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“Maha, sister, my life is like candy-floss; fluffy and full from the outside, empty like this damned hospital room from the inside. And they called the candy-floss ‘girls-curls.’ It was like my life. A girl’s life. A fluffy lie for half a piaster. Ya-la-la.” (Faqir, 19)
To many eyes, the women’s liberation movement in the Middle East is nothing more than a mere façade. The solidification of women’s rights in writing means very little when actually put into play, women still continue to be trampled on in all walks of life, behind closed doors and tinted windows. This is especially true of the three novels:
Pillars of Salt, A Woman of Five Seasons and A Balcony Over the Fakihani. In these stories, women have earned little or nothing of their God given rights and continue to remain silent behind the false protection and ordinance of the law. True, the circumstances surrounding the equality of women have improved compared to what they once were, but even the most simple of things which Western women take for granted are thorns in the sides of Middle Eastern women. The authors of these books do their best to expose the injustices put upon women that the public rarely sees, even in the light of modernity. It is in these novels that we see how little the women’s liberation movement has done for these “real” women, these women made of flesh and blood who are still largely insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe.
Rape as a Model of Society
One of the most obvious disguises of inequality is the rape of Nasra in the first novel Pillars of Salt. Rape is very much illegal and yet it happens and happens openly. Maha’s mind races when Nasra tells her that she has been raped, we can see how the society view women who have lost their virginity through rape, “My friend had lost her virginity, her honor, her life. She was nothing now. No longer a virgin, absolutely nothing. A piece of flesh. A cheap whore. (Faqir, 11) This sums up what society thinks of a woman who has dishonored herself and it seems that once this has happened, there is no hope or chance of one ever redeeming herself. This is the fate of Nasra and the fate of all women.
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Even when a woman becomes the victim of a brutal rape, there are still members of society that believe that any wrong brought upon an woman is because of her own wrongdoing – that if a woman is raped, she was most likely “asking for it”. This still happens even in America, if a woman flirts too much, or if her skirt is too short and she draws too much attention to herself, she is the one at fault. This is the same situation in Pillars of Salt when Daffash claims that it was Nasra who insinuated consensual sex by playing on her flute:
“She asked for it. Whenever she set her greedy eyes on me…she tempted me.”
“She was always playing tunes on her pipe. It called to me to touch her.”
“Called you? You…”
“The pipe is responsible.”
“You are responsible.”
“No, by Allah.”
“Did she say yes? Did she?”
Nasra shook her head and said, “I went to the cave to find Namweh my goat.”
“Did he force you?”
“Under my breast, his dagger, I swear.”
Pointing his finger at Nasra he said, “You stopped struggling and lay back. You enjoyed it.” (Faqir, 12)
Perhaps even worse is that the important members of the community fail to sympathize with victims of rape. Not only do they pretend not to see, but they also poke fun at her because of it:
I sighed and said, “Poor Nasra.”
“You brother is responsible,” Harb said in a condemning voice.
“So the tribe knows.”
“Everybody. Young men harass her.”
It was not enough for Nasra to be flayed to the bone; they wanted to chew the rest. (Faqir, 56)
When a Middle Eastern woman is made a victim of rape, she is not only made to be the person at fault but is also ridiculed for what has happened to her. There is really no place for her to seek solace.
Lastly, Fadia Faqir writes an enigmatic sentence that allows the reader to peer into the world of progression, or lack thereof. Maha says of Nasra, “The tunes of Nasra’s reed-pipe had changed. They lacked the edge they used to have. Poor woman, she thought that by changing the tune she would protect herself from Daffash. Poor soul, she believed him.” (Faqir, 15) This tells us that even if a woman were unfortunate enough to believe the souls that tell them rape is always their fault, it would not make a difference. Whatever steps they take to prevent rape or humiliation, it will still find them. Changing the tune, won’t change a thing.
The Lose-Lose Situation
The theme of the importance of virginity is very evident throughout the novels. Not only is it important to the individual, but to the whole community too. The virginity of a woman proves the morality of her family and the cleanliness of her respective town:
“My son,” she said, “let me hold my head high for the rest of my life. Show the whole tribe that you are the pride of Qasim…Come on, son,” she hissed, “the whole tribe is waiting. Shame in my old age is also waiting…I was thinking of my honor. I was a virgin:
I had the blood in me, but Harb was the one to spill it. Harb was the one who was supposed to prove that I was a virgin. What if they were never given the sheet with blood on it? They will think I had no honor. The shame of it will kill my father. “They will not leave us alone until we hand them a piece of white cloth dripping with blood. If we don’t get that piece they will think I’m not a virgin. My family’s name will be tarnished forever.” (Faqir, 44, 45)
These types of circumstances are very unfortunate for women. The reason this could be called a lose-lose situation is because if a woman were to be raped and lost her honor because of it, that is bad enough. If she ever did have the chance to marry (which is extremely rare) and regain her honor, she will only be shamed again when she cannot present a cloth “dripping with blood.” The underlying fundamentals presented in Middle Eastern society result in one and only one way for women to live – and that is to live in shame. Those who have bad runs with fate will forever have bad runs with fate.
Reaping What We Sow
So why does all this happen to women and why does everyone turn a blind eye to it? An interesting take on the topic is that women perpetuate their own injustice. This makes itself apparent in different parts of each novel. At one point in Pillars of Salt, Haniyyeh’s mother is very cruel towards her simply because she is a woman, “Haniyyeh, where are you, broken-neck? She said she had always wanted my neck to be broken because I, the first-born, was a girl and not a boy she had longed for.” (Faqir, 95) The same exact thing happens to Maha and again, the words are spoken by her mother, “Her gentle touch on my plaits used to wipe out the pain of Daffash’s slaps. ‘What do you expect? He is a boy. Allah placed him a step higher. We must accept Allah’s verdict,’ she used to say.” (Faqir, 33) This is an interesting psychological question, because both mothers must have experienced unequal treatment in their days and it would be feasible to say with confidence that it hurt them. Why, in the world would they carry on the belief that men are better than woman? Both mothers are not doing anything but teaching Haniyyeh and Maha the same unjust traditions passed down from their own mothers. As women, they may not have the power to change the universe and its ways, but they have the power to show their daughters the way and transform society one individual at a time.
Another aspect one can look at is how the women continue to let the patriarchal society trample over their lives and thoughts. Being an activist does not necessarily mean radical activity, but one can fight in every day actions of life. In fact, this is where change starts first, just like the mother instilling good motives in her daughter. As we discussed earlier, Nasra’s rape is a model for the way in which society turns its eyes away from injustices on women. But all the same, Nasra is responsible for continuing the trend because when she is raped by Daffash, she still loves him!
Nasra suddenly called Namweh, her goat, with a sharp voice. She was in love with Daffash, who raped her, made her life miserable, and slept with other women. By the life of Sabha my grandmother, I did not understand. For the second time Nasra had saved his neck. (Faqir, 67)
Another way in which the women allow the men to control them in an all too simplistic way is the fact that they dress to impress their respective men. Um Saad talks about the different beauty treatments urban women go through to make their husbands happy, “They are wiser than us. We wax our legs, cut our hair, line our eyes, paint our lips. The problem is men never notice the change. Um Gharib, may Allah reward her, used to say that we are just vessels. That is how men see us. That is what men care about.” (Faqir, 159) The same thing is true too for Nadia from A Woman of Five Seasons:
“I don’t like rose-red,” he said. “I don’t want you to wear it.”
“But it’s my favorite color.”
“Well, I hate it. Don’t you wear things to please me?”
I became the daughter of the Arab woman who repeated her mother’s advice on her wedding night. For a whole year we’d sat on the wooden steps in front of our teacher, repeating what the Arab woman had pronounced. “Fall in with everything he commands.” (Al-Atrash, 96)
If women are dressing for men and by their standards, how can they ever expect to truly dress, feel and act the way they want to? Even the veil is a good example of dressing because another person tells you that you have to.
Another approach is regarding Nadia, who is a complex character in that she understands that the way her husband oppresses her is wrong, but also continues to subject her to him.
It made her feel ill when he called her his “kitten,” but nothing would stop him from doing it. It hurt her, too, that he could never see her as anything but his woman. She didn’t understand. Hadn’t it occurred to him, just once, that she might have feelings beyond the ones he wanted from her? He put his arm under her pillow, and she turned her head violently away. She smelled traces of her perfume on the edge of the pillow, and took satisfaction in his good taste. (Al-Atrash, 13)
The fact that Nadia can spend one minute berating the treatment she receives from her husband and the next taking “satisfaction in his good taste”, shows us just how fickle the women can be. It is not until women are confident enough in themselves to completely detach from their respective husbands who are also their providers, will they be able to claim true equality. If they run to them in times of need, they will forever be linked to their own oppression.
Fadia Faqir is very aware of a self-depression living in the hearts of Middle Eastern women. She can see that the women are unhappy but do not know or even have the means to fight their community. There are even women who honestly do not know any better than what has been conditioned into their minds.
“I have no problems other than dandruff. My husband adores me.” The women nodded their heads in unison. We all claimed that we were physically ill and that we had loving husbands. Of course, for all the women the illness was in the heart. Suddenly she asked, “Do you see my sparkling eyes?” Her eyes were really sharp and shining. “Whenever I make a salad, I squeeze some fresh lemon juice into them.” (Faqir, 186)
This is the most blatant writing of women in denial of their own rights. They know that their husbands are not the loving husbands they should be, but for the sake of staying in line with the norms of society, they “squeeze some fresh lemon juice into them” in an attempt to force themselves to think they are happy, or at least appear to be.
Threads in the Fabric of the Family
It would seem to one reading these novels that to keep a family together in the Middle East, one has to provide and abide by certain rules and regulations. Some of these would include, providing a son for the family lineage and the other would be being a perfect housewife. If for some reason you could not perform these “simple” tasks you were not considered an honorable wife and perhaps “exchanged”, “Harb’s companions laughed and said to him, ‘If you bought an English rifle and found out that it did not shoot, what would you do? You would throw it away and buy another.’ ” (Faqir, 70) This shows the importance of the wife and how all Middle Eastern wives have a certain prototype to follow and for that matter, a threatening cloud forever hangs over their heads forcing them to perform the delicate but necessary balancing act of marriage.
Even if a woman is lucky to marry a good man, she still has to deal with the sometimes painful process of being accepted into a completely new family. Often times, there is much work to be done on the part of the mother in law who rarely sees a bride fit for her son. Perhaps the hardest thing for the woman to accept is that she is no longer a daughter of her own home, but really a stranger in a new home. Even frequent visitations to her old home are frowned upon. When Maha wanted to see her own father, she was lectured by her mother in law who said, “You are a young bride. You must not visit your father. People will say that Maha couldn’t stay put in her husband’s house.” (Faqir, 65) This not only shows the importance of the honor of her new home in accepting a new member, but it also suggests the strict hand of tradition barring Maha to visit her old family, which can be traumatic for young girls (as if the first night were not enough to be anxious about). Most importantly, actions such as these suggest that women are nothing but objects, economic transactions and they hold little worth other than that. Women are simply passed home-to-home with no consideration over the emotional distress they are experiencing.
The two main factors as mentioned before that determine whether a woman is a good wife is one if she is able to conceive (and conceive a boy at that) and the other being that she is obedient. The importance of the first is evident in Pillars of Salt when Daffash finally accepts his sister simply because she has given birth to a baby boy. Again, this shows that the woman who is giving the birth is not of importance, but only the product in which she reveals:
“Welcome, my brother.”
“Girl, you’ve made me an uncle.”
“I want to hold my nephew. By Allah, you have given birth to a man. I want to hold him,” he said with a voice full of excitement and joy.
Daffash, smiling? I did not know what he looked like when he was laughing. My chest tightened when Daffash held my suckling.
He twisted his moustache with his thumb and forefinger and said, “Since you’ve given birth to a man you may stay in my house.” (Faqir, 144)
This shows just how much merit a woman in Qasim can receive, all dependant on her birth giving “skills.”
The other aspect is that of the obedient housewife, one who falls in line with all the requests of her husband. The prime example used here is of special significance because it is a situation between Harb and Maha. The reason it is interesting is because from the novel, we understand that unlike others, Maha and Harb have a very sincere, loving and caring relationship. Harb does not take advantage of her and more importantly, he does not command her to be obedient. However, without Harb even saying anything, Maha still believes that she has to be all these things for Harb. This says something about the basic and fundamental theology instilled in Middle Eastern women:
I lit some kindling and boiled tea and fried two eggs in the baking tin. Harb would not leave me if I fed him properly and took good care of him. I was childless and must be a perfect housewife and mistress. I carried the loaded tray with difficulty and slid it through the half-opened door. (Faqir, 69)
As mentioned before, the idea of the husband leaving the wife is always hovering in the air, as it is for Maha. And because she has not conceived a child (her first duty), she must compensate for her failure with her second duty.
In the end, we are left with a vivid, but sad painted picture of Middle Eastern women. These women, though vibrant with much life to each and every one of them, are unable to express their true selves because their societies do not allow them to do so. The law is supposed to protect them from all the things mentioned in this paper, it is supposed to propel them alongside the progress of all other humans; however, the law is often misread and even ignored. Even if the law didn’t protect them in the stipulations, natural God-given rights are still not theirs to have and hold. “I realized how high were the mud walls imprisoning us. I sat on the floor, pressed my temples with my palms, and started crying.” (Faqir, 13) If something as simple as shelter is a form of oppression, how does the women’s liberation movement ever expect the rest of society to change its oppressive ways?