Women have a place in the arts

There is a long and deplorable history of women being left out of the artistic canon, writes Shelina Janmohamed

Anne Hathaway portrays author Jane Austen in the film "Becoming Jane". Austen is one of the few female authors that have made it into the West's literary canon. (AP Photo/Miramax)
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Will you be remembered in a hundred years for what you said, for what you wrote, for what you drew? Will the songs you sang or the poems you composed, the stories you told or the designs you mapped out shape the future, and quench the thirst of future human generations to know what is beautiful and how to enjoy beauty?

Your work might be exquisite, ground breaking and pioneering, but if you are a woman, more than likely your work won’t have been captured in any literary or artistic canon. Belonging is important. It confers social, political, economic, aesthetic status. It defines the parameters of our social consciousness and the knowledge contained within it establishes the limits of what we deem possible.

Women’s voices have been systematically excluded for such canons, which is why we see so little of their work. As just one example, the earliest biography of the Prophet Muhammad was written by Ibn Ishaq about a hundred years after the Prophet’s death. The original form no longer exists, but it has come down to us as an edited version by later scholars such as Ibn Hisham. One of the reasons given for reconstructing and editing it was that it contained “many poems by women” that were removed. The edited version is now part of the canon, without the poems by women.

Women’s arts are often considered less proper than that of those of men. Think of oral histories, storytelling and fairy tales that are woven into our imaginations told to us by our mothers, but forgotten by time, versus the male scribes with access to formal channels of recording their talent.

The canon is formed by a process of selection with an inherent bias towards male production. Work by women has often been considered substandard or subversive. Those who decide on what goes into the canon are male. Those in positions where knowledge and artistic production occur tend to be male – even today our universities are dominated by men, whose academic titles confer privilege so that their work carries more authority and that they can choose which works to include.

I’ve been pondering these questions of literary immortality, legacy for humankind and contributions to knowledge and discourse this week while writing my next book. One simple reason for the absence of women’s work may just be practical – we are in charge of households and childcare, and creative production is fiendishly hard against the backdrop of children that need feeding, watering and constant loving.

Women may still be systematically excluded, and societal structures continues to lay obstacles for producing material. But I also worry that women are laying groundwork for future generations to look back on us and wonder why we were absent.

For every woman who refuses to take a photo with her work, who goes to an event but doesn’t want to be filmed, who doesn’t want to ask a question herself but writes it on a piece of paper for someone else to ask, the future will wonder where we were. For every woman who felt too nervous to be on an expert panel, who didn’t reach out to publish her book, who was too busy to write a blog, I say we owe it to our future to be present, visible and heard so that no one can write us out of history.

Shelina Zahra Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and blogs at www.spirit21.co.uk