- The Myth of the Silent Woman: Moroccan Women Writers
Suellen Diaconoff's The Myth of the Silent Woman: Moroccan Women Writers examines how a rich profusion of literary works by women writers belies perceptions of women's silence and disempowerment in contemporary Morocco. As Diaconoff convincingly illustrates, women have hardly been silent on the literary scene, historically or today. A vast archive of stories, poems, and—taking off in the postcolonial period—novels, testifies to a long tradition of feminine literary production that is often linked to a subversion of patriarchal power. Diaconoff claims that a period of political liberalization under the rule of Sultan Mohammed VI nurtured women's entry into key sectors of the public sphere, including, most significantly here, the increased production of literary texts. By focusing exclusively on the Moroccan national context, Diaconoff's analysis highlights the writings of women whose works are less often the primary subject in socio-political studies of Maghrebi literature.
Diaconoff's literary perspective commences solidly in its useful overview of the factors that have impacted the emergence of women's writing in Morocco, including low literacy rates and the difficulty of creating a reading public for literature in general and women's literature in particular. From this discussion of the sociological and political context of literary production, Diaconoff moves to the works of specific authors, including Fatima Mernissi, Rajae Benchemsi, Sihim Benchekroun, Leila Abouzeid, and Nedjma (a pseudonym), and their attempts to reshape public space through writing. Diaconoff's argument centers on how a [End Page 109] transgressive use of literary style and narrative technique enables the authors to address taboo subjects, breach conventions of genre, and subvert social norms, using writing as a potential site for social and political transformation. Taking up fictional works, prison writing, autobiography, and erotic fiction, Diaconoff tracks how women's voices, "challenge the status quo of society" through a variety of literary mediums (182). However, while The Myth of the Silent Woman claims to debunk the stereotypes that define women in Morocco, a striking paucity of references to the vast field of research on feminism in North Africa and the Middle East (as well as work in feminist theory and women's studies in general) and an uncritical reliance on monolithic references to terms such as modernity, tradition, and culture results in a reentrenchment of Orientalist paradigms and an impoverished analysis of feminist agency.
The absence of a sustained interrogation of the categories guiding the argument renders the author unable to describe how the women writers she considers are articulating possibilities for feminist agency that might challenge, contest, or reinscribe Western feminisms. Instead, the author describes how the formation of a feminist consciousness in Siham Benchekroun's novel Oser Vivre might "seem to the Western reader to hark back to early feminist literary texts from the 1960s and 1970s" (142). However, such a reader should be reminded that, "while feminist consciousness throughout the world may travel by similar pathways, it does so on its own clock" (142). While the author's attempt to locate a possibility for multiple forms of feminism is noted, the location of this difference within a structure of temporal lag consigns the feminine subject from the global south to an atavistic development measured against an idealized Western feminist subject.
The argument does tentatively depart from a Euro-American perspective in claiming a distance from "the holy grail of identity" in Western writing on third world women (176). Critiquing this approach, Diaconoff proposes to theorize a "process of identity" that explains how the critical problem faced by the women writers in her study is not about articulating a "new female identity," but rather realizing how society has constructed a gender identity (176). Yet by remaining fixated on individual narratives of emancipation that employ a reductive concept of agency that equates voice with liberation, modernity, and democracy, the argument fails to depart from the secondary criticism to which it [End Page 110] briefly alludes. A more detailed historical discussion analyzing how gender operates...