‘I Killed Scheherazade’ and the meaning of womanhood

I rarely find any new books written by feminist authors at my public library in Frederick, Maryland, so I was surprised to see I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman, by Joumana Haddad, a Beirut-based poet, journalist and editor of JASAD magazine, the first erotic magazine published in Arabic for women. I immediately grabbed Haddad’s slim, 160-page manifesto/political diatribe off the shelf and I haven’t given it back yet.

I Killed Scheherazade is lyrical, angry, passionate and in-your-face. In seven short chapters, Haddad is intent on challenging the image of submissive, veiled and oppressed Arab womanhood that is ubiquitous in the West. Unafraid and unapologetic, she talks about writing erotic poetry and about the body, religion, war and most importantly – what it means to be an Arab woman. Haddad challenges and redefines her Western and Arab readers’ gendered expectations of Arab womanhood, as emblematic of Scheherazade, the compromising Persian queen and storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights.

I haven’t returned I Killed Scheherazade yet because I love what Haddad says about what it means to be a woman, and I’ve included the long passage below (bold emphasis is mine). It’s uneasy for me when I come across any author musing on “what it means to be a woman” because it often reeks of gender essentialism, some abstract female spirituality or it privileges a particular type of woman (heterosexual, cisgender) and ignores the complexity and range of gender and sex.

Haddad stakes her feminism in a particular type of womanhood and femininity that doesn’t fall into the trap of gender essentialism. The womanhood she describes is based upon an authentic sense of self and independence. It requires women to be and want to be (an important distinction) what has always been expected and encouraged of men and masculinity – unapologetic autonomy and self-determination.

While this idea is not new (see the early writings of liberal feminists), Haddad captures it beautifully and calls for modern Arab (and non-Arab) women to be true to who they are and to not lose themselves. A radical call to action, no matter what kind of woman you are in the world. Read below:

“Is there anything more magnificent than a woman insisting on winning her battles whilst remaining a woman? Personally, I don’t think there is. In fact, the worst thing that can happen to a woman, in the midst of the struggle that she is waging for her rights, in order to gain respect, and to prove her ability to undertake any job and find a place for herself in society – particularly in Third World societies – is for her to forget that she is a woman; to lose the woman inside her.

…I say this because some Arab (and non-Arab) women believe that this battle for equality demands giving up their femininity. But I don’t need to look like a man to be a strong woman. And I don’t need to be against men to be pro-women. 

Again: what does it mean for a woman to be a woman? It does not mean of course the banality of wearing skirts, putting on makeup, and growing long hair. It does not mean transforming her body into a piece of meat. In fact, and despite my firm belief that each person is free to do whatever he/she deems suitable with his/her body, I find the ‘piece of meat’ female prototype as humiliating and as degrading as the veiled one. Both annul the woman’s genuine entity, which goes beyond treating her body as merchandise, or as temptation to wipe her away with a black eraser.

Thus, a woman being a woman means for her to be, and to want to be, herself, and not anyone else’s self. And especially not the man’s self: the man-father’s self, the man-husband’s, the man-lover’s, the man-brother’s or man-son’s.

It means that a woman must sustain this SELF, her personal self, with her guts, and her unconscious, and her body and her mind, fearlessly, without panic, or wariness, or taboo, or shame, or any other internal or social obstacles, whether visible or not.

It means that she sustains all this without worrying whether a man will approve of her, and her success, or judge her failure. It means that she takes, instead of waiting to be given. For a woman is her own sole expert, and her own guide to herself. She is the only reference on her body, and her spirit, and her essence. Neither the religious radicals who want her absent should have a say on this, nor the superficially radical who want to turn her into an object in a store window.” 

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