Egypt as a Test Case for Gender in Arabic Science Fiction
Emad El-Din Aysha
The status and portrayal of women in Arabic science fiction is at a precipice in the post-Arab Spring era. Using Egypt as a test case, it emerges that the number of women contributing to the genre is on the rise, and that the presentation of women is generally positive, if not very in-depth and challenging. The politics and economics of literary production is the greater issue, holding back all authors regardless of gender.
Like many literary and cultural imports from the West such as women’s literature and feminism, science fiction is new to the Arab world. Nonetheless, the record of Arab SF is generally good, given that one of the first writers of science fiction in Algeria was Safia Ketou (1944-1989), with her short story “La Planète Mauve” (1969). One of the first authors of SF in Kuwait, likewise, was Taibah Al-Ibrahim (1945-2011), author of a trilogy published in the 1980s-90s on cloning and cryogenic freezing, where it is the men who lose their sexuality thanks to these modern technologies (see below). One of the first and most distinguished SF authors in the UAE is Noura Al-Noman, with her award-winning Ajwan trilogy, beginning in 2012. The problem, however, is continuity. There haven’t been any distinguished women SF writers in the entire Maghreb (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia and Libya) since then, while countries like Kuwait and the UAE are latecomers, with only a handful of SF authors, the bulk of whom are men.
Then there is the ever-tricky issue of content. Are female characters portrayed in a positive light? Do they share equally with men in the building of the future, and what is the status of gender in these imagined future worlds, as illustrated through family, sexual relations, love and intimacy? Modern Egyptian literature and pop culture certainly has its own species of gender-related prejudices, and in many cases has actually imported stereotypes from the Western world. One oft-cited case is Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, adapted into an Egyptian black and white classic film Beware of Eve (1962), with the ‘modern,’ educated, assertive woman portrayed as the unfeminine shrew. (Zeyada, 2020; “Shakespeare’s Day”, 2007) Watching Egyptian black and white cinema, you feel like you’re watching cowboy epics, with a polarised separation of women either into the god-fearing, conservatively dressed housewife or the scantily-clad saloon girl. The older species of fantasy, fairy tales, is often captivated by this same polarised perception of the feminine—or Snow White and the Evil Witch, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar famously put it. (Eid, 2020; Tatar, 1999: 23, 28, 36-44; Gilbert and Gubar, 1984: 36-43) Such stereotypes emerge in modern SF guise via the vehicle of toxic male and female characterisations, as SFF author and literary instructor Christina ‘DZA’ Marie has amply documented. (Marie, 2020; 2019) One particular trope we shall touch on below is the mad male scientist inventing the seductive female robot on the Pygmalion model, to cite AI expert Stephen Cave (2019). There is the added problem of the appropriation of science by men, relegating women to the realm of magic and superstition; I Dream of Jeannie being a classic example used by John Carlos Rowe (2011) and Marie Lathers (2009).
Syrian researcher and author Muhammad al-Yassin insiststhat female characters in Arab SF works are generally portrayed in a positive light, regardless of the gender of either the author or the protagonist. The problem, however, he explains, is making effective generalisations, given the small number of Arab SF authors, let alone the even smaller number of female authors. (Al-Yassin, 2020) Egypt as a test case helps solve this problem, since Arabic SF essentially began in Egypt and has been hampered by much the same problems as the rest of the Arab world. Having spoken to many an Arab author, I found repeatedly that the first examples of Arabic SF they ever read were Egyptian, often inspiring them to become authors in the genre themselves. Comparisons are called for with other Arab countries, no doubt, but Egypt is still leading the pack quantitatively and qualitatively.
Making sense of the Egyptian experience can be helped through periodisation. What were the major concerns of the genre as a whole, not just individual authors, and why and how has this changed over time? How did these authors look at gender and how did this change over time, and was the presence or absence of female writers a contributing factor to this? These are the questions that will be answered in the section below, followed by a critical appraisal and set of final remarks on the future direction of gender in Arabic SF, post-Arab Spring.
BETWEEN CONTEXT AND CONTENT
Egyptian science fiction goes essentially through four phases. (El-Zembely, 2018) The first in the 1950-60s was helmed chiefly by playwright Tawfik al-Hakim and Islamic thinker Mustafa Mahmoud, with some mainstream authors trying their hand at SF. The second in the 1970s-80s began with the ‘dean’ of Arabic SF, Nihad Sharif, since he was the first to specialise in this genre, along with some other mainstream authors. The third critical phase stretches from the 1990s to 2011 when the Egyptian SF scene was dominated by the pocketbook (pulp sci-fi) series led by Nabil Farouk, Ahmed Khaled Tawfik and Raof Wasfi; the beginning of mass readership of SF in Egypt and many other Arab countries that read these pocketbooks. Finally, the fourth and current phase, from 2011 to the present, begins with the January revolution and the launch of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction (ESSF) in 2012 by Dr. Elzembely, a friend of Nihad Sharif, Nabil Farouk and Mustafa Mahmoud.
There are several layers of context lying behind this periodisation, some more unique to Egypt and some more general to the Arab world. Generally, there is little to no institutionalisation of SF in the Arab world. There are few associations and print magazines and little to no attention from the Ministry of Culture at the level of organising conferences or translating SF into Arabic, with the small exception of Syria, thanks to the diligence of Dr. Taleb Omran, the country’s top SF author, who began writing in the 1980s. Institutionalisation in Egypt only began in part thanks to the Arab Spring, starting with the ESSF and then the Nihad Sharif Cultural Salon and some advocates in the Egyptian Writers’ Union. Another common problem across the Arab world is the state of the publishing industry, with a lax intellectual property rights regime and outdated business model when it comes to distribution and profits, (Maklad, 2014) along with the usual political restrictions. (Qualey, 2013) The situation is more pronounced in Egypt, in fact, since authors often have to shoulder the burden of proofing their own texts and contributing financially to publication costs. Editors only enter the picture when it comes to academic texts, and literary agencies are almost unheard of, a common problem in Arabic-speaking countries.
Another problem more peculiar to the Egyptian marketplace is the format for SF and other genre publications, a pattern that took root during the third phase thanks to pocketbooks. Full-length novels are making their way onto the bookshelves, but most novels are within the 20,000 word range, while short story collections are still more popular—and the shorter the short story, the better. This places undue restrictions on you when it comes to plot and character development. Ahmed Khaled Tawfik only began writing full-length novels, beginning with Utopia (2007), later in life, mainly to please the critics and only after gaining a huge following among young readers. (Aysha, 2018)
Ahmed Khaled Tawfik is emblematic for another reason entirely, since most of what he wrote was horror and adventure. A generation of readers-turned-writers came to emulate him, which is why most SF writers in Egypt do not write only SF. Horror, detective fiction, dark fantasy and Young Adult are the more popular genres. All Arab authors traditionally have to make ends meet by having a regular job elsewhere: as a civil servant (like Naguib Mahfouz) or a medical profession (Yousef Idris), schoolteacher, IT expert, translator or graphic designer. In short, the potential out there for SF is huge, but the market is holding everything back, while the literary establishment takes little to no interest in SF.
Women only enter the picture in the second phase, with Dr. Omayma Khafagi’s classic novel The Crime of a Scientist (1990), but no other female authors emerge after that until the fourth phase, with novelists like Basma Abdel Aziz, Asmaa Kadry, Sally Magdy, Dr. Kadria Said and Dina Hekal. This is a deceptively short list of names, as the number who have written short stories is much, much larger, indicative of a swelling of the numbers of female writers attracted to this genre. We can use the ESSF’s anthology series Shams Al-Ghad [“Sun of Tomorrow”] as an example. The number of stories by men compared to women is: Volume One, 4:1; Volume Two, 8:4; Volume Three, 9:5; Volume Four, 15:8; Volume Five, 14:9; Volume Six, 21:9—a slow but steady increase. Admittedly, Volume Seven was 23:2, but this was an exceptional issue dedicated to resistance literature and military SF: some stories by female authors designated for this volume went into other contests, so the numbers aren’t as representative as they seem. While progress has been incremental, the prospects are good, as far as the female contribution to Egyptian SF goes: one of the most critically acclaimed, and internationally recognised, Arab dystopian novels published is none other than Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue (2013). Equally important is the fact that women writers in Egypt testify to no discrimination upon entering the world of SF, despite the economic and institutional constraints we all face, men and women. (“In Conversation”, 2019) Even newcomers like Asmaa Kadry, an Egyptian writing and publishing in the UAE, have confirmed this. (Aysha, 2020) She also feels no need to have female protagonists only leading her storylines and is proud to write about men accurately. When queried as how to improve the status of Arab women in SF, she answered: “To just think of them as ‘writers’ not ‘women writers’, you know what I mean? The written word is an expression of the human soul, not the human body, and souls have no gender.” (quoted in Aysha, 2020)
This statement is illustrative of the experience of early Egyptian SF, since gender concerns were conspicuous by their absence. Khafagi’s The Crime of Scientist, purportedly a story about a scientist who makes a human-ape hybrid, has shades of Pygmalion in it, since the guilty scientist in question is a man while the victim is his wife, and the hybrid child is their daughter. Nonetheless, the focus here wasn’t gender, but fear of progress in the form of a searing condemnation of genetic engineering. The novel shocked many critics, because the author herself was a geneticist and trained in the Soviet Union. (Al-Sharouni, 2002: 75-81) The first two phases in Egypt were characterised by a persistent problem shared by many SF works in the Arab world, namely, a profound hostility, fear and mistrust of modern science. There was no hostility to science and technology as such, but to the way they were employed by Western modernity. The classic statement of this in Arabic SF, often cited by Western academics themselves, were the two dystopian Moroccan novels The Blue Flood (Campbell, 2017) and The Elixir of Life. (Campbell, 2015) This was even more pronounced in Egyptian SF works. Mustafa Mahmoud praised mysticism and the world of the soul in the face of science in his novels The Spider and Out of the Coffin, while A Man Below Zero is almost a dystopian novel set in a cosmopolitan future world of material plenty but spiritual aridity and emotional emptiness.
To clarify how gender fits into this, we have the example of Tawfik Al-Hakim’s In the Year One Million (1947), set in a future world where people live forever, so there is no longer any sex, procreation, love or major biological differences between men and women. There is no awareness of change at all. People live indoors under artificial lighting and never sleep and aren’t aware of the distant past, forever living in the here and now. No art or poetry exists. Then, a scientist makes an archaeological discovery, the bones of an ancient man; he becomes aware of the possibility of death and nothingness and that their world could come to an end. A movement forms around him, it is quashed but persists nonetheless, and with that, death becomes a possibility again, so biological urges and procreation begin to return. The soulless world of the present, where humankind worships and is ruled by machines, gives way to the belief in God the creator. (Al-Sharouni, 2002: 106-110) It is not so much gender that is at issue but modernity and the fear that technological bliss will unmake humanity; with no difference, there is no creativity, art, passion or emotion. Gender is incidental. Anxieties about modernity are expressed in gendered terms but no more. Similar themes abound in Sabri Musa’s The Master from the Spinach Field (1987), with the value of the traditional family upheld by the rebel heroes in the face of the hedonistic, impersonal dystopian world they live in. (al-Yassin, 2009: 32)
For a more contemporary example we have “Love in the Year 2060” (1993), by Syrian author Mohammad Al-Hajj Saleh. The text is set a future world where reproduction and love are forgotten memories. Existence is bland and boring, only regaining colour and vitality once the male hero cures the infertility problem that has been hoisted onto humanity by a malevolent alien race. (al-Yassin, 2009: 51) This isn’t too different, in principle, than Taibah Ibrahim’s works, since cloning and freezing became alternative conduits to immortality, so men lose their sex drive. (Al-Sharouni, 2002: 255, 259-262)
The only examples of gender as a central theme or motif in early Egyptian SF are in Mustafa Mahmoud’s work. In A Man Below Zero, (1966) the hero is a scientist and university professor, an avowed atheist. His wife, formerly his student, is religious, and there is a love triangle of sorts with another male character who is envious of the professor and helps him with a dangerous experiment so as to take him out of the picture. Fortunately, his machinations come to nothing and the erstwhile hero of the novel, while heading on a collision course with the core of the sun, realises that the only truth is that of God and that his wife was right all along. She is left to try and propagate the faith afterwards, symbolically, through their offspring. Still, gender is not that high up on the priorities of the novelist.
In the next two phases, from the 1990s to the present, things begin to change, and for the better on all fronts. The level of hostility and anxiety towards modern science is less pronounced, with technologically bright futures portrayed in the pocketbooks of Nabil Farouk’s Future File series, accompanied with ample male and female heroes as scientific defenders of the realm. Ahmed Khalid Tawfik’s Fantasia novellas are led by a woman. The important things are that women were not denigrated and that science came to be seen as something Arabs and Muslims could use on their own terms to advance themselves and recapture their civilisation. The classic statement of this came in a trio of novels by Dr. Elzembely – The Half-Humans, The Planet of the Viruses and America 2030. (2001) They do owe a lot to the pocketbook series, particularly in the action-packed scenarios of America 2030 and The Half-Humans, but even here, the women are active participants in the action: The Planet of the Viruses is about a global pandemic of extraterrestrial origin, with women scientists and doctors playing a key role in solving the riddle of the viral threat.
In The Half-Humans in particular, we have a female android that the male hero falls in love with not only because she saves his life more than once, or because of her beauty, grace and intelligence, but also because she is presented as someone who has a ‘soul’. She is part mechanical, true enough, but also made of reconstituted human tissue, and the author deploys spiritual interpretations of the Qur’an that denote all things, even inanimate objects, as having some form of consciousness. To recollect the male-dominated gender stereotypes listed above, the Pygmalion and Jeanne stereotypes, Dr. Elzembely’s female android passes this with flying colours. Moreover, the early hostility to science run amok in Arab SF can be chalked down to fears of cultural colonisation in the early post-independence days. Not to forget that the very first science fiction novel, Frankenstein (1818), itself was hostile to scientific advancement, because Mary Shelly’s generation of writers and poets romanticised nature as a refuge from the faithless, materialistic and imbalanced world of early industrialisation and urbanisation. (Eid, 2020)
SF following 2011 is still more complex. The conflation of Western modernity with science is essentially gone while a whole new swath of subgenres has emerged, from post-apocalypse to steampunk, along with more distinctive Egyptian brands: conspiracy theory SF and spiritual or Sufi SF. For an example of the place of gender in all this, we have “The Rebels”, a short story by one of the ESSF top female authors, Lamyaa Al-Said. Here, a group of young intelligent reptilians from another planet escape their rigidly controlled world and come to Earth to wreak havoc and become disguised overlords. The aliens are particularly interested in ruling ‘the East’ given its slavish devotion to superstition and worshiping their leaders, or so they think. Fortunately, a young Egyptian couple, scientists, expose the aliens and save the world. The reptilians are even charged with driving Egyptians against each other, after the January revolution, and the young couple are also political activists. There still are worries about the misuse of science, but its proper use is deployed as a solution that can reassert the natural balance of things. Hence, Muhammad Ahmed Al-Naghi’s dystopian short story “Eugenics”, where world peace reigns through genetic engineering. The bulk of the population is female, given the warlike instincts of men, and people have limited lifespans and predetermined careers. Nonetheless, a scientific resistance movement forms. The heroine, who is the spitting image of Nefertiti, with resurrected ancient Egyptian genes, gives birth to a boy to help repopulate the eart. The reassertion of the natural order of things is exemplified by the closing scene, where the mother and son are tilling fields with the wind on their brow, unlike the beehive world of urban civilisation.
Dr. Elzembely has described this latest phase as one of “cultural authentication”. (Cultural Salon, 2019) Young authors are searching for their own answers as to what they want the world to look like, whether it be the relationship between religion and science, or matters like equality, minority rights, religious pluralism, democracy and free speech, etc. Muslims want to stake their claim to modernity, to their position in the world, and the portrayal of women by and large is positive and expanding. The only remaining question is, will they be allowed to continue in this path?
REMAINING CONSTRAINTS AND FUTURE PROGRESS
SF literature, always plagued by many a problem in Egypt, is now facing a charged political atmosphere. A translator friend of a friend of mine was arrested, inexplicably, while another fellow SF author was arrested after participating in a protest march. It turned out the police chief in charge of the district needed to make his quota of arrests and this particular protestor hadn’t been pulled in for questioning. Another young author was arrested, along with his father, for posting a photo of a protest march on Facebook. Yet another friend confessed to me that he had to praise a former Egyptian president in one of his stories to make sure it didn’t spook any potential publishers. When I applied to join the Writers’ Union, I found I had to hand over my fingerprints, something I’ve been told they didn’t ask for before. There’s a lot of bad blood and cherry-picking out there too, with select books and authors being sued or having their works banned for sexual content, while other authors that are much worse get off scot-free. Egyptian publishers positively encourage lurid literature and many an author deliberately writes about controversial topics, as free advertising.
The limiting word lengths publishers insist on continue to create problems and in some cases problems the authors are unaware of. Dr. Kadria Said and Muhammad Naguib Matter’s Adam without Eve (2020) owes much to the pulp series mentioned above—specific pocketbooks are mentioned by name in the novel—and characters as a consequence lose their sense of volition. (Cultural Salon, 2020) The novel is also captivated by that strain of hostility to science and modernity that animated the initial phases of Egyptian and Arab SF. The story is about cloners using their technology to either steal military secrets from Egyptian nuclear scientists, or steal the secrets of the ancients by cloning ancient Egyptians. It is also noticeable that one of the evil characters is a foreign-educated Egyptian women with blue eyes (of mixed descent) whereas another woman that fights against her is also well educated, relying on technology to evade capture, while thoroughly Egyptian in her upbringing and appearance.
The younger generation of authors is a bit luckier. One of the most interesting examples of this is SFF author Ahmed Al-Mahdi, a literary translator and also an Arab Spring protestor. In his post-apocalyptic, steampunk novel Malaz: The City of Resurrection, (2017) the male hero, Qasim, falls in love with a girl named Jihad, the daughter of Muhab, leader of the so-called Outcasts, a warrior clan that live in the mountains. He meets her for the first time while scavenging the ruins of Cairo for scrap metal and she saves his life from a wolf on the prowl. When he joins the Outcasts, Muhab takes it upon himself to teach Qasim swordsmanship and chivalry. Qasim almost gives up, until he sees Jihad close by and he forces himself to keep practicing and practising till he becomes an expert and all in an effort to impress her. For all his disdain of the corruption and tyranny of the Sayydin (hunters), the warrior class that run the city-state of Malaz, he is an intellectual and doesn’t busy himself with rebellion or righting the wrongs of the past. Jihad also insists on going to battle when the southern kingdom of Abydos goes to war with Malaz, despite Qasim’s protestations.
The bandits, or ‘outcasts’ as they’re known, were originally part of the warrior caste that ran Malaz, in its golden age when it was a safe haven for all; malaz in Arabic means haven or sanctuary. Querying Ahmed, he insisted that female participation was part of this ideal, older order, something he wanted to revive through the character Jihad: jihad really means “effort” or “struggle”, but is often mistranslated as “holy war” in English. Querying Ahmed further he explained: “I try to give women more roles than just being passive watchers, and not stick to stereotypical gender roles”. Even more intriguing is the kingdom of Abydos, where the old gods of ancient Egypt are worshipped again, including: “Sekhmet is the Egyptian goddess of the sun, war, destruction, plagues and healing. She is one of the oldest deities and one of the most powerful. She is a member of the Memphite (cult center in Memphis) triad together with husband Ptah, the god of creation and wisdom and son Nefertum, the god of sunrise” (Mahdi, 2020). The boy prince of Abydos, Sia, overthrows his father and declares war on Malaz, reviving the old technologies of the pre-apocalyptic world to build a giant war machine to destroy the walls of Malaz; the machine is modelled on a lioness and named after the Goddess of War. The men of Malaz, including the Sayyadin, are terrified of the goddess, and it is only Qasim and Jihad that can take it on with his own retrofitted ancient technologies. Ahmed added that this was just out of historical accuracy, but it is noteworthy, one of the few instances when gender and male insecurities are tackled head on.
On the plus side, from all of the ESSF volumes listed above, I’ve only encountered two short stories that portrayed women in a negative light. Sex specifically is absent. There are romance stories in Egyptian SF, stretching as far back as Mustafa Mahmoud, but the relationships in question tend be innocent, platonic and cerebral. Nihad Sherif’s “The Woman in the Flying Saucer” (1981) has female humanoid aliens coming to Earth, asking help from an astronomer. There is a romantic atmosphere in the air but nothing more (Snir, 2000: 275-276). This pattern is repeated in many of our ESSF stories, not least one of the most interesting stories in our resistance volume. Mahmoud Abdel Rahim has a love story running parallel to an armed resistance movement, and it is the romantic story that inadvertently leads to an intifada that finally ends the occupation. Love is designated as the ultimate weapon, not the parallel-worlds mirror that allows the resistance to anticipate the enemy’s next moves.
This air of innocence is all the more amazing, given how mainstream Egyptian literature is captivated by sexualised stereotypes. Still, avoiding bad stereotypes is not the same thing as providing an alternative that isn’t didactic and flat, and that demands the kind of depth of characterisation and thematic controversy not allowed for in Egypt. Religious scruples are part of this hesitancy, no doubt. There is also the literary upbringing of the authors. Ahmed Al-Mahdi once noted how shocked he was at the rape scene in Utopia, given how he’d grown up reading Ahmed Khaled Tawfik’s highly sanitised pocketbook series (Aysha, 2018). Still, the bigger problems are the constraints placed on writers, women and men, as outlined above.
Where things will go from here is anybody’s guess, but I’m personally optimistic. To cite Muhammad al-Yassin again, the onus is on the critics to highlight what is missing in Arabic and Egyptian SF and to help the genre gain the kind of notoriety and acclaim it deserves (2020). If this critical piece can help in any way in this regard, then there is hope at the end of the tunnel.
 DZA stands for Dragons, Zombies & Aliens.
 This sort of governmental involvement is standard practice for literary fiction in the Arabic-speaking world – ed.
Special thanks to Rebecca Hankins, Ahmed Al-Mahdi and Marcia Lynx Qualey.
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Emad El-Din Aysha is an academic researcher, freelance journalist and literary translator currently residing in Cairo, Egypt., He is a published SF author, in English and Arabic, and a member of the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction and the Egyptian Writers’ Union.