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Min Fami: Arab Feminist Reflections on Identity, Space and Resistance


Selected passages from
Min Fami: Arab Feminist Reflections on Identity, Space and Resistance
Edited by Ghadeer Malek & Ghaida Moussa

Published by Inanna Publications and Education Inc.

Introductions

Starting Points: Ghaida Moussa

What does it mean to publish a book about Arab feminist reflections on identity, space, and resistance in English? What does it mean that I couldn’t write a book in Arabic even if I wanted to? What does it mean that our tongues have come to know surrogate mothers?

Hesitations: Ghadeer Malek

I am still not sure what makes something “Arab” in the same way that I am not sure what makes writing “women’s writing.” Is “Arab” a language, a history, a future that we share, or a border through which we exclude others? Is women’s writing about being women, or writing women’s stories?

Identity

Pieces: Amal El-Mohtar

My voice is in pieces

I cannot swallow.

But if you would hear it

I will put a sliver in your eye

slide it stinging into place.

It is glass. See through it.

Change.

Spines from the prickly pears: Laila Suidan

Palestine

I have longed for a peace with you.

I have longed for a relationship

in which I could come home to you

our union accepted and respected in community.

I wish I could talk to coworkers about you.

I have met people who told me

that you did not exist.

They looked me in the eye as they said this

power and anger flashing at me

words aimed to intimidate.

Those evenings I came home to you shaken

the heart current that we share wavering.

The truth is

I know you intimately through my blood

but not through my senses.

In this lifetime

I’ve experiences you so little directly.

My skin burns under your hot sun

and I haven’t learned how to harvest your prickly pears

without their spines sticking my fingers for days.

I’ve come to your land looking for home

and while I’ve felt your pulse steady under my feet

and heard you softly whisper to me through the breeze,

louder have been the crise from the streets as I walked by:

“ajnabiyya!” – foreigner.

A feminist regeneration: Nawar Al-Hassan Golley

I began to realize that the veil came to represent Arab Muslim woman identity in English culture; I was not veiled so I could not have been an Arab Muslim woman. A similar misconception was that all Arabs are Muslims and all Muslims are Arabs. I wondered whether they realized that using a hair cover as a marker of identity for a woman was too simplistic. Surely, identity is too complex of an issue to be reduced to a practice or to an appearance.

I am Arab Muslim woman, but I am not the image of the Arab Muslim women held by these people I encountered. I am not an ignorant, obedient, defenseless, powerless, or veiled Arab woman lacking in personal freedoms. Not that there aren’t oppressed women in the Arab region; there might be. Some of them are veiled but some of them are not, some of them are Muslims but some of them are not. Women are oppressed everywhere, including in the West. Sexism and patriarchy form the pillars of countries around the world, but I refused to be defined as weak. In retaliation, I fekt even more compelled to explore my identity and seek my own terms to define myself.

Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage: From Cairo to America – A Woman’s Journey

Examples of Western assumptions as regards Arab and Muslim women are numerous. I would like to briefly recapitulate on these assuptions through Darraj’s interesting juxtaposition of Scheherazade, the Arab woman storytelling icon, to how she is represented in Western discourse. (Susan Muaddi) Darraj notes that:

Scheherazade, the heroine of The Thousand and One Nights, has suffered terribly at the hands of translators. Revered in the East…[she] became nothing more than a harem sex kitten when Antoine Galland, and later Richard Burton introduced The Nights to the European canon… An intelligent woman, schooled in literature, philosophy, and history, reduced to an erotic, shallow, sex crazed body behind a veil – it happened many times, with many Arab and / or Eastern women, including Cleopatra, Khadija, and Aisha.

Living in sin: Laylan Saadaldin

You cannot blame us first-generation kids for this “going back home” cliché, when our parents submerged us in Arab-Muslim company, exposed us to Middle Eastern politics and pop culture through satellite television, enrolled us in Islamic schools, sent us off East fir summer vacations. Despite these experiences, we could only speak and read and write rudimentary Arabic; we were accustomed to attending them; we could understand the jokes but not the humor behind them; we were strangely religious, strictly observing Islamic rituals that had become more cultural expressions of the Diaspora than spiritual exercises.

Meanwhile, we learned American history and politics at school watched American television at home, made American jokes and exercised American consumerism at the mall. We can converse endlessly on American pop culture and summarize the Mayflower’s arrival at Plymouth Rock. But none of that mattered. The bottom line answer to the salutational question “where are you from?” is always Egypt or Palestine or Iraq or Syria, as opposed to Tampa, Charlotte, or New York City. As for my Kirdish background, whose presence was mainly marked by my ability to speak another language, it was absorbed into the greater Arab-Muslim majority.

Electricity and Palestinian virgins: Amal Eqeiq

“How is that possible? How could you be so modern and still a virgin?” he exclaims while his brown eyes pop out like dark roast espresso beans.

Maybe-Yoav admires his necklaces one more time before returning them to the box. He resumes his monologue. “Love is important. I am really glad that young people from your community are becoming progressive about it. I see them holding hands in the shopping mall near my house or secretly kissing in the parking lot. I am happy that they feel safe to do so in Kfar-Saba. I really don’t understand why Arabs complain about their life in Israel. They should be thankful. In Israel there are jobs, health insurance, running water, electricity and freedom for everyone. Yes there is no equality, but there is justice, and this is what matters. We just need to learn how to live in peace together. What do you think?”

Space

Polymorphous revolution and naked bodies: Jacinthe A. Assaad


The controversy surrounding the nude self-portrait of twenty-year-old Aliaa Elmahdy reinforces the patriarchal polarities that are still delineating female identities. In October 2011, she posted on her blog a black-and-white picture of herself, naked, expect for thigh-high sheer stockings, a provocative red bow in her hair, and red ballet pumps on her feet. Her message was meant to attack the chauvinist and humiliating tactics that are used to silence women, and deny them their (artistic) freedom of expression. While she received death and rape threats for her bold move, her act of defiance was deemed anti-revolutionary, immoral and atheist by both the liberal and the religious parties. Even the global community was conflicted over her act; did her show of nudity retract from her message, or was it indeed a reaffirmation of feminism? She did, however, receive support from fellow bloggers and feminist activists from Israel, Italy and Iran to name a few. ..The discomfort that self-portrait caused in society, in my opinion, goes beyond the controversy of the naked female body. Aliaa projected her body, not as a sexual object inside the sensual and erotic sphere, but as a political object outside of the male gaze of appropriation and oppression. For many of her critics, therein lay the threat. How could one look at the naked pictures of a woman, without seeing her nudity? The daring move forces the society to reassess its own evaluation of the female body, even if at first the only foreseeable reaction is one of shame, embarrassment, anger and even revolt. She insinuated herself within the minds of people, and not as a sexual object. That is precisely why I view her act as revolutionary.

City slashed my heart so I slashed this poem: Nehal El-Hadi

I hold cities like lovers // we all do // how we treat our cities, lovers, speaks more about us than we would know // we hold cities like lovers, but they don’t care

I’d be better off turning my back too // we hold cities like lovers // when we feel threatened // we don’t know when to let go, when to move on, when to leave // when to leave ourselves behind

Trajectories of crossings: Nayrouz Abu Hatoum

My Israeli identification card (ID) indicated that I was an “Israeli Arab.” As part of my national upbringing, I was raised to believe that I do not only share a history with Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) and diaspora, but I also share a destiny with them that I have to engage with the Israeli state through its multiple institutions such as universities, banks, and health care centres. Although granted citizenship, Palestinian citizens of Israel have always been viewed by the Israeli state and its institutions, and by other Jewish citizens, as the internal enemy of the state.

Borders…embody paradoxes or negations. Strong securitized and militarized borders can be sometimes crossed by a simple act of climbing over them or breaking them; thus, they are rendered fragile and breakable. Borders already break and cross people’s lives and homes before people cross or break them.

Borders often move towards people and cross them, rather than or in addition to people moving towards them or crossing them.

Ain’t I a Palestinian woman? Shahd Wadi

One important character that was found in Palestinian women’s oral life narratives is that they use a different language than that used by men. As Fatma Kaseem observed, while men use the “official” language of the media to describe the Israeli occupation of Palestine in 1948, using terms such as: “when Israel occupied the land,” women use different language such as: “when the Jews entered,” which in Palestinian tradition conveys the image of sexual penetration, as it is the same expression used to describe the moment the bride loses her virginity, Leilet Al-Dokhleh (the entrance night). Palestinian women use their bodies in their narrative language to describe the occupation. Their own memory is also the memory of their body.

Resistance

“Aat” and the apple peel: Lana Naseer

Mubarak falls in Egypt: women are molested during demonstrations, others are subjected to virginity tests. The woman with the blue bra makes the news, and people biftoo about it.

“But why was she out anyway?”

“Who wears a blue bra and nothing else to go out on a demonstration?”

“The image was Photoshopped.”

In Arabic, the word Hayya (snake), also means: alive, living, and Farj alMar’ah.

Farj al Mar’ah: A woman’s vulva.

In one dictionary, it is defined as “The place of fear.”

The editor was of course a man.

The root word Farj has the following associations:

Farj: widening, an opening, a cleave.

Afraj: (verb) to release

Furujat: revealed a secret

Furja: a spectacle (something to be watched or seen)

Farj al-wadi: The valley

Faraj happy outcome, desired ending

Ja’a-l Faraj: Release and ease have come; they are here.

An Ode to the Hymen:

On its rests the honour of the whole tribe.

A membrane between a woman’s legs

Fuels feuds between neighbours

Give me a break!

But I say,

It is not “hate” but fear

fear of that which is underneath.

Just cover it up and imagine it’s not there –

but always obsess with it –

obsess about it.

The problem is bigger, it is written in stone

Under silken robes, embroidered with gold.

Wrapped in darkness,

made to believe that it needs to be so.

The scariest are the women who believe it.

A voice from Aswat: Samira Saraya

My father and mother have adopted the term “Israeli Arabs.” They were both born in Palestine prior to the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 but have come to completely distance themselves from identifying as Palestinians. They are a part of a generation who learned to feel fear from being Palestinian and accepted the term “Israeli Arab” subconsciously to not only distinguish and separate themselves and consequently their fate from the Palestinians in the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza, but also to internally accept their discrimination by the State of Israel as inferior to Jewish Israelis. I clearly remember the moment when the intensity of fear became clear to me. I was filling out forms at the hospital with my mother for a routine medical examination. As I began to write Palestine as the country of my mother’s birth, my mother became frantic with panic and yelled at me to change it to Israel. I was surprised at how strong her reaction was and it made me see clearly the division created amongst Palestinians by the Israeli State to weaken our resistance against their colonization and occupation.

Hidden voice: Miral Al-Tahawy

 I cannot deny that women’s writing has launched its revenge on marginalization, on the denial of its existence, and on years of men controlling writing. The new genre has avenged the neglect of its sytle and rhetoric as well as the predominant masculinity of the Arabic language. Storytelling was women’s first revenge, and suffragettes expression. Perhaps that is the reason the first female writing to emerge embodies the crisis of breaking free from the inner fear of expressing feelings, and from the stereotypical female image. It could also embody breaking free of a language that gave men a history of masculinity and expressed gender superiority even at the linguistic level.

I still do not find true in my life what Toni Morrison once said in one of her interviews about her writing rituals. When asked how and why she wrote the way she does, Morrison said, “that is all any of us have: just this small space…I am not able to write regularly. I have never been able to do that – mostly because I have always had a nine-to-five job. I had to write either in between those hours, hurriedly, or spend a lot of weekend and predawn time.” I also wrote in the in between spaces, but there was no routine. Further, once I got married and became a mother, moments of loneliness were mixed with the noisy daily battles of rattling kitchen utensils and making bottles. I wrote at times others allowed me for that great escape. I wrote with my eyes on the movements of my little baby in his bed, between nursing sessions. I wrote in spaces only I could see, looking for more definite rituals, so writing mighjt have or might not have come passing over a soul covered in fear, one that drew more complicated symbols for a life in which inevitable roles struggled.

Arab woman: Ghada Chehade

Dark and glistening from the olive oil my mama use to bathe me in at night: I AM AN ARAB WOMAN

Orientalized through colonial eyes

 I AM AN ARAB WOMAN

Understood out of context, like a tale from an ignorant mind

I AM AN ARAB WOMAN

You invade my land in the name of my liberation, when I know that all you want to bring are my children’s enslavement and indignation.

You may think me oppressed, but take a look at your precious West.

My sisters’ worth and all their work are dismissed every hour. And for

the record, tell me white man, how many women do you have in power?

I have been mysticized and exoticized

Criticized

And even demonized.

See, you can’t decide: Am I part of you harem dream

OR is my MOVEMENT too extreme?

Cause 500 years of incursion and oppression has taught me some brand new moves, and my movements speaks like words that need no translation.

I role them from my lips down to my wide breading hips:

LIBERATION, LIBERATION, FOR THE EMERGING ARAB NATION

So colonizers, while you may want to save meeeee, so that you may OWN

ME, I tell you instead you should FEAR ME, because inside of me there is an A-R-M-Y

And we are dark and glistening, and PROUD to be born

And we chant:

LIBERATION, LIBERATION FOR THE EMERGING ARAB NATION

WE are ARAB WOMEN

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