The Egyptian feminist and educator Nabawiyya Musa (1886–1951), after publishing her autobiographical essays serially from 1938 to 1942, published them as a book under the title Ta’rikhi bi-qalami (My history, by my pen). This essay analyzes the material role of literacy and the symbolic value of the pen in Musa’s memoirs in order to understand how literate women in Musa’s day were read and how they wrote to establish themselves as subjects authorized to participate in intellectual life. Confrontations with the pen reverberate throughout the memoirs, demonstrating that writing, in a context in which only men or European women were considered legitimate writers in a range of genres, creates anxiety and ambivalence. In spite of this anxiety and the limitations imposed on her by Egyptian and British colonial authorities, Musa appropriates the pen—the symbol of male power—to craft her subject position as a turn-of-the-century, female, Egyptian public intellectual.

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