Notwithstanding her condition, whether as a peasant in Algeria, a doctor in Cairo, or a secretary in Beirut, a student in Baghdad, a worker in Syria, or veiled in a Harem in Saudi Arabia, the Arab woman shares with her sisters a common fate: a life of renunciation, of captivity, during which she will have to atone for her sin of having been born a woman in a hyper-male society where the ever-present feminine remains synonymous with shame and threat.
To begin with, her birth is already perceived as an occasion for mourning rather than for festivities. She is received in an atmosphere of barely suppressed disappointment. They hoped for a boy. Her coming will bring opprobrium on her mother, a shock to her father: “Men beget men”, we always say in our culture; “She has given birth to a girl, he has produced a boy”, they proclaim, totally ignorant of the laws of reproduction.
What happens on the day when the baby girl leaves her mother’s womb is only a foretaste. It is the beginning of a life to be endured as a “blameful condition” which will be continuously punctuated by steady and heavy repression and intolerance towards the social and economic changes deriving from our “modern times”. A repression which may on the one hand end up in a death sentence, when the honour of the males is discredited by the non-virginity of their daughter, or, on the other hand, more often, a kind of life sentence in jail – behind a dark veil, behind the thick walls of the family house where the men act as jailors.
The world of childhood is always portrayed as an enchanted and smiling one in fairy stories and novels. However, the Arab girl’s childhood is all too brief; it mirrors and prepares all too soon for the negative and submissive role which is assigned to the Arab woman, to endure men without really knowing them or being understood by them.
The Arab family where the fate of women is being decided and unfolds, remains, essentially, a Muslim family. Islam and its laws, its customs, its intrusions in the minutest details in human behaviour, have not been vanquished by the influence of imperialism or the defeat of imperialism. On the contrary. Due to a triumphant anachronism, Islam remains the basis and the dynamic force of the Arab family. Today, there is no Arab country (except Lebanon due to its religious-ethnic formation) where the constitution does not mention Islam as a State religion. There is no Arab country (except Tunisia and South Yemen) where the laws on the status of the family are not faithful to the letter, or directly inspired by, the laws of the Shari’a (Islamic law).
The adolescence of the young Arab girl is neither acknowledged nor lived as such in the Arab-Islamic tradition: the family feels perpetually threatened by the presence of a girl growing out of childhood and not married. The arrival of menstruation is accompanied by the haunting problem of the virginity – the honour of the girl which must from then on be supervised, hidden and controlled.
Puberty constitutes the end of childhood and the beginning of seclusion in the narrow world of the feminine space: a world of Harem, even if the latter does not exist in its traditional forms. It is enough to take a quick look into the Arab coffee houses, where only the males gather in large numbers, or to walk, any evening, in the districts catering for leisure and entertainments, in order to grasp the dimensions of that segregation which has created two worlds impervious to each other and which keeps young men and young women apart in the Arab world. The consequences of this separation can be seen in women as well as in men.
In her autobiography, entitled O My Muslim Sisters Cry, Zubeida Bittari tells of the sufferings and the shock she endured when, after her first menstruation, her Algerian parents, already modern in their way of life, took her out of school forcibly and obliged her to wear a veil on her face and then put pressure on her to learn household work so that she would be ready to marry the man who would be her husband: a man whom she had never known or met beforehand. Zubeida finally finds a job as a maid for a French family in Paris.
“In the most traditional rural society, there are no unmarried adolescents. Fifty per cent of the girls are married before reaching puberty, and another thirty-seven per cent in the two years following their puberty” (Malika Belghiti, The Relations and the Status of the Rural Family, Rabat 1970).
The Arab-Islamic Family
The role of the woman in the Arab-Muslim family does not allow for nuances; she is a mother, a sister, or a wife. A woman can never be a friend or a lover. She lives in a society where genders never mix, where she encounters a man only on specific occasions: when she gives birth, has to report to him (as a father or a brother) or when she marries him. Only when she produces males does the Arab woman acquire a value in the family or social setting. The rate of divorce of sterile women or mothers of girls is very high in the Arab society. Arab women who are aware of the only weapon they possess, namely their ability to keep their husband and gain the respect of their in-laws by giving birth to boys, often refuse to use contraceptives. The attempts of organizations like family planning associations in Egypt and in South Lebanon have so far failed. These attempts do not take into account the resistance of the Arab women, ready to suffer from a permanent pregnancy rather than to renounce that unique source of “power” which Arab-Muslim society offers them: the sons, the males, they hope to procreate. “The Arab countries have the highest birth rate of any region in the world and in the Muslim countries this rate is higher than in the poorest countries of Latin America” (N. Keddie, Muslim Women; Beck, Women in the Muslim World, both Harvard University Press).
The relationship between the mother and the male child takes on considerable dimensions in the Arab family and occupies a preponderant place in Muslim society. The mother is the only woman a man can look at, admire and love. The mother recoups all her repressed feelings, the renunciations of her life, through her son, who is her source of pride and survival: she would like to own him forever. The mother of a male child will often interfere to prevent the appearance and growth of love and companionship between her son and her daughter-in-law. She will consistently demand from her son that he takes her side against his wife. In his superb novel Assarab (The Mirage), Nagib Mahfuz portrays the relationship between a mother, her son and his wife. A young man from the Cairo petty bourgeoisie marries a young woman who will come to live with him and his mother. The mother is jealous and afraid of losing her power over her son and so prevents any possibility of his having normal sexual relations with his wife, by playing on his respect for his mother. As for him, the only woman who deserves consideration is his mother and any sexual relations with his wife seem incestuous to him. “Men are only able to love their mother” exclaimed, with bitterness, the Lebanese poetess Ethel Adnan.
Sexuality and Islam
Islam has always been disturbed by woman. In Islam, the woman has never been perceived as a weak human being without a soul or its own will. On the contrary, the Muslim man thinks that women cannot be controlled or tamed and that only real repression of a coercive (not just psychological) nature, even in the legalized form, is required to make them comply to the will of men. The woman is fitna in Arabic, meaning beauty and disorder or turmoil. She has a soul which does not carry the weight of an original sin on earth (Islam does not believe that humanity bears a responsibility of original sin). In Islam, sexuality is virtually not condemned as such; it is the woman who must be controlled, as she is a threat to the feeling of security of the man. One should listen to Ibn Qaim al-Iawziya, one of the most orthodox of Muslim theologians, as he described the reasons for pairing: “Pairing is the most complete gift which has been given to us; it is there that one finds health, pleasure and serenity of the soul”. While Christian piety sets a premium on servile abstinence, in Islam, sexuality must be satisfied so that society may reach a more harmonious condition as a collective, the umma. As Islam never believed that the woman preferred to sublimate her sexuality, that she should endure it in order to beget off-spring, Islam decided to confine women’s movement to the spaces that the man could control. As the Muslim man and the Muslim woman are sexual beings in a positive sense (the Muslim paradise is a place of eternal sexual enjoyments) the woman will be kept quiet by sharing the man with four other women and concubines, and the man will be able to give vent to his “promiscuity” in a legal context, with the agreement of the state.
In the words of an Arab saying: “If a man and a woman gather together the devil is the third person present”. The man will never let his wife stay in a place where other men are present, so she will never be allowed in public places and her right to take care of her own business loses all significance.
Many psychologists and orientalists have looked upon this vision of sexuality and the recognition of a woman as a feminine being as constituting a kind of feminism in Islam. The woman exists and has desires in the same way as the man; she has a right to sexual satisfaction in the same way as a man has a right to his pleasure… Unfortunately the consequence of that vision leads in the opposite direction than its origin seemed to indicate. As Fatima Mernissi pointed out in Beyond the Veil: “In societies where the seclusion and the surveillance of women is a must, the concept of feminine sexuality is implicitly an active concept”.
Male Arab-Islamic society has protected itself against its own conception of the active sexuality of women by introducing laws which paralyse women’s movement and render them totally vulnerable to the desires of men: from the imposition of the veil to the right of the man to repudiate his wife whenever he feels like it, and through to others like the imposition of the male protector or guardian who decides when it is right for a woman to get married or to go about.
When an Arab woman walks in the street without a veil or in modern clothes, it does not take long for her to realise that the street is no place for her. When she walks in public places, the men harass her: they feel her as a threat, they feel under attack. The reaction of men is not simply to pay her a compliment or invite her to join them, but on the contrary to throw sexual insults at her, to pursue her for hours. She is perceived as “an exhibitionist” and must be treated as such. Muslim sexual morality regards women’s sexuality as an aggressive element which can threaten the equilibrium of society if it is not controlled. That is why a woman in the street is a symbol of that aggressiveness which manifests itself “totally freely”.
While Christian morality generally regards the woman’s sexuality as passive, Muslim sexual morality sees it quite differently. In the Christian view, there is a tendency to think that the woman endures sexuality as a duty justified by procreation. The Koran and the Muslim tradition do not see things in this way; a balanced Muslim umma is a society where sexuality is satisfied. Human beings are not required to reject their sexual instincts but to satisfy them within the limits of the well-being of the Muslim community. And in this context, the woman must be controlled, and her sexuality must be regulated: effectively Islam, which claims to have abolished the promiscuity and the degeneracy which prevailed in the pre-Islamic societies, kept most of the forms of alliance of the jahiliya as solely the man’s privilege. “Woman’s sexuality is what was civilized by Islam”.
Man’s sexuality is regarded as promiscuous by Islam and is legalized as such. The man can marry up to four women, since his sexuality is not considered to be exclusive – the man is recognized as unstable and this is why he has the right to divorce whenever he feels like it. In Muslim society it is the woman, and the woman only, who is kept in seclusion and subjugation in order to preserve society’s equilibrium, while the man may look for his pleasure where he can find it. “Women are your fields, go into your fields…”.
As long as Islam perceives the sexuality of the woman as an active one, and does not condemn sexuality as such, the Islamic state will control the life and activities of its subject through a very harsh control of women’s movements and their right to have some independence. “In societies where the seclusion and the surveillance of women is a must, the concept of feminine sexuality is implicitly an active concept… In Islam it is the woman who is attacked as the personification of destruction and as a symbol of social disorder: she is fitna meaning at the same time, both beauty and disorder or turmoil. She is the polarization of what cannot be controlled: her sexuality is a lurking danger with a threatening potential” (Fatima Mernissi, Beyond the Veil, Al Saqi Books, London 1985).
In summary: if, as soon as a man and a woman are together and alone, they cannot but pair, and if the woman does not reject the sexual act “naturally” but finds it pleasurable, and if, on top of this, the society where these two people live is a patrilineal one, as is the Muslim society, only one solution is possible: separate the two sexes by confirming the seclusion of the woman. The seclusion of the woman is the result of a relation of forces which works to her disadvantage; it cannot be justified by saying that, given her nature, which is different from man, the woman prefers a life of sacrifice. Such explanations, which justify women’s inferior status on the basis of their different nature, were borrowed from western Christianity later on, as the influence of the West grew. This has resulted in chaos and insurmountable contradictions at a conceptual level and in the practice of relations between the two sexes in the Arab World today.
The Arab woman acquires a freedom of movement or the right to move around in male surroundings, to talk with authority with men, only when she reaches an advanced age. In other words, when society considers her as a-sexual.
It is because she is not fitna, a source of provocation; she is no longer a sexual object with impulses to be kept under control. One often sees a woman over fifty years of age, strengthened by a large male progeniture, smoking, laughing or talking without any difficulty with a group of men. As men say in our culture: “She is finished” (sexually speaking). It is only then that she can penetrate the world of men, walk in the streets (even in the evenings) without losing the respect of society because of her behaviour.