Authors: Mona Eltahawy
To the girls of the Middle East and North Africa: Be immodest, rebel, disobey, and know you deserve to be free
Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truthsayer with quill and torch. Write with your tongues of fire. Don’t let the pen banish you from yourself. Don’t let the ink coagulate in your pens. Don’t let the censor snuff out the spark, nor the gags muffle your voice. Put your shit on the paper.
We are not reconciled to the oppressors who whet their howl on our grief. We are not reconciled.
Speaking in Tongues:
A Letter to Third World Women Writers”
n “Distant View of a Minaret,” the late and much-neglected Egyptian writer Alifa Rifaat begins her short story with a woman so unmoved during sex with her husband that, as he focuses solely on his pleasure, she notices a spiderweb she must sweep off the ceiling and has time to ruminate on her husband’s repeated refusal to prolong intercourse until she climaxes, “as though purposely to deprive her.” Just before her husband reaches orgasm, the call to prayer interrupts their intercourse, and he rolls over. After washing up, she loses herself in prayer, and looks out onto the street from her balcony. She interrupts her reverie to dutifully prepare coffee for her husband to drink after his nap. Taking it to their bedroom to pour it in front of him, as he prefers, she notices that he is dead. She instructs their son to go get a doctor. “She returned to the living room and poured out the coffee for herself. She was surprised at how calm she was,” Rifaat writes.
In a crisp three and a half pages of fiction, Rifaat lays out a trifecta of sex, death, and religion that forms the
pulsating heart of misogyny in the Middle East. Here is a writer who, when she was alive, was held up by academics as an “authentic” Egyptian woman, untainted by a foreign language—she spoke only Arabic—and influence from abroad. It is said that Rifaat never traveled outside Egypt, although she did perform a pilgrimage to Mecca and attended a literary conference in the United Kingdom. She was forced by her family to marry a man of their choice, with whom she traveled across Egypt.
Rifaat does not mince words, nor does she mollify. In the slim volume of short stories titled
Distant View of a Minaret,
she introduces you to a sexually frustrated middle-aged wife who wonders if her mother suffered the same fate with her father, and another mother who laments her youth lost to female genital mutilation and a society that fought her womanhood at every turn. The stories show women constantly sublimating themselves in religion, even as this faith is used against them by clerics and male-dominated society.
There is no sugarcoating it. We Arab women live in a culture that is fundamentally hostile to us, enforced by men’s contempt. They don’t hate us because of our freedoms, as the tired post-9/11 American cliché had it. We have no freedoms because they hate us, as Rifaat powerfully says.
Yes: They hate us. It must be said.
“The fact is, there’s no joy for a girl in growing up, it’s just one disaster after another till you end up an old
woman who’s good for nothing and who’s real lucky to find someone to feel sorry for her,” Rifaat writes in the story “Bahiyya’s Eyes.”
Some may ask why I’m bringing this up now, when the Middle East and North Africa are in turmoil, when people are losing their lives by the thousands, when it can sometimes seem as though the revolutions that began in 2010—incited not by the usual hatred of America and Israel, but by a common demand for freedom and dignity—have lost their way. After all, shouldn’t everyone receive basic rights first, before women demand special treatment? Also, what does gender or, for that matter, sex have to do with the Arab Spring? It should have everything to do with the revolution. This is our chance to dismantle an entire political and economic system that treats half of humanity like children at best. If not now, when?
Name me an Arab country, and I’ll recite a litany of abuses against women occurring in that country, abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend. When more than 90 percent of women who have ever married in Egypt have had their genitals cut in the name of “purity,” then surely we must all blaspheme. When Egyptian women are subjected to humiliating “virginity tests” merely for speaking out, it’s no time for silence. When an article in the Egyptian criminal code says that if a woman has been beaten by her husband
“with good intentions,” no punitive damages can be obtained, then to hell with political correctness. And what, pray tell, are “good intentions”? They are legally deemed to include any beating that is not “severe” or “directed at the face.” What all this means is that when it comes to the status of women in the Arab world, it’s not better than you think. It’s much, much worse. Even after these “revolutions,” women remain covered up and anchored to the home, are denied the simple mobility of getting into their own cars, are forced to get permission from men to travel, and are unable to marry or divorce without a male guardian’s blessing.
The Arabic-speaking countries of the Middle East and North Africa stand apart in their terrible record on women’s rights. Not a single Arab country ranks in the top one hundred positions on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report, putting the region as a whole solidly at the planet’s rock bottom. The annual report looks at four key areas: health (life expectancy, etc.), access to education, economic participation (salaries, job types, and seniority), and political engagement. Neighbors Saudi Arabia and Yemen, for instance, are eons apart when it comes to gross domestic product (GDP), but only eight places separate them on the Global Gender Gap Report, with the kingdom at 127 and Yemen coming in at 136, the very bottom of the 2013 index. Morocco, often touted for its “progressive” family law (a 2005 report by Western “experts” called it “an example
for Muslim countries aiming to integrate into modern society”), ranks 129th.
It’s easy to see why the lowest-ranked country is Yemen, where 49 percent of women are illiterate, 59 percent do not participate in the labor force, and there were no women in parliament as of 2013. Horrific news reports about eight-year-old girls dying on the evening of their “wedding” to much older men have done little to stem the tide of child marriage there. Instead, demonstrations in support of child marriage outstrip those against it, and clerics declare that opponents of state-sanctioned pedophilia are apostates because the Prophet Mohammed, according to them, married his second wife, Aisha, when she was a child.
At least Yemeni women can drive. It surely hasn’t ended their problems, but it symbolizes freedom of mobility—and nowhere does such symbolism resonate more than in Saudi Arabia, where child marriage is also practiced and where grown women are treated like children their entire lives, made to obtain the permission of a male guardian to do the most basic of things. Saudi women far outnumber their male counterparts on university campuses but are reduced to watching far less qualified men control every aspect of their lives.
Nothing prepared me for Saudi Arabia. I was born in Egypt, but my family left for London when I was seven
years old. After almost eight years in the United Kingdom, we moved to Saudi Arabia in 1982. Both my parents, Egyptians who had earned PhDs in medicine in London, had found jobs in Jeddah, teaching medical students and technicians clinical microbiology. The campuses were segregated. My mother taught the women on the female campus, and my father taught the men on the male campus. When an instructor of the same gender wasn’t available, the classes were taught via closed-circuit television, and the students would have to ask questions using telephone sets. My mother, who had been the breadwinner of the family for our last year in the United Kingdom, when we lived in Glasgow, now found that she could not legally drive. We became dependent on my father to take us everywhere. As we waited for our new car to be delivered, we relied on gypsy cabs and public buses. On the buses, we would buy our ticket from the driver, and then my mother and I would make our way to the back two rows (four if we were lucky) designated for women. The back of the bus. What does that remind you of? Segregation is the only way to describe it.
It felt as though we’d moved to another planet whose inhabitants fervently wished women did not exist. I lived in this surreal atmosphere for six years. In this world, women, no matter how young or how old, are required to have a male guardian—a father, a brother, or even a son—and can do nothing without this guardian’s permission. Infantilized beyond belief, they cannot travel,
open a bank account, apply for a job, or even get medical treatment without a man’s stamp of approval. I watched all this with a mounting sense of horror and confusion.
I would mention voting rights, but back when I lived in Saudi Arabia,
could vote. King Abdullah had said women will be allowed to vote and run for office in the 2015 elections, but it remains to be seen if clerics—such as the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, who believes that women’s involvement in politics “will open the door to evil”—will scuttle that promise as they did in 2009, when only men were enfranchised in Saudi Arabia’s first-ever municipal elections.
Yes, this is Saudi Arabia, the country where a gang-rape survivor was sentenced to jail for agreeing to get into a car with an unrelated male and needed a royal pardon; Saudi Arabia, where a woman who broke the ban on driving was sentenced to ten lashes and, again, needed a royal pardon. So bad is it for women in Saudi Arabia that tiny paternalistic pats on the back—such as the king’s promise to give women the vote in 2015—are greeted with acclaim from international observers, and the monarch behind them, King Abdullah, was hailed as a “reformer”—even by those who ought to know better, such as
which in 2010 named the king one of the top eleven most respected world leaders. This so-called reformer’s answer to the revolutions popping up across the region was to numb his people with still more government handouts—especially for the
religious zealots from whom the Saudi royal family inhales legitimacy.
When I encountered this country at age fifteen, I was traumatized into feminism—there’s no other way to describe it—because to be a female in Saudi Arabia is to be the walking embodiment of sin. The kingdom is unabashed in its worship of a misogynistic god and never suffers any consequences for it, thanks to the triple advantage of having oil; being home to Islam’s two holiest places, Mecca and Medina; and controlling the flow of petrodollars that keep the weapons manufacturers of its Western allies happily funded.
Then (the 1980s and ‘90s) as now, clerics on Saudi TV were obsessed with women and their orifices, especially what came out of them. I’ll never forget hearing that if a baby boy urinated on you, you could go ahead and pray in the same clothes, yet if a baby girl peed on you, you had to change. What on earth made girls’ urine impure? I wondered.
The hatred of women.