Ziyada, Mayy (1886–1941)

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Ziyada, Mayy (1886–1941)

Early 20th-century Lebanese intellectual, active in literary and feminist circles in Egypt and Lebanon, who advocated the education and employment of women and celebrated the accomplishments of 19th-century female Arab writers. Name variations: May or Mai; Ziada, Ziadah, Ziyadah, or Ziyadeh; published her first work under pseudonym Isis Copia. Pronunciation: MY zi-YAA-da. Born Mari Ilyas Ziyada on February 11, 1886, in Nazareth; died in Cairo on October 19, 1941; her father was a Lebanese Christian teacher and journalist; her mother was a housewife from a village near Nazareth in Galilee; educated at French language schools, first at St. Joseph's School in Nazareth (1892–99), later in Lebanon at Ayn Tura (1900–04), and finally at a Lazarist school in Beirut (1904–08); never married; no children.

Emigrated with her family to Cairo (1908), where she established a literary salon (1914); entered the Egyptian University to study literature and philosophy (1916); lived in Cairo for the rest of her life except for a short period (1935–38) when, following the deaths of her parents, she grew increasingly depressed and relatives persuaded her to return to Beirut; there, they admitted her to a mental hospital for nine months.

During the first part of the 20th century, Mayy Ziyada lectured extensively and published in Arabic, English, and French. Her work appeared in various journals, including al-Mahrusa (The Protected One), al-Ahram (The Pyramids), Sphynx, Le Progrès Égyptien, and The Egyptian Mail. Her lectures were collected in Kalimat waisharat (Words and signs, Cairo, 1922), and her articles on important French and Arab figures were published in al-Saha'if (Pages, Cairo, 1924). Ziyada is renowned for her biographies of the female Arab writers Bahithat al-Badiyya (Cairo, 1920) and A'isha al-Taymuriyya (Cairo, 1924). Most of her prose works, which were collected during her lifetime in ten volumes, were republished in two volumes compiled by Salma al-Haffar al-Kuzbari, al-Muallafat al-kamila: May Ziyada (The Complete Works: May Ziyada, Beirut, 1982).

Feminism emerged in Egypt during the last decades of the 19th and the first decades of the 20th centuries as changes in technology and people's expectations for appropriate social behavior created new opportunities for women in the public sphere. Innovations in transportation and communication—such as railroads, steamships, and the telephone—allowed women to travel more easily and to be in more frequent contact with each other. The state supported the emergence of women into public life directly by establishing schools for girls, and women began to appreciate forms of communal entertainment that had come to Egypt from Europe—such as the opera and the cinema.

As they adapted to their new roles outside the home, following a European model, some women who lived in Cairo began to define themselves as "feminists" and to campaign for women's rights. By the second decade of the 20th century, the first generation of Egyptian feminists was attending university, participating in literary salons, publishing articles in periodicals reserved for female authors, and establishing societies devoted to the empowerment of women. Mayy Ziyada was one of these pioneers.

Mayy was born on February 11, 1886, in Nazareth. Her father was a Lebanese Christian teacher and journalist, and her mother came from a village near Nazareth in Galilee. As a child and adolescent, Mayy attended schools that had been established by Western religious orders and became fluent in French. Then, in 1908, she emigrated with her parents to Cairo which was under the jurisdiction of a British colonial administration. Mayy's father became editor of the journal al-Mahrusa, and she was employed as a tutor.

In Cairo, Ziyada continued to study European languages and literature and was captivated by the Romantic poets. She composed a collection of lyrical poetry and prose in French which she published in 1911 under the title Fleurs de rêve using the pseudonym "Isis Copia." "Isis" was the name of the most famous goddess in the Egyptian pantheon who was identified with the attributes of all female divinities, and "copia," which means "abundance" in Latin, was sometimes personified as a goddess, as well.

Ziyada was impressed not only by European literature, but also by the lifestyle of European writers who would gather in weekly salons to recite their poetry and discuss literary and philosophical issues. Arab intellectuals had already begun to host similar salons, but they tended to be segregated according to gender. Mayy made history in 1914 when she received male and female writers together at her father's house for the purpose of sharing their work and their ideas.

In 1916, Ziyada entered the Egyptian University to study literature and philosophy. She continued to write prose and poetry in Arabic, English and French, and her work appeared in various journals. She was one of the first women to celebrate the lives and works of female Arab writers who had preceded her. Her biography of A'isha al-Taymuriyya first appeared in serial form in the journal al-Muqtataf from 1923 to 1925. In addition to her own compositions, Mayy Ziyada translated European novels into Arabic. These included Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Refugees which she published in 1925 under the title al-Hubb fi-l-'adhab (Love in Torment).

Many of the themes Ziyada addressed in her writing, such as the emergence of "Eastern" nations, reflect the fact that the first generation of feminists in Egypt was also engaged in a nationalist discourse. In fact, it was virtually impossible to separate feminism from Arab nationalism in Egypt during the years surrounding the First World War, and Mayy's feelings were typical of the ambivalence that characterized the relationship between Arab intellectuals and their colonizers. She was troubled by the poverty, illness, illiteracy, and seclusion of women that she saw in Egypt, and called for progress with the help of European advances in science and technology. However, at the same time, Ziyada valued the uniqueness of her own heritage. She did not believe that social equality could be achieved, and she was convinced that the culture in which she had been raised offered a distinctive "spiritualism" that was lacking in Europe.

Ziyada expressed these views publicly, not only in her essays, but also in lectures. She was a popular orator and an active member of societies that campaigned for women's rights. Mayy belonged to both al-Ittihad al-Nisa'i al-Tahdhibi (The Women's Refinement Union) and Jam'iyyat al-Ruqiy al-Adabiyya li-l-Sayyidat al-Misriyyat (the Ladies Literary Improvement Society).

Mayy Ziyada never married, although it was rumored that many of the writers who frequented her salon were attracted to her, and it was widely accepted that the greatest love of her life was the poet Kahlil Gibran. The pair never met, but they corresponded and there can be no doubt that Gibran's work influenced the lyrical poetry that Mayy composed in Arabic.

I call for progress, understanding and the good of the nations!

—Mayy Ziyada

Following the deaths of her father in 1930, Gibran in 1931, and her mother in 1933, Mayy grew increasingly despondent. She traveled to France, England, and Italy, but the journeys did not ease her depression and in 1935 relatives persuaded her to return to Lebanon. When Mayy arrived there, they committed her to a mental hospital. She remained institutionalized for nine months while her friends published essays in the journal al-Makshuf calling for her release. In 1938, Ziyada returned to Cairo where she died on October 19, 1941.


Ahmad, Leila. Women and Gender in Islam. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

Badran, Margot. Feminists, Islam, and Nation: Gender and the Making of Modern Egypt. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Booth, Marilyn. "Biography and Feminist Rhetoric in Early Twentieth Century Egypt: Mayy Ziyada's Studies of Three Women's Lives," in Journal of Women's History. Vol. 3, no. 2, 1991, pp. 38–64.

al-Kuzbari, Salma H. Mayy Ziyadah: Ma'sat al-Nubu'. Beirut: Mu'assassat Nawfal, 1978.

Moreh, S. "Mayy Ziyada," in Encyclopaedia of Islam. 2nd ed.

Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing. Ed. by Margot Badran and Miriam Cook. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Tucker, Judith. "Problems in the Historiography of Women in the Middle East: The Case of Nineteenth Century Egypt," in International Journal of Middle East Studies. Vol. 15, no. 3, 1983, pp. 321–336.

suggested reading:

Philipp, Thomas. "Feminism and Nationalist Politics in Egypt," in Women in the Muslim World. Ed. by Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

al-Sayyid-Marsot, Afaf. "The Revolutionary Gentlewomen in Egypt," in Women in the Muslim World. Ed. by Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978.

——. A Short History of Modern Egypt. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Kate Lang , Assistant Professor of History, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire