British Association for American Studies


Women’s Emancipation in Mohja Kahf’s ‘Emails from Scheherazad’ (2003)

This is the first post in the series ‘I am Fatima: Negotiating Identities in Contemporary American-Muslim Women’s Writing’ guest-written by Hasnul Djohar. This short series explores American-Muslim women’s writing in the 21st Century, focusing on the negotiation of identities within the works of a specific author in each of the three posts. You can read the introduction to the series here.

Mohja Kahf 

Mohja Kahf the poet, novelist and scholar, was born in 1967 in Damascus, Syria and moved with her family to America’s Midwest in 1971. She is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and the writer of two poetry collections: Emails from Scheherazad (2003), which was a finalist for the 2004 Paterson Poetry Prize, and Hagar Poems (2016). She also authored the novel The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf (2006), which was chosen as book of the year for the One Book, One Bloomington Series by the Bloomington Arts Council, and Western Representations of the Muslim Woman from Termagant to Odalisque (1999), which explores how the image of Muslim women changed in Western literature from medieval times to the Romantic era.

Kahf’s two collections of poetry, Emails from Scheherazad (EFS) and Hagar Poems explore the struggle of Muslim women to reclaim their own identity and reverse American myths and stereotypes of the Muslim world, especially Muslim women. In doing so, Kahf alludes to Muslim Women’s forebears, such as Asiya, Mary, Balqis, Khadija, Fatima, and Scheherazad. Scheherazad, the Queen and the story teller in One Thousand and One Nights [1], is a hero for Muslim women as she successfully revered the King’s physical violence into magnificent stories, which made the King wiser in understanding humanity. Similar to Scheherazad, those women mentioned above are independent and have important roles in their families and communities: queens, leaders, activists, and businesswomen. By using these powerful allusions, the speakers not only reclaim their own identities, but also undermine American myths and stereotypes of Muslim women. EFS reveals various positive portrayals and voices of Muslim women, who also represent other marginal groups, which have been suffering from American myths since the periods of European colonialisms and American imperialism.

Khaled Mattawa (2008) explores allusion in Kahf’s poems, and acknowledges that the main thread in her poetry is a search for a sense of belonging. He argues that “These allusions emerge from a desire to belong as well as from a desire to promote tolerance and understanding” (1595). In line with Mattawa, who centres on allusion in Arab poetry, Riyad Manqoush et al. (2011), in “The Use of Historical Allusion in Recent American and Arab Fiction,” suggest that Arab American writers allude to Islamic tales and events in order to understand their present condition, especially while living in the U.S. Arguably, these American-Muslim writers who allude to Islamic history might be inspired by the way African-American writers also use the history of America’s slavery in their writing. However, Kahf’s poems not only promote a desire for American belonging and simple allusions to Islamic history, but also highlight the role of the iconic Muslim women as modelling women’s empowerment due to their qualities of devotion, perseverance, bravery, and intelligence.

Kahf’s “Fatima Migrates in October” deals with the eloquence of Fatima RA, who was the youngest daughter of prophet’s Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him/PBUH) and a wife of Ali bin Abi Thalib, a Khalifaturrashidin (Islamic leader). The poet alludes to Fatima’s struggles to migrate from place to place in order to accompany Prophet Muhammad in performing hijrah (migration) from Mecca to Madinah. This depiction shows how Fatima has inspired Muslim women to keep moving on and perform hijrah if they are stuck in certain places or facing particular problems. This hijrah is described in Kahf’s “Fatima Migrates in October” (85) in EFS. The speaker, Fatima, states:

I am the birds of October,

the flocks of migration

I am the first woman in the new country

who will dare love me? (85).

Indeed, the birds, symbols of freedom, represent Fatima, a Muslim woman, searching for peace and sovereignty to express her own opinions and beliefs. Birds also represent perspectives as they fly in the sky, which allows them to see from multiple views: from above, right, and left side. This can be related through the way the speaker states tha a Muslim woman actively perform hijrah with her family and keep moving in order to survive and search for new homes. Additionally, the speaker who “migrates in October” reflects the way that white Americans celebrate Columbus Day by having parades along Fifth Avenue, New York in October. However, the Indigenous Americans prefer to celebrate Indigenous People Day on New York’s Randalls Island. These contradiction shows how senses of belonging in relation to US land have been negotiated by its citizens since its founding.

Fatima’s legacy of hijrah can be seen through the history of Muslim women migrating around the world, including to America. Thus Muslim women have struggled to establish their own identity and their homes, which are often displaced and relocated. This displacement is described through the phrase “The flocks of migration,” illustrating how the speaker’s journeys often cross deserts and seas, in searching for homes by “flying toward the outer sea”. The speaker describes her fight in searching for homes: “I am the last to crawl out from under the rubble of corpses”. Indeed, the use of an expansive “I” in this poem and also elsewhere in Kahf’s poetry shows a clear engagement with the most famous American poet, Walt Whitman, who promotes the idea of American selfhood, which is centred on individualism to rebel against and be independent from the influences of its motherland, England. In line with the idea of rebellions, it is also necessary for Kahf to be independent and reclaim her own identity, which is different from the radical groups, who use the religion of Islam to establish their own personal goals. Significantly, the “crawl,” creeping and scuttling, represents how she cannot run and walk, but mainly sneak like a snake in order to stand up and continue her life. The “rubble,” wreckage and ruin, indicates how her homes were frequently collapsed and lost because of the movements and displacements. Finally, the “corpses” signify how many of her relatives and community died due to being exiled from their homes, and tortured and barred in new places.

E-mails from Scheherazad. University Press of Florida, 2003.

This poem also exposes the beauty of Muslim women through their strong characters, which can be used to emancipate other women. This inner beauty can be seen through the way Fatima adopts and imitates Muslim foremothers, such as Hajar (Hagar), Asiya, Maryam (Mary), Khadija, and Aisha in the poem. The speaker says:

I take the reed basket of Moses’ mother

I will not let Pharaoh kill the children

I take the wealth of Khadija

And the eloquence of Aisha (86).

Asiya, who was Moses’ adoptive mother, was a famous Muslim woman because of her devotion to God and her bravery in challenging her husband, the Pharaoh, of his tyranny. Indeed, the “reed basket of Moses’ mother” alludes to the story of Moses who was sent by his birth mother down the river Nile in order to save him from Pharaoh’s soldiers. According to the Quran, the Pharaoh had all baby boys killed because he believed that a special boy (Moses) would take over his kingdom. Indeed, the speaker communicates through Asiya’s voice, in order to endorse and appreciate her bravery in protecting children and to fight for justice: “I will not let Pharaoh kill the children.” By using Asiya’s manifestation, the speaker expresses how she will not also allow other “Pharaohs” – signifying any oppressors – to repress her own generation and groups. This stanza endorses Fatima’s significance in Islamic history because of her bravery and role in liberating the Muslim community.

The speaker, Fatima, also alludes to a story of Khadija: “I take the wealth of Khadija.” Khadija, the first wife of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and Fatima’s mother, was a noble and wealthy businesswoman. Fatima inherited her mother’s wealth, which was also used to support her father’s revolutions in spreading God’s messages. In this way, the speaker emphasises the beauty of Fatima by relating to her mother’s nobility and “wealth” used to protect and support her family and her community. Simultaneously, the speaker combines Fatima’s story with Aisha, who was the second wife of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) with fluency in narrating hadiths. This fluency is suggested through the word “eloquence” representing “expressiveness.” Aisha was famous as an expert narrator of many hadiths and became the main source for the Muslim community after the death of the Prophet (PBUH) in 632 BC. Significantly, Fatima also became a mother of the community as she was frequently asked questions by Muslims regarding the Quran and hadiths. By taking “the eloquence of Aisha,” the speaker highlights how Fatima was endorsed by Aisha’s characteristics, who is both knowledgeable and resourceful. Thus, Fatima’s story is intertwined with Asiya, Khadija, and Aisha’s levels in order not only to stress inner qualities of Fatimah of bravery, wealth, and intelligence, but also to emphasise her struggle to fight for social justice after being displaced as experienced by these women: “I am looking for the new country”.

The idea of resistance and authorship in the poem can be understood through the way the speaker alludes to a story of Hajar, the second wife of Ibrahim (Abraham). Hajar, who searched for water and finally made the authorship of the water of Zam-Zam in Mecca, inspired Fatima to also perform the hijrah in order to search for the water representing their ownership. Indeed, Hajar’s story in searching for water (places/homes) resembles Fatima’s cycles in conducting hijrah with Prophet Muhammad discussed above. Fatima states:

and Hajar scraping the sands,

shaking my fist at the angel,

wresting water from the rock,

creating a new constellation in the sky

of human settlement (86).

This stanza reveals the struggle of Hajar in conducting her own hijrah alone, without any companions, except her baby, Ismail, and God. Hajar’s story represents Fatima’s journey in performing hijrah in the period of the Prophet (PBUH). In Islamic history, Hajar was expelled from her house because Sarah, Ibrahim’s first wife, felt jealous of Hajar’s youth and beauty. Hajar and Ismail were left in a desert and struggled to survive by searching for water and places. Despite being abandoned alone without food, Hajar survived because of God’s guidance. This direction is also told in this poem as Fatima states: “shaking my fist at the angel.” The angel indicates God who provides Hajar a strong hand in digging water from the ground.  The angel also inspires her to search for a shelter by “creating a new constellation,” signifying homes for Hajar, who lives under the sky with God’s protection. This combination can be understood as a strategy for Fatima to highlight how her story and characteristics resemble Hajar, who survived performing hijrah alone without any help from any man, but God. This poem explains why Fatima became a distinctive woman in Islamic history because she brings together the main characteristics of the iconic Muslim women, who have empowered themselves, which lead to general women’s emancipation, in order to liberate both their families and communities. Additionally, the common characteristic of these women is they continue to hold their faith, regardless of their arduous surroundings. Thus, through her poems, Kahf calls upon a whole genealogy of Muslim women forebears in order to work through questions around migration, art/creativity, women’s empowerment, and identity and American belong in, as Kahf’s speaker ends her own story by questioning: “I am Fatima / Do you dare love me?” (87).


[1] A collection of largely Middle Eastern stories of an unknown date and authorship. It was first translated into English in 1706 and known as Arabian Nights.


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About the Author

Hasnul Djohar is a PhD candidate in American Literature supervised by Dr. Sinead Moynihan and Dr. Florian Stadtler at the University of Exeter. She is an awardee of Indonesian Endowment (LPDP) Funded PhD in English and a Fulbright scholar. She is also a lecturer at Syarif Hidayatullah State Islamic University (UIN Jakarta), Jakarta, Indonesia. Her research focuses on culture (ethnicity), memory, and identity in contemporary American-Muslim womenÕs writing. Her twitter handle is @hasnuldjohar.