Forbidden Subject

On my wedding day, my mothers friend – an Iraqi woman – leans over and asks me in all seriousness “Did your mother explain to you about the birds and the bees?”. I didn’t know how to respond. If I say yes then I will look like a slut and if I say no then I look like a retard because what 21 year old doesn’t know where babies come from, at least in a purely theoretical way.

I was reminded of this little incident, that I can laugh about now, while reading this article on ShakoMako website. A young Iraqi woman residing in Canada is describing a dilemma that I believe many arab women face when they immigrate to the west. She lives in a country where young people date, her parents and society tell her that she is not supposed to even notice young men until after she is married, she is also told that only an arab and muslim man is suitable for marriage and finally since she is a member of an immigrant community the pickings are slim in terms of young men in the suitable category. So what is she supposed to do? Hold on to arabic traditions which are applied to women strictly and men very leniently? Attempt to blend in and live like a Canadian and ignore her parents and society? I don’t know, there are no easy answers but I sure sympathize with her dilemma. Offcourse, such a subject is bound to raise a few eye brows, even in Canada. Notice this article that is harshly criticizing the young women for daring to even discussing the subject. How dare she even suggest that a young woman might have these forbidden thoughts? We arab woman are supposed to be retards, devoid of feelings and emotions, innocent angels, with no knowledge of facts of life. When given a choice to be a slut or a retard which would you choose? Unfortunately our culture doesn’t allow for much in between the two absolutes for women.

Which brings me to the next subjects: the feminist movement in the middle east. If you thought that Gloria Steinman or Naomi Wolf are radical then wait until you hear about Arab feminists.

Fatima Al Marnissi is a morocan writer and academic who dared to write her PhD about the conditions of women in Arabic and Islamic culture. She was fired from the university she was teaching in at the time, recieved many death threats and finally had to leave Morocco out of fear for her life.

My second hero is Nawal Al Sa’adawi and Egyptian writer who dared to write stories about arab women depicting realistic situations. Her medical license was withdrawn, she no longer can practice medicine in her native egypt. She has been imprisoned for many years and her books are banned in much of the middle east.

Sadly, I never heard of these women until I immigrated to Canada at age 19. But once I did, it rocked my world. I remember reading the first book by Fatima al Marnissi and being afraid to read her other books. The ideas in it were so radical and challenging that I was afraid of what I might find out next. You mean I can chose not to be a slut and not be a retard at the same time? how radical.

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7 Comments
  • Rickardo
    24 November 2004

    Forbidden Subject

    Good post! It’s great that others are thinking about this. Believe me, it’s not just an issue with Arab women. I was given a whole list of taboo subjects when I converted back in 1989. We all discussed them anyway. I’m sure this differs between cultures, some more strict than others, but even the more lenient traditions seem to want to perpetuate ignorance. Keep us silent, keep us stupid, keep us controlled.

    Now I hear women telling other women to stop blogging. Don’t blog poetry, stories whether personal or fiction. Shuttup, go back to your dishes and don’t think too much. Wtf!

    Sorry, this kind of subject rattles my chains to an extreme degree.

  • mahmood
    24 November 2004

    Forbidden Subject

    First, ihath, thank you very much for accepting the invitation to contribute. I personally have always enjoyed your blog and will continue to do so. You are the light that other Arab women can use to light their way out of the darkness.

    My daughter is turning 15. That to me is one of the most scary experiences I can think of. She is almost an adult, yet still a child. However in this day and age I get ridiculed by her as “an old fogy!” being 42, I cannot accept that as I still feel that I am 21 (until I am faced with the unenviable task of climbing stairs or doing physical tasks which I thought nothing of at, well, 21!)

    I would dearly love to ‘let go’ and let her experience life. I would dearly love to let go and accept that she choses to have a boy-friend. To be able to go to the cinema without have to worry sick about her. To enjoy the life of a teenager.

    I joke with her that “as long as you get the bastards to use a condom I won’t mind”, but she and I know that I will die of fright and all the tangled emotions of the world if she did take me up on my advice!

    Yet, some of her friends in class have already crossed the threshold. Some have already enjoyed the forbidden subject and others have gone way beyond. Yet just thinking about this makes my body shiver, and my mind go blank. I need to learn to let go.

    But in this society?

    I guess that’s what I am also afraid of. Her being labeled, tagged and harassed by ignorant 14th century idealists, disconnected from any idea or thought reminiscent of the 21st century, not necessarily relating to virtue, but having my lovely young child-adult stoned to death for no fault of her own, but the ideals of others.

    Being an Arab woman is difficult. Being an Arab adolescent is even more so.

  • [deleted]0.79642400 1099323158.869
    24 November 2004

    Forbidden Subject

    Mahmood,
    I am a parent too, my eldest is turning 10 in few weeks. Already this subject is freaking me out even though we still have few more years before we will have to face it heads on. I applaude you for discussing the subject with you daughter openly. My husband will not discuss anything to deal with sexuality with my daughter. “Go ask your mother” is his standard answer to anything about relationships between men and women. He tells me that it makes him feel uncomfortable. I have your same concerns even though I live in Canada. If I was living in the middle east my concerns would be hightened.

  • [deleted]0.32783500 1099323299.832
    24 November 2004

    Forbidden Subject

    The trap that women of this society seems to be one that is inescapable…and it is set, not only by men, but by women as well. I just blogged about how women are viewed and the games that they are forced to play in order to live a “normal” life that doesn’t include being boxed up in a glass case and put on a 50 foot pedestal. Women seem to have to put on a veil of faux-shyness and a mask of coyness in order to manuver around the gossip hounds that are willing to butcher a girl’s reputation at any cost. It’s pathetic.
    Being seen and not heard is a one way ticket to mental and physical strain….and I see it all the time.

  • Alireza
    24 November 2004

    Committee to Defend Women’s Rights in the Middle East

    Azam Kanguian of the Committee to Defend Women’s Rights in the Middle East is definitely worthwhile reading for what’s happening in womens’ equality at the present with her monthly bulletin: http://www.middleastwomen.org/

    In Bahrain there’s the Women’s Petition – which I’d say is one of the most important groups to come out of the reforms. Everyone seems to hate them, precisely because they take a real stance rather than the line of least resistance. They even (amazingly) roped Anwar Abdulrahman in to face down various opponents of women’s equality.

  • esraa
    24 November 2004

    Forbidden Subject

    Sister Ihath,

    Thanks so much for a great post. The women you spoke of are also some of my heros and ones whose work I share with my friends and students. I would like to share my own experience with you parents of teens or soon to be teens.

    Having raised a lovely daughter (now 25, with 2 children of her own) and a wonderful son (now 23 and single) in the US (a pretty permissive society) I always found that the best thing to do was to talk openly about sexuality and the responsibility that comes with it. By letting them know that their feelings/desires were normal; that becoming sexually active had a lot of physical and emotional ramifications that they might not be ready for; and by daring to discuss the M word — my motto was always that masturbation is the safest sex of all 😉 — I appear to have guided them sanely through the most insane of times.

    Of course they HATED it when “Mom” brought up the M word, but I did it with humor and often enough to make sure they remembered it is normal, everybody does it and it serves the purpose. Besides, as I always told them, at least when you do get involved in a sexual relationship you will know your own body and be able to figure out how to make the experience satisfying! 😉 My daughter tells me my strategy worked and she will do the same with her own children, so I guess that is something.

    Salaam 😀
    PM

  • TonyTindale
    25 November 2004

    Forbidden Subject

    Mahmood,

    Concerning Fatima mernissi ( http://www.mernissi.net ) Idon’t remember her having to “flee morocco out of fear of her life”. She is a well respected academic & writer in Morocco, and still lives and works there.

    Salam.

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