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“If I am woman by nature, I am man by poetry.”– Nazhūn al-Mājinah (twelfth century, Granada)
In a widely reported 2011 interview at the Royal Geographic Society, the British– Caribbean novelist and essayist V. S. Naipaul shocked his interlocutors and many members of the reading public when he said: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think it is unequal to me.” He continued: “A woman is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing, too. My publisher, who was so good as a taste-maker and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh.” Naipaul's valedictory flourish was the clarification: “I don't mean this in any unkind way.”
The notion that a reader may discern the gender of a text's author through close reading is, paradoxically, antithetical to the notion of close reading itself; nevertheless, it still finds roots deep in various literary historiographies and methodologies. In the early years of his career, before becoming the doyen of the social history of the medieval Mediterranean, S. D. Goitein claimed that while listening to the performance of Arabic poetry in Yemen, he could always tell whether a poem had been written by a man or a woman regardless of the gender of the performer. Such a belief, in no way limited to Naipaul and Goitein, bears serious interpretive consequences that have limited scholarly ability to comprehend the boundaries of women's writing. In this chapter, I propose to examine those consequences as they bear upon the construction of a literary history of Andalusi women poets and argue that only by overcoming both gender-essentialist and female-exceptionalist interpretation, two faces of the same critical coin, can we arrive at sound explanations for women's participation in the world of Andalusi courtly literature and the nature and extent of the limits placed upon that participation during the medieval period. The example of the single medieval Hebrew poem attributed to an Andalusi woman, both within its medieval context and in the light of the literary historiography that has tried to interpret and contextualize it, will be the test case for such a reassessment of that literary historiography.