Women’s Issues in Rihani’s Literature (By Dr. Jamil Douaihi)


The following academic article was presented in an international conference held at Notre Dame University - Louaize in 2012 and published in a book entitled: Ameen Rihani's Arab-American Legacy: From Romanticism to Postmodernism. NDU Press, Zouk Mosbeh, 2012.

















Ameen Rihani is one of the most prolific Lebanese writers who defended women’s rights. Rihani is well known for his opposition to old-fashioned traditions and his tremendous support for Oriental women in their fight for a better life. If we profoundly observe Rihani’s literary works that focus on women’s concerns, particularly in the East, like Wajdah (1908 -1909), Zanbakat Al Ghaour (1915), and Kharej Al Harem (1917), we may notice that Rihani was extremely audacious and daring with his approach to women’s critical issues, such as sexual relations, the veil (hijab), and the revolt of women in their traditional communities.

It is necessary to explain why I consider Ameen Rihani the most audacious writer in relation to women’s concerns. In Kharej Al Harem, he delineates the struggle of a Turkish Muslim woman, her opposition to the Hijab, and her sexual relationship with a Christian man. Kharej Al Harem is considered to be the most daring book of its time, in relation to women’s matters. It is the Arabic version of an English script entitled Juhan, that was published in 1917 by Abdul Maseeh Haddad. During that period of time, discussing the revolt of a female against her strict father, and her physical love for a man, were considered strictly taboo. In Wajdah, Rihani refers to the suffering of a Muslim woman during Imam Ali’s era, while in Zanbakat Al Ghaour, he tells the story of a woman named Miriam who lives in a Christian community and suffers under patriarchal authority.

In addition to Wajdah, Zanbakat Al Ghaour and Kharej Al Harem, The Book of Khalid and Arrihaniyat have raised many questions about women’s rights and freedom. Ameen Rihani does not only display the revolt of women and their reactions to the old-fashioned traditions, but he also shows himself as a great defender of women’s rights. For example, he frequently praises Juhan as an example that can be followed by many other women who experience the same agony and suffering in a patriarchal society.

Many books have been published about Ameen Rihani, most of them focusing on his travel literature, political issues and Rihani’s opinions about global peace, harmony, democracy, modernity and human rights. Suhail Bashrou’i does not mention anything about women in his book The English Lebanese Literature(بشروئي، 2000) . Several other researchers who published their papers in Ameen Rihani: Bridging East and West (Funk & Sitka, 2004) have disregarded Ameen Rihani’s addressing of women’s issues.

Meanwhile, only a few papers have discussed Rihani’s concerns with women’s issues. In a conference held in 1999, under the title “Ameen Rihani - Cultural Harmony and Human Unification”, Assad Skaff studies “the realistic narration of Kalb Lobnan characters”. He only sheds light on the different features of the Lebanese mother (سكاف، 1999). Another researcher, Mohammad Ali Moussa, studies some of Ameen Rihani’s views towards women’s issues in his article, “Ameen Rihani – Issues of Liberation and Democracy” (موسى، 1988), but does not explore the most important books that Rihani wrote especially to support women’s causes, like Wajdah, Zanbakat Al Ghaour and Kharej Al Harem.

In my proposed paper, I will observe the most significant topics concerning women that Rihani addresses including the principles of patriarchal authority, like the veil and tabooed love, and also the struggle of women to achieve their freedom. By examining Rihani’s portrait of the Oriental woman and his great support for their struggle to play a vital role in a new and better society, I will prove that Rihani’s approach to women’s concerns is a part of his humane call for worldwide revolution and change. The article will be divided into two parts. The first part will discuss Rihani’s portrait of the Oriental woman and the second part will illustrate Rihani’s approach to women’s rights.

  1. Rihani’s Portrait of the Oriental Woman:

There is no doubt that the Oriental woman has suffered throughout the centuries. Many attempts to grant her freedom and human rights have failed, for many Oriental societies strongly believe in the superiority of men. Hence, women in the Orient are viewed as subsidiaries and not leaders. In Wajdah, the female protagonist asks: “When was woman master of her house?” (Rihani, 2001, p.39) Here, Rihani refers to the fact that women in the Orient do not have the right to decide about their situation in their own home, for men are regarded as the superior leaders and women as subordinates. Wajdah’s question reflects the bitter social situation that Oriental women face. Wajdah also asks another sour question: “Am I but a prisoner in this house? A slave indeed?” (Rihani, 2001, p. 48) This question reflects Wajdah’s complaints about the discrimination between men and women in the Oriental society, where women are treated as followers and as slaves by males, who consider themselves as the masters of their houses.

Wajdah lives as a confused princess in a man’s world. After losing her son in a battle she lives with Quais, a boy whom she wrongly thought was her own son. Rihani portrays Wajdah as a victim who is oppressed by men and a subject of malicious rumors regarding her love for her son: “And that thou lovest thine own son.”(Rihani, 2001, p. 60) Wajdah uses her strength to overcome her trials and tribulations. Her real son reappears at the end of the play only to kill Quais. Wajdah slaughters the killer without knowing that he was her long lost son. This act of revenge symbolizes Wajdah’s revolt against the patriarchal society. Then she vows to kill herself, but changes her mind and decides not to die. Here, Wajdah expresses herself as a strong and committed woman who refuses to give up under the pressure of harsh circumstances.

In Zanbakat Al Ghaour, Rihani introduces Miriam, a female character who is victimized by several men. Miriam flees an orphanage to work as a servant in a house. She then flees that house after having a relationship with A’aref, her master’s son, and becoming pregnant. She gives birth to a boy who later is kidnapped. She moves to Paris where she works as a teacher and a belly dancer. After that, she moves to Cairo where she becomes a well-known dancer, but she faces financial difficulties. She loses her job and her house is sold in an auction. She decides to go back to Tabarayya where she finds her kidnapped son and gets married to A’aref. Soon after, she suffers from illness and vows to move to Lebanon to start a new life. According to Ameen Albert Rihani, the Philosopher of Frayke managed to describe the conflict between Miriam and her society: “In her many disappointments, she tries to forget her past and free herself from the many burdens that society had thrown on her back” ( (الريحاني، أمين ألبرت، 1978، ص 232

Miriam is a prey in the midst of a forest. Her master tries to abuse her. She cries and retreats. She falls down to the ground ((الريحاني، غير مؤرَّخ، ص 60. Then, she turns against herself and she falls in love with a number of men such as Najib and Mosbah Afandi. Despite her belief that Mosbah would plot against her, she spends a night with him, then she expels him. He seeks revenge by publishing her story in the media.

Meanwhile, Ameen Rihani represents the confrontation between Miriam and her society as an internal clash within herself. She decides to get revenge from men by hurting her own spirit. Rihani draws a picture of a female who can abuse herself in order to abuse men. One of the novel’s old aged characters says: “If I were a beautiful young girl, I would build an attic on the lake shore, for only love and death. I would absorb the lives of men. Then I would throw them into the lake to be eaten by fish” .(الريحاني، غير مؤرَّخ، ص 101)

Miriam becomes a prostitute who feels ashamed about her life. She describes the past as “a mite that eats into her bones, a fire which erupts in her blood and a crowd of ants that crawls in her body” (الريحاني، غير مؤرَّخ، ص 290). But Rihani blames society for Miriam’s behavior. He argues that “people disrespect the adulteress, but they don’t know the reasons that deform her spirit and destroy her honesty, purity and loyalty, or they don’t care about reasons even when they know them” ((الريحاني، غير مؤرَّخ، ص260-261. This bold opinion about prostitution contradicts what people usually think about a prostitute. People look only at facts and turn their eyes away from reasons that make a woman sell her body in order to stay alive.

The portrait of the Oriental woman also appears in The Book of Khalid. In this book, Rihani focuses on political and humanitarian matters, but he also refers to the love story of Khalid and Najma. Najma is a traditional unsophisticated Lebanese girl and a victim of the patriarchal society that forbids her from marrying the man she loves, Khalid. Her father wants her to marry another man. When Najma once tries to disobey her father, he threatens to kill her: “I will hang you tonight” (Rihani, 1973, P.199) and he prepares the rope in order to hang his daughter: “Najma’s father brings out his rope… and suspends it from the rafter in the ceiling. And when his daughter returns from the spring, he takes her by the arm, shows her the rope, and tells her briefly to choose between his Excellency (the rich man) and this. Poor Najma has not the courage to die.”(Rihani, 1973, P. 200)

The domination of the father is very intense and powerful. In the beginning of the 20th century, a girl being threatened by her own father or brother was common in the Lebanese community. We may find today similar cases in some Lebanese villages, where girls have no say in their destiny. Their fate is enforced by others.

Meanwhile, Najma is a victim of another man, Farouche, the local priest, who hides his hatred towards her lover, Khalid. Farouche accuses Khalid of being an atheist and convinces her father to make the girl marry another rich man: “The young man we recommend is rich, respected in the community, is an official of the government…and is free from all diseases… Consider these advantages. A relation this, which no father would reject, if he loves his daughter…”( Rihani, 1973, P. 198) Forcing a girl to marry a rich man is one of the most common traditional practices in the Lebanese community. Anis Fraiha argues that money was the first factor in many marriage deals in the Lebanese villages (فريحة، 1989، ص 163).

Najma is depicted as naïve. She once said: "Do not blame me then, I am so simple, you know, so foolish.” (Rihani, 1973, P. 181) Her simplicity emerges when she asks Khalid to buy her a dress with ruffles: “I never saw a bride in a plain gown; they all have ruffles and flounces to them…” (Rihani, 1973, P. 181) Najma is a model of the traditional village girl who shows interest in external appearances. Ruffles and flounces on a woman dress are equivalent to ruffles and flounces of Oriental societies. Dunnavent claims that the talk between Khaled and Najma about her wedding dress “inspires Khalid to see that both society and the wedding dress have their ruffles and flounces: laws, customs, philosophies and religion that have developed over the centuries and that control everyone’s life.”(Dunnavent III, 2004, P. 61)

But Najma is loyal to her lover, despite the interference of her father and the priest: “If she were not constant in love, she would not have rejected the many opportunities in the absence of Khalid, and had she not a fine shrewd sense of real worth, she would not have surrendered herself to her poor ostracized cousin.” (Rihani, 1973, P. 178)

When Khalid and Najma become husband and wife, she is obedient and submissive to him and she accepts to move with him to live in a desert, despite her disagreement with his lifestyle. Her stance toward her husband’s desire was similar to other women’s obedience in the habitual Lebanese community. Khalid takes Najma away to the desert, where she becomes distant from her parents: “Poor Najma goes over to his (Khalid’s) mother instead, and mingling their tears and prayers, they beseech the Virgin to enlighten the soul and mind of Khalid. “‘We must be married here before we go to the desert’ says she, ‘for think, O mother, how far away we shall be from the world and the church if anything happens to us’.” (Rihani, 1973, P. 193)

Rihani wants us to see the real picture of a traditional woman. In an article he wrote in 1933, he describes this woman as a real fighter, who hardly knows anything in the world but her house, and does not want anything out of her life except her duty, far away from the illusion of fame and glory. That woman always acts for the great responsibility of the family, love and survival .(الريحاني، 1978، ص 92)

Rihani continues to display the picture of a traditional woman, who is compliant, patient, loyal, and a hard-worker. She has these traits in order to protect her honor, and do what is best for her family. She swings the bed with a steady hand and with a heart full of faith... Her husband betrays her, her sons desert her and her brothers disregard her. Despite that, she stands in the arena of struggle. She does not forget, nor desert, nor betray. Her life is a continual act of giving for love and duty ( (الريحاني، 1978، ص93. One may ask here: Why Rihani, the man with a revolutionary mind, would draw this simple and submissive picture of a woman?

This portrait does not translate Rihani’s call for freedom and liberation of humanity. In fact, he tries to encourage women not to retaliate when people mistreat them. Najma was one of those women who suffered a lot in her own community. We can either accept this suffering or oppose it for being wrong and dreadful. One of the most painful acts of Najma’s life story was when people sent their children to stone her door and circulate rumors about her: "I am so lonesome, so miserable. And at night the boys cast stones at my door. My husband’s relatives put them to it because I would not give them the child. And they circulate all kinds of malicious rumors about me too.” (Rihani, 1973, P. 351) Najma’s ordeal in a close-minded community is in fact an example of many similar experiences of women who deal with harsh ideologies and beliefs.

The domination of men also appears in Kharej Al Harem, where Juhan is a Turkish woman who abandons her husband and falls in love with a German officer, despite her father’s refusal. Juhan’s father orders her not to leave the house. He closes the door in order to prohibit her from meeting the German officer: As from now on, you must not get out unveiled or without the company of a servant. You also should not deliver speeches nor interfere in politics, nor write newspaper articles. Most importantly, you are forbidden from meeting General Von Valnstein and writing letters to him (الريحاني، 1948، ص 13-14). Kharej Al Harem ends when Juhan’s father is accused of opposition to the Germans. He is jailed. Juhan tries to save him by offering her body to the German officer, but after she discovers that her father was killed in prison, she assassinates her lover.

Rihani uses Kharej Al Harem to criticize the religions which discriminate between men and women: What is the benefit of many prophets? They are all similar in relation to women. Love, compassion, justice are all gifted from men to women. They are all acts of charity from a man, whether he is Oriental or Westerner, a prophet, a poet, or a porter. A woman would not be escorted without a whip .(الريحاني، 1948، ص 115)

Juhan is very strong and aggressive, but she becomes weak, only when the German officer detains her father. It seems that her sacrifice to release her father is a negative and bizarre act. Ameen Albet Rihani claims that Juhan possesses constancy, determination and strong resolve. She is also optimistic in regard to the future. These virtues are virtues of supremacy that Juhan manages to achieve, despite the many disappointments she faces

.(الريحاني، أمين ألبرت، 1987، ص 233-234)

2- Rihani and women’s rights:

Ameen Rihani supports the cause of freedom and equality between men and women. He understands that the Oriental woman is unable to play an important role in the advancement of her society. Mohammad Ali Moussa argues that Ameen Rihani realizes that the decline of Oriental society is a result of women’s ignorance, while women constitute half of the population. They turn to be a broken and useless fraction, blocked by artificial obstacles and restrictions ( (موسى ، 1988، ص14. Rihani believes in freedom, but he claims that the Oriental woman could not achieve her freedom and rush to her social responsibilities: Freedom is a stubborn horse. It has been deceived by men but not women (الريحاني، غير مؤرَّخ، ص132).

The Philosopher of Frayke defends free women and praises their self esteem and free will. He describes Juhan as ambitious to freedom. The word ‘freedom’ has been written in eternal books with letters of gold and blood… Juhan was striving to reach her freedom. She wrote this word on her spirit after she erased the old traditions and habits

( . (الريحاني، 1948، ص5

Ameen Rihani utilizes Juhan, for example, as a revolutionary role model. She represents thousands of women who strive for their independence. She once dreamt about thousands of women in black dresses, cringing with chains and handcuffs. Their eyes were looking at her, asking and begging, as if they were pleading her to do something important for them (الريحاني، 1948، ص 34). Juhan launches a war against the infidelity and tyranny of men, in order to gain freedom for her sisters in slavery ( .(الريحاني، 1948، ص 6She refuses to obey the unfairness of a male, whether he is a husband, a brother, a father or a king

الريحاني، 1948، ص 11)).

Rihani also admires Juhan as a social activist. She accomplishes many activities in one day: In the morning, she visits the injured soldiers in a hospital. In the afternoon, she delivers a speech in an all-girls school. In the evening, she sells flowers in a charity market. She also writes an article about Jihad in a newspaper, and reads the book of Zarathustra by

Nietzsche which she is translating into the Turkish language (الريحاني، 1948، ص 11).

Moreover, Rihani describes Juhan as a rebel against the traditional behavior of her father. She calls herself “the Daughter of Revolution.” (الريحاني، 1948، ص 7) She refuses her father’s order to stay caged in her house. She also rejects her father’s wish to marry Shokry Bey. She instead runs to see her beloved one. Juhan’s refusal to marry a man she does not love corresponds with Ameen Rihani’s plan for a Greatest City, where a woman cannot be forced to live with a man she does not love, and a man cannot be forced to live with a woman he does not love ((الريحاني، 1978، ص 189. Marriage, in Rihani’s view, should be based on love not traditions. He asks: What is the difference between a prostitute and a wife who offers her body to her husband and forbids him from her heart? (الريحاني، غير مؤرَّخ، ص 320). Rihani also believes in spiritual bonds between a husband and a wife. He says: “I have no faith in men who conceived in a careless manner, on a pragmatic system, so to speak: The wife receiving her husband in bed as she would a tedious guest at an afternoon tea… I believe in evoking the spirit, in dreaming a little about the gods of the Olympus, and a little too, about the gods of the profound depths, before the bodily communion.” (ٌRihani, 1973, PP. 263-264) For Rihani, any relation between a man and a woman should be established on harmony between love (soul) and sex (body): “The true life, the full life… is that in which all the nobler and higher aspiration of the soul and the body are given full and unlimited capital scope.” (ٌRihani, 1973, P. 263) But Rihani does not deny the wife’s responsibility after her marriage to a man she does not love: The woman, who knows and confirms that marriage is slavery and accepts it, must not complain against slavery (الريحاني، غير مؤرَّخ، ص 132).

Juhan makes every effort to marry a man of her choice. She says: I aim for my happiness, for myself, according to my freedom of choice. If I want to become a mother, choosing the father of my son is my sacred right .( الريحاني، غير مؤرَّخ، ص 59) Juhan’s revolution corresponds with Rihani’s opposition to the radical Ottoman regime in the Middle East. Juhan symbolizes Rihani himself as a rebel who unleashes a real and devastating revolt against the Ottoman occupation. Rihani addressed the immigrants, urging them to offer their money to support the liberation of the region from the Ottoman occupation. Hence he converted himself from a moderate author to an extreme rebel who called people to launch a bloody revolution against the Turks الراوي، 1958، ص 34-35)).

Furthermore, one of the most critical subjects that Rihani addresses is the Hijab. In a letter written by Rihani to Nazira Zain Eddine, he rejects the veil, saying that the world is advancing and the new social, cultural and economic conditions should wipe out religious taboos .(الريحاني، 1991، ص266) In Zanbakat Al Ghaour one woman says: I’m puzzled by a woman who wears the veil against her will, and accepts the injustice of man. Another woman asks: What would you do if you were one of those miserable imprisoned women? The other woman replies: I will tear off the veil with my hands… Ten unveiled women walking on the city street are better than one hundred books written in the quest of their freedom ( .(الريحاني، غير مؤرَّخ، ص 133 Rihani praises Juhan for being the first Turkish lady who walks unveiled on Istanbul’s streets. She is also the first Turkish woman who stands in a public square, splitting her veil and saluting the sun of freedom (. (الريحاني، 1948، ص 26

Splitting a veil contradicts some fundamental religious Oriental traditions, but Rihani believes that the development of societies should wipe down the ancient customs, while religions should cope with modernity. He argues that religious regulations freed several generations but enslaved others… The Shari’a that managed to free women from Jahiliya’s rules and habits became today a heavy yoke on women’s shoulders. That Shari’a which was accepted by women during the fifth century is not accepted by them in today’s societies and may be refused again in the future. This is the rule of continual and vital development which deceives the lawmakers, the reformers and the wise men (Rihani, 1978, P.P. 275-276).

Moreover, tearing the veil in Istanbul and embracing the sun of freedom reflect the positive view of Rihani towards women. He was optimistic about women’s future for they will break the traditions that made them instruments for desire, fun and laziness

( (الراوي، 1958، ص 102 In Arrihaniyat, Ameen Rihani expresses his optimism about the destiny of women. He says: I am optimistic about the future of women, who were handcuffed by the control of the rulers, the lawmakers and the rich men, for women will join the rulers, the lawmakers and the economy leaders. Women also will marry the men they love. I am optimistic about women who used to be the sleeping half of the nation. They will raise, get away of their hideouts, and free themselves from the covers of tyranny and oppression. Then, they will share with men their responsibilities and anticipation .(الريحاني، 1978، ص 74)

The optimism of Rihani is also expressed in Wajdah. Ameen Albert Rihani sets a relation between the commitment and struggle of Wajdah and the optimistic attitude of Rihani himself towards life and persistence: This is the posture of Rihani, the optimist who defies wounds and prevails with hope and courage against life’s difficulties. This is the posture of a man who holds firmly the roots of life. As Khalid had suffered from the tragic and cultural contradiction that forced him to dream about a new world, Wajdah also experiences a clash within herself. That clash produces some resolutions that are derived from conflicting values. Wajdah had chosen the resolutions that denounce human defeat and overcome her self-weakness الريحاني، أمين ألبرت، 1987، ص231)).

Ameen Albert Rihani sets parallelisms between Wajdah and Rihani himself, and also between Wajdah and Khalid who refuses to give up. Instead, he vows to defeat his personal weakness and fight for the betterment of himself and his family. Here, we also have proof that Wajdah is a role-model, and her struggle against the odds is, in many ways, a common struggle of every woman and man who seek dignity and prosperity.


Ameen Rihani uses several of his books to support Oriental women’s call for freedom and equal rights. According to Ameen Albert Rihani, the Philosopher of Frayke seeks the superiority of women. Wajdah, Miriam and Juhan prevail in their glorious struggle against their self weakness and against their societies (. (الريحاني، أمين ألبرت، 1987، ص 230

Juhan characterizes the individual struggle against social discrimination and tyranny as Rihani believes that “revolution had to come from within the people, men and women. It should begin at the individual level, at home, ‘in the harem’, at school, in the workplace, in the place of worship and the administration.” (Hajjar, 2010, P. 19) For Rihani, “each individual should think for himself, will for himself, and aspire incessantly for the realization of his ideas and dreams.” (Rihani, 1973, P. 163)

Rihani wants to declare a modern society in which all individuals possess the same rights of civil liberty. Rawi describes Rihani as a social and political leader who stands firm in his resistance to fake tradition and aims relentlessly for a new society. This society should be autocracy-free and filled with love, collaboration and fraternity. (الراوي، 1958 ، ص 34)

Ameen Albert Rihani argues that the rejective social stance of Ameen Rihani is based on his denial of all sorts of class discrimination, religious discrimination and racial discrimination in his native society and the societies he visited. This stance is also founded on his refusal of all traditional aspects which cripple the freedom of speech and belief

.(الريحاني، أمين ألبرت، 1887، ص 158)

Rihani displays the real features of the Oriental women in their grief, suffering and obedience, but on the other hand he utilizes Wajdah, Miriam and Juhan to unleash the social revolution of his own dream, for he believes that human life in silence and calmness seems to be like the running water into the bottom of a valley, without impact or collision. Living a peaceful life far from battles and confrontation is like a bat who hides himself in the silence and obscurity of a cave or like a larva who covers itself under decayed tree leaves

.(الريحاني، 1978، ص 240)

The revolution of a woman is justified in many ways. Hence we see the uprising of Wajda, Miriam and Juhan against their societies, and against the dominance of men and the patriarchal traditional principles. Those women openly declare their desire to change the small world that surrounds them and that limits their ambition for freedom. For the Philosopher of Frayke, criticizing darkness or complaining about it is not enough for the individual to control his own existence. People need to strive with courage and faith to add more eternal light to their world (.(الريحاني، 1978، ص 277




(All Arabic materials are translated into English by the writer.)

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