Articulate, passionate, energetic
I was warned that the first twenty minutes or so of Joumana Haddad‘s presentation at Stanford on Oct. 4 would demolish the stereotype of the Arab woman. But I arrived late from another appointment, and so I missed the Lebanese journalist and author’s presentation of the stereotype that, to me, seemed a straw man … or a straw woman.
I know, I know … the cowering Muslim woman, wearing a burqa, submissive to her husband, her son, her houseplant. Anyone seen one of these around lately? Raise your hand. Anyone?
I thought not. I don’t have that stereotype, and I doubt that many educated people do. And it’s partly because the distinction was blurred — even in my invitation to this event, sponsored by the Stanford Center for Innovation and Communication, which is interested in fostering conversations about women’s rights in “the Arab and Muslim worlds” — about who, exactly, we are talking about. Not all Arabs are Muslim; not all Muslims are Arab.
I was joined at the event by a high school friend, the elegant Turkish-American Erën Goknar — who is far from cowering, and even farther from burqa’ed. Erën is one of my notions of the modern Muslim women, but I also think of Neda Agha-Soltan and all the determined women of Iran’s Green Revolution. I think of Shahryar Mandanipour’s comment last year about them:
“He also thought of those who were still fighting — ‘brave students beaten with bottles,’ facing interrogation and torture in their struggle for human rights. ‘There are times the Iranian women are braver than the men. I think so,’ he said softly.
I think of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, too — even though she has forsworn Islam. Even though she’s been rejected by the politically correct.
And I also, too, think of the Iranian Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani, sentenced to be stoned to death, a political event which Haddad seemed to think gets too much focus, at the expense of the modern face of Islamic women. True, true, but there’s the old journalistic saw: If you passed ten houses, and one of them was on fire … which one would you go back to the newsroom and write about?
None of these thoughts represents Haddad fairly, or justly represents her book, with the admittedly catchy title, I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman. (Scheherazade, incidentally, is a legendary Persian queen, not an Arab one — so our confusion is understandable.)
The face of modern Islam
For balance, then, here’s what our new Nobel laureate, Mario Vargas Llosa, had to say about her book:
“A very courageous and illuminating book about women in the Arab world. It opens our eyes, destroys our prejudices and is very entertaining.”
Haddad spoke eloquently of the need for increasing not only literacy in the Arab world, but the practice of reading. Beyond the skill of reading, she plugged for the wide availability of literature and magazines, reviews, newspapers. Too much cannot be said on the topic.
Haddad (she was reared as a Catholic, not Muslim, and now calls herself an agnostic, “thank God … whoever He is”) is an appealing and very attractive figure. The 40-year-old poet and journalist spoke about her creation, Jasad magazine, which wikipedia described as “a controversial Arabic magazine specialized in the literature and arts of the body.” She calls it “erotica.” Not surprisingly, it is banned in Saudi Arabia.
For someone taking on the subject of stereotypes, I was disturbed by her reliance on cliché (especially troubling for a woman who considers herself a poet). She spoke of the “free and emancipated” woman. She spoke of how the internet “teaches you that the personal is universal” and that it’s “connecting the world together — I really believe in the power of that.” She spoke of “empowerment.” So I wasn’t terrifically surprised when she said, in answer to a question, “I never function by ‘outcomes,’ I function by fashions, needs, anger.”
She spoke of the goal of religions to “control” sexuality — but seemed to ignore that all archaic societies have extensive laws governing sexual behavior, as a way of preventing social chaos. You will have a tough time finding an exception. (Naomi Wolf’s now notorious 2008 article asserted that “Muslim attitudes toward women’s appearance and sexuality are not rooted in repression, but in a strong sense of public versus private” — it’s a point worth considering.)
She spoke of the dreadfulness Barbie with a burqa, but I think it’s also dreadful to have a “doll” with the equivalence of a 50″ bust as a “toy” for girls. Far be it from me to defend the burqa, but I have wondered if it’s any more imprisoning than a string bikini, with the attendant starvation and head-to-toe waxing and worrying and body obsession. If that puts my thinking in line with Osama Bin Laden & co. (as someone on a website pointed out vis-a-vis Wolf’s article), so be it. Every word that proceeds from a criminal and terrorist is not necessarily crime and terrorism. That’s where thinking should kick in.
She spoke of Scheherazade and the title of her book. Evidently, Haddad is agin’ her, because she has “negotiated her basic rights — one of the things we have to stop doing is negotiating basic rights. We are equal to men — we don’t have to ask for that.” True, true … we are equal. But we still are the ones who get pregnant. Access to universal, quality child care is still a more pressing concern for women than men. Maternity leave, as well. You simply can’t unhook the welfare of women from the welfare of children. In the sense that we create life, we are more than equal; we are also less free. Anyone who has been a single mother can tell you that.
In the larger picture, Scheherazade represents not only a female heroine, but a universal hero — precisely because we are all negotiating the terms of our existence, every single day. She’s speaks not only to other women, but to the whole human family. She is speaking to the power of the word, and the endurance of the story. Those things exist beyond “fashion, needs, anger.”
So what does it mean when Haddad wants to “kill” her — even in a flippant, symbolic way, for a catchy book title?
As the much much-maligned Naomi Wolf wrote, “it’s worth thinking in a more nuanced way about what female freedom really means.” Maybe we need some kind of “empowerment” that goes even beyond “erotica.”