I write this with a disturbingly vivid recollection of approximately 250 pairs of eyes bordered with bushy eyebrows fixed on me in a peculiar mix of fascination and loathing. In a room of almost 250-300 men, roughly 15 of the people in this hall were women, at most, all from my private American school, all uncovered, one blond. The queasiness that came over me quickly disappeared in mere moments when I reminded myself that I, along with the female classmates and teachers with me, had as much of a right to be in that hall as they did. Even if the security expressed their displeasure at our presence by asking girls to “uncross [their] legs when [they] sit”, they couldn’t exactly ask us to leave. I then remembered a scene from Meryl Streep’s new film The Iron Lady based on Margaret Thatcher’s life, where she is first elected into Parliament and she is the only woman there. She’s momentarily overwhelmed by the amount of men in suits, ties, pants, polished black shoes – and she feels so feminine standing amongst them, in her baby-blue skirt and blouse, in her flowery hat, in her high heels, with her blond hair. Still, this is the Iron Lady we’re talking about. She holds her head up and takes firm steps as confidently as their own, for she knows that she had earned that position and worked hard for it. She was not about to give it up because of a few condescending, misogynistic/intimidated eyes.
The Main Hall of the Kuwait National Assembly was insanely packed with men, and even though I had decided against wearing a skirt because I had expected this, I felt ‘uncomfortably’ feminine nonetheless. I wore the lowest heels I could find, long pants, and a formal blouse. I do have to point out that I even if I got looks for being a girl, I didn’t get comments of ridicule for the way I was dressed like my classmates who showed up in skirts and dresses did – for that I’m strangely grateful. Put politely, they were considered to be dressed ‘unconservatively’ and were ‘perfect examples of why there needs to be a law that requires women to cover up’. I couldn’t help but come to the conclusion that it made sense, when you have a male-dominated Parliament, it’s only natural that you’ll have a male-dominated society. Or is it the other way around? Does it matter which way it is?
As you may have heard, today’s jalsa was cancelled due to black flags being raised in protest of the title of الاربعاء الاسود. We were dismissed from the hall 10 minutes into the session, but that was all it took to absorb in the patriarchy-saturated atmosphere that soaked the hall. I’m happy to say that although we received critical looks and comments, the ‘tour’ made up for it. Waleed Al Dhefiri kind enough to show us around and tell us the history of the Parliament both from the architectural aspect and the political one. A very down-to-earth and critical-thinking man, he gave us the opportunity to ask about anything that we were wondering about. Speaking for myself, I was very reassured with his answers that, mainly, this Parliament won’t be able to impose all the things that they want to impose on the citizens. I also voiced my concerns to him as a female, and he gave me a great piece of advice that I’ve vowed to always carry with me: “Sheikh Jaber الله يرحمه has given you a right that no one can take away without your permission.” Those words alone revitalized the determination and the hope that I have for a better future, and for being a part of that process of betterment – not despite being a woman, but because of being a woman.
I watched this video, and it made me think of the infinite power that writers possess. What really shook me the most is Adnan Ibrahim saying that the average Arab reads of his own free will for approximately three minutes a year – an utmost tragedy. Yet, I can’t help but wonder who is to blame. The Arab himself for not trying to find the tools to his own liberation, or the government for making the tools seem unappealing? I know people who HATE reading. Even more who actually can’t read. 18 year old full-blooded Arab students who stutter over their words in Arabic class, and use terms like “imaginating” in English class. It would be one thing if they compensated for their lack of Arabic fluency with their English skills, but it’s a total embarrassment when they can’t speak either of the two. Then again, I do have to say that schools, in this case, are partially to blame. When the material presented is deathly-boring and dry as a dead man’s bones, the student won’t show any interest and won’t feel encouraged to learn the material. But if you present him or her with poetry, or stories, or articles, or literature that they can relate to and will grab their attention, it’s almost guaranteed that he’ll want to take part in the class – and there you have it, he’s learning! I sometimes sit in my Arabic class while the teacher is talking about grammar, and I hide my poetry book under my desk and read. And to be honest, it feels like I’m learning more while I’m reading that book than while I’m listening to my teacher – my appreciation of language is deepened, my understanding of certain concepts expands, my own writing develops. How else can you be a better writer if you don’t read?
Almost every intellectual will tell you that he only managed to liberate himself through reading. And the ones in Kuwait will tell you they did it by reading many, many banned books. Adnan Ibrahim also mentioned self-critiquing; I along with several other writers I know have made this a habit through our writing. Keeping a journal to keep yourself in check is the best way to see how much you’ve grown from day to day. It gives you easy access to the person you were last night, or last month, or last year. That way, you can compare the ‘two people’. You can also compare yourself to the characters you read about, whether in fictional or in non fictional books. Read books that insult you, read books that provoke you, read books that make you squirm and feel uncomfortable and queasy. Those are the only books that challenge your frame of thought; if by the time you reach the last page, you still don’t agree, then your beliefs are firm. If not, then you’ve acquired new, better beliefs that would make you more comfortable with yourself. Read books that tell you to question everything, to doubt, to inquire, to aspire, to love, to fight, to rebel. Rebelling does not necessarily have to be violent. Simply by carrying a set of values and beliefs that opposes your society’s, you are rebelling. Simply by reading books that your society has deemed to be inappropriate, you are rebelling. And most importantly, by writing, you are rebelling.
In 1984 by George Orwell the main character keeps a journal. He’s afraid of keeping a journal, because he’s not allowed to – the ‘Thought Police’ arrest anyone who keeps track of his own thoughts or feelings or memories. Yet he writes, with a trembling hand and a quivering pen, he writes to remember. He writes so he can later assert the truth. He writes of his dreams, his secret desires, his childhood memories, the country he knew before it turned into a totalitarian state. Of course, later he is arrested – but it takes so much to break him after he had liberated himself. Books were also banned in this state, so when his new-found lover gives him books that discuss liberty and freedom and innate rights, he’s introduced to a completely new world. All of a sudden he’s awestruck with intimacy being an expression of love rather than a duty, with education being enlightening rather than evil, with family being sacred rather than a group of people put together to worship Big Brother. Of course, because he’s so enlightened, he’s caught. Intellectuals are always outcasts in these societies, and rejected because they think differently.
People of Kuwait, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Arab world altogether – write. Write about the injustices you experience, the disrespect you’re forced to tolerate, the discrimination you witness, the hopes you dream of for our future, your ambitions, your goals, your disappointments, your expectations, your demands, your sadness, your happiness – whatever that may be. You’ll be surprised to find that you’ll experience your own epiphanies while you are writing. Do it through poetry, fiction, non-fiction, articles, books, editorials, blog posts, anything. Write for you, write for your people, write for freedom, write for rights. Bring back the true power of the pen. Pour your heart and soul on paper and then share it. I’ve finally realized that the only reason the radical religious figures are more influential than the liberals is because they are organized and the liberals are dispersed and afraid of speaking out, for more often than not, they are already social outcasts.
But yesterday with the Paint to Freedom incident, I was surprised to see how many people seemed to share the same thoughts. Once you get your ideas and concerns out, I guarantee you will find at least one more person who feels the same way you do. And it’s always good to find someone who’s on the same side as you are.
Shurooq Amin had her gallery “It’s A Man’s World” at Al Salhiya tonight, and was surprised to find that someone had reported her artworks to be ‘inappropriate’. Police received complaints of people feeling ‘insulted’ by her artworks, and around 10 PM headed there to notify Shurooq that her gallery would be shut down, and if she didn’t comply she would have to pay a fine. They referred to her artwork as “pornographic” and مخلة. They took photos of her artworks, saying that they would be sending them to the ministry.
This is exactly why we’re always either stuck in limbo or in a constant state of regression rather than progress. We can’t find proper books in our own country anymore, now with Virgin being shut down and all the good writers banned in the other bookstores. Our movies are censored, and instead we’re fed a bunch of media advertisements to turn us into consumerist robots during those 15 minutes that the cinema had cut out. Our writings are censored, it’s inappropriate to write about love and inappropriate to address the endless issues our society is facing. How does denial help anyone? Why is it believed that if we pretend a problem doesn’t exist, it’ll go away? It only gets worse the more it’s ignored. Shurooq addressed those issues in her paintings and I for one am glad she did, someone needed to speak up. As a writer I relate to her, because I know how frustrating it is to constantly be forced to bite my tongue and mute my voice when I know that what I’m seeing is wrong – yet, pointing out the wrongs of society is apparently wrong in itself.
I say it needs to end. The intellectuals of the Arab society need to unite to fight censorship and ignorance and regression. I really wouldn’t be surprised if this regression was planned. Why would higher powers want ‘the public’ to enlighten and liberate themselves from their own shackles? Better to make them love those shackles and brainwash them well enough to have them enforce your ideologies on others too. That way, it won’t just be your security forces imposing your beliefs on others. It’ll be the monsters you created too.
Please hashtag #painttofreedom with any tweets regarding Shurooq Amin’s gallery or art/writing censorship in the Gulf.
The LAPA (LoYAC Academy of Performing Arts) dancers and musicians were featured in Kuwait’s first flash mob today at Avenues Mall sponsored by Zain. Check it out!
LoYACY is now available online as a PDF version! You can read it here:
LoYACY 4th issue or click the cover below:
My friend Arie wrote an article called The Cruel Sea about Bas Ya Bahar (an old Kuwaiti film) and an upcoming Egyptian author, Yahia Lababidi. It can be read here. I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t watched the movie, even though it’s one of the only Kuwaiti films to be considered top-notch. In my defense, however, it’s very difficult to find lately. But I will try my best to find a copy at any of the old video stores in Salmiya.
I asked some older people about it, and they told me that it depicts the pearl-diving history of Kuwait before the discovery of oil. I asked, “That’s it?” and they said yes, mostly. I didn’t understand because Arie had mentioned something about rape victims in the Middle East, and here they were telling me it was about pearl diving. After Arie finished writing his article, though, I saw the very critical element that my elders seemed to have found irrelevant: two of the characters are in love with each other, but their families don’t approve of the relationship. So the girl is married off to a rich, old man. The girl is raped by her husband on their wedding night.
Of course, many people would argue that a woman can’t be raped by her husband, when in truth it’s more common than people think. If she’s not giving him her consent and he does it anyway, it’s rape. I got a reply on Twitter also mentioning a crucial occurrence that’s equally neglected: prostitutes being raped. Although that’s a separate issue on its own (I think this gives a good portrayal of the truth), women can be and are forced into sexual acts under all sorts of different circumstances. 1,000 women are raped per minute, according to UN statistics. That’s not even counting the ones that go unreported.
But what I think should be discussed, is how rape victims are looked at. Generally, they carry *at least* partial blame. Most societies all over the world tend to blame the victim in some way. In the Middle East, they carry most of the blame. It’s usually said that she asked for it by dressing or acting in a certain way, or by being out ‘too late’. Other times, she’s very badly beaten up by her own family, sometimes even killed, simply because her ‘honor’ has been violated – i.e. her virginity. I read about a sixteen year old Kuwaiti girl who was raped in 1991 by an Iraqi soldier. A case was filed a while later, but not because the girl was raped. A case was filed because the sixteen year old was murdered by her father and two brothers who thought they were preserving their family’s ‘honor’. The girl’s mother was also investigated with, but she apparently showed no objection to their act – she was ashamed of her daughter and proud of her sons and husband. The degree of monstrous inhumanity to which brainwash can lead to is just stunning. When a brother can kill his own sister, a father can kill his own daughter, and a mother can look on and say ‘good riddens’, that’s when you know society has reached a terrifying definition of priorities. ‘Honor’ – a figment of Middle Eastern mentality – topples over love. Over family, over justice, over protecting your loved ones.
I also remember watching a Kuwaiti TV show back in 2004 or 2003, where a woman is raped, and her brother finds out and decides to kill her. He takes her out to the desert, holds a gun to her temple, and you hear the girl’s thoughts being narrated, you hear her blaming herself and saying that she doesn’t blame her “maskeen” brother because she brought عار to her family. Then you see the brother having flashbacks of all their childhood memories, and suddenly she isn’t the cause of “shame” to his family, but his little sister. I can’t remember what happened later, I just remember that he couldn’t bring himself to do it and he cries because of what a “coward” he is. This was shown on TV! Even the media advocates honor killing! Heck, in Jordan, it’s legal! TODAY IN 20-FREAKING-12!!!
I wonder how Arab men today would react to their sister or future-fiance or wife getting raped. Would they blame her or support her and help her through the healing process? Someone was offended that I asked, saying that I was implying that they were savages. It really isn’t what I think, but from what I’ve seen and heard, most Arab men do tend to blame the victim, saying that she asked for it by doing something, as I said before. I have to point out that rape is never asked for, and that if they insist on going with that logic, then they’re also saying that men are animalistic savages who can’t control their sexual urges if they see something that appeals to them.
A friend of mine told me about a married 19-year-old girl in Saudi who became widely known across the media as Qatif Girl, and was sentenced to 90 lashes for being in a car with her ex, and another 110 for trying to ‘distort’ Saudi’s reputation through the media by reporting her case to a Human Rights organization. She was gang-raped by 8 men, who got varied sentences ranging from 2-15 years. That’s it. So half of them will be released in two years, go back to society, and probably repeat their crime. Very few of the victims will have the courage to report the crime. Not even Qatif Girl did; her husband found out because the gang kept gossiping about what they did in an attempt to ‘ruin her reputation’. They were hoping that her husband would find out and kill her. Her brother tried to, apparently, when he found out; he beat her up until she was unconscious, but she didn’t die. She did, however, try to kill herself twice since then. Her life has been an absolute hell from what she’s said. If we were to apply the “she asked for it” logic in this case, it doesn’t apply. She was wearing an abaya and a niqab.
Why do they pretend to be ‘open minded’ and say that they would never blame the girl, but all of a sudden change their opinions when it’s a relative or someone close to them? All of a sudden it involves their honor. All of a sudden the first question that comes to mind isn’t, “How will I help her overcome this?” but rather, “What will people say?” and then there’s the sub-questions of “Who will marry her now that she’s lost her virginity?” “How will I deal with the shame?” “What do I do with her?”
What do you think? Guys – honestly, if it was your sister/mother/wife/fiance/steady girlfriend, what do you do? Do you ever blame the victim?
Girls – “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women” 😉 keep that in mind next time you judge a girl who was harmed by a man.