May Ziyadah and Malak Hifni Nasif: A Literary Liaison

In this article I am writing about a beautiful ‘Literary Liaison’ between two extremely illustrious Arab women writers—May Ziyadah and Malak Hifni Nasif— who not only challenged the norms of the society but even paved the way for future Arab women writers to voice their opinions fearlessly. These women set an example of how two women can support and admire each other in their literary journey and strife of transforming the society.  

Malak Hifni Nasif, born in 1886, well known by her nom de plume Bahithat al Badiyah, (Scholar of the Desert) was one of the most prominent and forthright Arab feminist writers of the 20th Century. She used a pseudonym which was so the norm of the day for women writers, so much so that in 1908, the Association for the Advancement of Women in Egypt campaigned for a woman’s right to use her own name.

Nasif studied at the French missionary school, after which she went to the public al-Saniyyah school, hence, becoming one of the first Egyptian women to acquire primary and high school teaching certificates. She wrote innumerable articles on the atrocities to which women were subjected in the al-Jaridah newspaper. Nasif herself, went through a series of ups and downs in her personal life and had a troubled marriage, where after getting married she came to know about her husband’s previous marriage, as back then, polygamy was very common. This setback made her speak up against injustice and oppression faced by women. She firmly believed in the role of education for elevating the position of women in society. She once wrote, “Men emphatically tell us that we (women) were born for the house and they to earn a livelihood. I wish I knew what decree was issued by God to ordain that, and how they came to know about it (the decree) since it was not mentioned in any (religious) book.” 

She vehemently opposed the notion that women should be married off as soon as they hit puberty, she believed that the minimum age of a girl’s marriage should be at least sixteen. In 1911, at an Islamic Conference held in Cairo she presented ten demands pertaining to women’s rights; which included compulsory primary education, denial of divorce without hearing the wife’s side of the story, restriction on polygamy etc.  

On the other hand, May Ziyadah was a free-spirited woman, born in Nazareth to Lebanese Maronite father Elias Ziyadah and a Palestinian mother, who moved to Cairo and enrolled at the Egyptian University to study Classical Arabic Literature. 1911 saw the publication of her first collection of poems titled Fleurs de reve, which she wrote under the pseudonym Isis Copia. She contributed several of her articles to the magazine, Al-Mahrusa, which was edited by her father. Ziyadah had an exemplary command over nine languages and undertook translation of several books. 

A staunch supporter of woman empowerment and literacy she had once remarked, “those people who do not honour women are ill fated.” She was broad minded enough to write about women being forced into a loveless marriage by society.  One of her works, Woman with a Story, was a narration of a woman falling prey to a harsh and unjust society. She once remarked, “We chant beautiful words in vain…. Words of freedom and liberty. If you, men of the East, keep the core of slavery in your homes, represented by your wives and daughters, will the children of slaves be free?” Ziyadah was the first Arabic woman who wrote the biographies of three Arabic women writers: Warda al-Yaziji; Aisha Taimur; and Bahithat al-Badiyya.” Joseph T. Zeiden writes, “May Ziyadah was the first Arab woman in the modern times to be recognised as an established writer in her own lifetime.”


Apart from her writing career, Ziyadah started weekly salons for the Egyptian intellectuals in 1912, where, ‘Tuesday Meetings’ were held and which attracted hundreds of people for literary discussions and debates. Thinkers and intellectuals like Mahmoud Abbas al-Aqad, Taha Hussein, Antoine Gemayel, Mustapha Sadeq al-Rifae, Hafid Ibrahim and Khalil Moutran frequented her salon. Many of these men fell in love with Ziyadah, but her heart belonged to Kahlil Gibran. Gibran and Ziyadah corresponded for over 19 years without even meeting once in their lifetime. The letters which Gibran wrote to Ziyadah were compiled and given the form of a book titled Blue Flames which was edited by Salma Haffar al-Kuzbari and Suheil Badi Bushrui.

Ziyadah got acquainted with Nasif when a copy of Nasif’s al-Nisa’iyyat, was given to her by Ahmad Lutfi al-Sayyid. Ziyadah admired Nasif’s articles on women’s education and in no time the two developed a strong and unique literary bond. Nasif and Ziyadah gave lectures at the American University in Cairo and the Cairo University. However, in 1918, Nasif died which was a grave and personal loss to Ziyadah. She then wrote essays on Nasif’s life and works in al-Muqtataf, which were later compiled under a book titled Bahithat al-Badiya: A Critical Study. Waheed Mohamed Awad Mowafy writes, “This was the first book written in Arabic by an Arab woman on an Arab woman.” Ziyadah likened Nasif’s pain to a “sacred fire” within her that encouraged her to work towards the cause of empowering women through her writings. Ziyadah wrote,”…. With Bahithat al-Badiyah, the tone became different, and the woman’s personality tended to achieve independence from the man, her mentor.”

Celebrated book, Arab Women Writers: A Critical Reference Guide 1873-1999, edited by Radwa Ashour, Ferial J. Ghazoul and Hasna Reda-Mekdashi while referring to Ziyadah’s biography of Nasif mentions, “The book is difficult to pigeonhole as it is both biography and an autobiography… Finally, it is about a unique relationship between two women, their interaction and the historic-cultural context in which they lived. Looking at the book with a quantitative eye, we find that half of it is about Bahithat al-Badiya and other half is about Mayy Ziyada… Mayy Ziyada’s work on Malak Hifni Nasif is a pioneering example of biography, in both form and content.”

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