Joumana Haddad’s new book aims to tell Westerners all about the ‘Arab woman’. What about LBT Arab womyn?
Joumana Haddad’s new book aims to tell Westerners all about the ‘Arab woman’
By Annie Slemrod
Daily Star staff
Tuesday, November 02, 2010
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BEIRUT: Joumana Haddad opens her new book, “I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman,” in an epistolary manner. “Dear Westerner,” she writes, “Allow me to warn you from the start: I am not known for making lives any easier.”
“Scheherazade” ostensibly points out the existence of and explains the liberated Arab woman to Western audiences. It is a semi-autobiographical mental journey, from Haddad’s early childhood years in Beirut reading Nabokov and the Marquis de Sade, to her first use of the word “penis” in a poem. The author takes us through the development of her magazine Jasad to her views on womanhood and religion.
Haddad’s book is less a thoroughgoing analysis of “the Arab woman” than an expression of her own views on the subject. It is essentially a set of loosely connected essays – personal ruminations that circle around the theme of what it means for Haddad to be an “Arab woman.”
These days, Haddad is best known as a provocateur. A poet and culture editor of Lebanese daily newspaper An-Nahar, she is also the creator and editor-in-chief of Jasad (Body), a magazine that bills itself as “specialized in the body’s arts, sciences, and literatures.”
Jasad caused quite a stir in the Western media when it first appeared on newsstands in 2008, and Haddad has said that Hizbullah officials attempted to close down the magazine’s stall at one of Beirut’s book fairs two years ago. She has also reported receiving death threats for her efforts.
Haddad is at her best when she writes about censorship, in its official and subtler forms, of sex in modern Arabic literature. Arabic has a great tradition of erotic literature, as she points out in a chapter entitled “An Arab Woman Reading the Marquis de Sade.” She quotes from Sheikh Nawfazi’s detailed description of sex in “The Perfumed Garden” to aptly make this point.
Nawfazi is not the only example of this tradition. Let’s not forget Ahmad al-Tifashi, the 10/11th century author of both hetero- and homoerotic poetry. Then there is Abu al-Hasan Ali Ibn Nasr al-Katib, author of the 10th century “Encyclopedia of Pleasure.”
Why, Haddad asks, is it considered taboo for Arab women to write frankly about sex? She invokes Henry Miller as an influence, and seems to be asking a valid question – where is the Arab female Henry Miller? She might well ask, ‘Where is the female Henry Miller?’
Miller, by the way, thought “the female Henry Miller” was Erica Jong, author of 1973’s “Fear of Flying,” who coined that famous (unprintable) shorthand for a no-strings-attached sexual encounter between strangers.
Haddad astutely points out that women who write about sex are often subjected to rumors about their personal lives – a problem that male authors may encounter, but without the accompanying social proscription.
Jong herself certainly fell victim to such rumor, so there seems little need to suggest the Arab world is somehow unique in this regard.
Unfortunately, for a book dedicated to countering stereotypes, “Scheherazade” itself seems to lapse into generalizations about Arab women, women and Arabs. The way she expresses her ideas is not necessarily that original, is often contradictory, and is occasionally downright offensive.
Pages are dedicated to pointing out that women can be both independent and feminine, not much of a revelation to those familiar with the tenets of third-wave feminism – or an episode of “Sex and the City.” She rejects the pink-blue dichotomy for children’s toys, but doesn’t like to pay for her own dinner at the end of a date. She supports the “woman’s right to enjoy a bouquet of roses even if she drives tractors and changes engine oil.”
Self-contradiction is one (perhaps inevitable) thing, but defining womanhood as a space that eliminates many women is quite another.
Haddad’s personal definition of femininity is “the [storefront] of the Sonia Rykiel boutique in the St. Germain neighborhood in Paris: extremely beautiful, stylish and seductive dresses can be seen side-by-side with selections of books and new releases by novelist, thinkers, poets and philosophers.”
She sees femininity and womanhood as related to traditional notions of physical attractiveness, consumerism and women’s relationship to men.
This might compel an Anglophone reader to wonder, ‘What about gay, bisexual and transgendered women? What about women who express their gender identities in ways that don’t conform to Haddad’s tenets of womanhood?’ These women don’t factor into her analysis except as occasional objects of ridicule.
“I am not superficial,” Haddad writes, “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.”
Haddad wants to tell her readers, both Westerners and non-Westerners, that she’s different, that she’s not a veiled woman who is subservient to her husband.
The stereotype of a burqa-clad child bride is one that could use combating. After all, Haddad wrote the book in response to a foreign journalist’s comment that “Most of us in the West are not familiar with the possibility of liberated Arab women like you existing.”
In attempting to set herself – and a group of liberated women with whom she associates – apart from the stereotype, she has negated the legitimacy and existence of many other “Arab women.” Like “Arab women,” “Arabs” are generalized here.
“We Arabs are a stubborn people,” she writes, then saying that Arabs tend to victimize themselves. “We Arabs … have done, and keep on doing, almost everything we can to encourage intolerance toward us.”
“Arabs” is a category whose worth is itself subject to critique, and like “Arab women,” they are not a homogeneous or monolithic group.
Haddad knows better, and occasionally she says as much – but phrases referring to “how most of us Arabs are,” even if they are meant to be taken with a grain of salt, aren’t easily forgiven or forgotten.
“I Killed Scheherazade” aims to be bombastic and Haddad is anointing herself as the inheritor of a tradition of “Orientals” who unequivocally stand up for their rights while denigrating their own countries and are often lauded in the Occident for doing so.
In a discussion of those who have been targeted by the religious extremists (both Christian and Muslim) for their political or artistic stances, Haddad drops the name of Ayaan Hirsi Ali.
This Sudanese Muslim-born turned atheist politician served in the Dutch Parliament and aligned herself with Geert Wilders’ right-wing, anti-immigration People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy.
More recently, she has associated herself with American neoconservatives at the American Enterprise Institute. Ali’s diatribes against Islam have won her plaudits in the West but aren’t especially well received by those who prefer a more nuanced understanding of religion. Haddad isn’t after nuance here.
That’s why she’s metaphorically killing Scheherazade. She does not want to compromise, as the legendary storyteller of “One Thousand and One Nights” did, telling a story each night in order to spare her life from the tale’s murderous King Shahryar. Scheherazade’s stories turn the king into a better person, and after 1,000 of them, he falls in love with her and takes her as his wife.
Haddad says Scheherazade has become an Orientalist fantasy, and perhaps she is right and a new heroine is in order. However the reader may be left wondering what is just so wrong about a smart woman doing her best to find her way out of a bad situation.
We might choose one of the many free-thinking Arab women doctors, writers, activists, teachers, friends, students, and mothers who are around today. Some of them are not straight. Some have both greasy hair and collagen-filled lips. Some (gasp) might even choose to wear a veil.
Joumana Haddad’s “I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman” is published by Dar al-Saqi.