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Lesson 5.7: The Salon Heritage and its Transformation


Lesson 5.7: The Salon Heritage and its Transformation


Topic 6: Women’s Empowerment and the Tradition of the Salon


Topic Overview

The two lessons in this unit engage students in a study of the literary salon and its impact across the Mediterranean in the age of print journalism. While the salon tradition was firmly in place in France by the seventeenth century, it also has antecedents in the Arab world  (the mujalasat).  The nineteenth and early twentieth century salons investigated in this lesson were hosted by women in Cairo, Aleppo, Damascus, Jerusalem and Beirut, as well as in Paris and Milan. While they met in the privacy of a woman’s home they were not sex-segregated; prominent men also attended the sessions. The women, as well as their male allies, also wrote, or were encouraged to write, for public consumption.  The dialogues held in the home thus had ramifications for public discourse and led to changes in society, especially concerning the role of women. Thus salons can be seen as thresholds between the private and public spheres.

While the French model of the salon was the inspiration for Arab women, it was adapted to further nationalist goals.  For example, the preferred language of the Egyptian salons was Classical Arabic (not French). Thus the movement is a good example of the cross–pollination of social institutions across the Mediterranean.

The salonnières for the most part came from well-to-do families who subscribed to reform efforts, including the education of women. Their invited guests represented a variety of faiths. While the salonnières advocated a greater role for women in society, as did their male and female guests, they differed as to their ultimate goals and the best means to attain them.

Lesson Overview

The focus of this lesson is the tradition of the literary salon, its antecedents in both the Medieval Islamic and modern European worlds, and the ways in which the salon tradition was both revived and transformed in the Mediterranean. Working in groups, students define the term “salon” based on readings about the Arab mujalasat and the French salon traditions. They analyze how these traditions were utilized and transformed by Palestinian salonniere Mayy Ziyadah (also referred to as Mai Ziade) and others. Follow-up activities include essay and debate topics, as well as activities that engage students in preliminarily “planning” salons of their own. Lesson 2 provides instructions for how to hold a nineteenth century salon-in-the-classroom.


Joan Brodsky Schur


Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: A World History Curriculum Project for Educators


Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University




2014, Ali Vural Ak Center for Global Islamic Studies, George Mason University, published under Creative Commons – Attribution-No Derivatives 3.0 License


Two 45-50 minute class periods to implement Lesson 1; an additional three class periods for Lesson 2 (simulation)


National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, National Council for the Social Studies Theme 5 High School: How various forms of groups and institutions change over time; How groups and institutions work to meet individual needs, and can promote the common good and address persistent social issues.

National Standards of History, National Center for History in the Schools. Era 7, 4B Analyze connections between reform movements and industrialization, democratization, and nationalism. Explain the origins of women’s suffrage and other movements in Europe and North America and assess their successes up to World War I.


• Students will define the term salon as it applies across history and cultures.

• They will analyze how women gained public influence via the salons held in their homes.

• They will compare women’s movements within regions of the Mediterranean to those outside of it.

• They will enact and embody viewpoints held by men and women who attended the salons.


• Student Handouts 5.7.1 to 5.7.8

  • 5.7.1 Transformations of the salon tradition, readings and questions
  • 5.7.2 Graphic Organizer: What was it like to attend a salon?
  • 5.7.3 Graphic organizer: How did Mayy Ziyadah transform the salon tradition?

Lesson Plan Text

1. Activity 1: Introductory Activities: Ask students the following sequence of questions and/or raise the following points:

a. What kinds of locations do we have in our society for discussing important issues amongst ourselves on a regular basis? Answers may vary from “at home” -- to a coffee shop, pizza parlor, school lunchroom, classroom, political or religious organization, book club, library, and so forth.

b. If we wanted our discussions, thoughts, and opinions to reach a wider audience and influence public opinion, what means do we have? Answers might include publishing letters to the editor of a newspaper, posting a blog, creating an organization, and so forth. How much harder might this have been in the days before industrialization brought print journalism, and the computer the age of e-journalism?

2. Remind students that throughout history and in many societies, women were not allowed to participate in activities/discussions that took place outside of the home, or even socialize with non-family members inside the home. Ask students for examples of this phenomenon throughout world history. For example women in Ancient Greece were for the main part secluded in their homes, while women in nineteenth century America could attend a variety of public events, but were not expected to speak publically to “promiscuous” audiences of both men and women. If so cut-off from public discourse, what means could women find to influence it?

3. Explain to students that in this lesson they will study an institution called the salon that enabled women to enter the “public sphere” through holding regularly scheduled discussions in the “private sphere” of their homes.

4. In Ottoman homes space was divided into the selamlik section, reserved for men, and the female space, the haremlik. In early America the “front parlor” was used for public occasions (a wedding), while the back parlor was more intimate. What do we mean when we use the terms, family room, den or living room? (How these spaces are defined and used might vary among different social classes and regions of America.)

5. Ask if our homes are still divided into public and private spaces? Ask students to sketch their homes and label each space as “private” (reserved for family members, such as the parent/s’ bedroom) or “public ” (the living room). [Note: teachers should be culturally sensitive to class differences among their students and therefore students should not be required to share their drawings.] Consider asking just a few students to share what they discovered in doing this activity.

6. Tell students that originally the word salon simply meant a large reception room. Over time it also acquired the meaning of a social gathering. In this lesson students will learn how the salon as a type of social gathering crossed cultural boundaries and empowered women in Mediterranean societies.

7. Activity 2: Assign the readings. Distribute Student Handout 5.7.1, 5.7.2, 5.7.3

a. Tell students that they will learn about the salon tradition through a variety of readings. These include sets of readings about the bulleted topics below (you can assign all of this as individual work):

  • Early Islamic Salon: A set of two readings with questions.
  • French Salon: A set of three sources with questions.
  • Arabic Salon of Mayy Ziyadah: A set of three sources with questions.
  • Arabic Salon of Mayy Ziyadah: A set of three sources with questions.

8. Alternatively, form groups of four students such that the readings are divided among group members as follows:

  • Step 1. Assign a pair to read and report to their group of four on the Early Islamic Salon and the second pair to do the same with the French salon.
  • Step 2. Students share what they have learned with the group of four before moving on to Step 3.
  • Step 3. Assign each pair to tackle one of the sets of readings about Mayy Ziyadah.
  • Step 4. The group re-convenes to share and learn more about Mayy Ziyadah’s salon.
  • Step 5. The group fills in the graphic organizers in Student Handouts 5.7.2 and 5.7.3
  • Step 6: The entire class reconvenes. The teacher chooses to implement some or all of the Concluding Activities below.

9. Activity 3: Concluding Activities as Extension/Assessment/Enrichment: Essay topic: The word “salon” simply means a large room that accommodates guests. But when the word “salon” is used to refer to a social gathering, we mean something more specific. Define the elements of a salon as a social gathering, drawing on all of the readings and images in this lesson. In your essay address this question: Does the salon tradition inherently foster democratic ideals? What is your evidence for thinking so?

Essay topic: In what respect is the salon tradition one that takes place in the private sphere and in what respects can it be considered as taking place in the public sphere?

Research: How do salons reflect and further regional intellectual and social movements? Compare one of the women’s salons in the Levant and North Africa to that of one held in Italy or France like the Jewish salonnieres Geneviève Halevy Straus (1849-1926) and Anna Kuliscioff (1855-1925). The first held a literary and artistic salon in Paris, while the latter held a salon focused on politics in Milan. (See the Biographies Handout.)

Debate: The Seneca Falls Convention held in upstate New York in 1848 was largely planned in the homes of women like Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Would you call these planning sessions a “salon”? Why or why not?

Role Play: Imagine that you are hosting or co-hosting a salon today. Remember that a successful salon gathered together an illustrious group of men and women who were prominent intellectuals and notables in their society. Make a guest list for your salon. Choose the themes for discussion and debate, and write a guest list to match. How would you induce such individuals to attend your salon? What social connections would you need to contact them personally?

• Create plans for an on-line salon and compare and contrast the value of holding a salon in the virtual world rather than face-to-face.



Joan Brodsky Schur, “Lesson 5.7: The Salon Heritage and its Transformation,” Our Shared Past in the Mediterranean: Teaching Modules , accessed October 16, 2021,