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Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

On-line version ISSN 2309-9070
Print version ISSN 0041-476X

Tydskr. letterkd. vol.45 n.1 Pretoria Jan. 2008


Reconciling Arabo-Islamic culture and feminist consciousness in North African women's writing: Silence and voice in the short stories of Alifa Rifaat and Assia Djebar



Naomi Nkealah

Naomi Nkealah is a doctoral candidate in the Department of African Literature at the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. E-mail:




This article sets out to explore the theme of silence and voice in selected short stories by two North African women writers, Alifa Rifaat and Assia Djebar. In their representations of women's lives in Egypt and Algeria, respectively, both Rifaat and Djebar present different strategies employed by women to counter gender oppression. Although the female characters portrayed by both writers encounter diverse, and sometimes opposing, circumstances, they tend to share a common plight - the need to break free from the constricting fetters of patriarchy. A comparative reading of selected stories reveals that Rifaat's characters resort to silence as a means of self-preservation, while Djebar's characters, on the other hand, use techniques ranging from writing to outright protest to show their rejection of gender-based segregation. In spite of this difference in approach, it can be said that both Rifaat and Djebar have made a great contribution to feminist literary creativity in North Africa.

Key words: Alifa Rifaat, Assia Djebar, Islam, women, short story, feminism



Full text available only in PDF format.



1. The term "Arab feminism" is used here to refer to feminist movements in North Africa and the Middle East. While it is used in the singular form for the purpose of convenience, it recognizes that different brands of feminism exist within Arabo-Islamic societies.

2. Different forms of female circumcision are practiced throughout North Africa (see Camillia El-Solh & Judy Mabro (1994: 13). This paper, however, refers specifically to clitoridectomy, which involves the complete removal of the clitoris (see Dorothy Wills 1995: 164).

3. All text quotations are from Alifa Rifaaf s Distant View of a Minaret (1983).

4. The Qur'an states: "And among his signs is this, that He created for you mates from among yourselves, that ye may dwell in tranquility with them, and he has put love and mercy between your (hearts): verily in that are signs for those who reflect" (Sura 30: 21). Commenting on this verse, Abdullah Ali (The Holy Qur'an 1993: 1056) states that there is a special kind of love and tenderness between men and women, which differs in quality from that between men, and that this kind of tenderness may from a certain perspective be likened to mercy, the protecting kindness which the strong should give to the weak.

5. According to Islamic religious teachings, a woman has the right to reject any marriage that is contracted without her consent. In practice, however, this right is suppressed through institutions that force women into silence.


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