Rose Antun: Recognizing the Contributions of Long Neglected ‘Shwam’ Feminist Journalist to Arab Nahda

Naomi Pham
Rose Antun (2020) by Etab Hrieb for Al Jadid.

A new biographical book enriches the scarce literature on 19th and 20th century Lebanese and Syrian emigrants (often referred to as Shwam) who settled in Egypt and grew up as journalists and intellectuals. Many of their contributions to the Nahda reflect the inescapable truths about the role of women in the Arab Renaissance movement.
Lebanese journalist Salim Takla (1849-1892) and his brother Beshara (1852-1901) founded the prestigious Al Ahram newspaper, which had — and perhaps still has—the largest circulation. Jurji Zaidan (1861-1914), another Lebanese who founded the cultural and literary Al Hilal magazine, which covered family health before shifting to a separate women’s section in 1902, was a prolific novelist and renaissance man. Among female intellectuals, May Ziadeh distinguished herself and attracted significant attention in Egypt and Lebanon. However, some would attribute the interest more to personal reasons than to her intellect (See “The Victim of Beauty” in Al Jadid, Vol. 5, No. 28, Summer 1999, and “Twentieth Century Lebanese Beauty and Unappreciated Intellectual May Ziadeh at Center of Controversy Now as Then” in Al Jadid, Vol. 23, No. 76, 2019). Novelist Zaynab Fawaz (1860-1914), born in Lebanon and died in Egypt, was a playwright, poet, and historian. Hind Nawfal (1860-1920), born in Lebanon, was a journalist and feminist writer. She published a women’s magazine that promoted early feminist issues and later moved to Alexandria in the 1870s, where she started her journal Al Fatat (the Young Woman) in 1892, the first Arab feminist genre written by women in Syria. Syrian journalist Marie Ajami founded the magazine “Al Arous” (The Bride), the first Arabic-language women’s magazine in Syria, which, on top of discussing women’s issues, had political overtones, such as championing Syrian independence.
Rose al-Yusuf, a magazine founded in 1925, was named after its founder, Rose al-Yusuf (1898-1958). Her original name was Fatma al-Yusuf. Born in Tripoli, Lebanon (then part of Syria), orphaned at age 7, and raised by a Lebanese Christian family, it gave her the name “Rosa” or Rose. At 14, she emigrated to Egypt, where she developed her acting and literary talents. After her artistic success over 14 years, she retired from acting and turned to journalism when she published in 1925, an art magazine, Rose al-Yusuf, which later became a political publication. A decade later, and after the magazine’s financial difficulties, the Rose Al-Yusuf magazine changed into a newspaper with a strong circulation that competed with major dailies like Al-Ahram.
Perhaps the magazines published in the early 20th century overlooked the name of Lebanese journalist Rose Antun, although she (or her magazine; Nini: This paragraph needs revision for clarity) did not have the widespread success of Rose al-Yusuf, as we still lack sufficient historical evidence to compare and contrast the qualities and the politics of Antun’s magazines with their then-counterparts. Yet, more biographical books like “Rose Antun: An Anonymous Renaissance Writer” (312 pp., Dar al-Farabi, Beirut, 2018) by Ahmad Asfahani would do justice for Arab feminist journalism. Antun, whom Asfahani profiles in this new book, fills some gaps, but further biographical investigation of women writers, writings, and publications is still needed.
Rose Antun, whose writing graced Alexandria and Cairo between 1903-1934 and marked her as “one feature of the Arab renaissance movement,” authored and facilitated several essential discussions regarding the roles of men and women in Egyptian society, according to Jana Bleibel in Al Akhbar. Antun contributed vastly to Egyptian feminist journalism but remained overshadowed by the works of her brother and husband, two well-known journalists and intellectuals. Asfahani’s biography, written with the help of Rose Antun’s two granddaughters, Houda and Maria Fouad Haddad, delves deeply into the writer’s life and works.
Antun was born in 1882 in Tripoli, Lebanon (then part of Syria), into an Eastern Orthodox bourgeois family with four siblings and a merchant father. Antun, who attended the American Girls School in Tripoli, emigrated to Egypt to join her brother Farah Antun, who preceded her in 1897. She ran a school for girls in the Ibrahimiyya neighborhood of Alexandria. She also contributed to Farah’s magazine, “The Ottoman University” (which later he renamed “University” when his views on the sultanate changed), established in 1899 and influenced by intellectual giants like Chibli Chemayel and Qasim Amin, with whom Farah shared the belief in the necessity of women’s voices in the reform process. On April 11, 1903, Antun established her own monthly magazine in Alexandria—“Women and Girls,” which she published for two years before being renamed “Ladies,” covering various social, educational, and health issues. Aware of the sensitivities among the conservative Egyptian Islamic community, the magazine refrained from addressing sensitive topics like the veil, dowry, women’s work, and polygamy, among others. By 1906, after the magazine had ceased publication, Antun, her brother, and her fiance Nicola Haddad, an Avant-Garde poet, set their sights overseas.
The trio moved to New York in 1907, where Antun worked as an active editor and manager of Farah’s newly reborn “University” magazine. Unlike in Egypt, the magazine openly tackled the topics of polygamy and divorce, which differed from “other women magazines, which confined their interest to family matters and raising children,” according to an excerpt from the author Asfahani’s introduction, as published in Al Hayat. The “University” opened its pages to the likes of Qasim Amin (see “A Century After Qasim Amin: Fictive Kinship and Historical Uses of ‘Tahrir al-Mara,’” Al Jadid, No. 32, Summer, 2000), a fierce advocate of women’s rights and one founder of the Egyptian national movement and Cairo University.
Antun married Nicola on August 20, 1909, before the three returned to Egypt. For the next ten years, she remained quiet on the journalistic scene, focusing on her new family with Nicola, with whom she had three children. Egyptian author Wadih Falastine states that Antun was a prominent member of the Cairo Women’s Club, which used to include an elite group of Egyptian and foreign women who had broad social and cultural activities.
Antun returned to publishing a decade later, in 1921, when she revived her “Ladies” magazine and renamed it “Women and Men” in 1925, co-edited with her husband, who managed the men’s section. The magazine’s slogan was “Renaissance of the East lies in the rise of its women,” which expressed a feminist theme “as a cultural concept, and a pioneering notion,” but also as a social and critical theme, according to Ali Hassan al-Fawaz in Al Arab newspaper. She spoke about women’s struggles in creative fields; according to Asfahani’s article in Al Hayat, “Even if a woman works outside her jurisdiction, they attribute it to the man, not to her. If I wrote or organized, they said the man is the one who wrote and organized...How long this has caused the despair of women in our East, even though success in the arts of writing, creativity, and other fields was available to women and men.”

After Egypt’s independence in 1923, a period that historians call the liberal experiment, Antun was free to write on different topics. A fierce condemnation of cultural colonialism characterized her writings during the latter half of the 1920s, as she called for national integration, according to Bleibel. She addressed the politics of the French and British mandates, speaking of the ways cultural colonialism affected the “simplest daily practices and weakened the cultural identity of the East.” Consistent with new liberal conditions, the magazine focused less on education, fashion, and kitchen affairs and featured scientific and social investigations and short fictional excerpts.
Patriotism became a central focus in Antun’s writing, as expressed in many of her essays, including those focused on humanitarian, social, economic, and political issues. She was critical of citizens’ “desperate attempts in flattering the rulers” while lamenting the decline of patriotism and the spread of unemployment and economic malaise, according to Bleibel. Antun also consistently criticized orientalism, dominated by the prevalence of extravagance and squandering, and spoke on the shortcomings of the nation’s leaders in “figuring out the national idea between ‘moderation’ and ‘extremism,’” according to Fayez Sara in Asharq Al Awsat.
Rose Antun believed “the essence of reform lies in the correlation between the duality of freedom and criticism, including those related to criticism of ‘obsolete customs and manifestations of tradition,”‘ as cited in the Al Arab newspaper. She did not shy away from advocating the freedom of men to take part in the affairs of public life, as was equally clear in “Women and Men” writings, where she spoke for women’s rights to work and education.

Antun’s obscurity among her contemporary Arab feminists is perhaps partly because some critics label her an elitist feminist, “as erudition and intellectual independence characterized all her contributions. This neglect of the rise of the Arab feminist struggle shows prejudice and denial,” according to Bleibel. Antun criticized social heritage and traditions that hindered women’s empowerment and facilitated the “Modern Salon” as a platform for intellectual debates that conveyed concerns and ideas through women’s dialogues in the halls of women’s councils. Responding to alleged elitism led her to spotlight a “Readers’ Questions” section in the magazine and build bridges of communication with readers.

Rose Antun passed away in 1955 in Cairo. In a society that assumed women’s issues were less important than men’s, her magazine tackled sensitive topics, allowing women to write about topics beyond love, family, and marriage, thus delving into war, ideology, and religion. Despite being overshadowed by the feats of her brother, one cannot ignore the vital role she had played in Farah Antun’s career, as she quoted him in her new biography: “I am in debt to her and her assistance. I did not write a line in [“University”]...until she reviewed it. How many times in difficult debates and vulnerable situations, she had changed my resolve from one thing to another.”
Books like Asfahani’s “Rose Antun” come at a critical time, when the call for writings on obscure Arab women writers is much needed to uncover their intellectual contributions to the Arab Renaissance movement in the late 19th and the first quarter of the 20th century. The stories of these women intellectuals and professionals during the Nahda period present the human faces of women in the Arab Renaissance movement. New initiatives by academic institutions and non-profit organizations to sponsor and fund new research on their contributions will open much-needed discussions for new and future generations.
Elie Chalala contributed Arabic translations for this essay.
This article appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 79, 2020.
Copyright © 2022 by Al Jadid