Nazira Zeineddine (1908 - 1976: نظيرة زين الدين) is a Druze Lebanese scholar born in 1908, was one of the first Arab women writers of her time to speak out against the degrading practices of her culture. She is not only famous for her criticisms against the traditional "head to toe veil" worn by Muslim women at the time, but for her outspokenness about the seclusion and discrimination of these women as well. She spent much of her life writing and advocating for the identity and equality of women in the Arab world.
Early life and education
Nazira Zain al-Din was the daughter of Shaykh Saeed Zainal Din, a judge in Lebanon's High Court of Appeals and an intellectual scholar of the Islamic religion. While she spent most of her life in Ayn Qani, Lebanon, she was born in Istanbul where her father held a post at the time. Due to his background in the intellectual world, her father supported her educational endeavors and sent her to a French Catholic school in Lebanon. Nazira and her sister Munira were the first Druze girls to gain admission into St Joseph de l'Apparition and the Sisters of Nazareth Convent school, the French Catholic schools they attended for their primary education. In addition to this French Catholic education, al-Din's father made sure she was also well educated in Islam. She was well versed in the Quran, Hadith, and Sharia (Islamic law), all of which played an incredibly important role in her writing. She was also able to study and converse with various Islamic scholars (Ulama) during her lifetime. Many of these scholars were good friends of her father and spent a great deal of time in their home. By the time she was a young woman Nadira Zain al-Din was considered an extremely cultured individual, especially on the subject of Islamism.
After graduation from the Sisters of Nazareth Convent school, al-Din wished to pursue a medical education at St. Joseph's, an all-male jesuit school in Beirut. Unfortunately she was denied entrance because she was a woman. She decided to attend Lycée Français Laique, a coed French institution where she graduated at the top of her class, even above all of the French male pupils. After her graduation from Lycéc Français Laique, she decided not to pursue any other higher education and from there al-Din was able to begin her writing career.
Nazira Zain al-Din wrote her first book Unveiling and Veiling in 1928 at the age of 20. The book touched on the extremely controversial subject regarding the head-to-toe veiling of women during the early 20th century. It is thought that she wrote this in response to the 1927 Syrian law that forbade women to be out in public unveiled. Due to her extensive history of reading and interpreting Islamic law, al-Din was able to use the Quran, Hadith, and the words of the Prophet Muhammad to back up her argument on this subject. In Unveiling and Veiling, she concluded that the rigid custom of veiling women was a "gender-biased interpretation of the scriptural text that imposed seclusion on women", not a component of Islamic law.
She wrote her second book, The Young Woman and the Shaikhs later that year. This book is seen as a collection of direct responses to the criticism and praise that she received from the Muslim community regarding Unveiling and Veiling.The Young Woman and the Shaikhs addressees claims made by her opposers regarding the validity and credibility of Unveiling and Veiling. Al-Din clarifies that she wrote her first book with "no companion or assistance except pens and ink pots, books and papers", This is in response to the claims that Unveiling and Veiling was plagiarized and supported by either missionary or atheist efforts. She also addresses criticisms regarding her faith by stating that she is a sincere Muslim of truth that has written only on what "God Almighty" has willed
Impact and Legacy
Despite her use of evidence from various holy texts, al-Din's books caused a great deal of uproar among the clerical Muslim community. Her works were banned by many Islamic clergy leaders, and members of the Muslim community were urged to neither buy nor sell them. Al-Din was also accused of plagiarism and atheism by many of these Islamic clerics. Despite many sources of opposition, Al-Din was actually supported by a few influential Muslim groups, one of them being the well-known Egyptian Women's magazine. This group supported Al-Din's claims regarding Muslim women's rights and published parts of her first book in many languages.
Al-Din's works were considered a necessary response to the veiling of Middle Eastern women during this time. In her home of Lebanon and in many other parts of the Middle East, women were not allowed to leave the house without their face covered. During the 1920's, this "head-to-toe" covering was seen as a source of oppression and seclusion, "stemming from the logic of male ownership and female objectification" Al-Din's response to this societal issue left a remarkable impact on the Muslim community. She was one of the first women to use the Quran and other holy texts to question notions that were thought to have originated from them. Both of her works questioned the validity of the misogynistic interpretations of both the Quran and the Hadith. Rather than relying on these interpretations, she urged members of the Muslim community to use individual reason and judgement to distinguish between what is regarded as moral, and what is not.
While Nazira Zain al-Din did in fact have a lasting impact on the Arab feminist movement, she was eventually overcome by the opposition of the Muslim clerics. She stopped writing and fighting for women's rights after about 5 years and settled down with her husband and three sons at their mansion in Baaqline, Lebanon. She died in 1976 at the age of 68. Very little is known about al-Din in the decades after her writing and activism, but her impact on Arab feminism is prevalent even after her death. She has inspired many Muslim women to take control over their bodies, their education, and most importantly, their lives.