This book explores the writing and influence of the first Arabic language global biographical dictionary of women. Zaynab Fawwaz (c 1860-1914) was as a forceful voice in support of women's rights to education and work choices in colonial era Egypt. Her volume of 453 women's lives, al Durr al manthur fi tabaqat rabbat al khudur (Pearls scattered in times and places: Classes of ladies of cloistered spaces, 1893-6) - featuring Boudicca, Catherine the Great, Zaynab (granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad), Victoria Woodhull, the Turkish poet Sirri Hanim and many others - built on the Arabic Islamic biographical tradition to produce a work for women in the modern era, grafting European, Turkish, Arab, and Indian life narratives, amongst others onto Arabic literary patterns. In Classes of Ladies of Cloistered Spaces Marilyn Booth argues that Fawwaz's work was less 'exemplary biography' than feminist history, in its exploration of achievement but also of patriarchal trauma in the lives of women across times and places.
She traces Fawwaz's creative use of her sources, her presentation of biographical narratives in the context of the political essays she wrote in the Arabic press, her publicised dialogue with the President of the Board of Lady Managers of the 1893 World Columbian Exposition - where she attempted to send the volume - and how her inscription of a feminine ancient history diverged from that of men writing history in 1890s Egypt. It includes descriptions of biographies of women from the US, Britain, Europe, India, the Maldives, as well as the Middle East (Iran, Turkey and the Arab world); presents the dictionary as a key text in the debates on gender and national efficacy in 1890s Egypt and Ottoman Syria; takes a close look at issues of text circulation and borrowing and argues that Fawwaz's book can be regarded as 'feminist history'.