MESA Banner
Moving the Margins: How Excavating North African and Middle Eastern Women's Historical Narratives Expands the Archive

Session IX-09, sponsored by American Institute for Maghrib Studies (AIMS), 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
Historical narratives by and large privilege the experiences and perspectives of men. When they are not erased wholesale, the stories of women and other underrepresented groups are often relegated to the margins: footnotes, endnotes, and brief mentions in chapter sections awkwardly separated out from the main plot of History with a capital H. But authors of any kind of historical narrative are also judges, as Paul Ricoeur and Abdelmajid Hannoum remind us: working from archives and interviews, historians must make a selection amongst varying pieces of evidence, giving more weight to some over others. Most are forgotten, skipped over, deemed insignificant. History is thus as imperfect a form of memory as any other. The contents of official state archives, especially colonial ones, reflect a selection and memorialization process that systematically excludes the voices of the marginalized. Women are thus consistently represented in tokenizing and reductive ways. The objective of this panel is to reflect on how researchers working in such inherently biased archives might address and give a place to those whose perspectives have been left by the wayside. Bringing together literary, historical, and anthropological approaches, we explore how North African and Middle Eastern women in particular have represented themselves as well as other women from their histories. The papers in this panel affirm a feminist politics of listening: our task as researchers is not to give these women a voice, but rather to recognize that their agency and capacity for self-expression already exists. While one possible approach would be re-reading the archive, we also examine the possibility that following the sources where women have deposited their memories may expand the study of history itself. This means attending to the ways in which women have expressed themselves in, against, and with dominant historical discourses. In doing so, we reflect on what self-expression at the margins does to these mainstream narratives of History.
  • Studies of gender during the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962) tend to concentrate on the sexual violence that the French inflicted upon female freedom fighters who planted bombs in the European quarter of Algiers in 1956. This focus on the sensationalized image of these bombers, however, clouds our understanding of the contributions and commitment of women to the anticolonial struggle. This paper broadens our understanding of the nexus between gender and anticolonialism by examining Algerian women writers Assia Djebar and Zuhūr Wanīsī’s valorization of Muslim mothers’ gendered social practices and knowledge. Djebar and Wanīsī were both freedom fighters in the Algerian Front de libération nationale (FLN)—the vanguard revolutionary party that became the lynchpin of Algeria’s one-party system—who wrote for Algerian nationalist journals. Performing close readings of periodical archives, specifically Wanīsī’s 1955 article “al-maraʾ al-muslima wa al-ḥaraka al-kašafiyya” (“The Muslim Woman and the Scout Movement”, published in al-ḥayāẗ) and Djebar’s 1963 article « La poésie populaire algérienne depuis 1830 » (“Popular Algerian Poetry Since 1830”, published in Révolution africaine), this paper demonstrates how Djebar and Wanīsī emphasized the importance and necessity of women’s participation in the Algerian Revolution. While working alongside male FLN militants despite their patriarchal tendencies, they situated the Algerian Revolution in the longue durée history of Muslim women's role in military resistance: from the Siege of Mecca (692) to the Emir Abdelkader’s resistance movement (1832-1847). This paper argues that what distinguished Djebar and Wanīsī’s writing about women’s participation in resistance movements from that of their male counterparts, who tended to fixate on the figure of the young and attractive female urban bomber in describing women’s importance in the Algerian Revolution, was the importance they ascribed to mothers. It analyzes their transformation of the maternal archetype: from the mother calling upon the community to mourn the death of her children to the mother leading the celebration of her children’s sacrifice on behalf of the umma (community of Muslim believers). What bound the community together was the power of the maternal figure at the vanguard of the revolution who galvanized the community into taking collective action. However, Djebar and Wanīsī elevated the status of mothers without directly contradicting dominant historical discourses on the importance of women in the Algerian anticolonial struggle. This paper thus urges researchers to attend to marginal spaces of subversion, even in archives that appear at first to affirm dominant historical narratives.
  • The memory of slavery in Mauritania is layered and contested, including the extent to which it can truly be considered history passed and past. Although the entrenchment of servitude has become a trope through which outsiders hastily sketch Arabo-Mauritanian society—as with the oft-repeated fact that Mauritania was the last country to legally abolish slavery—histories and literatures of resistance assign agency instead to those who lived through enslavement or inherited its legacy. This can be seen in fictional works such as M.B. Bamba’s Outside Servitude (2019), which follows a single day in an enslaved man’s life as he starts to question his status and imagine a new place for himself in his society. In addition to drawing attention to everyday resistance, fiction also creates a space in which women of varying backgrounds can engage with the history of slavery in Mauritania. While inherited oral and written sources such as fatwas (legal rulings), poems, and political manifestos almost exclusively center the views of men, novels in particular give women the chance to conjure, imagine, empathize with, and portray feminine perspectives absent from the archive. Such voices are integral to both Aichetou’s novel 'Je suis N’Date' (2018) and in Samira Hamdi Fadel’s 'Asmāl al-ʻAbīd' (2019), both of which portray enslavement through women’s stories. However, empathy is not necessarily solidarity and fiction is not without its own absences and silences. The continued exclusion of some women’s perspectives is nakedly apparent in the fact that there is not yet a single novel by a Mauritanian woman author of Hartaniyya (freedwoman) origin in print. Keeping in mind both the potential and the limitations of women’s solidarity across other social boundaries, this paper examines two Arab-Mauritanian women’s novels on the history and practice of slavery in their country and questions the extent to which they represent a more inclusive archive that breaks enforced silence or merely a new form of exclusion which fails to move the margins.
  • My paper explores the legal-social experience of women facing domestic violence in the Jewish and Muslim communities during the French colonial period in Morocco (1912-1956). During this period, the French created an alleged separation between issues regarding personal status (mainly things that relate to marriage, divorce, inheritance) and all other matters. The former were left to the native communities to conduct, and the latter were handled by the colonial legal systems. Sensitive cases of domestic violence, that are located at the heart of personal status issues, highlight the places where inconsistencies, contradictions, and a lack of knowledge unsettled the formal colonial positions of separation between the different legal systems. This paper asks how domestic violence cases in the Muslim and Jewish colonized communities affected and were affected by social and legal trends. Within the changing colonial and communal legal structures, these case studies challenge the codified separation between the legal systems of personal status law and civil law during the colonial regime. Due to the scarcity of textual sources that refer to daily experiences of colonial subjects, especially those of women, my study synthesizes approaches in oral history, anthropology, and gender studies, a methodology that I call “Embroidering Histories.” Embroidery held an important place in the Moroccan domestic sphere and in particular in the marriage institution. Alongside analyzing textual archival research, I meet with Moroccan women who lived during the colonial period, learning from their traditional craft of embroidery and their life experiences. The knowledge from the craft itself, their oral testimonies and the material embroidered objects, create a new alternative archive. This archive contains diverse types of knowledge by itself and also helps guide and develop my textual archival search. In this way, “Embroidering Histories” uncovers knowledge that cannot be accessed through textual archives alone.