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Classes of Ladies of Cloistered Spaces

Writing Feminist History through Biography in Fin-de-siecle Egypt

Marilyn Booth

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Explores the writing and influence of the first Arabic-language global biographical dictionary of women

Zaynab Fawwaz (c.1860-1914) was as a forceful voice in support of women’s rights to education and work choices in colonial-era Egypt. Her volume of 453 women’s lives, al-Durr al-manthur fi tabaqat rabbat al-khudur (Pearls scattered in times and places: Classes of ladies of cloistered spaces, 1893-6) – featuring Boudicca, Catherine the Great, Zaynab (granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad), Victoria Woodhull, the Turkish poet Sirri Hanim and many others – built on the Arabic-Islamic biographical tradition to produce a work for women in the modern era, grafting European, Turkish, Arab, and Indian life narratives, amongst others onto Arabic literary patterns.

In Classes of Ladies of Cloistered Spaces Marilyn Booth argues that Fawwaz’s work was less ‘exemplary biography’ than feminist history, in its exploration of achievement but also of patriarchal trauma in the lives of women across times and places. She traces Fawwaz’s creative use of her sources, her presentation of biographical narratives in the context of the political essays she wrote in the Arabic press, her publicised dialogue with the President of the Board of Lady Managers of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition – where she attempted to send the volume – and how her inscription of a feminine ancient history diverged from that of men writing history in 1890s Egypt.

Key Features

  • Includes descriptions of biographies of women from the US, Britain, Europe, India, the Maldives, as well as the Middle East (Iran, Turkey and the Arab world)
  • Presents the dictionary as a key text in the debates on gender and national efficacy in 1890s Egypt and Ottoman Syria
  • Takes a close look at issues of text circulation and borrowing
  • Argues that Fawwaz's book can be regarded as 'feminist history'


1. Pearls Scattered: An introduction
2. A women’s world history, in the world of Arabic letters: A reader’s view
3. Founding mothers, speaking sisters: Lineaments of community in history
4. Writerly pursuits: A compiler’s archive
5. A beckoning Compass and circulating lives: The Bustani encyclopedia and other nineteenth-century sources
6. Interlocutors? Men authoring women’s history in the 1890s

7. Framing a history of the present: or, Did the Pearls scatter to the World’s Fair?
8. Violent romances: The bodily drama of patriarchal trauma
Conclusion: A world of women, feminist history and the importance of the feminine signature
Appendix I: Fawwaz’s Biographical Subjects: A List

Appendix II: Translations

About the Author

Marilyn Booth is Khalid bin Abdullah Al Saud Professor of the Study of the Contemporary Arab World, University of Oxford. She has published monographs on exemplary biography in the Arabic women’s press and vernacular writing in Egypt, and she is editor of Harem Histories (2011) and co-editor of The Long 1890s in Egypt (Edinburgh University Press, 2014).


Marilyn Booth is to be lauded for her careful and sophisticated analysis of Zaynab Fawwaz’s biographical work Scattered Pearls. Thanks to her masterful study, Fawwaz and her literary production can now be recognized as constituting an important piece in the shaping of a ‘colonial modernity’ in the Arab world in the late nineteenth century and signaling an emerging Muslim feminist consciousness at this time. This important work will be read with avid interest by all those who are interested in the holistic history of fin-de-siècle Egypt that includes both men’s and women’s voices and in exploring its larger contemporary implications.

- Asma Afsaruddin, Professor of Islamic Studies, Indiana University