The following article by Laila Lalami is from the new LARB Quarterly Journal: Winter 2014 issue. The Journal is now available in bookstores for $12 and at Amazon.com, Indiebound and B&N.com, and is also a premium via the LARB Membership Program. The Journal includes feature articles, original poetry, fiction and shorts by Victoria Daily, Bruce Robbins, Dinah Lenney, Geoff Nicholson, Francesca Lia Block, John Rechy, Colin Dickey and more. Bookstores interested in ordering the title can go to Publishers Group West.
WHENEVER I RETURN to Morocco, I try to visit a bookshop. Among the many pleasures of Moroccan bookshops is the fact that they retain much of their individual character. Some are housed in old, spacious buildings that still have original zellij tile work or wrought-iron windows. Others are more modest, narrow stalls tucked away between a café and another café. A great many of them sell used books or allow you to trade one used book for another. And all of them, all of them, are redolent with the smell of books.
On this particular trip, I happened to be in Rabat on a rainy week in February. The wind rustled the leaves of the palm trees. Along the colonnaded streets of downtown, buses, cars, and motorcycles drove past at frightening speed, leaving behind wet tracks on the asphalt. At nearly every red light, drivers honked at other drivers. But I found refuge from the noise at Kalila wa Dimna Bookshop, where it was warm and quiet.
I was not looking for a specific book that day, but I happened to find a display table piled with recent works by, and about, Moroccan women: not just novels and memoirs by writers like Leila Abouzeid, Fatema Mernissi, Zakya Daoud, and Bahaa Trabelsi, but also a large selection of nonfiction books — so many, in fact, that it was difficult to pick just one or two. There were, for instance, Atlassiyat, a collection of interviews with women dissidents of the 1960s; Printemps et Automne Sexuels, a study of social attitudes toward puberty and menopause; Al-onf al-jinsi jarimah, an anthology of essays on sexual harassment; La Poterie Marocaine, a book on women potters from the Rif region; Une Femme Nommée Rachid, a memoir by a political activist who spent five years in King Hassan’s jails; Femme Idéale, a look at the representations of the ideal woman in contemporary Moroccan literature; and many others whose titles I did not jot down in my notebook. In the end, I bought a memoir by Nadia Yassine, an intriguing political figure about whom I wanted to learn more.
How different this book-buying experience was from any visit to a chain bookstore in Los Angeles, where I live now. At my local Barnes & Noble, I usually find, somewhere between the latest diet book and the newest political pamphlet, veil books. You must have seen them, too. On the cover is a woman shrouded in black, her soulful eyes averted from the photographer’s gaze.
The title, set in curly Arabesque letters, contains words like veil, honor, silence, and harem. I can never remember specific titles, perhaps because they all sound like permutations of one another: Behind the Veil, Lifting the Veil, The Veil of Honor, The Veil of Silence, The Harem of Silence, The Silence of the Harem. As for the story itself, the setting may range from Kabul to Kandahar, but its details rarely change. A feisty young woman, known only by her first name, suffers under the tyrannical rule of her father or her brother or her husband. Then some horrific event — a sexual mutilation, a potential honor killing, a forced marriage — causes her to flee from the father or brother or husband. Often, a concerned Westerner, perhaps a reporter on assignment abroad or a teacher posted at a nearby American school, helps this young woman write her dramatic story of escape, in the hope that it will “raise awareness” about the plight of Muslim women. A few names and identifying details are changed to protect the innocent, and the usual politically correct disclaimers are made about how the practices described run afoul of “true Islam.”
The first time I noticed these books — I call them Chronicles of the VeilTM — was about 20 years ago, when I came to California for college. I was desperate to read something besides the linguistics textbooks I was assigned, so on a night out with friends, I stopped by a bookstore in Santa Monica. On a display shelf I noticed Jean Sasson’s Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia. The titular princess (“Sultana”) is a plucky girl, born into a fabulously wealthy household, but where she has no rights and is treated as chattel. Sultana’s sister Sara is forced to marry a man in his 60s; her brother Ali is violent toward any women, servants, or animals that cross his path; her mother dies of an inoperable tumor and is buried in an unmarked grave in the desert; immediately afterward, her father marries an underage girl; her friend Nadia is drowned in the family pool as punishment for approaching a man on the street; her Filipino maid’s best friend is raped by her employer.
Princess is a surrogate memoir, by which I mean that Sasson writes in the first person, taking on the voice of Sultana. But, even though the book is billed as a true story, the life it describes is rich in convenient coincidences. Each of Sultana’s friends, family members, or acquaintances seems to personify a specific, totemic fault within Saudi society — underage marriage, violence against women, abuse of foreign workers. The prose is peppered with asides about the unrelenting oppression of women and the equally unrelenting brutality of men, not just in Saudi Arabia, but in the entire Middle East. “[The girls] might meet a nice foreign man and marry him. Any man was better than a Saudi man!” “It is never the fault of the man in the Middle East. Even if he murders his wife, the man will state ‘valid’ reasons for his action, which will be accepted by other men without question.” “No one will ever admit to the death of a loved one. The furthest an Arab will go in delivering bad news is to prepare the family for worse news from the doctor.”
I remember I was horrified when I read Princess because it contained so much violence against women, so much brutality on every page. But I was also troubled by the complete absence of dissenting voices. My experience of the world was that wherever there is oppression, there is resistance, too, yet the book made it seem as if all the women in Saudi Arabia — all except the pseudonymous Sultana, speaking through the voice of Jean Sasson — had resigned themselves to their plight and had no hope of a better future. The implication, of course, was that Saudi women had to be saved.
I was struck then, and I suppose I still am now, by how different the Chronicles of the Veil™ were from the books I had read when I was growing up. Those books were written by Moroccan women and for Moroccan women; the authors explicitly critiqued the laws, cultural customs, and religious beliefs that hampered Moroccan women and prevented them from achieving full equality. But the books I encountered in America, particularly in commercial bookstores, were general, even generic, in their approach. They were often set in Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia. They spoke breathlessly about “Muslim women,” a population so large and so diverse that hardly any statements made about them bear scrutiny. What could possibly be said to be true of 800 million women, spread out over 56 countries, dozens of ethnic groups, and a multitude of legal and cultural practices?
There came a moment when I realized that there are two distinct kinds of conversations taking place around Muslim women — one in Muslim countries and one in Western countries. The first conversation is highly specific, and focuses on local problems. In Morocco, for example, feminist activists pushed for a reform of family law for more than a decade; it was finally passed by parliament in 2004, and it granted women greater rights in marriage, divorce, and custody. These activists also successfully lobbied parliament for another reform, this time of the penal code, because it contained a loophole that allowed a man to escape statutory rape charges in case of marriage. Now feminists are focusing on access to education in rural areas, the practice of hiring underage girls as domestic workers, sexual harassment on the street — these are issues that Moroccan women and girls face every day, but they might not be exactly the same issues faced by women in Somalia or Comoros, where the legal apparatus and cultural practices are quite different.
The second kind of conversation takes place in Western countries, primarily via the Chronicles of the Veil™ and other sensationalistic materials. Here, the terms of the debate are global. One hears about arranged marriages, forced veiling, honor killings, female genital mutilations, and punishment by stoning, the narrative line always the same: Muslim women are victims, and they need Western saviors. So simple and so powerful is this message that even when Muslim women speak out against it, their supposed saviors refuse to believe them. Last April, for instance, when the Ukrainian group FEMEN staged topless protests outside mosques in Europe, billing them as “International Topless Jihad Day,” Muslim women organized their own counterprotests online, in which they made clear they did not need FEMEN’s help. But FEMEN’s Inna Shevchenko’s response was, “through all history of humanity, all slaves deny that they are slaves. [...] [These Muslim women] write on their posters that they don’t need liberation, but in their eyes it’s written help me.”
What happens once Western readers have had their “awareness raised” about the plight of Muslim women? Are they able to identify the legal, educational, economic, or religious mechanisms that create this oppression? Can they point to the role their own governments sometimes play in perpetuating these mechanisms? Do they become allies of the numerous local organizations that work on the ground to bring about change? Not really. Instead, they feel “concern” about these women, feel that these women need to be “saved” somehow, and probably also feel relief that they are not among them. In the end, the Chronicles of the Veil™ create a debate about Muslim women, not with them. This is a debate that serves to console, rather than inform. It provides even the most conservative of Americans the opportunity to present themselves as defenders of Muslim women’s rights. (Rick Santorum, for example, is against contraception for American women, but is apparently also a “steadfast ally” of Muslim women and girls.)
Not long ago, at a dinner party in Los Angeles, I happened to mention these two distinct conversations about Muslim women, only to be met with befuddlement. To my guest, a middle-aged academic, it seemed ungrateful that I should refuse the attention of people who are so intent on my liberation. For me, any fruitful conversation about Muslim women must begin by rejecting the simplistic category “Muslim women,” a category that often results in a denial of these women’s multifarious agency. There are thousands and thousands of Muslim activists, men and women alike, working for gender equality in the Muslim world, sometimes at great risk to themselves. Bringing them into the debate — talking to them, not about some abject “representative” — is the only way to advance it.
Laila Lalami is a Moroccan American novelist and essayist.
image: CC little shiva/Flickr