One recent book tells the story of a woman’s journey into the Arab feminist movement, at home and abroad – a journey that took her to the city of Chicago in the late 19th century. Hanna Kasbani Kourani (alternatively Hanna K. Korany) was born in 1870 in the town of Kfershima, a village that today is part of Lebanon. Throughout her travels, however, she was referred to as from Ottoman Syria. Kourani was educated at American and English missionary schools and taught in Tripoli’s American Girls School. Syrian writer and novelist Taissier Khalaf’s “The Early Women’s Movement in Ottoman Syria: The Experience of Hanna Kasbani Kourani, 1892-1896” (2019) traces Kourani’s accomplishments during her stay in Chicago, when she toured the United States giving lectures on Syrian life. She arrived in Chicago as the Syrian women’s representative for the World’s Congress of Representative Women in 1893.
“The Early Women’s Movement in Ottoman Syria” traces Kourani’s experience during the convention, where she became acquainted with other American feminists like May Wright Sewall, the chairperson of the National Woman Suffrage Association at the time. Kourani captivated the media’s attention with her eloquently spoken English and influential message, as well as the eye-catching sartorial choices. She spoke in several forums about the customs and traditions of the Arab world, as well as the social conditions of men and women.
However, Kourani’s views on women and politics started as conservative. As cited by Khalaf, she wrote in a letter to Hind Noufal, a friend and editor-in-chief of the magazine Al-Fatat (The Girl), that she “expressed her astonishment at the position of the American women who enjoyed the first degrees of progress, yet were not convinced of what was given to them,” commenting on American women’s efforts for political power that “I do not praise them for these great ambitions, because this is what disrupts public comfort and destroys above all home happiness… Their first priority is to convince themselves of their high status and exert their ability in assisting other daughters who are bound to humiliation and shame.” In one of her articles, Kourani wrote that “the domestic plan is natural for women and they must not overstep it because that is the moral code which God has decreed and if they overstepped it then they would change the order of the universe and the laws of nature,” as quoted in “Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870-1920” (2001) by Akram Fouad Khater.
These views were soon to change, influenced foremost by her friendship with May Wright Sewall, one of the most prominent symbols for women’s liberation and a fierce advocate of women’s suffrage. According to Khalaf, Kourani’s correspondence with Sewall shifted her views on the role of women in politics – so much so that in 1894, Kourani was nominated to participate in the 26th annual conference of women’s right to vote. Throughout that year, she more aggressively criticized the male-dominated community of the Arab world, which was responsible for the lack of women’s education, in the words of Khalaf. She called for political equality without neglecting the positive aspects of Eastern society and did not hesitate to criticize the materialism of American society.
By 1896, Kourani returned to Beirut after contracting tuberculosis. There, in spite of her ailing health, she delivered her speech “Modernization and Its Influence on the East,” declaring that women’s “influence on modernization is similar to the accomplishments of men… she has extended her hand to all types of work, and she has not left without knocking on it, and she has forced the man to acknowledge her abilities and accomplishments… our knowledge of the greatness… women in the West have accomplished and are accomplishing should exhort us to follow suit here in the East,” as cited by Khater. She called for a revival of Arab and Islamic civilization by urging her countrymen and women to learn about the experience of other peoples. She urged women to count on themselves to confront the dominance of men in society and politics.
Kourani passed away from her illness on May 6, 1898 in her birth town of Kfershima in Mount Lebanon. Her death was felt greatly and covered with much regret in the American press.
The importance of this book is stated best by its author, Taissier Khalaf. He writes that this study increases and deepens our awareness of the beginnings of the feminist movement in the Arab Mashreq, identifying the intellectual and the philosophical trends by which it was influenced. The book provides additional material of a rare case of intellectual interactions between East and West.
This text is part of a work in progress to appear in the Arab Cultural Roundup Section of the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 78, 2020.
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