Her Magazine, Her Voice: Foremothers of Women’s Journals in Africa and the Middle East | 4 Corners of the World (2023)

(The following is a joint post by Angel Batiste, Ann Brener, Anchi Hoh, and Fawzi Tadros in the African and Middle Eastern Division.)

The history of women in Africa and the Middle East has often been told as addenda to incessant wars, political turmoil, and social injustice. If women’s voices could be heard, what story would they tell? How would they portray the image of women? Specialists in the African and Middle Eastern Division say that some answers can be found in a body of important resources, namely, the first women’s journals from the region dating back to the late 19th and the 20th centuries. Spanning across almost a century and coming from different cultures, this corps of literature tells a strikingly similar story, that of self-identity in the nationalist era from women’s perspectives.

First Arab Women’s Journals
(Contributed by Anchi Hoh, Program Specialist, and Fawzi Tadros, Arab World Specialist.)

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Whether by design or coincidence, the late 19th century and the following several decades were a major milestone in women’s history. In Europe and America, great strides were made in advancing women’s suffrage. Women in the Middle East also witnessed a cultural renaissance (alNahdah in Arabic) and a series of reforms in response to the modernizing impact of the Western powers’ presence in the Ottoman Empire. As part of the reforms, education was initially promoted to improve women’s domestic roles but later led women to pursue higher education and careers. Simultaneously, the rise of journalism and literary salons facilitated the participation of women writers. As a result, a good number of Arab women’s journals came into existence between the late 19th century and the early 1920s.

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Considered the first Arab women’s magazine, al-Fatat (The Young Woman) was established in 1892 in Alexandria, Egypt, by Hind Nawfal (1860-1929), a Syrian Christian journalist. The journal was designed with female readers in mind and encouraged women’s contributions for publication—two missions no concurrent magazine assumed. Although both Nawfal’s father and sister were involved in the operation, the journal ceased publication soon after Nawfal got married in 1893. Nevertheless, this title became the foremother of a subsequent group of publications that came to be known as al-majallat al-nisa’iyah (women’s journals).

In the following three decades, over 30 journals were established by Arab women in today’s Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria. Among them is Fatat al-Sharq (1906-1936) (The Young Woman of the East), published in Cairo by Labibah Hashim (1882-1952). A novelist and journalist, originally born in Beirut, whose early education was in English and French, she became the first Arab female lecturer at al-Jam`ah al-Misriyah (University of Egypt, now Cairo University) in 1911, and then in 1919 the first female general inspector of girls’ schools in Damascus. Fatat al-Sharq mainly focused on introducing its readers to famous female figures in the East and West, as well as on literary works, social commentaries and advice on domestic matters.

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With more women entering the public sphere, al-Jins al-Latif (The Fair Gender), published in Cairo from 1908 to 1921 by Malaka Sa’ad who originally came from Lebanon, played an unprecedented role in raising issues including liberation, gender equality, and the appropriate age for marriage. It advocated for women’s intellectual development in the age of science. Some scholars see this publication as a major influence on the women’s movement in Egypt.

Another important title is Layla. Published from 1923 to 1925, it was the first women’s journal in Iraq and a forerunner to the women’s movement there. Different from its predecessors, Layla dabbled into science and led a campaign for women’s rights. Founder Paulina Hassoun was a writer and journalist from Jordan who moved with her family to Baghdad in 1922 and became active in women’s movement. The journal ceased publication in 1925 due to financial difficulties and Hassoun left Iraq soon afterward.

Devar ha-Po’elet
(Contributed by Ann Brener, Hebraic Area Specialist)

To anyone who has ever stood in line at the supermarket, the first Hebrew periodical for women scarcely seems to belong to the genre of women’s magazines seen on the shelves today. Devar ha-Poelet (A Word to the Woman Worker), which began publication in Tel-Aviv in 1934, as a monthly supplement to the Hebrew newspaper Davar, has no glossy cover, no advertisements, and certainly none of the “veil, silk and kid gloves”–to quote one literary historian – that characterized such iconic publications for women as Godey’s Lady’s Book (1830-1878), the first “queen of monthlies” in America. What Devar ha-Poelet does have, at least in the early years, is a sprinkling of grainy black-and-white photographs; no advertisements; and yellow, crumbling paper that make these first issues look more like well-thumbed tomes of rabbinic learning than the revolutionary journal it surely was.

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Her Magazine, Her Voice: Foremothers of Women’s Journals in Africa and the Middle East | 4 Corners of the World (6)

The revolution reflected in the pages of Devarha-Po’elet was, in many ways, the culmination of a movement that began towards the end of the 19th century, when young Jewish women, largely from Russia and Eastern Europe, began arriving in Ottoman Palestina eager to do their part in rebuilding the land. But in other ways, Devarha-Po’elet was also a beginning. By 1934, when the first issues appeared, refugees from Nazi Europe were streaming into the country and the pages of Devarha-Po’elet reflect the efforts to house, re-train, and educate the new women immigrants. Alongside poems, memoirs, and biographical sketches of noted Hebrew authoresses and poetesses, there are calls for equal opportunities in the training courses, demands for equal pay, and reports from the field about collective efforts to absorb women into the workplace. By the end of the first year of publication, the covers have moved from portraits, for example, of the national Hebrew poet, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, to images of women taking their place in the factories and farms. Here we find a bare-legged young woman shouldering a hoe as she strides towards the fields; there, a kerchiefed woman of more mature years learning to card wool in a training course for women in Tel-Aviv. With their gaze entirely focused on the work at hand, these “cover girls” are the living image of a new ideal in Jewish society.

Devarha-Po’elet was not the first periodical for Jewish women; just the first one in Hebrew, but it is this distinction that makes all the difference and that ultimately – unlike Jewish women’s magazines published in the vernacular in those same years– gave it its longevity. Devarha-Po’elet appeared without break between 1934 – 1976, surviving even the years of World War II and the shortages of the 1950s. It ceased publication only in 1976, and then only because it merged into Naamat, a journal whose name is a Hebrew acronym for “Working and Volunteering Women” and which still appears today – in Hebrew.

AWA: The Black Woman’s Journal (AWA: La Revue de la femme noire)
(Contribution by Angel Batiste, Area Specialist, African Section)

African women played a crucial role in the anti-colonial struggles of the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s. They were also key participants in shaping conversations and intellectual discourses on African Nationalism and the ideology of Pan-Africanism which asserts that “African peoples, both on the continent and in the diaspora, share not merely a common history, but a common destiny.” The bilingual Senegalese women’s magazine, AWA: The Black Woman’s Journal (AWA: La Revue de la femme noire), published in 1963 was one of the earliest journals emphasizing African women’s voices in debates about nationalism, gender equality and racism in the early post-colonial African world. It also celebrated the achievements of black women on the African continent and in the Caribbean, the United States and Europe. Published and circulated in the mid-1960s, in the aftermath of independence movements throughout Africa, AWA contributed to a body of writing that attempted to establish a network of black women’s political activism on a continental and international level. The journal also celebrated black women’s achievements and featured pictures of the latest African fashion trends, short stories by black writers, and articles highlighting global events that could be of interest to African women. A regular column titled “A Gentleman’s Commentary” created a space for men to dialogue with female contributors and readers.

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The editor-in-chief of AWA was Annette Mbaye d’Erneville, the first Senegalese to earn a degree in journalism, who also authored collections of poetry and children’s literature, and founded the Henriette Bathily Museum of Women on Goree Island, Senegal. In 1977, d’Efrneville was a key person in establishing the Fédération des Associations Féminines du Sénégal (FAFS), a federation of hundreds of Senegalese women groups. The editorial in the first anniversary issue described “Awa the black woman” as the “daughter of militant Africa, born in the euphoria of an enthusiastic era […] feminine but not violently feminist.”

You are welcome to view the originals of these women’s journals in the African and Middle Eastern Reading Room.

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