Arwa Salih's The Premature: Gendering the History of the Egyptian Left

By Hanan Hammed
This article examines the intellectual legacy of the Egyptian Marxist Arwa Salih (1953-97) in order to trace an intimate history of the Egyptian left. Gender relations among comrades have underpinned the movement that has enveloped women’s rights in the folds of national and class struggles. In her short life, Salih was a veteran underground activist and, from 1972-73, a key leader of the most effective student movement in modern Egypt. She translated Marxist and feminist literature into Arabic and composed works in diverse literary genres. Viewing the leftist movement from the gender edge, I provide a reading of Salih’s biographical works, al-Mubtasirun (The Premature, 1996) and Saratan al-Ruh (Soul Cancer, 1998). I study Salih’s texts under the rubric of biographical writings, although it might be difficult to categorize those texts as such. They are neither autobiographies nor memoirs in the strict sense of those terms. Rather than providing a chronology of life events, the texts offer a deep and intimate reflection on Salih’s experience as a female communist intellectual, activist, and frustrated Marxist believer who spent her last days in psychiatric clinics. Salih offers  an unprecedentedly harsh critique of Egyptian communists from gender and generational perspectives. She broke taboos about sex and intimacy among comrades and cast doubt on her male comrades’ morality and sexual exploitation of female colleagues. Leftists in Egypt have blamed the demise of their movements on the ruling regime’s repression as well as the right-wing Islamists’ ideological ascendance. Salih broke with this rhetoric. Her vision and legacy pose important questions as to how emotions, gender relations, moral regimes, and sexuality shackled the political potency of the Egyptian left. Salih’s experience is comparable to that of US women in the civil rights movement and women participants in Latin American revolutions. In all three instances, women came to feminism by rethinking private relations in their progressive movements, by confronting the issue of sexual harassment, and by refashioning public and personal politics among male and female activists.
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