CLIO TALKS BACK: Meet ‘A’isha Taymur, a great Muslim poet in nineteenth-century Cairo

A'isha Taymur
To honor the launch of Muslima: Muslim Women's Art & Voices and Women’s History Month, Clio proposes the story of a young Turkish/Egyptian girl, the eldest of three daughters, who became a famous poet. A’isha Taymur (1840-1902) here talks about her early educational experiences and about her understanding father’s role in helping her transcend stereotypical female constraint.

When my mind was ready to develop . . . , my mother, the goddess of compassion and virtue and the treasure of knowledge and experience, brought the tools of weaving and embroidery and exerted herself in teaching me. She explained things clearly and cleverly, but I was not receptive. I was not willing to improve in the feminine occupations. I used to flee from her like a prey seeking to escape the net.

[At the same time], I used to look forward to attending the gatherings of prominent writers without any awkwardness. I found the sound of the pen on paper to be the most beautiful, and I became convinced that membership in that profession was the most abundant blessing. To satisfy my longing, I would collect any sheets of paper and small pens. Then, I would go someplace away from all and imitate the writers as they scribbled. Hearing that sound was very enjoyable. When my mother would find me out, she would scold me and threaten me. This only increased my rejection of embroidery and did not improve my skills.

Even though I was genuinely inclined to [literate]learning, I also tried to get my mother’s approval. But I continued to dislike the feminine occupations. I used to go out to the reception hall (slamlik), past the writers who were there to listen to their melodious verse. My mother – may God rest her in the heavenly gardens – was hurt by my actions. She would reprimand, threaten, warn, and promise to punish. She also appealed to me with friendly promises of jewelry and pretty costumes.

[Finally], my father reasoned with her, quoting the Turkish poet who said: “The heart is not led, through force, to the desired path. So do not torment another soul if you can spare it!” He also cautioned: “Beware of breaking the heart of this young girl and tainting her purity with violence. If our daughter is inclined to the pen and paper, do not obstruct her desire.”

“Let us share our daughters: You take ‘Afat and give me ‘Asmat [another of ‘A’isha’s names]. If I make a writer out of ‘Asmat, then this will bring me mercy after my death.” My father then said: “Come with me ‘Asmat. Starting tomorrow I will bring you two instructors who will teach you Turkish, Persian, fiqh (jurisprudence), and Arabic grammar. Do well in your studies and follow what I instruct you to do, and beeware of making me ashamed before your mother.”

Source: As translated from A’isha Taymur, Nata’ij al’ahwal fi al’aqwal wa al’af’ al [The Results of Circumstances in Statements and Deeds] (Cairo, 1887). Published in Mervat Hatem’s article, ‘A’isha Taymur’s Tears and the Critique of the Modernist and the Feminist Discourses on Nineteenth-Century Egypt,” in Remaking Women: Feminism and Modernity in the Middle East, ed. Lila Abu-Lughod (Princeton, 1998), pp. 76-77.