Women Writing Africa: The Northern Region
Women Writing Africa: The Northern Region is the fourth in a series of volumes, following The Southern Region, The Eastern Region, and West Africa and the Sahel. It provides a thorough documentation of women's lives from the fifteenth century BCE to the present in nations from the nations of Algeria, Egypt, Mauretania, Morocco, Sudan, and Tunisia. Subjects addressed include cooking and colonialism, torts and torture, polygamy and the veil, love songs, and repeated calls for women's education. Forms in the anthology include prose, poetry, lyric, legal documents, petitions, folktales, and transcriptions of tellings by illiterates.
The poet I'timad Arrummaikiyya could be construed an eleventh century Lil' Kim—“I urge you to come faster than the wind to mount my breast and firmly dig and plough my body, and don't let go until you've flushed me thrice.”—and there are equally passionate protestations of faith from Christian and Islamic perspectives. Sara, daughter of Abboud Al-Nahid, filed for a no-fault divorce in 1069 due to “feelings of aversion for (her husband's) person”—a reassuring glimpse at the consistency of intimate dramas (no support, she takes custody of a five year-old son).
A general reader, I found the collection a varied and thorough introduction to the history of the area, my previous exposure having been restricted, unfortunately, to the Tutankhamen exhibit at Seattle's Art Museum in 1978 and the movie The Battle of Algiers. The necessity of education is a persistent theme—Nabaweya Moussa refers to the Egyptian proverb: “Teach girls to spin, but don't teach them to write.” Personal narratives include girls learning through eavesdropping on brothers' lessons, young women applying to school in secret and paying the tuition themselves, and illiterate mothers sneaking their daughters into academies (one girl goes on to earn a doctorate becomes a physicist). Faiza W. Shereen's previously unpublished short story “The Gifts of Time” spans decades and continents to narrate family and history. We can only hope that the call at the close of Mona Nawal Helmi's “From this Day Forward I Will Carry My Mother's Name” is right: “We've had enough futile, ineffectual babbling!”