Latifa al-Zayyat – About an Arab Woman, Politics and Prison

“You are so beautiful… Why do you practise politics?”

Latifa al-Zayyat was asked this on page 107 of  “The investigation” (Damietta, 1923). It was the second time she was incarcerated as a political prisoner under the Saddat rule. During that time, she, a communist, shared her cell in a women’s prison with the other political prisoners of the time: the islamists. They stood up for each other, became friends, led revolts. In that prison, Latifa helped wrapping the black veil of Sabaah (an islamist), and she took her into her arms.

As if she took me into her arms. Though I wouldn’t express myself as an islamist or communist, reading her literature and her life journey felt like coming home after a long, tiring day. She was an Arab woman, born even before the world war. When she died, she could say that she had lived an eventful life. I am sure of that. She was always reminded of her being a woman, yet she saw herself as a human being. She was silenced, yet she overcame that through writing stories. She was the kind of woman I would love to become. A profound admiration.

When I was reading her autobiography I was surprised by how free she was. How free she wrote how she conquered her spot in 20th century Egypt as a professor and writer. How she lived in an environment rich in prominent women, women for whom society was terrified of them being imprisoned (#goals). I did not want to be surprised, however. The first university in the world was founded by a woman from Fes, Morocco. Without the success, money, and emotional power of Khadija, the Prophet would have never succeeded in spreading his message. Aicha was, after his death, one of the most prominent sources of information: a historiographer.

I did not want to be surprised. I knew Ghada Al-Samaan. I knew Fatima Mernissi. I knew Nawal El Saadawi. Yet I was struck by a feeling of disappointment. The exceptions made the history books, destroyed the truths. For the mass, those women always had a certain aura of wicked rebellion surrounding them. To my opinion, this has been a setback for many women who had their time frozen and even rewound.

What Latifa (yes, I choose to call her by her first name, as I consider her a friend of mine now) has taught me is that the politics these women practised while they were surpressed was actually more a form of art rather than politics. An islamist and communist hugging each other. Imagine that. It’s not beautiful, but ravishing. As long as politics do not rise to power.

Yes, I am beautiful. That’s why I practise politics.

This article is written by Aya Sabi.

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