Gender Questions

    How I Killed Scheherazade
    An Arab Woman Redefining Her Womanhood

    El Anatsui, Ozon Schicht and Yamswurzeln. From the exhibition: Who Knows Tomorrow. Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin. ©  Stefan Weidner ‘No change in the everlasting power hierarchy, and no fighting against the demonisation of women and their exclusion from the work, education and struggle camps are possible, without her ente-
    ring all active fields with the will of her individual choice.’
    Khalida Said

    Let me grab the bull by the horns right from the start:
    I definitely am what you would call a woman ‘with balls’, but I don’t have any penis envy;
    I am a highly paid career woman, but I hate having to pay the restaurant bill when a man takes me out on a date;
    I am an emancipated workaholic woman, but a massage and a facial give me as much pleasure and fulfilment as a successful job-related project;
    I am an intellectual woman, but I worry about my wrinkles and body weight as much as I worry about not having yet read the last Kundera;
    I am not superficial, but a woman’s oily hair, messy clothes and hairy armpits are on my scale as much a ‘no-no’ as silicon lips/cheeks/tits, and wherever else they inject that substance nowadays;
    I am not superficial, but a man’s dirty nails, bad breath and wrinkled shirt are on my scale as much a turn-off as a low IQ, lack of a sense of humour, and the tragic tendency for showing off;
    I am an initiative-taking woman, but I lose my ‘erection’ in front of a spineless, gutless man as quickly (and irrevocably) as I lose it in front of a Neanderthal who thinks that visible chest hair, shiny fast cars and behaving like a jerk are indisputable proofs of his masculinity.

    External and internal beauty

    In short, I am what you would call a fanatic of femininity. And what does femininity mean? It is, of course, a complicated question. But to explain it bluntly, and visually, if I were to pick one example that most simply, yet effectively explains my view on femininity, I would pick the store front of the Sonia Rykiel boutique in the St. Germain neighbourhood in Paris: extremely beautiful, stylish and seductive dresses can be seen side-by-side with selections of books and new releases by novelists, thinkers, poets and philosophers.

    Fashion and culture: food for the body, and food for the mind. External beauty and internal beauty, completing, and enriching, each other.

    No one is shocked by this primal association between grooming the exterior and grooming the interior as much as we Arabs are. Why? Because, according to our intellectuals, the person who takes care of his/her outside is automatically shallow. And those who care about culture are supposed to be automatically neglectful of their external appearance. They should not have the time to care for ‘trivial’ matters such as hygiene, skin care and proper clothing, all concerned as they are with the serious existentialist, metaphysical questions of being.

    The idea of two camps, the camp of the beautiful on one side, and the camp of the intelligent on the other, is a trap, and a persisting one, in spite of all the living counter-arguments that are out there nowadays. We should demand books, even in clothing stores. We should demand elegance, even in bookshops.
    Here is a necessity, and there is a necessity. Here is need, and there is need. Here is hunger, and there is hunger. Here is pleasure, and there is pleasure. Especially when it comes to women.

    Is there anything more magnificent than a woman insisting on winning her battles whilst remaining a woman?
    Personally, I don’t think there is.

    In fact, the worst thing that can happen to a woman, in the midst of the struggle that she is waging for her rights, in order to gain respect, and to prove her ability to undertake any job and find a place for herself in society – particularly in Third-World societies – is for her to forget that she is a woman; to lose the woman inside her.

    Why do I say this, and what does a woman being a woman mean?
    I say this because some Arab (and non-Arab) women believe that this battle for equality demands giving up their femininity. But I don’t need to look like a man to be a strong woman. And I don’t need to be against men to be pro-women.

    Furthermore: isn’t the de-feminisation of women an act of surrendering par excellence to men’s blackmail and their shallow view of the female entity as a sum of thighs, tits, asses, lips, and so on and so forth?

    Again: what does it mean for a woman to be a woman? It does not mean of course the banality of wearing skirts, putting on makeup, and growing long hair. It does not mean transforming her body into a piece of meat. In fact, and despite my firm belief that each person is free to do whatever he/she deems suitable with his/her body, I find the ‘piece of meat’ female prototype as humiliating and as degrading as the veiled one. Both annul the woman’s genuine entity, which goes beyond treating her body as merchandise, or as a temptation to wipe her away with a black eraser.

    Sustain the personal self

    Thus, a woman being a woman means for her to be, and to want to be, herself, and not anyone else’s self. And especially not the man’s self: the man-father’s self, the man-husband’s, the man-lover’s, the man-brother’s or man-son’s.

    It means that a woman must sustain this SELF, her personal self, with her guts, and her unconscious, and her body and her mind, fearlessly, without panic, or wariness, or taboo, or shame, or any other internal or social obstacles, whether visible or not.
    It means that she sustains all this without worrying whether a man will approve of her, and her success, or judge her failure.
    It means that she takes, instead of waiting to be given.

    For a woman is her own sole expert, and her own guide to herself. She is the only reference on her body, and her spirit, and her essence. Neither the religious radicals who want her absent should have a say on this, nor the superficially radical who want to turn her into an object in a store window.

    I as a woman need the man. No question about that. And I love that need, and accept it, and nurture it, and take my pride in it. I as a woman am aware that the man needs me too. And I love that need, and accept it, and nurture it, and take my pride in it as well. But there is a huge difference between needing the other, and depending on the other, becoming a mere appendage and an accessory of his/hers. The first attitude is based on faith in oneself and in the relationship, while the second is only built on low self-esteem. In my modest view of the world, both human identities go together, hand in hand, accomplices and equal, challenging, motivating and supporting each other, yet staying amazingly DIFFERENT. And if the woman has to become equal to something or someone, then it is to her own entity and identity, and to this entity and identity alone. Then, she will be equal with her essential feminine being, a being in continuous transformation. Beneath this continuous movement, above it, outside of it, lies the void: ‘Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death’ (Anaïs Nin).

    In this context, I remember very well my reaction when I once saw a picture of the Spanish minister of defence, Carmen Chacón, checking on her troops in southern Lebanon, in the spring of 2008, when she was seven months pregnant. I’ve rarely seen anything as beautiful and as powerful as that sight: a young, pregnant, attractive woman checking on ‘her’ troops with all the might of her womanhood. A sight that condenses, in one expressive shot, the essence of my belief: the strength of femininity. The power of Lilith. Lilith, the original woman, the one who existed long before Eve, created from earth just like Adam. Lilith, the independent, free-spirited woman who refused to obey the man blindly, and left Paradise of her own choice. Lilith, the rebellious woman, of whom Eve, created from Adam’s rib, is nothing but a pale copy.

    Obviously, the above anecdote about Chacón does not mean that I am blindly supportive of women in politics. Quite the contrary.

    Women often ask me questions of the sort, ‘You must certainly have supported Ségolène Royale and Hillary Clinton in their respective bids for the presidency, right?’ And when I reply ‘No,’ the woman asking such a question is taken aback. ‘But how can that be? How can you not support them?’

    Let me explain: the person asking the question is not necessarily concerned with French or American policy and their ramifications for the situation in Lebanon. She is appalled at my answer for one reason only, which is that Ségolène Royale, just like Hillary Clinton, is a woman. And in her opinion, it is enough for a candidate to be a woman for that to be a reason for other women to encourage and support her. For me, traitor to my gender that I am, the fact that she has a vagina is not a sign of a candidate’s qualifications, and I have not yet learned (nor will I ever learn) the secrets of blind allegiance to women’s issues.

    Of course, I would have liked Ségolène Royale, she of the graceful bearing and humanist discourse, to be elected French president. And I would have liked Hillary Clinton, she of the sharp intelligence and iron will, to make it to the top of American government. For no other reason than to exact ‘revenge’ for every woman who made it to politics at the expense of her femininity; or, the other way around, with no qualifications except her looks. But a presidential appointment, in my personal opinion, requires stronger experience and more depth than either Royale or Clinton possessed, for reasons that have nothing to do with them being female. So should I have supported them symbolically, just because all three of us wear bras before leaving the house in the morning?

    No, and a thousand nos for such an insulting, superficial kind of solidarity. Women deserve more. Much more.

    The Barbie generation

    On the subject of female solidarity, let me just mention this ‘tragic’ piece of news: recently, in Lebanon, a female-only taxi service was established for women who don’t want to mingle with men; and many of the so-called fairer sex are exultant at the news, whooping and celebrating with a: ‘It’s pink! And so cute! And a woman is driving the cab – how original!

    But this girls’-taxi, with its sickening lollipop colour, is a source of embarrassment for me as a Lebanese woman. And as an Arab woman. And as a woman in general.
    Since when is a taxicab the site of ‘dangerous liaisons’? Since when did we in Lebanon go back to conforming to the segregation of the sexes? We’ve only recently got rid of separate girls’ and boys’ schools, and other practices that produce inhibited men and women, knotted up in complexes, repression, ignorance and fear of the other sex.

     

    In the recent past, we witnessed the Barbie generation (and we haven’t outlived it yet); now, we are apparently witnessing the segregating girls’-taxi generation. These two examples might seem disconnected, but they are, in fact, quite similar. It’s enough that each, in its own way, represents a conditioned mode of behaviour in the Arab world that has annoyed me since my youth: a categorising behaviour that separates the male from the female, and puts each of them in a different setting. As soon as a girl is born, her parents and relatives surround her with dolls of all shapes and sizes. One to spend the day with, one to hug at night, a third to drink tea with, a fourth to plan a wedding for. (What is a little Arab girl without the perfect wedding plan? What meaning to her life if it is devoid of such a perspective?)

    On the other hand, when a boy is born, he is surrounded with ostensibly male toys: cars of all shapes and sizes, plastic soldiers and tanks and swords and guns. Even today, few parents rebel against this cliché, and avoid the pitfall. Wherever we go, girls wear pink and boys wear blue. She is supposed to be soft, peaceful, wistful and obedient (most of all obedient), and he is expected to be rough-and-tumble, down to earth, and a rebel.

    Personally, I hated dolls. Not a single one – not Barbie, nor any of her sisters – managed to seduce me. I did not fall once – even before I knew enough to make a conscious decision – into the trap of archetypal femininity, the one which society imposes, and that limits our personalities, behaviours and thoughts.

    I am a woman, yes. A woman, of course. Proudly. Absolutely. And very much so. But for God’s sake, get that pink colour and all the clichés attached to it away from my sight. I remember one day when I clashed with my uncle, because he had dared to buy me a miniature kitchen, complete with a washing machine and an iron, for my birthday. I felt insulted that day, despite being just eight years old. Not because I despise cooking and washing and ironing and house chores in general. Quite the opposite: I feel a great deal of respect and appreciation for women who devote their time to caring for their families this way (and my mother is one of those, and I owe her a lot on that level). Plus, I do not consider the career woman the only model of successful, emancipated and efficient woman. But I am talking about choice, and in that choice lies all the difference between a subjugated and a free woman. I am all for a woman cooking if cooking is her wish and decision. I am against a woman cooking if cooking is expected of her, and imposed on her, for the sole reason that she is a woman.

    My uncle unconsciously wanted me that day to conform to a female stereotype dictated by patriarchal society: the female stereotype of a woman who is only expected to cook and clean and wash and iron ... and who is waiting for the man to come home from work, from war, from politics, from thinking, and from the other estates of outside life.

    I don’t mean to put all the responsibility on men’s shoulders. We do share a big part of that responsibility as well. We simply shouldn’t accept being women ‘who wait’: whether it is for an occasion, an opportunity, an event, or, obviously, a man. We need to get up, walk on, reach out for what we want and take it.

    Or, at least, try to.

    Are men necessary?

    Pascale Marthine Tayou, Colonial Erection, 2010 (Detail). From the exhibition: Who Knows Tomorrow. Neue Nationalgalerie Berlin. © Stefan Weidner‘I do not fight against men, but against the system that is sexist’ (Elfriede Jelinek). I remember that, around fifteen years ago, when the famous John Gray book Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus came out, it was enormously successful on the popular level, not only in his native America, but also around the world, including the Arab countries, where many considered it to be the holy grail of relationships between men and women, and the absolute solution to all bonding problems, whether marital or otherwise. I confess that, despite being in my early twenties at the time, I read this alleged guide to ‘improving communication between the sexes’ with a sarcastic smile on my face, especially regarding the supposedly miraculous solutions proposed, whose dangerous simplicity was only outdone by the unoriginality of their clichés.

    At that time I thought that nothing would surpass this work’s naïve depiction of the relationship between the sexes, with its prejudices and its lame pre-packaged answers and silly, ‘well-meaning’ advice. Then I read a book called Are Men Necessary? by the American writer Maureen Dowd, the New York Times columnist, and I knew that I had lost my bet against myself. For as much as Gray’s book contains laughable generalisations about dealing with the ‘historical misunderstanding’ between men and women (a theory as simplistic as Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilisations’, albeit on a different level and subject), Dowd’s book contains even more superficial slogans and propagandistic examples. Once the reader has sorted through the claustrophobic content, he or she is invariably led to the conclusion that she does not aim to champion the women’s cause as much as she aims to destroy men through deliberate provocation and brainwashing.

    ‘Are men necessary?’ Maureen Dowd asks. ‘Of course not!’ answers, in ecstasy, an Arab female journalist who reviewed the book at the time, proving her assertion with the news that a group of American scientists had succeeded in creating artificial sperm extracted from a woman’s bone marrow. Thus, a woman can from now on be self-sufficient enough to bear children without male ‘interference’.

    My astute colleague was applauding this invention in her article, lauding it as a ‘revenge for women, for all the oppression and hardship they have borne’. But the dear journalist failed to realise that a woman’s need for a man is not reduced to his fertilising sperm. She failed to realise that neither she, nor many of the Arab women who rush to blame men for all their problems, admit that the oppression and hardship a woman faces are sometimes her own responsibility as well, because she surrenders and does almost nothing to change the dark situation she finds herself in; instead, she is content merely to complain about it.

    Of course, I am not generalising, nor being cruel, insensitive and unfair to my sex. I know perfectly well how many horrors are perpetrated daily on women in some radical parts of the Arab-Muslim world. The most horrific of these practices in my opinion is what they dare to call ‘honour killings’; for a woman irrevocably tarnishes her family’s honour by engaging in pre-marital sex, or by getting herself raped, or if she seeks divorce, or when she elopes and marries against her family’s wishes. Men ‘responsible’ for her consequently become victims, because their honour has been violated, so killing her is considered self-defence. One of many examples is Kifaya Husain, a sixteen-year-old Jordanian girl, who was lashed to a chair on 31st May 1994 by her thirty-two-year-old brother, before he slashed her throat. Her crime? She was raped by her other brother.
    And let’s not talk about female genital mutilation and its wicked aim of depriving women of their right to pleasure. Nor of prearranged marriages of little girls who can barely play house. The list of horrors and injustices is too long.

    Notwithstanding that, it still annoys me that many Arab women’s only response to their suffering is to complain about it instead of trying to find a solution, a window of hope, however small, somewhere in their daily reality. ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way’ is much more than a nice set of words.

    Plus, who said that men are women’s worst enemy? I’ve met women who hate women, ally against them and fight them harder than any man would – mothers who remain silent in front of a rapist father; who are eager to find husbands for their thirteen-year-old daughters; who leave them without a proper education because ‘they are predestined for marriage anyway, so why bother?’; who raise their sons to be even more discriminative and disrespectful towards women than their fathers.

    I’m not in the habit of issuing blanket demographic claims about men and women; it’s a practice I reject, and a naïve act that I am not convinced of at all. But there is a difference that few people recognise between necessary self-criticism and pathological self-loathing. Why should one woman be either the predestined enemy of men, or a blind ally of women, for the wrong, unconvincing reasons? For this I allow myself, at a distance from hysterical man haters, as well as from the large number of apathetic or voluntarily submissive women, to repeat several basic rights that are frequently ignored:
    The woman’s right to be for strong, intelligent and independent femininity, against aggressive slogans;
    The woman’s right to have non-belligerent relations with men, without these relations being interpreted as submissive;
    The woman’s right to be a man’s equal without being tempted by a discourse of hegemony over him or one of similarity with him;
    The woman’s right to enjoy a bouquet of roses even if she drives tractors and changes engine oil;
    Also, and especially, the woman’s right not to blindly follow the crowd, and to believe in her choices, in her small battles, in the importance of cultivating her own private garden.

    ‘We need to be assertive in our choices and desires in order to exist. Middle grounds lead to self-destruction’ (Djamilah Bouhired). To go back to the beginning: women’s equality with men should be an assertion, outside the ring of demand and negotiation. In fact, it is often women’s demands for equality that deprive them of it. The one making a demand puts herself in a position of weakness. She is the asker, and the other is the grantor. Let us instead consider this equality as basic, and behave as if it is a given fact (and it really is so). I am aware this is not always applicable, especially when discriminative legal frameworks are involved, but it can be applicable in many tiny details of daily life. And these CAN make a difference. In the long run, they can even influence laws and constitutions.

    What is required, in the Arab world particularly, is for the woman to go far in crystallising her life one minuscule step after the other, without expecting anything from anyone, and without being a mirror reflecting what others think her image should be. The true issue is for her to regain her stolen, confused identity. Regaining this unknown, kidnapped identity, this compromised being that has been distorted under various forms of fear, conditioning and frustration, is the hardest battle that a woman must fight, and win.

    As for the insultingly easy gains that are given to women as consolation prizes or as anaesthesia or bribes, these are landmines concealing treacherous compromises; so, we’d better not accept them.

    Either everything. Or nothing. We need to win (or lose, evidently) our battles as ourselves, without conditions, alterations, deals or compromises to our womanhood. This is, in my opinion, the new Arab Femininity, and even the new Universal Femininity, that we need today. A femininity unafraid of its truth. Unafraid of its strength. Unafraid of its fragility. Unafraid of its greed. Unafraid of its weakness. Unafraid of its fierceness. Unafraid of its softness. Unafraid of its losses. Unafraid of its curiosity. Unafraid of its honesty. Unafraid of its madness. Unafraid of its mistakes. Unafraid of its talents. Unafraid of its beauty. Unafraid of its language. Unafraid of its power. Unafraid of its extremes. Unafraid of its experimentations. Unafraid of its contradictions. Unafraid of its youth. Unafraid of its maturity.
    A femininity, in short, unafraid of its femininity.

    I surely don’t claim to be an example to be followed. I don’t claim to be the precursor of anything. And I don’t claim to have the answers: not at all. Quite the contrary: I am nothing but my failures, my errors, my questions, my doubts ... and my dreams.
    Joumana Haddad, born in Beirut in 1970,
    is a writer best known for her poetry. She is the founder of Jasad, the first Arab journal to specialise in matters related to the body. This text is an extract from her book How I Killed Scheherazade (Wie ich Scheherazade tötete), published earlier this year by Hans Schiler Verlag, Berlin.

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    January 2011

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