Alifa Rifaat was born in 1930 and spent her entire life in Egypt, where she was raised in the traditions and culture of Islam. Though Rifaat wanted to attend college and pursue an education and a career in the arts, her parents arranged for her to be married instead, and she submitted. Her husband died early in her married life, leaving her to raise their three children. Rifaat, a Muslim (a follower of Islam), could read only Arabic, so her exposure to literature was limited to works written in or translated into Arabic, and the Qur’an (the text of the Islamic religion) and the Hadith (a book of sayings of the Islamic prophet Muhammad).
Although Rifaat did not attend college, she did receive some education at the British Institute in Cairo (1946–1949). Rifaat continued reading works of Arab fiction and religious works, and she eventually began writing in 1955. Having traveled little in her life, many of her stories are set in provincial Egypt and are untouched by Western influence. As a result, instead of taking the conventional feminist approach and looking to the Christian West for a model of how women’s lives should change, Rifaat criticizes men for not fulfilling their role within the Islamic tradition. She does not question the role of women according to the Islamic faith, but rather depicts the hardships imposed on women because of men’s shortcomings. Her collection of short stories, Distant View of a Minaret (1983), features recurring ideas of sexual frustration, pervasive cultural pressures, and death.
In Islamic society, a woman is under the protection and rule of her husband if she is married, or of her oldest brother if she is single or widowed. She often has little or no control of finances or major decisions. Though Rifaat laments the limits placed on women in Islamic society in Distant View of a Minaret, she never questions Islam’s ultimate validity, and every story contains elements of the Islamic faith. Muslims believe there is one God, and that whatever occurs in a person’s life happens through the will of Allah (the Islamic word for God). Allah has communicated to man through the Qur’an, which provides guidelines for living. Muslims are guided by the Five Pillars of Faith: the acknowledgment of Allah as the one true deity; the performance of prayer rituals at least five times a day; the giving of alms; refraining from eating, drinking, smoking, and sex from dawn until dusk during the month of Ramadan; and making at least one pilgrimage to Mecca (in modern-day Saudi Arabia) during one’s lifetime. These guidelines, as well as other elements of Islam, pervade Rifaat’s stories and place them firmly in the Islamic tradition.
Other works by Rifaat include Girls of Baurdin (1995), Kad Lia al-Hawa (1985), Love Made a Trap for Me (1991), Leil Al-Shetaa Al-taweel (translated as The Long Night of Winter and Other Stories) (1985), Jawharah Farum (1978), Pharaoh’s Jewel (1991), and the short-story collection Hawatandbi-Adam (translated as Eve Returns With Adam to Paradise) (1975). Reviewers overwhelmingly praise Rifaat for the sense of raw emotion and authenticity in her writing. She died in Egypt in 1996.