative efforts to keep her fiction out of bookstores, to encouragements from her literary acquaintances to write even more boldly about the lives of women.

Alifa Rifaat spoke and wrote only in Arabic - about stories that were deeply rooted in the Arabic and Islamic traditions, and also dealt with themes of eroticism and sexuality, which is said to have distinguished her from other male and female writers in the Arab world, where explicit references to these topics are typically considered taboo. Olive further notes that Rifaat's fiction has not gained wider recognition, and offers the following reasons:

Although she is self-educated, having read methodically through a number of small libraries during the years of her exile from writing, Rifaat does not possess a university degree and thus does not have direct connections to academic literary groups. With the exception of two pilgrimages to Mecca and one visit to Europe, she has traveled little, remaining a quiet secret for most readers outside of Egypt. Finally, Rifaat's professed devotion to Islam has allowed for easy categorisation of her fiction as limited, with critics often interpreting her female protagonists as weak or submissive.

Alifa Rifaat became a member of the Federation of Egyptian Writers, the Short-Story Club, and the Dar al-Udaba (Egypt), and also attended the First International Women's Book Fair (London, England) in 1984 where she spoke about the rights of women in Islam and the topic of polygamy. In 1984 Fatimah Rifaat also received the Excellency Award from the Modern Literature Assembly. Alifa Rifaat produced over 100 bodies of works in her lifetime that have been translated into multiple languages and have been produced for television and read on BBC.

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