- Nazira Zeineddine: A Pioneer of Islamic Feminism
An intimate but formal portrait, painted by her son Arij al-Halabi, opens this biography of Nazira Zeineddine, a fascinating female figure of the early twentieth century. In the preface, miriam cooke charts her journey to discovering Zeineddine’s life story, which was in part prompted by the inclusion of an excerpt of her work in the well-known anthology, Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing (1990) co-edited by [End Page 133] cooke and Margot Badran. The portrait and cooke’s opening narrative frame this biography, which offers glimpses into the private life of this public figure, relying on personal details to contextualize and amplify her writing.
Nazira Zeineddine: A Pioneer of Islamic Feminism is currently the only contribution about a woman to Oneworld’s extensive series of biographies, “Makers of the Muslim World.” This biography matches the series’ stated goals: It is written in straightforward language and is accessible to a mainstream, non-scholarly audience with no prior knowledge of Islam or Islamic history. It is a particularly important contribution to this series as it is not only written about a woman who helped to “make the Muslim world” but also one who contributed to the issue that remains at the forefront of outsiders’ interest in this “world” and the roles of women within it—women’s dress and head coverings.
Cooke portrays Nazira Zeineddine as a “[p]ioneer of Islamic Feminism.” She demonstrates how Zeineddine was a well-read scholar of Islam—conversant in the traditions of Qur’an and hadith scholarship as well as Islamic law—who contributed extensively to conversations about the roles and rights of women within Islam and Islamic societies in the early twentieth century. Focusing on Zeineddine’s best-known writings, Al-sufur wa al-hijab (Unveiling and veiling, 1928) and Al-fatat wa alshuyukh (The girl and the shaykhs, 1929) cooke shows how she built arguments and engaged the Islamic authorities of her time in a direct and confrontational manner. Framed in this way, Zeineddine’s biography not only charts her life and career but also counters prevalent mainstream North American stereotypes about Muslim women.
The straightforward and often colloquial style of the book, which is organized as a chronological narration of Zeineddine’s life and career, is effective in making these arguments. It is a compelling and quick read, unlike most books about this time and region. This is not something that we should overlook or dismiss—it is important to have books that can do this work and speak across different audiences while remaining grounded in well-informed analyses.
This accessibility and readability, however, is not without some downsides. At times cooke’s chatty tone comes across as too glib, leading to inaccuracies that work against the kinds of points that she otherwise manages to make effectively. There are a number of these, such as the [End Page 134] opening sentence of the second paragraph of the preface, “Nazira Zeineddine was a Druze woman from Lebanon who single-handedly took on the Islamic authorities of her day” (xi). This makes good copy and certainly compels the reader to keep on reading. But as cooke herself continually shows, while Zeineddine was a courageous and devoted scholar, nothing she did was “singlehanded.” Not only was she supported and taught by her father and a number of other people—itself a point not lost on cooke who emphasizes this in the face of stereotypes about Arab/Muslim women working against Arab/Muslim men rather than with them—but she operated within a context in which women across the region were contesting the status quo. Similarly, cooke takes pains to emphasize how Druze women like Zeineddine did not see themselves as separate from other Muslim women, which runs counter to identifying her so starkly as a “Druze woman.” Moreover, Lebanon did not exist as a separate nation-state at the time Zeineddine was writing, but she is marked here as “from Lebanon,” though cooke’s narration complicates this. Such...