(En)Gendering Agency across Borders:
An Arab Feminist Testimony


Rachida Yassine


You have navigated with raging soul far from
the paternal home, passing beyond the Seas’s
double rocks and now you inhabit a foreign land.


Issues of gender and migrant female identity, focusing on the body and its rediscovery, are fundamental in diasporic Arab women’s self-narratives. For instance, the autobiography of the Arab-American Fay Afaf Kanafani, Nadia Captive of Hope: Memoir of an Arab Woman (1999) is a valuable contribution to the field of Arab women’s autobiographical practices, which demonstrates the relationship between exile, the body and female agency. Kanafani’s memoir is a powerful account of an Arab woman’s stoic struggle to shatter taboos about the gendered body and female sexuality, redefine her role, and reposition herself; the author travels many paths, crosses various borders, makes many difficult choices, and undergoes a series of radical life changes such as displacement, expatriation, forced marriage, and bereavement. This makes her autobiography a very pertinent site of feminist critique and resistance, combining historical facts with personal experiences and juxtaposing agency with well-established hierarchies of patriarchy and colonialism. 

My major contention is that because Kanafani’s memoir is located within a politically charged context (Mandate Palestine, the 1936-39 Arab revolt and the Nakba of 1948, the Lebanese Civil war, and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982), it is deeply relevant to the problematic of patriarchal and colonial gender relations. It presents challenging questions about the historical nature and function of gendered migrant identity. My focus is on Kanafani’s feminist critique, the strategies she deploys to negotiate agency across space and time, and the ways she exercises that agency to face traumatic personal as well as collective experiences.

“Nadia” is the name Kanafani gives to the subject of her autobiography. In the afterword of the work, historian Geraldine Forbes asserts that Nadia “has lived five different lives in four different countries” (Kanafani 1999, 335). Born in Lebanon in 1918, Nadia is sexually abused by her father at a young age, and then married off to a wealthy cousin against her will, moving with him to Haifa, Palestine. After Nadia resists intercourse with her new husband, he drunkenly rapes her. When he is killed by a Jewish sniper during the hostilities leading to the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, she is left a 29-year-old widow with three sons. She flees to Lebanon with her children and in-laws in May of that year. Eventually she creates a new life for herself, raising her sons, establishing herself in a professional career, and remarrying for love in 1965. With the onset of the Lebanese civil war in 1975, her new life begins to fall apart. Her husband has a severe stroke that leaves him paralyzed. She subsequently suffers a serious heart attack, goes to the United States for treatment, and settles there.

Even a cursory reading of Kanafani’s memoir reveals that she is writing from an oppositional feminist and cultural perspective. Her autobiography exposes her profound personal struggles with family matters and on a larger scale the devastating political ramifications of uprooting. She directs criticism against patriarchy and occupation, conceiving of them as the source of women’s marginality and subjugation. Her autobiography is a literary account of how a woman rebels against the patriarchal rules which dictate that her position within and duties toward the family precede her rights as an individual.

By referring to herself in the third person, the author employs a distancing technique that enables her to express and come to terms with her painful memories. Another technique is the decision to write in English, rather than her native Arabic. Kanafani states,

It was easier for me to express my feelings in a foreign language even if I did have to struggle to find the right words … a foreign language has a neutral quality and …writing in it could help me deal with the cruelty of the wars that have so dominated my life. (1999, x)

English is thus a vehicle of expression enabling a free flow of reminiscences that makes the hostile and antagonistic past more approachable. Such are the author’s strategies to disinter offending memories and thereby experience the therapeutic agency of remembering. They recall Bhabha’s insight that remembering “is never a quiet act of introspection or retrospection. It is a painful re-membering, a putting together of the dismembered past to make sense of the trauma of the present” (1994, 63).

From early childhood, Nadia engages in a relentless battle against the attempts of the community to mold her into compliance with its value system. This is evident from her mother’s complaints to her husband about her five-year-old daughter: “…She is turning into a strange, willful girl. It’s beyond me to understand what pleases or upsets her” (1999, 23). Her father’s response is typical: “Her wild mind needs some discipline” (1999, 24). Nadia revolts against gender conformity and social norms that limit women’s possibilities in life. Kanafani demands more than equality; she very self-consciously challenges the foundations of an entire way of life in which women are born to fill the roles of daughter, wife, and mother, and to be successively subservient to their fathers, husbands, and sons. Nadia therefore rejects her mother’s advice on matrimony:

As a wife you will be expected to be prudent…you cannot always insist on your needs and desires. You must learn to give way to the will of others, and to your husband…you must learn patience and tolerance…a woman must temper her will if she is to keep her nose above water… by agreeing to marry Marwan, you have given away your rights. He will make the rules, and you have to follow these rules. (1999, 95)

She strives to break through the walls of her confinement and to rise above the hypocrisies of her environment. “Strange as it may seem,” she says, “I feel stronger every time I face some difficulty. It is as though I could face the whole world, all alone” (1999, 147).

Kanafani’s memoir stands out for denouncing and shattering taboos. It exposes a range of issues—from marital sexual intimacy to rape and sexual abuse—that are frequently hidden or dismissed in Arab societies. Kanafani explores her views by recalling scenes from different stages of her life, including those highlighting the complex and conflictual relationship with her parents, a relationship which is central and repeatedly problematized in the text. Kanafani depicts her father as a monstrous, reckless, greedy and brutal authority. He squanders the family’s assets and does not hesitate to sell his daughter for money. Nadia’s relationship with her father is tense and marred by memories of sexual abuse:

I woke up to the feeling that my body was being carried from my bed...
I heard only my father’s rapid breath. I snuggled in the soft silk of his shirt as he carried me down the hall.
"Papa, am I sick" Half dreaming. I thought I was being carried away to my parents’ room where young Dr Nasser was going to examine me and Maria would come and take care of me.
"Hush," he whispered. He bent over his bed and slipped me under his covers…I have no memory of that night—patches of some nightmare are still floating where our house used to stand, like leaves by the wind. The night, though, that night moved out of the house and, for years, locked itself in a corner of my soul, a dark and unvisited one. (1999, 51)

Her mother's submissiveness and failure to oppose this abuse engenders permanent resentment from Nadia. She tells her sister:

But our mother could have stopped him if she had had the courage to stand by her child. She knew all along that he was a cruel tyrant by nature, especially with those who resist him, but she closed her eyes to the cruel measures of intimidation he enforced on me for resisting him…I was barely seven years old then! I know nothing, but she knew. Think of it, Nora, think of drowsy children, of girls that can no longer trust the touch of their father’s hands, that see in his eyes the unutterable. (1999, 78-79)

Nadia loves her in-laws more than her own selfish parents. They are supportive, but in a way that shelters and confines, bolstering gender inequality as part of the patriarchal system. Kanafani describes feeling trapped “in a web of affection, attention, and lavish generosity” (1999, 68). While Nadia feels little for her husband, she and Marwan discover important attitudes in common, including “irreverence for the rigidity of many observances,” and “resentment of our clan’s social and quasi-religious habits” (1999, 200). After Marwan’s death and the experience of uprooting and displacement in 1948, Nadia manages to break away from the tradition-bound circles around her, and assert herself as a free woman, gaining self-confidence by steadfastly facing conflict and pain. She rejects the marriage proposal of her brother-in-law Ali, continues her education in Lebanon and then the US, and establishes herself as a career woman, living with her children and taking sole responsibility for their education.

Kanafani recasts the conventional function of autobiography as a personal account of experiences into a project of collective memory. She weaves together reflections on her own struggle for independence with an account of her extended family’s dislocation in the violent political upheavals of the Middle East. Her personal story is constructed in counterpoint to the history of the Palestinian people uprooted by the Israeli occupation. Nadia’s life story is entwined with the Palestinians’ collective traumas. The most profound of these traumas is the establishment of the State of Israel, which occurred on 15 May, 1948, after Zionist forces captured most of historic Palestine, emptying the occupied areas of their Palestinian inhabitants. This tragic event is known in Arab history as The Nakba (catastrophe). The term was coined by Constantine Zurayk, a Syrian historian and one of the intellectual father figures of the Arab national movement (Zurayk 1956).

The Nakba was “a catastrophe without borders in space or limits in time” (Khoury 2012, 253). In 1948, the Palestinians lost their land, which was confiscated by the newborn Israeli state, and became refugees, living in camps in the outskirts of different Arab cities, in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Even in Israel, the peasants of destroyed Arab villages became refugees in other villages and had no right to return to their original homes, although they had become citizens of the new state. Suddenly a whole people became nameless and lost the right to refer to their national identity. Those Palestinians living in the West Bank (annexed to Jordan after the war of 1948) became Jordanians, and the others, like Kanafani’s family, who were scattered in Lebanon and Syria became simply refugees: “… they were stuck wherever they happened to end up. Their identity was denied to them. Their nationhood was insulted on a daily basis. They were cast out of the human race” (Kanafani 1999, 296).

Kanafani provides insights into how upper-class Palestinian Muslims perceived and reacted to the political drama that climaxed in the Nakba, telling a “Her/Story” of 1948:

The spring of 1948 proved to be another of those moments in our history when life suddenly came to a halt and death took over. Indeed the falling of Palestine was even more hideous than death, because death could be a tranquil, natural transformation, consistent with life itself. But dissecting the holy soil...could bring nothing but conflict and confusion. (1999, 248)

She is frustrated at her in-laws’ passivity, their failure to make sound decisions and take measures to protect their capital. She describes how her privileged family is suddenly, and devastatingly, uprooted by the loss of their home in Haifa. She critiques what she considers to be disorganization, disunity, self-interest, and “backwardness” of her family in particular, and of the Palestinians in general, and their roles in the 1948 defeat. Her valuable testimony also suggests that women’s version of these tragic events should be heard, that women should step out of what Spivak terms “the double shadow” (1993, 104) of patriarchy and colonialism which obliterates their agency. Kanafani’s account points to the silence of the ‘gendered subaltern’ in the male-centered version of history, and reveals that,

Still missing are the voices and concerns of girls and women who became refugees in 1948 and 1967. The use of women’s narratives allow the women, speaking for themselves, to be heard-sometimes challenging, sometimes agreeing with, sometimes probing historical ‘facts,’ insinuating themselves into the text and thereby compelling a different reading of it. (Hasso 2000, 508)

Recognizing women’s subjectivity would foreground their role in resisting and surviving the trauma of the Nakba and other setbacks in the history of the Middle East. Moreover, it would emphasize how women like Kanafani have earned their right to emancipation. As novelist Hala D. Jabbour asserts,

Palestinian women are the most liberated women of the lands… Due to our tragedy, we were herded into those camps, rootless, homeless and penniless, and necessity, hunger, and survival gave us the license to seek work to help in procuring a living simply out of necessity…So naturally, when a woman becomes productive, economically able to generate a livelihood, she sheds many of the inhibiting traditions and loosens the chains from her mind (Jabbour 1989, 111).

This echoes many aspects of the turn Kanafani’s life took after her painful exodus from Haifa in 1948.

Kanafani’s feminism grows hand in hand with the increasing political turmoil, social change, and war surrounding her. Her life narrative provides an example of the courageous, often painful, process of resisting expected behavior. This process often facilitates reconnection with one’s self-confidence, priorities, and even with one’s supposed opponents. It also involves the re-appropriation of the body from its condition as object of male desire, and its transformation into a desiring force that rejects all forms of subjugation.

Kanafani’s gender-conscious life narrative throws into relief the strong agency of Arab women in history and the complexities that abound in the exercise of that agency. Kanafani depicts a painful process of empowerment involving both literal and metaphorical border crossings. It is a valuable illustration of the fact that when women breach the borders that have been drawn to confine them, they gain access to the sphere of agency and thereby overturn and displace preexisting social and cultural constructions. This, in turn, enables them to obtain the one thing they have always been denied—the right to a voice and to negotiate their identity and their subjectivity.


Bhabha, Homi. 1994. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Hasso, Frances, S. 2000. “Modernity and Gender in Arab Accounts of the 1948 and 1967 Defeats.” International Journal of Middle East Studies: 32-34.

Jabbour, Hala. D. 1989. A Woman of Nazareth. New York: Interlink.

Kanafani, Fay Afaf. 1999. Nadia Captive of Hope: Memoir of an Arab Woman. Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe.

Khoury, Elias. 2012. “Rethinking the Nakba.” Critical Inquiry 38.2: 250-266.

Spivak, Gayatri. 1993. “Can the Subaltern Speak? Speculations on Widow Sacrifice.” In Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader, edited by P. Williams and L. Chrisman, .London: Harvester Wheatsheaf. 90-105.

Zurayk, Constantine, K. 1956. The Meaning of Disaster. Translated by R. Bayly Winder. Beirut: Khayat's College Book Cooperative.


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