May Ziadeh was born in Palestine in 1886, to a Lebanese Maronite father, who worked as a teacher at the School of the Holy Land in Nazareth. After her studies in Deir A-Madina, she enrolled at the Aintoura Sisters School to study in the boarding school between 1900 and 1903. In addition to her studies, she was particularly interested in studying the Arabic language and learning foreign languages, she excelled and published literature, critics as well as social articles, adding to that other subjects related to arts, singing and music, and she learned to play the piano.
As for her love life, May fell in love with Gibran Khalil Gibran despite never meeting him in person, but correspondence between them lasted for twenty years since 1911, and until Gibran’s death in New York in 1931. May never got married to anyone, yet even after Gibran’s death, she suffered from grief and loneliness.
Moving to Egypt
May Ziadeh moved to Egypt in 1907, where she resided in the capital, Cairo, and taught languages. At the same time, she made efforts to master the Arabic language and express it, and after that, she continued at Cairo University to study Arabic literature, Islamic history and philosophy. After she graduated from the Faculty of Arts in Cairo, the idea of May was born to establish her own literature salon, and to hold it every Tuesday of every week. She has also published many articles and researches in Egyptian newspapers and magazines.
However, what concerns us in particular is her defense of women’s rights, as she had a role in defending women’s rights and in demanding equality. She also deserved to be called a pioneer of the modern Arab women’s renaissance, as she was well-versed in the history of women. From writing, lectures, and seminars to claim women’s rights. She also demanded fairness for women and for their freedom and not to be limited as to what is the restricted and what is the reasonable and acceptable, as she wrote about the education of women and said:
The light is the light, we want the light always and in every place, we want the man to understand the dignity of the woman, and for the woman to understand the dignity of humanity.
The defense of women’s rights also emerged in her book (Equality) issued in 1923, in addition to her books on the pioneers of enlightenment among women, so she wrote about Aisha al-Taymuriyya and Warda al-Yaziji. As for the equality of men and women, she said:
I do not ask women for equality with men, because I believe that she is superior in her heart. The theories that seek to settle it with the man inevitably diverge between them and their own world in which – through him alone – they remain flying above every horizon that the man in his efforts and his genius mind can reach. Equality is her decline, not a rise.
It also says that a man cannot penetrate the world of women, even if he calls for the emancipation, cultivation and education of woman, because he looks at the issue from a man’s view not a woman’s, so she appreciated the initiative of men such as Boutros Al-Bustani, and Rifaa Al-Tahtawi and Qasim Amin to educate women but she believed A woman should advocate for herself, should free herself as A Woman. She confirmed this in her lecture entitled “The Purpose of Life” that she gave in the “Egyptian Girl The Girl” association, and an article entitled “The Egyptian Girl and Her Position Today” that was published in the Egyptian newspaper “Al-Siyasa”.
May dealt with freedom in more depth, urging women not only to claim their rights, but to realize their duties and adhere to them and develop methods of dealing with them in order to realize their rights. He who does not know his duties and abides by them cannot claim his rights. Therefore, freedom for women according to May consists of two basic elements: education and work. Education that contributes to cultivating her, advancing her intellectually and scientifically, refining her character, and developing her talents; and work that achieves its freedom in a deep and independent meaning. She also spoke about the veil of women and the society’s view of it. In one of her articles, she attacked the veil not because it was a dress of modesty and dignity, but she saw in it an illusory veil imposed by men on women in order to remain shielded from development and sophistication, she said:
This fake veil is discarded from the distance, as it does not obscure either faces, nor features. Rather, it hides preponderant minds, youthful activity, and leaping souls to the highest, and if I dwell only to lower it, then straighten it.
May Ziadeh passed away in Egypt in 1941, leaving a great legacy, as she was considered one of the most important pioneers of the Arab feminist movement and one of the greatest Arab women writers.
Download May Ziadeh’s Arabic books here.