A Feminism of One’s Own: Distant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat

by Neriman Kuyucu

I wanted to post my first the Middle Eastern + Unapologetically Muslim Reading Challenge blog before April comes to an end.

And I thought:

What better way to begin this challenge with Distant View of a Minaret and Other Stories (1983) by Alifa Rifaat ( June 1930 – January 1996), a collection of short stories that challenges what it means to be a Muslim woman in Egypt, a country that sits both in the Middle East and North Africa.

You should/may want to read Distant View of a Minaret and Other Stories if you’re interested in:

  1. a Middle Eastern/North African/Muslim classic
  2. an empowered, pious female writer
  3. the themes of gender roles, sexuality, the institution of marriage, relationships, and faith
  4. short stories

Distant View of a Minaret and Other Stories houses fifteen stories that explore female sexuality, Muslim womanhood, and gender roles. Surprisingly (perhaps not?), Rifaat is not widely read in the Global North and even across the Middle East.

Surprisingly because– it’d be safe to state that Rifaat pioneered postcolonial feminist writing tradition that throws Islamic and colonial norms into question long before the concept of Islamic feminism was coined.

Not surprisingly because–unlike most Middle Eastern and/or Muslim feminists, Rifaat reclaims the female body by deconstructing the patriarchal lens through which the teachings of Islam are usually studied. She has been compared to Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El Saadawi, but Rifaat’s style is unique and revolutionary. Her stories are situated within an Islamic framework that allows her to create a feminism of her own. Since Islam and empowerment are often misguidedly placed in contradiction to one another, it’s easy to see why Rifaat is not a household name.

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The sui generis nature of Rifaat’s writing stems from the limitations that were placed on her as a creative writer. In “Writing Women’s Bodies,” Barbara A. Olive writes:

“Rifaat has not achieved her writing easily. Early in her life, Alifa was strongly reprimanded by her older sister for writing, forcing Alifa to turn her energies to other pursuits. As a young married woman, Alifa met with expulsion from her home and threat of divorce when she related to her husband that she had published a story. Alifa’s attempt to continue writing under a pseudonym failed—Rifaat’s given name is Fatima—her husband finally forcing her to swear on the Quaran [sic] that she would stop writing. When, fourteen years later, after having suffered symptoms of psychosomatic illness for an extended period, Alifa asked for and was granted release by her husband from her promise not to write, she found that he had forgotten the promise he had forced from her.”

The International Fiction Review vol. 23 (1996)

Despite her conservative upbringing, Rifaat’s stories convey a profound sense of originality and resistance to the social norms. In this context, the question of sexuality and sexual empowerment is central to the collection. Rifaat criticizes the power imbalance in marriages sanctioned by patriarchy and views it as un-Islamic. Her incisive critique of patriarchal values emerges as a thread that runs through the stories.

The first story of the collection “Distant View of a Minaret” opens with a scene that finds a married couple in their bedroom– in a situation that is supposed to be intimate:

“Through half-closed eyes she looked at her husband. Lying on his right side, his body was intertwined with hers and his head bent over her right shoulder. As usual at such times she she felt that he inhabited a world utterly different from hers, a world from which she had been excluded” (1).

The protagonist then recalls the husband’s adverse reaction to her last attempt to be explicit about her desires: “Are you mad, woman? Do you want to kill me?”

The emotional distance between the couple is further highlighted as the husband continues to “struggle in the world he occupied on his own,” and she asks herself, “Perhaps it’s me who is at fault. Perhaps I’m unreasonable in my demands and don’t know how to react to him properly” (2).

In a similar vein, “My World of the Unknown” the beautifully constructed piece that draws upon mythical djinn imagery recounts the predicament of a sexually unfilled wife who finds herself infatuated with a djinn that appears to her in the form of a female snake. Like the wife in “Distant,” the wife in this story lives in a state of “torment”:

“…continuous torment for a strange feeling of longing scorched my body and rent my senses, while my circumstances obliged me to carry out the duties and responsibilities that had been placed on me as the wife of a man who occupied an important position in the small town” (71).

The unbridled eroticism of the story is highlighted in a scene that depicts the wife’s sexual engagement with the snake after which she loses interest in her husband:

[The snake’s] two tiny fangs, like two pearls […] caresses [my] body […] arriving at my thighs, the golden tongue…inserted its pronged tip between them and began…sipping the poisons of my desire and exhaling the nectar of my ecstasy” (73).

What is fascinating about Rifaat’s explicit portrayal of the sex scene is her justification of the act through Islamic principles , which would otherwise be unacceptable based on the moral codes of her society.

Her sexual interaction with the snake is condoned, for the act occurs within the boundaries of marriage. The snake marries the narrator, and their unification is sealed through the Koranic verses that they recite together:

“Bride of mine, I called you and brought you to my home. I have wedded you, so there is no sin in our love, nothing to reproach yourself about” (73).

Rifaat contests the patriarchal rhetoric that has infused the discourse on sexuality and religion with a notion that women’s sexual desires are immoral. She views the sexist discourse as an integral part of the societal order that promotes male supremacy, rather than as a prescription of Islam.

The imbalance of power in the marriages that Rifaat depicts points to how the patriarchal rhetoric uses female sexual desire to debase and shame women. Sexuality itself is not the concern here; the focus is on active female sexuality as Fatima Mernissi interrogates in “The Muslim Concept of Active Female Sexuality.”

Mernissi dissects Imam Ghazali’s interpretation of female sexuality in the Koran and contends that his reading perceives the woman “as the hunter” and the man “as the passive victim” (33). She explains that women are perceived as a threat to the patriarchal social order:

“The woman is fitna, the epitome of the uncontrollable, a living representative of the dangers of sexuality and its rampant disruptive potential […] Sexuality per se is not a danger” (44)–

–it is the “disruptive” nature of female sexuality that is seen as a threat.

In her curious engagement with female sexual desire in Islam, Rifaat resists the constructed narrative of female sexuality, highlighting sexual pleasure as an Islamic right for women within the confines of marriage.

Islam then provides the context within which Rifaat demonstrates that women’s sexual desires do not detract from their piety.

Rifaat masterfully dismantles the reified notion of Islam as inherently sexually repressive. She does so by demonstrating how Islamic rituals offer solace to the wife whose partner clearly does not fulfill his “duties” as a husband.

The notion of Islam as a solace is introduced in the story, “Telephone Call.”

In this story, another unnamed wife manages to overcome the loss of her husband through the ease that the daily prayers, ablutions, and her prayer mat brings.

Through submission “to what the Almighty had decreed,” the narrator writes, “I finally felt at peace with myself” (16).

Returning to the story that opens the collection, “Distant View of a Minaret,” Islam emerges here as a spiritual source for fulfillment and empowerment. For instance, immediately after her husband’s usual disappointing performance, the wife does ghusl, washing herself from head to toe, and moves on to pray in the bedroom as she hears the call to prayer from the minaret (2-3). After she’s finished with praying:

“She seated herself on the edge of the prayer carpet and counted off her glorifications of the Almighty, three at a time on the joints of each finger. It was late autumn and the time for the sunset prayer would soon come and she enjoyed the thought that she would soon be praying again. Her five daily prayers were like punctuation marks that divided up and gave meaning to her life. Each prayer had for her a distinct quality, just as different foods had their own flavours” (3).

The juxtaposition of her unfulfilling marriage with her daily rituals is quite telling. Her prayers, as well as her connection with God help her overcome the lack of emotional, spiritual, and physical intimacy in her relationship. In other words, she is able to cultivate a sense of self through her deep connection with God.

Although the husband controls her sexuality, Rifaat reverses the script by subtly pointing to a mode of agency practiced by pious women, which is not necessarily politically subversive within the liberal context. The wife’s agency in “Distant” is further consolidated at the end.

After preparing the Turkish coffee that she is about to serve her husband in the bedroom, she realizes that her husband has had a heart attack:

“Just as [the coffee] was about to boil over she removed it from the stove and placed it on the tray with the coffee cup, for he liked to have the coffee poured in front of him. She expected to find him sitting up in bed smoking a cigarette. The strange way his body was twisted immediately told her that something was wrong. She approached the bed and looked into the eyes that stared into space and suddenly she was aware of the odour of death in the room.”

After telling her son to call the doctor,

“She returned to the living room and poured out the coffee for herself. She was surprised at how calm she was” (4).

What a brilliant final scene that is morbid and witty at once– the protagonist enjoying the coffee prepared for her husband while waiting for the call to sunset prayer despite her husband’s plight is a transgressive act that liberates her from the confines of domesticity. Rifaat’s decision to finalize the story with the husband’s death can also be read symbolically as a way to highlight how Islamic principles and traditional patriarchal norms are deeply, misguidedly entwined.

Rifaat was certainly an underrated Middle Eastern/North African/Muslim writer who formed the essence of what is now conceptualized as Islamic feminism. Her writing reclaims the female body, complicating the clichés about Muslim womanhood.

As a collection of stories that challenges the Eurocentric mainstream expectations of Islamic gender politics, Distant View of a Minaret certainly deserves more recognition.

You can find more information about Alifa Rifaat below.

Have you read Alifa Rifaat? What do you think?

The Middle East journal’s coverage of Alifa Rifaat in 1985:

If you like Alifa Rifaat, or if her writing sounds interesting, you may like:

More on Alifa Rifaat and the concept of Islamic Feminism:

Crosshatching in Global Culture; A Dictionary of Modern Arab Writers: An Updated English Version of R.B. Campbelll’s “Contemporary Arab Writers.” Ed. John J Donohue and Leslie Tramontini. Vol. II. Lebanon: Orient-Institut, 2004. Print. 2 vols.

Dangerous Women Project, “Alifa Rifaat”

Nkealah Naomi, “Reconciling Arabo-Islamic Culture and Feminist Consciousness in North African Women’s Writing: Silence and Voice in the Short Stories of Alifa Rifaat and Assia Djebar.” Tydskrif Vir Letterkunde, vol. 45, no. 1, Feb. 2018.

Juliana Daniels, “Feminist Censure of Marriage in Islamic Societies: A Thematic Analysis of Alifa Rifaat’s Short Stories.” African Literature Today, vol. 31, 2013, pp. 89–101.

Liya Li, “‘My World of the Unknown’: A Catharsis for the Sexual Awakening of an Egyptian Woman Writer.” Community Review, vol. 17, Sept. 1999, p. 71. 

“Exploring Islamic Feminism” with Margot Badran, Wilson Center

Margot Badran, Feminism in Islam: Secular and Religious Convergences. Oneworld Publications, 2009. 

Asma Barlas, “Uncrossed bridges: Islam, Feminism and Secular Democracy.” Philosophy andSocial Criticism, vol. 39, 2013, pp. 417-425. SAGE

Fatima Seedat, “Islam, Feminism, and Islamic Feminism: Between Inadequacy and Inevitability.” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 29. 2 (Fall 2013): 25-45. Project Muse. 

Cite this post: Kuyucu, Neriman. “A Feminism of One’s Own: Distant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat.” Reading Under the Olive Tree, 29 April 2020, https://readingundertheolivetree.com/2020/04/29/a-feminism-of-ones-own-distant-view-of-a-minaret-by-alifa-rifaat/.

3 thoughts on “A Feminism of One’s Own: Distant View of a Minaret by Alifa Rifaat

  1. Thank you so much for the recommendation Neriman. I have only read Naguib Mahfouz and Yasmine El Rashidi. I will add your recommendations to my to read list.

    Liked by 1 person

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