Middle Eastern women

Published 07 Jul 2017

The women of the Middle East would continue to uphold their traditional image, even though in their heart of hearts many of them might be yearning for plain liberty. The chief character of Naguib Mahfouz’s Midaq Alley (1992) is a woman by the name of Hamida, who must put up acts to stay true to her traditions, at the same time as she yearns for something beyond the ordinary. She sneers at her husbands-to-be simply because she wants something better than them, most definitely a life that is more prosperous, and outright superior. She understands them to be “nonentities” because she thinks she can achieve well for herself without them. At the same time, she is bounded by Middle Eastern customs and culture to choose one prospect and get married like ordinary girls.

Hamida admires the women who have escaped their marital bonds. She is especially inspired by the factory girls she knows, who are all Jewish. She informs her mother about the same, “If you had seen the factory girls! You should just see those Jewish girls who go to work. They all go about in nice clothes. Well, what is the point of life then if we can’t wear what we want?”

It is noteworthy that Hamida cannot explain her untraditional yearnings to males. According to Middle Eastern customs for women, Hamida must control her true desires before the cultural expectations that are attached to all women. In addition, Mahfouz brings to the mind’s eye the picture of Middle Eastern women that are longing to free themselves from the bonds of patriarchy, and all the rules of society that are connected to these. Apparently, the

Middle Eastern women would also like to free themselves from the difficult clothing they are often forced to wear. Perhaps they would like breaks from such clothing. At the same time, cultural demands are enormous. Besides, various incorrect interpretations of religion which render life quite difficult for women are often known to be turned into laws in the Middle East. While women such as Hamida may genuinely face a problem with such restrictive laws, Mahfouz describes the ‘proper’ girls that are not expected to show their desires anyway. Boys of the Middle East, on the contrary, are allowed various other facilities, also according to the author. Boys are allowed, among other things, access to sex, nightlife, and friendships outside the family.

When Hamida gets married to Abbas, she only does so to escape her mother’s home. Thus, it appears to be a fact that many of the Middle Eastern women might be wanting to escape all along, without having the opportunity to. An author from Pakistan, Tehmina Durrani, described a similar situation among some of the spiritual saints of the country who are frauds in the name of religion. In Blasphemy (1999), the author writes about women who are abused by a cultural system that allows such spiritual saints to use and abuse women. Women are sold into the culture, and do not know how to escape it, although they continue praying Allah for escape. Midaq Alley similarly describes a woman who cannot truly escape her circumstances although she imagines that she has done it by marrying Abbas. Next, Mahfouz notes,

In spite of her limited experience in life, she was aware of the great gulf between this
humble young man and her own greedy ambitions which could ignite her natural
aggressiveness and turn it into uncontrollable savagery and violence. She would be wildly
happy if she saw a look of defiance or self-confidence in anyone’s eyes, but this look of simple
humility in Abbas’ eyes left her emotionless.

Hamida turns into a prostitute after Abbas leaves home for an indefinite period of time. But, does she find her eventual escape through this doing? It appears that while many Middle Eastern women may be looking for escape from traditions, once and for all, it was Hamida who actually managed to escape. Whether she had dreamt of reaching a brothel or not is not the point of Mahfouz’s tale. Still, the fact remains that Hamida had no choice to live a liberated life as a Middle Eastern woman, except as a prostitute. Most Middle Eastern women would shun the idea of prostitution altogether, calling it a major sin. However, Hamida was so desperate to escape that she defied the common image of the Middle Eastern woman to truly escape her cultural constraints, once and for all. Whether Hamida also found happiness is not the concern of the author. Hamida’s liberation, on the other hand, is an important message of Midaq Alley.

Hamida was the kind who merely upheld the traditional image of the Middle Eastern woman, just as many other Middle Eastern women probably do. At the same time, Hamida was desperate enough to express her suppressed desires of liberation, that she chose the career of prostitution to escape all associations with the patriarchy traditions. Perhaps, therefore, Mahfouz’s writing is a warning for the extremely strict movements that reduce people to suppressed desperation, which eventually bursts into crimes and various other problems.


  • Durrani, Tehmina 1999, Blasphemy, South Asia Books, London.
  • Mahfouz, Naguib 1992, Midaq Alley, Reprint edition, Anchor, New York.
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