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From Damascus to Secaucus: Doing the Arab American Feminist DanceBarbara Jaquish
Walk into any bookstore today, and you’ll see a novel with a familiar figure on the cover. She is veiled. Her dark eyes look out warily or sullenly.
She is not Mohja Kahf, poet, novelist, teacher, scholar, and English professor, born in Damascus and raised in the U.S. Nor is she any of the vital, wild, earthy, thoughtful, spiritual Arab and Arab American women Kahf knows and writes about.
She is not Khadra Shamy, the heroine of Kahf’s first novel, The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf. She is not the rebellious odalisques who say “enough is enough” in a poem from Kahf’s collection E-mails from Scheherazad.
But the veiled woman is widely recognized. She is the Arab woman as defined by the Harem Stereotype, and, according to Kahf, it is the dominant story told in the modern world about Arab women.
Victim. Escapee. Pawn.
“Putting it all together,” Kahf says, “three faces only are allowed to the Arab woman under the regime of the stereotype: victim, escapee and pawn.”
As victim, the Arab woman is “a mute marionette” with no ability to act for herself. She stands alone, and the women who shaped her – the grandmothers, sisters, aunts and “the vibrant multi-layered culture that belongs to Arab women” – are all invisible.
Then, there are the cold Arab men who oppress her, “the forbidding father and the brutal brothers.” According to the stereotype, she comes from a cruel culture that stifles sexuality. In contrast, Kahf, who wrote a popular and sometimes controversial online column “Sex and the Umma” (Umma is the community), sees the approach to female sexuality within Arab cultures as “layered and complicated,” not monolithic oppression.
Within the stereotype, each woman “appears a lonely crusader facing her entire culture,” either as a victim or a lone escapee, and the 100-year-old Arab feminist movement vanishes. The pawn, the woman who assists in the oppression of other women, is depicted less often in Western media.
Dodging and Feinting
Given the ubiquity of the stereotype, what to do? Kahf prescribes a good dose of critical thinking combined with opening the mind to a dual critique of the Muslim community and Western societies. The dual critique, she says, tackles “imperialism and Orientalism on one hand, and sexism on the other – intertwined – which is another name for Arab American feminism.” The stereotype, she adds, only distracts from the reality that sexism exists everywhere.
“We actually need time away from the Harem Stereotype,” Kahf says, “to tackle the real shapes of our sexism, to pinpoint the sexist practices we have not even begun to analyze because we only look at issues on the agenda of the stereotype.”
Some writers embrace the stereotype, Kahf says. Others tackle it head-on or go the other direction and deny anything critical of Arab culture. Another approach is to work without referring to the stereotype at all, as with Kahf’s poem about her neighbor’s cat:
My neighbor’s white cat
saunters over and sits
on the blue cushion
of my porch chair,
unbidden, like desire.
Or there is the ironically playful tactic – “thumb your nose at it.”
For example, in Kahf’s story “The Girl from Mecca” (in a forthcoming issue of Feminist Studies), three Muslim women embark on a road trip across the United States. When funds dry up and they need help, one woman covers her “Arab Hottie” t-shirt and short-shorts with a hijab and long clothing and approaches a meeting of well-meaning liberals:
The veiled girl seemed unsure. “I—I’m looking for the bus station, sir.” She spoke so softly he had to stoop to pick up what she said. She put on a nice thick Ayrab accent for him, modeled on her parents’ maid.
“She’s looking for the bus station,” the man nodded to more newcomers arriving and glancing sideways at the veiled stranger.
In the Broadway musical or Bollywood version, this is where they’d break out en masse into song and a precision-executed street dance.
“The bus station!
O she’s a Muslim
woman in a veil”
[Back-up singers: “Oppression! Oppression!”]
and sheee’s looking for – the bus station!”
[Back-up singers: “Escape from oppression!”]
By the time the veiled girl finishes her story of oppression by her cruel father and brothers and her complicit mother, she gets a round of supportive applause and the money they know she needs to secure her freedom via Greyhound bus.
In a lighter tone, her poem “E-mail from Scheherazad” presents the renowned storyteller as a resourceful Jersey girl:
E-mail from Scheherazad
Hi, babe. It’s Scheherazad I’m back
For the millennium and living in Hackensack,
New Jersey. I tell stories for a living.
You ask if there is a living in that.
You must remember: Where I come from,
Words are to die for. I saved the virgins
From beheading by the king, who was killing
Them to still the beast of doubt in him.
I told a story. He began to listen and I found
That story led to story. Powers unleashed, I wound
The thread around the pirn of night. A thousand days
Later, we got divorced. He’d settled down
& wanted a wife & not so much an artist.
I wanted publication. It was hardest,
Strangely, on my sister, Dunyazad. She
Was the one who nightly used to start it.
She and my ex do workshops now in schools
On art & conflict resolution. Narrative rules!
I teach creative writing at Montclair State,
And I’m on my seventh novel and book tour.
Shahrayar and I share custody of our little girl.
We split up amicably. I taught him to heal
His violent streak through stories, after all,
And he helped me uncover my true call.
(Reprinted with permission of the University Press of Florida http://www.upf.com/book.asp?id=KAHFXS03)
It is not necessary to pick one perfect response to the Harem Stereotype, Kahf says:
“How about a multi-tactical approach, dodging and feinting, doing the Arab American feminist dance, sometimes playing, sometimes fighting clean, sometimes fighting dirty, sometimes deny deny deny, sometimes utilizing the stereotype for one’s own purpose?”
Mohja Kahf is an associate professor of English in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences.