Bad Girls of the Arab World
Edited by Nadia Yaqub and Rula Quawas
University of Texas Press, 2017
This academic work explores both the symbolic statements and lived experience of Arab women who transgress social norms, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The collection of essays by and about contemporary Arab women in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Palestine, Egypt, the Maghreb, and the United States recounts the particular ways in which each woman transgressed and how she reacted to the response it provoked. The strongest chapters break free from the bonds of academic jargon and present women in their full flesh-and-blood selves, often suffering greatly for their brave actions, sometimes with bodily manifestations.
That women’s bodies are the site of social tensions and the battleground on which revolutionary claims are staked is nothing new. Several essays profile women who in fact use their bodies to convey revolutionary messages. Some of these women, like Tunisian Amina Sboui, use nudity to challenge their society’s requirement for female purity, defined by patriarchal structures. In many essays, the transgressions of women exist in the context of the Arab uprisings of the past eight years and the re-emergence of reactionary Islamist movements. Whatever the transgression, and whatever the context, there is always a personal cost to the woman.
Three essays are exemplary in their distinct framing of the transgression story and resistance to reductive academic lenses: those by Amal Amireh, Hanadi al-Samman, and Rawan W. Ibrahim. In “They are Not Like Your Daughters or Mine: Spectacles of Bad Women from the Arab Spring,” Amireh reminds us that tales of transgression can be both celebratory and cautionary, often at the same time: they can celebrate the courage and inventiveness of women’s revolutionary actions, but women may not be “empowered by their participation, and they in fact risk losing some of the hard-won rights they snatched from the toppled autocrats.”
Amireh describes the case of Fayda Hamdi, the Tunisian police officer whose slap allegedly led to the self-immolation of Muhammad al-Bu’azizi, instigating the Arab Spring. Amireh finds ample evidence exonerating Hamdi and pointing the finger elsewhere. Hamdi claimed that al-Bu’azizi had assaulted her. However, she emerged as the villain in the revolutionary narrative, a symbol of the Bin ‘Ali regime, and was arrested and held in prison without charge for months. When her case finally went to trial, she was acquitted of the slap, but the story persisted because it was key to the al-Bu’azizi myth, as Amireh explains: “If…al-Bu’azizi’s self-immolation is to be seen as an act of courage and defiance against humiliation and oppression, then Hamdi’s emasculating slap is essential.” It was not enough for al-Bu’azizi to have been assaulted – that surely could not have led to his suicide. It was the slap of a woman that was the coup de grâce.
Hamdi’s life is ruined by this narrative: she lives as a pariah in Tunisia, and instead of her public role on the streets as a police officer, she has been given a desk job. Amireh notes the effect of this persecution on Hamdi’s body: her hair is falling out and her hand is trembling. “She is a painful reminder that between the narrative celebrating the women of the Arab uprisings and the one lamenting their losses is a woman’s injured body, a speaking body that is both transgressive and invisible.”
In “Syrian Bad Girl Samar Yazbek: Refusing Burial,” Hanadi al-Samman relates the traumatic story of Yazbek, a woman of the ‘Alawite sect who published her eyewitness account of the early years of the Syrian revolution, unleashing the fury of Assad’s government against her. Her punishment was particularly severe because she was seen as a traitor to her sect; her punishment was both individual to her and a symbolic example for others in the resistance. Yazbek’s diaries used the metaphor of w’ad (from jahiliyya times, burying infant girls alive) for the despotic practices of authoritarian regimes – Assad’s in particular – which seek not only to bury vocal women, but whole societies. The reference is to verses 8 and 9 of Surat al-Takwir in the Qur’an, in which the maw’uda, the killed daughters resurrected on Judgment Day, are questioned for what crime they were killed. As al-Samman explains, “On Judgment Day she will finally receive justice by presenting her buried body as proof of the insidious w’ad crime.”
Ultimate justice may feel like a vindication, but experience in the here-and-now offers no such relief. Yazbek continues her courageous work from abroad to connect revolutionary people and activities in spite of continuing threats from the Assad government and online harassment. Increasingly, she identifies herself with Syrian society as a whole, and “the trauma of the buried cities weighed heavily on her soul…she felt its effects on her own body as fear, anxiety, insomnia, vomiting, and madness…[S]he experienced the dismemberment of Dar’a al-maw’uda – buried in her own body as a ‘disintegrating corpse.”’
In “Paying for Her Father’s Sins: Yasmin as a Daughter of Unknown Lineage,” Rawan W. Ibrahim describes the coming of age of an orphaned girl in Jordan and her emergence from institutional care into independence. In a society that equates identifiable parentage with honor, Yasmin carries a stigma from birth. As Ibrahim says, “Yasmin’s case illustrates the vulnerabilities that women outside patriarchal structures face in all aspects – economic, social, and cultural – of their lives.” In addition to such stigmatizing, orphans lack the significant benefits of a supportive and protective family structure, which Yasmin experiences afresh as she leaves the relative protection of institutional care. Yasmin suffered abuse growing up in the institutional setting, and later with her birth mother and boyfriends. The consequence in Yasmin’s case is that she ends up repeating the experience that orphaned her, becoming pregnant in an abusive relationship and eventually having to relinquish her son.
Though this self-fulfilling scenario might seem inevitable, Ibrahim recounts many ways in which Yasmin sought stability and support from female friends and through employment. She is not a passive victim of the system, but an individual who has struggled to change her story. Aware of the irony of her situation, she remains understandably angry and frustrated.
The essay by Adania Shibli on “The Making of Bad Palestinian Mothers during the Second Intifada” also deserves mention. Though not exploring new ground in the media analysis offered, it is carefully done, well-researched and chilling in the systemic cruelty it depicts. Shibli charts how, over only a few days, media representatives of the Israeli government effectively transform the killing of a Palestinian child by Israeli soldiers into an attack on Palestinian mothers, citing their anguished cries of revenge at the funerals of their children. And the Western media only too readily picks up this framing. “Guilt is placed on Palestinian mothers for accepting the deaths of their children, rather than on the Israeli army for killing them…Israeli officials succeeded in circulating the claim that Palestinian mothers were sending children to their deaths by avoiding images of the field, where the reality of occupation bristled with guns, armored jeeps, and tanks.” Shibli’s account shows how the mothers’ bodies and voices are cynically turned into a symbol of Palestinian inhumanity to be used against them.
In a few essays in this book, the transgressive female emerges primarily as a symbol, unintentionally mirroring her oppressors’ tactics. Though sometimes the women themselves embrace this symbolic power and thrust it forward into public space, it is worth remembering Amireh’s warning: “These women’s bodies resist becoming texts: any narrative retelling their stories and thus turning their material bodies into signifying ones is contradictory, full of silences and gaps, and incomplete. Their erupting material bodies, not their symbolized, abstracted, metonymized ones, form the sexual unconscious of the Arab revolutions.”
This review appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 23, No. 76, 2019.
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