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#100AfricanWomenWriters: Reflecting on the First Twenty



This took me way longer than anticipated - two years to be exact, but I have now featured the first twenty women in the series. Yay! 





When I first thought about this series, all I knew was that I wanted to learn about African women writers, explore women writing in different medium and genres, and (as much as possible) look beyond Anglophone writers. Beyond that, I had no grand plans. I certainly had no strict methodology or selection criteria - other than writing about women. As a result, each entry has happened because I came across a writer and was excited about what I was reading. 

I'll be honest, in majority of the cases, I started researching and writing about one writer, stumbled across another one, started researching them, and ended up posting about the latter writer. Still, I have learned a lot more about African women writers than I ever imagined I would. 

These writers - spanning from the eighteenth century to present day - and from different parts of the African continent (Gabon, Egypt, Cape Verde, Senegal, Angola, Sierra Leone, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Algeria, Benin, Guinea-Bissau, Kenya, Nigeria, South Africa, Mozambique and São Tomé and Príncipe), all have one common thread - they are dynamic. 

Yes, they are writers, novelists, poets, playwrights and essayists but they are more than that. Nigerian Nana Asma'u was a nineteenth century poet, scholar, community leader and political commentator; Ghana-born and Sierra Leonean-raised Gladys Casely-Hayford - a poet, musician, dramatist, painter and storyteller; Kenya's Grace Ogot was a nurse by training, but was also a member of Parliament, government minister and UN representative; and Senegal's Aminata Sow Fall's many accolades includes: being a member of the Commission for Educational Reform responsible for the introduction of African literature into the French syllabus in Senegal, before becoming director of La Propriété littéraire (The Literary Property) in Dakar (1979-1988). She was appointed the first woman president of Senegal's Writer's Association in 1985. In 1990 she founded the publishing house Éditions Khoudia, was also Director of the Centre Africain d'Animation et d'Echanges Culturels in Dakar and head of the Centre International d'Etudes, de Recherches et de Réactivation sur la Littérature, les Arts et la Culture that organised regular national and international Conferences in Saint-Louis. 

Some of these writers were also significant figures in the fight for their country's independence. Alda do Espírito Santo of São Tomé and Príncipe was a member of the Political Bureau of the Movement for the Liberation of São Tomé and Príncipe (part of the transitional government that led São Tomé and Príncipe to independence), a former Minister of Culture and Education, Social Affairs and Culture Minister, and the first woman to become Deputy Head of State and the founder of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Sao Tome. Then there was Lina Magaia from Mozambique who was not only a journalist, agricultural development specialist, but also an activist and member of the FRELIMO liberation army, and a significant figure in post-independent Mozambique. 

A lot of these women were also firsts: Miriam Tlali (the first black woman to publish a novel in South Africa when Muriel at Metropolitan was published in 1975), Aminata Sow Fall (the first published woman novelist from Francophone Black Africa), Grace Ogot (one of the first African women to have fiction published in English with two short stories published in 1963 and 1964 in Black Orpheus and Transition respectively), Filomena Embaló (the first woman in Guinea-Bissau to have written a novel with Tiara, published in 1999), Orlanda Amarílis (the first woman Cape Verdean writer to publish a book-length work of fiction), Angèle Rawiri (said to be Gabon’s first novelist), and Namibian Neshani Andreas (the first and only Namibian writer to be included in Heinemann African Writers Series with her debut novel, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu that was published in 2001).

These are also prolific writers, and their accolades alone would be too immense for one blog post: 
Aminata Sow Fall has also published more than eight novels and a number of essays, including Un grain de vie et d'espérance (Food for thought and tomorrow's life) in 2002 on her reflection on the significance of food in Senegal, followed by some twenty recipes proposed by Senegalese Chef Margo Harley.  In June 2015, Fall received the Grand Prix de la Francophonie for her literary work in French.  In 1997, Aminata Sow Fall was awarded an Honorary Degree at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley, Massachusetts. Egyptian writer, activist and professor of American and English literature Radwa Ashourhas written seven novels, an autobiography, two collections of short stories and five criticism books, as well as a major 4-volume work on Arab women writers, she co-edited in 2004 and works that Ashour co-translated from English to Arabic. Ashour also won numerous awards including the 2007 Constantine Cavafy Prize for Literature and the 2011 Owais Prize. 

Highly acclaimed, Algerian writer, filmmaker and women’s rights activist, Assia Djebar became the first Algerian woman to be elected to France’s most prestigious cultural institution - the Academia Francaise - in 2005. Djebar's other numerous awards - in 1996 winning the Neustadt International Prize for Literature for contributions to world literature, in 1997 taking home the Yournecar Prize and in 2000 becoming the first female Arab writer to be awarded the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade. Assia Djebar was also the first Algerian woman to make a film within a national cinema that only began after Algeria’s independence from France in 1962. Djebar’s achievements as a director were also recognised: in 1979 she received the International Critics Prize at the Venice Film Festival for her movie La Nouba des Femmes du Mont Chenoua (The Party of the Women of Mount Chenoua), which told the story of an Algerian expatriate who returns to her country  sixteen years after the end of the independence war. Her second film, La Zerda ou les chants de l’oubli (Zerda and the songs of forgetting), a documentary juxtaposing French newsreels of World War I and II and Algerian women singing traditional songs, won the prize for the best historical film at the Berlinale in 1982. 

A lot of the writers featured also encountered obstacles in becoming writers. Neshani Andreas 'always wanted to write', but it 'was not recognised' or 'encouraged as a serious activity' in her community; Egyptian Alifa Rifaat from an early age was strongly reprimanded by her older sister for writing, prevented from writing by her husband and had to write under the pseudonym of Fatimah Rifaat; and Grace Ogot also initially struggled to get her stories published as 'the Manager of East African Literature Bureau ... really couldn't understand how a Christian woman could write such stories, involved with sacrifices, traditional medicines and all, instead of writing about Salvation and Christianity.'

Those writers that were away from their home also wrote about feelings of alienation or exile. Born in Benin (formerly known as Dahomey), Harlem-based poet, writer and playwright Rashidah Ismaili AbuBakr' emigrated to New York in 1956/7, and writes essays of her experiences as an African woman in 1960s America, as can be seen in her essay, West African Women in Exile: City, University and Dislocated Village. As a Cape Verdean writer in Lisbon, a lot of Orlanda Amarílis' stories are noted for their depiction of the life of migrants from Cape Verde in Portugal, with a particular focus on Cape Verdean women. While Angèle Rawiri - who had lived in Gabon, France and the UK - considered herself a ‘deracinee’ (uprooted woman), had a feeling of 'perpetual exile' and 'never felt at home on African soil and at the same time, I didn’t feel at home in Europe either’.

Interestingly, while writers such as Radwa Ashour and Assia Djebar (who also wrote under a pen name) were open about being feminists. Indeed, Ashour's writing reflected her own gendered experience and national identity: 'As a woman and as a person in Egypt, in a third world country ... this is what I know most: thwarted aspirations'; but was also written in 'self-defence and in defence of countless others with whom I identify or who are like me'. Other writers did not openly embrace a feminist label.

Alifa Rifaat did not identify as a feminist in the Western-sense - even though Rifaat argued that 'Women ... have a right to be fulfilled in their sexual and emotional lives', and for more sexual education for women, 'if only through books'. Similarly, Senegalese writer Mariama was also known to be active in women’s associations and a defender of women’s rights. emphasised women’s right to education, recognised the importance of women’s education, and fought for it – among other rights – through speeches and articles published in local newspapers. However, Bâ refused the label of feminism so as to reject notions widely associated with white feminism, such as the belief that women were better or more important than men. The same is observed with Botswana's Bessie Headwhose works explored the effects of racial and social oppression, as well as exile – drawing a lot from her own experiences of discrimination both in her birthplace of South Africa and in her adopted land of Botswana. While Head's novels and short stories emphasised a lot of these experiences from a female perspective, Head always emphasised that her outlook was a universal one – refusing to be seen as a feminist, as she abhorred all oppression - racial, sexual, and political, but also refusing to be called an African writer, a black writer, or a revolutionary writer.  


As prolific and dynamic as these writers all are, sadly, some lived very short lives. Neshani Andreas was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 2010 and passed away in 2011 (in her later 40s). Still, they accomplished a lot in their time here. Zimbabwean writer, women’s rights activist and Arts Director, Yvonne Vera passed away in 2005, at the young age of 40, but in her lifetime she published: a short story collection, Why Don't You Carve Other Animals?(1992), and five novels - Nehanda (1993), Without A Name (1994), Under The Tongue (1996), Butterfly Burning (1998) and The Stone Virgins(2002). Vera also edited Opening Spaces – an anthology of contemporary writing by African women. She also won numerous national and international awards, including the Zimbabwean Publisher’s Literary Award for best novel in 1996 and 1997, the 1997 Commonwealth writer's prize for best novel, Africa region, for Under The Tongue, the Macmillan writer's prize for Africa, for The Stone Virgins in 2002 and the Tucholski prize awarded by Swedish PEN in 2004. Angola's Deolinda Rodríguez de Almeida lived an extremely short, but rich life - being executed in prison around the age of 29. Known as the ‘Mother of the Revolution’- Angola’s Revolution – Deolinda was a writer, a poet, and an Angolan nationalist, heroine, militant and translator. de Almeida's writings can be found in two books - her diary, Diário de um e xílio sem regress published in 2003; and her letters and correspondence - Cartas de Langidila e outs documents, published in 2004. They are both published in Portuguese. Finally, Angolan poet, essayist, doctor and political activist Alda Ferreira Pires Bareto de Lara Albuquerque (Alda Lara) passed away at the age of 32 - but was also a prolific writer, who 'wrote extensively about freedom and justice, as well as the place of motherhood in a more equitable society.'

This is a brief reflection of what I have learned about the first twenty writers in this series, and there is a lot more I haven't touched on here. More than that, I am excited to see what I am going to learn about the next 80 writers in the series. And, yes, I am aware that based on my current track record it will probably take me another two years to get to 40. But if there's one thing I have taken from this process is that this will most definitely take me a long time to complete, but it will also probably morph into something I am yet to anticipate, and I am completely fine with that. 
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#100AfricanWomenWriters: 20. Orlanda Amarílis


Source: elfikurten.com


Orlanda Amarílis Lopes Rodrigues Fernandes Ferreira (Orlanda Amarílis) was a Cape Verdean writer, who was said to be the first woman Cape Verdean writer to publish a book-length work of fiction. Born in 1924 in Santa Catarina, in the island of Ilha de Santiago, Cape Verde, Amarílis' primary and secondary schooling was in Mindeol, Sao Vicente Island. She also lived in Angola and in India - pursuing her teacher training in Goa. Later, she graduated in Pedagogic Sciences at the Faculty of Letters in Lisbon.  


At the age of twenty-one, Amarílis married the Portuguese writer and critic Manuel Ferreira - then in the military service in Cape Verde during the Second World War. They had two children, travelled widely and were involved in political and professional organisations. Indeed, Amarílis was committed to the fight against colonialism and was a member of the Portuguese Movement against Apartheid (MPCA).

Orlanda Amarílis passed away in 2014, but in her lifetime, she collaborated with several magazines including Certeza (in Cape Verde), África (Lisbon), and the newspaper O Heraldo (in Goa, India). Her first stories were published in the 1940s in the short-lived Cape Verdean magazine Certeza (two issues published). Her first short story collection was Cais-do-Sodre Te Salamansa in 1974 composed of seven stories, including 'Nina' which focused on racism, notions of identity, sexism and the feeling of loneliness experienced by immigrants.


Excerpt of Nina (in Portuguese and English). Source: Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation

Living primarily in Lisbon since her marriage, Amarílis' trilogy of short-story collections: Cais-do-Sodre Te Salamansa, Ilhéu dos pássaros (1983) and A Casa dos Mastros (1989) are noted for their depiction of Cape Verdean lives, both on the islands and in the diaspora, with a particular focus on Cape Verdean women. Many of Amarílis' short stories portray the life of migrants from Cape Verde in Portugal, notably in the collection Cais do Sodre Te Salamansa, and the forms of solidarity created by Cape Verdeans in Lisbon as they 'negotiate the harsh realities of life in urban Portugal and reflect on memories of their lost homeland'.



A piece on Creole Literature from Cape Verde notes that:


Orlanda Amarílis has lived in Portugal (Lisboa) for several years [but] one of the basic references to understand her writing is that her displaced position in Portugal created a sort of ambivalence, marking her texts in contradictory ways, as an intimate, “insider” of Cape Verde, and at the same time, as a critical, estranged “outsider”. As a Cape Verdean writer in diaspora, Orlanda Amarílis has a double perspective on the evolution of this postcolonial literature being as she is, both inspired by the local realities of the archipelago, and at the same time, as a displaced emigrant, looking back on Cape Verde from abroad, reflecting on the condition of other less privileged fellow emigrants. As Phyllis Peres points out, Orlanda Amarillis' in-between place 'calls attention to the larger question of what it means to be a diasporic writer'.

Amarílis' also wrote a tale in an anthology of Portuguese women writers Fantástico no Feminino (1985) and other works include: Escrita e Comabte (1976), Contos-O Campo da Palava (1985), and Afecto as Letras-Prado Coelho (1988). Amarílis' also wrote children’s stories.
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#100AfricanWomenWriters: 19. Neshani Andreas


Image Source: Sister Namibia

"For most of my life I just wrote for myself ... I never told anybody." said
Namibian writer, Neshani Andreas in a 2005 interview with Erika von Wietersheim.

Said to be the first Namibian (and only Namibian writer) to be included in Heinemann African Writers Series with debut novel, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu (published in 2001), Andreas 'always wanted to write ... I wrote as a child, in high school, as long as I can remember.'

Andreas (the second of eight children) was born in 1964 in Walvis Bay, Namibia. Her parents worked in a fish factory and writing as an occupation 'was not recognised' or 'encouraged as a serious activity' in her community. As Andreas goes on to explain about being 'shy and almost embarrassed about a passion that was completely strange to the society in which she grew up':
I lived in a world that did not make sense to anybody else. On the other hand I had to fit into a world around me that did not make much sense to me.
As Erika von Wietersheim writes, this difference was further exacerbated by Andreas' friends reaction to telling them about her passion:

Andreas was in her early twenties when she made the first attempt to mention to friends that she liked writing. The reaction was devastating; nobody gave her wish to write any serious thought, and the young woman felt even more discouraged than before. Undeterred, Andreas continued her lonely writing for the following ten years, filling pages and pages with notes. "My writings became part of my luggage whenever I moved from one place to the next. They were my most treasured things," she says.
In the meantime, Andreas trained as a teacher at Ongwediva Teachers' College, and taught English, history and business economics from 1988 to 1992 in a school in rural northern Namibia. Living there and being immersed in the rural culture led to Andreas developing a profound respect for the women she encountered - an experience that inspired The Purple Violet of Oshaantu.

Andreas then went on to complete a Bachelor of Arts and Post Graduate Diploma in Education at the newly established University of Namibia in Windhoek. She then became Associate Peace Corps Director for the US Peace Corps in Namibia, a position she held for four years. Thereafter she worked for the Forum of African Women Educationalists in Namibia (FAWENA) - an organisation promoting women's and girls' education - as Programme Officer.

Illustrations by Zing Tsjeng for the book series Forgotten Women 

A turning point in Andreas' writing career came when she finally met someone who shared her literary passion:
One day she was speaking to a young Peace Corps Volunteer, Reed Dickson, and mentioned in passing that she had tried her hand at writing. Dickson's reaction was different from any Andreas had experienced so far. Dickson immediately asked his shy colleague to show him some of her notes. Andreas gave him a few pages to read and, to her surprise, he was impressed. "This was one of the most treasured moments in my life," she remembers. "I had met the first person in my life who showed interest and understanding in my writing."  
The exhilaration of being acknowledged as a writer prompted Andreas to buy a laptop computer, and she started writing with a purpose. All the stories stored in her mind for years, particularly about village life in northern Namibia, surfaced in an outburst of creativity. "Now I was doing it!" she recalls. "There were papers lying all over in my room, I was writing all day."


Neshani completed the manuscript for her novel in 1999 and presented it to Namibian publisher, Jane Katjavivi, who presented it to the Heinemann African Writers Series. Katjavivi is said to consider this as 'one of the most memorable moments in her publishing career, realising as soon as she had read the manuscript that it would be a success'.

Set in the fictional rural village of Oshaantu, The Purple Violet of Oshaantu is the story of the friendship between two women, Mee Ali and Kauna, narrated through the voice of Mee Ali. While Mee Ali is happily married to Michael, Kauna is trapped in an abusive marriage to Shange. While her neighbours and family are aware that Kauna is being treated brutally by her husband, social custom dictates that they should not intervene.





Talking about the novel, and finding the right balance when writing it, in an interview Andreas
... did not want to be insensitive to my culture, I did not want to be insulting, but I wanted to be as honest and realistic as possible. ... I have to write honestly, otherwise I would feel uncomfortable. Being dishonest to please others goes against your own creativity.
Andreas also did not want to focus on the South African military occupation, return from exile and political events in post-independent Namibia:
I had to write about other things; travelling in overcrowded minibuses, selling and buying at markets, about sickness, witchcraft and church, about ordinary things.
While the novel was a success, Andreas wrote at a time where the literary culture in Namibia was still in its infancy. As explained in the 2005 interview with Erika von Wietersheim
"Writing is a lonely business … You write alone, and you never know if anybody will ever read what you write." But Andreas remains passionate about the written word. "I could never stop writing. It is with me every day, I never forget it. I edit in my mind whatever I hear or read. I pick up what people say, how they say it, I pick up words, expressions ..."

It must have been particularly lonely, as Andreas noted that
Writing is still not encouraged by Namibian society, it is not regarded as a respectable job, as something that has any benefit. It is my dream to write full-time, to wake up every morning and to know that this is my job, my life, just to write.
Yet, Andreas continued to write, and had finished her second novel at the time of her interview: "It is quite different from the first one".  Andreas was diagnosed with lung cancer in early 2010 and passed away in 2011.


Interview: Neshani Andreas by Erika von Wietersheim. Source: Sister Namibia


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#100AfricanWomenWriters: 18. Angèle Rawiri


Source: litterature et ecrivains dailleurs
I hadn’t thought about [becoming Gabon’s first novelist]. I was rather taken up by my reflections, my doubts, my worries, my fears. When the novel came out, I found out that I was the first.
These were the words of Gabonese writer Angèle Rawiri in a 1988 interview for the African women’s magazine, Amina, translated by Cheryl Toman in her book Women Writers of Gabon: Literature and Herstory.

Born in 1954 in Port-Gentil (her father was the president of the Gabonese Senate and poet; her mother, who passed away when Angèle was six, was a teacher), Rawiri was said to be Gabon’s first novelist with Cheryl Toman noting that:
Angèle Rawiri has played quite a unique role in the development of national literature in Gabon and historically speaking, she has set herself apart from other pioneering women authors of any time period or tradition.
Rawiri was said to be quiet about her public life - even though her father was a prominent politician in Gabon, but according to the Historical Dictionary of Gabon, Rawiri studied in France at the Lycée of Alès and earned a baccalaureate at the girls' college at Vanves. In Paris at the Institut Lentonnet, she obtained a second baccalaureate in the commercial translation of English. Rawiri then spent two years in London to perfect her English, and supported herself by playing small roles in James Bond movies and fashion shoots for magazines.

Rawiri returned to her hometown of Port-Gentil in Gabon in 1979, and worked as a translator and interpreter of English for the state oil company, Société Nationale Pétrolière Gabonaise. Toman further notes that it was Rawiri's brother who encouraged her to write her first two novels: Elonga and G’amerakano. By the end of 1980s, Rawiri left Gabon definitively and headed for France where she finished and published her third and final novel, Fureurs et cris de femmes.


While Rawiri had lived in Gabon, France and the UK, in the same 1988 interview in Amina Magazine, Rawiri, considered herself a ‘deracinee’ (uprooted woman) explaining: I never felt at home on African soil and at the same time, I didn’t feel at home in Europe either’. Writing might have been a way for Rawiri to deal with these sentiments of 'perpetual exile' she felt - using it as 'an outlet for exploring aspects fo culture and society that bewildered or enraged her'.

However, unlike other African women writers I have featured so far in this series, Rawiri encountered relatively few obstacles if any in becoming Gabon’s first novelist. In the same Amina interview, Rawiri explained:

I must admit that it was rather easy. Friends who were journalists helped me out by putting me in contact with an editor.

Rawiri's writing led to three published novels - often described as a trilogy (although they do not have much in common) - Elonga, G’amarakano: Au Carrefour, and Fureurs et cris de femmes (Fury and Cries of Women), which are the 'hallmarks of an important decade for Gabonese literature written in French' according to Cheryl Toman.





Toman described Rawiri's first novel, Elonga, as following a young man of Spanish and Gabonese descent, whose Spanish father's dying wish is for his son to leave Spain to reconnect with the country of his already deceased mother’s birth (the fictitious African country of Ntsempolo). Rawiri's second novel, G’amerakano au carrefour, tells the story of Toula, a dismally paid secretary who succumbs to her mothers badgering and is further convinced by her best friend and colleague, Ekata, that she should dramatically modify her appearance if she ever hopes to find her way out of the poor neighbourhood of Igewa.

For Toman, Elonga is 'the least feminist but also the least woman-centred', and could be the reason why it has received the least amount of critical attention:
... critics simply were at a loss as to how to categorise it since women novelists from Gabon, like other African women writers, do tend to give the spotlight to female protagonists.
Rawiri's third novel, Fureurs et cris de femmes (translated to English by Sara Hanaburg as The Fury and Cries of Women) is considered the richest of her fictional prose portraying one woman's life in Central Africa in the late 1980s. It follows Emilienne,
... whose active search for feminism on her own terms is tangled up with cultural expectations and taboos of motherhood, marriage, polygamy, divorce, and passion. She completes her university studies in Paris; marries a man from another ethnic group; becomes a leader in women's liberation; enjoys professional success, even earning more than her husband; and eventually takes a female lover. Yet still she remains unsatisfied. Those closest to her, and even she herself, constantly question her role as woman, wife, mother, and lover. The tragic death of her only child - her daughter Rekia - accentuates Emilienne's anguish, all the more so because of her subsequent barrenness and the pressure that she concede to her husband's taking a second wife.


While working on her fourth novel, Rawiri died on November 15, 2010, in Paris. For French speakers, here's a video of an interview with Angèle Rawiri.
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#100AfricanWomenWriters: 17. Alifa Rifaat

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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