Posts Tagged women

The Window

Took this picture in Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina in April 2011

It was daytime and he was not around. She sat on her bed, pushed the dusty shutters open and looked out the window, watching passersby and filling her senses with the spice-filled air. Haj Ali, the owner of the spice shop across the alley sat sipping his tea and counting the notes from his impatient customer for the third time, ignoring his protests. Lady Samira walked past his shop heading to the train station to meet her husband with elaborate make-up and a large wig to replace her old hair-do. She had been going to the train station every Tuesday for fifteen years. A few feet to the right of the shop Mabrook the butcher hammered at the ribs that lay on his table as three cats gathered subtly under his feet waiting for accidental droppings to feast on. A parked Mercedes honked protectively at every donkey cart that tried to pass through the little space it left, its driver impatiently eyeing the window two floors above her and looking at his watch. Her eyes traveled up and across the rooftops to a tiny square of sky she could see through the branches of a lonesome tree that stood outside her small window. She was now ready to leave it all and fly up the sky. Her mind had almost drifted when she suddenly heard the clang of his keys outside. He was back. Her heart began to race and she began to shiver.

*****

At night the scent of the spices subsided as she lay on her bed staring at the darkened tree branches. She breathed the clean air as she relished the stillness of the night outside. The black leaves danced against the small sky that struggled to appear among the clustered shabby buildings. She rubbed her bruised shoulder as her tearful eyes stared at that single spot of sky with focus. Nothing else got into her vision. Nothing else existed. She let her mind wander beyond the leaves and the sky, taking her to another reality. Out there the world was at her feet. She had silk dresses and drove a car like the ladies she liked to watch in traffic lights as she stood crammed in buses. The longer she gazed beyond the leaves the more she was able to travel to another reality. Out there she was someone else. She was free.

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Four Random Scenes From My Life

There was nowhere the cat could go but under the sofa. This was tremendous progress in its character. The pool man’s pole was so high and creepy thin the cat was convinced it was going to get it. It had been lying down on its favorite chair when the giant pole began to rise and dip itself into the mysteries of the blue water. It was a lot of restraint for the cat not to rush inside and to wait it out under a nearby sofa. And that amazing feat of courage paid off. The pole monster didn’t go much farther; it soon retreated. And the cat, forty-five minutes later, began to relax again, and the fur on its arched back and tail began to lay back in place, reverting the cat to its original size.

The cat had intellect and it was using it. The balance between instinct and intellect in its little head got the upper hand. Danger subsided. All was alright.

********

She’d been dreaming of this all her life. Since the age of sixteen she decided that she wanted to learn Italian. Because she was not the one paying for the lessons, her father insisted that she learned Spanish instead, said he would only pay for Spanish, and Spanish it was. She enjoyed it nevertheless but it didn’t seem to satisfy the thirst for linguistic music inside her head. In her mind she could speak and understand every word. She could read it well. When she was old enough to pay for her own Italian classes she couldn’t keep them up. She allowed work and politics and “faithful sisters” to define her life’s purpose. Suddenly, rallying for bearded men who spoke shiny words became more important to her than speaking Italian. And she let the years go by.

Then one day she woke up from her slumber and decided it was time to get her life back. What was that language she so wanted to speak? She thought with a smile in her head. The moment finally came for her final stretch with it. She sat in front of the teacher, dumbfounded. Words were racing each other inside her head but none of them were the ones she wanted to use. Everything came up to her throat and choked in there while her teacher looked at her with a compassionate smile. The silence was murderous. But she would not let it kill her dream. She was listening to Italian, the teacher was promising her Italian, and all was alright.

********

She was in white, standing in a crowd of eager women from different parts of the world. There was a wall separating them from a destination they had traveled thousands of miles to reach. It was now only a few short steps away once the door opens through that wall. The talking and the chattering echoed in the vastness of the mosque. White marble pillars stood eternally around them, cloaked in gold carvings, perfumed with Oud – the time old Arabian incense. The coolness of the powerful air conditioners and the lingering scent of Oud elevated her. The crowd was suddenly a part of the divine experience. All those women, barred from his blessed presence by the misogynistic sheikhs that have come to take his place despite their false claims to be his humble followers. All those women, standing patiently, waiting for the male ego to subside so that they could be with him at last, and tell him how the men have broken their promise to him to treat them well.

Then all at once the door opened and the women flooded into the forbidden quarters of the grand mosque. Joy filled them as some of them began to ululate, allowing their instinct to challenge the sin-minded conservatism of the men around them. Tears began to stream down her face as she rushed towards the shrine of the prophet. She walked into the sunlit platform where she used to chase the pigeons when she was only seven as her mother sat quietly in a corner and prayed. Back then women were allowed this proximity to the prophet at all times. Back then the entire mosque was her playground. She kept walking, enjoying the sound of the pigeons’ fluttering wings, stepping once again into her childhood, until she finally reached him. She stood there with a smile on her face, and all was alright.

********

She stared longingly at the wedding cake. She had been to a wedding in that hotel before and she knew how well they made those cakes. Most people she knew were chocolate cravers, she never was. Chocolate always came in handy to her on difficult times, but she was never a chocolate seeker. To her, the whiter the cake the stronger the lure, and if frosting was included her mouth would fill with saliva no matter what important event she was in. The wedding was coming to an end and she was worried they might forget to cut up the cake for the guests. Soon everyone began to leave and her heart began to sink when suddenly, her aunt came to her with a piece of the cake. She grinned and held it like an archaeologist would hold an ancient treasure. She took the first bite and peace drifted into her veins. And the world disappeared. And all was alright.

 

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Rwanda Slaps Me in the Face and Grins

Two nights ago I watched a video posted by a friend on Facebook of three little Arab girls with solemn faces, cloaked in black, sitting stiffly on a couch and singing about the length of a girl’s skirt as protection from the eyes of young men, her careful, slow walk as the best cover of her body, and her hijab as the “ideal” crown on her head. The three young expressionless faces chanted on how happy that girl was that she’d covered her ‘awrah, her nakedness, her intimate parts, her whatever you may call it. There’s no actual word for it in English.

The following morning I woke up with bloated fingers, puffy eyes and half a brain (from pizza, not the video), browsed with one hand and held my coffee in the other when suddenly National Geographic informed me that, twenty years on after the genocide, women in Rwanda now have majority seats in the parliament, and that in fact by achieving that in 2008 Rwanda was the first country ever.

Now the expressionless face was mine.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very happy and inspired that Rwanda is quickly getting up on its feet and seems to most definitely be on the right track. It’s just that the dichotomy hit me a bit hard since I clearly hadn’t had enough time to recover from that traumatic video of the night before.

This is not a post typically making unfounded comparisons or misinformed bla bla bla. It’s also not an attack on Islamic dress code as I don’t see the Islam that I know anywhere in that abusive video (and it would take a lot more space than this post for me to explain why). This is just a passing rant of a person once described by a close friend that she’d chosen to stay aboard a sinking ship.

I don’t know much about Rwanda, this article could be showing a very narrow side of things. It could be, of course, but it’s there and it can’t be based on nothing. There’s an Egyptian proverb that says “There’s no smoke without fire,” so surely this article must be based on something? How about the fact that women hold a majority of seats in the parliament?

According to National Geographic, that percentage of women is very small given that the majority live in rural areas with limited or no education. But that small percentage made it to the parliament, dammit! So those people have got to be doing something right.

And that’s Rwanda. You know what Rwanda was to a lot of Egyptians especially during the horrible days of the genocide? As much as there was widespread sympathy over what they were going through there was also racist jokes over the contamination of the Nile because of the dumping of the bodies in thousands. You see, we’re known among the Arab world to joke our troubles away and we’re known to be the most hilarious nation with unbeatable jokes, but that multitude of jokes also has an excess of ill-tasted, sometimes sick, punchlines that come out more as insults than innocent entertainment.

‘Cause that’s what we do. We slouch around in our own filth and love ourselves so much we think no nation can ever be greater and point fingers at other countries’ mishaps.

Rwanda is a proud example that a weak, recovering state does not have to be inefficient if it is smart. Because of its inability to penetrate it has empowered the local communities. Rwanda has something called “community-policing committees” which is a group of people empowered to help maintain law and order in their respective communities. Those people are actually trained by the police to prevent crimes and protect women and children from violence.

Our state is neither weak nor recovering. I’m going to forget about all the big words and just put it in couch and popcorn language. Our state has the force of a hurricane and it doesn’t hesitate to use it when angered. It’s also lazy, old, quite grumpy, and stupid. So in the early days of the January 25th uprising it acted “wounded” and “upset” and disappeared off the streets after driving over people and shooting a bunch of others in the chest and the head. It left us to fend for ourselves, so the closest we got to those police committees was of our own efforts. Residents of all neighborhoods created their own guarding units and took shifts protecting streets and property and even directing traffic.

As for the women, our notorious streets harassment record actually skyrocketed, so another version of these committees was created and continues to operate, a purely grassroots initiative to spot and prevent street harassment of women, either by helping the victim file a case against the aggressors or just shooing the fellows out of the way after giving them a good tongue lashing. Our problem, however, is that once these committees have caught the transgressors there’s a very fragile system to take them to in order to effectuate already existing anti-harassment laws. The overriding culture that it is essentially the woman’s fault clouds many of the officers’ judgment, and the woman often finds herself presented with narrow options and threatened to tarnish her own reputation if she wishes to proceed with the case. So our individual efforts to create a sense of security, accountability, and just simply some sanity in the public space go almost completely unsupported by the state.

And just like the rest of the Arab world, the misogynistic, hormone injected view of women continues to thrive and even gets passed on to generations as I have seen in the video, ruining every woman’s sense of self-worth as a human being before it even begins.

What is it about Rwanda that makes it so on the right track compared to Egypt? The country was reduced to ashes and yet somehow, miraculously, most of those in charge seem to be doing what they’re supposed to be doing. Or does it take a climactic, post-apocalyptic form of destruction like the one Rwanda witnessed for people to come back to their senses and start doing the right thing instead of wasting precious time loving themselves and hating each other? What is that force that keeps dragging us into this dung filled pit? What’s our secret, really?

 

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Mournful Ghosts or Uncovered Meat? The “Saudi Woman” Effect

By Arwa Mahmoud
Additional reporting by Ahmad Al Amoudi – Jeddah
(First published in 2007 by IslamOnline.net)

“Stop! Stop it NOW!”

“I don’t know how to!!”

“Jump from it!!”

“I CAN’T!!”

The sound of a big splash combined with a loud engine overrode the girl’s screams as teenage Hoda, dressed in a T-shirt and swimming suit, drove into the Red Sea with her brother’s motorcycle in a public seashore in Jeddah.

Today, Hoda is 41 years old, married to an imam, and runs a self-development center specialized for women and children.

“Jeddah’s sea resorts have always attracted young men and women from different nationalities. Back in the late ’70s, it was never an uncommon thing to see a foreign woman on a boat in her swimming suit. Today, many girls continue to find their ways around these places,” said Hoda.

Saudi Arabia is a place that surely challenges a journalist’s professional ego. The common image of it being a desert with rich princes and women in black cloaks covering them from head to toe often tempts a writer to write about it with a great deal of sensationalism. Some of the Western literature on Saudi Arabia gives the immediate impression to an insider that the author has chosen the easy way: entering the country with a previously established idea, being guided throughout with selective perception, and eventually writing what sells.

BBC correspondent Rachel Reid’s recent reflection on Saudi, initially titled “The First Woman to Swim in Saudi,” and then changed to “Making a Public Splash in Saudi,” is reminiscent of such literature.

“Reading through Reid’s article, it was as if she wrote about Saudi some 50 or more years ago… women are depicted as subjects, recipients. Expressions such as ‘folded away’ and ‘ushered’ draw a dim picture of oppressed women beaten around like cattle,” commented Hoda. I listened to her as I looked back into the article, up to the third paragraph, where I reread her description of Gulf women in abaya as “mournful ghosts.”

As a half-Egyptian, half-Saudi woman, my life has always been divided between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. In Egypt, I drive and I wear whatever I want. In Saudi Arabia, I can’t drive and I have to wear an abaya on top of whatever I’m wearing. I switch between both modes naturally. I hardly give it a thought.

The black abaya that women wear in public places in Saudi has always been in my wardrobe. I put it on as I go to the airport to take my flight to Jeddah or Riyadh, always have it on as I walk in shopping malls or in the streets of Makkah and Madinah, and sometimes forget I have it on when I go visit a cousin and immediately start catching up with old conversations. Sometimes it gets in the way as I come out of a car, sometimes I trip over it when I come up or down the stairs, but I always attribute it to malpractice. As I try to hide my embarrassment, most of the women around me always seem to walk in it with grace and ease.

It never occurred to me once that I looked like a mournful ghost – no child ever screamed when they saw me.

You can never enforce a single uniform on people, let alone women. The Saudi abaya does appear to be a hassle to any foreign woman used to more overt expressions of her individuality. But many Saudi women still manage to find their ways around it. Walk in any fancy mall and you will be stunned by the variety of fabrics, designs, and decorated color appliques, not to mention the high heels, luxury bags, and full makeup that nearly always come with it. So even as the abaya is an enforced uniform on women, it never snatched away their personal taste or preference. Saudi women who do cover in plain black, head to toe, are culturally accustomed to it. In fact, some of them continue to wear it even outside the country.

The Private Public

Saudi women do not have to be escorted by men everywhere they go. Any visit to a “family” section in a restaurant shows it. Yes, they live segregated lives, but this has created a parallel public world with its own social codes and standards. It is also a world of ease and luxury that can easily get you into thinking that it is unsurpassed even by the Saudi man’s world.

There is very little that Saudi women cannot do in their own world. As a practicing Muslim wearing the hijab, I find my clothes nearly have no place in Saudi. I catch myself digging for jeans and dresses each time I have to travel there. Underneath the abayas, women there wear anything they please. It even gets competitive.

The busier women are always caught in their work, and in their leisure time they practice a wide variety of sports ranging from martial arts to horseback riding, the latter often taught by a male trainer.

“Saudi Arabia is loaded with a number of social and sports clubs that offer special services for women, and swimming is no exception,” commented Maida Zaazou, a Saudi poet and writer who takes swimming as a primary sport.

“My best friend goes swimming with her children every week in Al-Bilad Hotel. It has a certain number of hours for ladies. Most hotels here do,” added Hoda. “What the hotel provided for Reid was a private hour. This wasn’t so public. They just gave her another private public space, something normally offered in many other hotels.”

Reid created a catchy story from a single incident in one of the hotels, and she fit it perfectly at home with what many readers want to read about Saudi.

Saudi women’s roles are not necessarily confined to the “private public” sphere. An increasing number have joined the workforce, and many of them can be seen in less “scary” abayas, smiling, and joining male counterparts in meetings and discussions.

Currently, there is a large number of women members in the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce and Industry. “There are four women in the board of directors,” added Salih Al Turki, the chairman of the board.

Segregated life in Saudi is still not easy. Especially as a woman who does not live in the country, I sometimes find it frustrating to constantly be interrupted by figuring out where to sit, or having to rely on someone else to drive me to the place I’m going. Also, Saudi society has started to develop its own list of problems and complications that many Saudi youth are now trying to find solutions to. However, the problem is far from being the old cliché of a suppressed, covered woman always in the shadow of a ruthless, selfish man. A closer look at the society exposes a whole new set of issues that are by far more real and more pressing.

The Controversial Vote

With the image of the covered Saudi woman and her imaginary male escort still fresh in Reid’s mind, she concluded her piece with a reflection on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, with special attention to voting. She commented that if women were allowed to vote in the 2009 elections, it would be a “revolution.”

“What revolution? We have an existing problem with the voting system itself! Even men suffer from inequality in this regard,” Hoda giggled. “Did everyone forget that we live under the most tyrannical monarchy in the region? Focusing on voting as the sign of women’s liberation is laughable. It simply does not apply.”

She added, “This country needs serious human development, good education, more social awareness and cohesion, and professional training in order to reach a phase in which voting is actually efficient and effective.”

How Far Can Labels Go?

Reid’s reflection story promises problematic reporting. Because it is an opinion piece, Reid has unknowingly given her prejudice so much liberty that she easily used terms and labels that are culturally offensive. She equaled herself to Australian imam Taj Din Al-Hilali when he labeled women who did not wear the hijab as “uncovered meat,” which was equally offensive.

“It’s about what people are culturally used to and how they conduct their lives accordingly,” said Nadia El-Awady, a half-Egyptian, half-American journalist. “In some beaches I see topless European women tanning or having cocktails with great ease, an uncomfortable scene for any person who is not used to nudity. It’s the same feeling others get when they see women covered head to toe, which is an opposite extreme. In the end it is what each of those women is culturally used to.”

One of the key skills journalists often feel compelled to learn at the very beginning of their career is the ability to detach themselves from their personal prejudices and cultural standards, to be able to take a clear and pure look at everything new a foreign society has to offer them. The further journalists manage to go down that path, the more they will be able to mirror what they find as accurately and as credibly as possible.

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