Winning Writing

9th July 2020

News, Student news

Wadham History undergraduate Zehra Munir has been awarded the Rebecca West Prize for Writing.

  • Zehra Munir

    Zehra Munir (History, 2018)

Her essay Beyond liberation: using Rebecca West to complicate images of Muslim womanhood won the annual St Edmund Hall Prize of £1000 to celebrate the writing, life and achievements of Dame Rebecca West.

Rebecca West (1892-1983) has been called “the world’s number one woman writer”, “the greatest woman since Elizabeth I” and “a strong contender for woman of the century”. As a young woman she was a fiery suffragette and socialist; by her thirties, she was a world-famous journalist and political analyst as well as a distinguished novelist. 

Zehra (History, 2018) first heard of Rebecca West's work when she saw this competition advertised, and was struck by the interviews she read with the writer. 

“Wry, witty, and often outspoken, both her personality and her ideas were considered fairly radical for a woman of her era. When I began to read her travel writing, I was interested in her treatment of the Muslim women she encountered. At times, it felt like she was tapping into the Orientalist ideas of the time. But in other moments, her approach humanised the women she encountered, and embraced the complexities of a culture different from her own. Such an approach is a far cry from the homogenising narratives around Muslim womanhood that have dominated our news headlines in the last two decades,” said Zehra.

“At the moment, there are many questions being asked about which authors and thinkers are granted a place in the canon. I have been thinking also about the authors who exist on the peripheries of the canon, and what we can borrow from them to use in our own writing and thinking. I don't know if West herself would agree with my using her work to think about the way in which tropes of Muslim womanhood are constructed, and how we can move beyond simplistic portrayals of an oppressed monolith. But for me, that's the exciting bit about revisiting texts like Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. Though I may not agree with all of West's conclusions, her perspective and her insight are still valuable today.” 

Annual prizes of £1,000 and £500 have been established at St Edmund Hall by the Rebecca West Literary Estate, to celebrate the writing, life and achievements of Dame Rebecca West.

All students at the University of Oxford can apply by submitting a piece of writing of 2,000-2,500 words on a topic related to Rebecca West’s interests, set each year by an International Panel. The topic for 2020’s prize was Complexity and fine distinction in political thinking asking students to consider passages in West’s novels Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

The International Rebecca West Panel this year consisted of Mrs Helen Atkinson, alumna of St Edmund Hall (1983, English) and great-niece of Rebecca West; Professor Ann Holbrook, Professor of English at Anselm College, US, and President of the International Rebecca West Society; Dr Kathryn Laing, Department of English Language and Literature at the University of Limerick and Professor Wes Williams, Fellow of St Edmund Hall.