I came into this world a woman: Before the Syrian revolution
I don’t deny that I sometimes forget I’m a woman, busy as I am with writing, life and fretting daily over my country, caught between the millstones of death. For a long while after I began writing I ignored the fact I was a woman. The male-oriented education I had received alienated me from my gender and I felt inferior for being a female, while the female role models on the literary and media scene did not appeal to me: they weren’t my dream.
My dreams were masculine. I identified with men; I was one of them: Sartre, Nietzsche and Hegel, then Kafka and Proudhon and finally, in the period before my feminist awakening, Dostoevsky, Kundera and many other names besides—all men. In my private life I met many great women, but none were stars on the page or screen and so, back then, I had no sense of their greatness because my evaluations of others were linked to what they had written.
As a child, my library was crammed with works by Camus, Sartre and Colin Wilson; I grew up a male and it was with them that I identified. Perhaps unconsciously I loathed what I was: a woman.
Nawal Saadawi’s writing was new to me. This monologic discourse repelled me and I did not relate to it. I did not read Ghada Al Samman or any of the other Arab women authors, even the men whose writings left me cold with their narcissism and intellectual immaturity in search of an identity—of a uniqueness, perhaps…
Growing up I was suddenly confronted by social taboos. Others, I discovered, did not see me as I saw myself. I did not treat myself, or present myself to other people, as a woman, but these others, with the stroke of a pen (it seems a fitting idiom to use), would condemn me in the box marked “woman” and unleash their contempt and disrespect.
In a minibus taxi in Aleppo, a young man tried to molest me and when I told him off—as a creature who was his equal, not inferior to men—he said, in a threatening tone that frightened me: “Shut it or I’ll beat you in front of everybody.”
I shut up, a victim, and took fright. At that moment, I realized that I was a woman and that my body, not my mind, was my identity in the societies of the East. Day after day, the barriers rose higher before me, and all because I was a woman. I was denied many opportunities because I had a woman’s body, a body, it was believed, that contained a mind different to those of men.
Retracing my steps (another cliché) back to the world of women I found myself a stranger amongst them. For in the environment where I lived women are dictionaries unto themselves, quite different to the worlds of the men that raised me: my fathers. I had many fathers: Sartre, my spiritual father; my biological father; Khaled, my intellectual father; and more...
I found myself a stranger in the world of women: temptresses, men’s conquerors through guile and intuition and a host of other qualities I did not understand. Flustered, I set out to find a place for myself, and a (male) friend told me: A real woman sleeps with dozens of men, without any of them finding out. You’re too transparent. My men friends assessed a woman’s femininity by her ability to torment men and I was far from the ideal tormentor: through reading and educating myself I believed in equality with others and in respecting them. Clarity was my motto in life, and I ended up being charged with a lack of femininity. Me, a woman raised on scepticism, on Descartes, Nietzsche and rational thought—how could I be a woman that held fast to a femininity that hinted but never spoke its mind, that flirted and toyed, came close, backed off...? Boys younger than me taught me the lessons: Make him dance, but keep him on the string… And I would fail.
Attempting to make my way back to men I discovered their hypocrisy, too; hypocrisy that—with a few exceptions—sought out a liberated female companion, a sister or a wife, who would appear before no one else.
I threw up my hands. I am no double-dealing man, no dissembling woman. I am a writer. I took refuge in narrative and there began to reassess those women I had previously ignored. And I wrote.
Now, I have no intention of discussing the portrayal of women in my novels, nor of talking about Daughters of the Wilderness, the novel that was like my artistic manifesto in which I announced that I had become a woman, where once I had turned away from my sex in the belief that writing has nothing to do with a writer’s gender.
I’m not much of a feminist, but when I write—writing being one of the cornerstones of my identity—I take the side of the victim, of the weaker party, and it is always clear to me in this respect that, by and large, the woman is the weaker party though it is not always man who grinds her down.
Marquez said that he was born to tell stories and I believe that every novelist holds this truth within them. I, too, was born to tell stories, but note well: I was born a woman, and I left my country because I am a woman, and had I been man I would have borne at most half the hardship I have seen as a woman. To be a woman means doubled pain: once as a human being and once again as a woman.
At the age I am now, I do not believe in writing being gendered, but as I write a beautiful voice rings out: the voice of my grandmother, of the women who have passed away, of those who remain, tortured, detained, afraid; a choir deep within me who sing out as I write and, reeling through my texts, hold myself steady with the fact that I, like them, am a woman.
The revolution as a woman: When the spring breeze reached Syria
When the revolution in Syria began, I went there in the same capacity: as a woman broaching new spaces and feeling them out with her interior antenna… a blend of biological instinct and knowledge acquired from a lifetime of reading and theoretical experience.
I engaged with the revolution as a woman. A woman who believed in her role, not as a functionary within the systems of political parties, associations or the major faiths, but spontaneously entering into the warp and weft of others’ experience: of pain, injustice, rebellion, liberty…
The revolution moves into its fourth year, and day-by-day the tide of blood and death and destruction rises.
A woman… sorry: I mean a revolution—one many dreamed of: a fair-minded, beautiful girl sweeping away a history of injustice, discrimination and enforced despair, rendered each day into a corpse to arise the next, hope clutched in her hand.
A woman… sorry: I mean a revolution—one that knows it must walk through a minefield laid against its dearest hopes, through a crowd of men each one trying to veil it, conceal it, guide it, as though it were his lawful, wedded wife.
Jihad, Islamization, militarization, all with their carefully defined goals and agendas. The revolution is passed from hand to hand, from slogan to slogan; it slips and slides through and past these warring camps and emerges untouched, leaping from crossing to crossing, from barrier to barrier, from one ideological prison to another, head held high and on its lips: I am the revolution; I am not like you.
Many men claim to be its protector, to represent it and uphold its legitimacy and are aided and abetted in this by women, while the revolution’s daughters suffer and are violated. But the revolution… sorry, the woman, who knows and understands the idiocies of her children, legitimate and illegitimate alike—the ones who batter on her door and cry that they are hers—she opens the door to all, for woman… sorry, revolution, rejects discrimination.
This is her emotional side, her weakness perhaps, which prevents her from shutting the door against those that come, meaning well, or ill, to help her. Today, she is woman, woman within revolution: this is the precise formulation, the formulation that conveys her justice and righteousness.
Any revolutionary that does not respect woman is not deserving of the revolution’s glory. Anyone who tries to remove woman or shut out her voice, is against them both, woman and revolution together.
Whoever abducts women is against them both; whoever hinders women from obtaining what is theirs by right, who throws them crumbs from the table to make up for their loss, is an enemy to both woman and revolution.
When woman is in trouble, the revolution is in trouble, society is in trouble, man is in trouble. Woman is the revolution’s rock. The revolution is in trouble if woman is in trouble: woman is the touchstone.
The revolution is in trouble while Samira Khalil, Razan Zeitouneh and many other women and men are locked up by those who claim that they are the revolution’s children. The two women were abducted on December 10, 2013 by an anonymous group of armed men who raided the Violations Documentations Centre in the Damascus satellite city of Douma. They snatched the two activists along with two of their male colleagues—Wael Zeitouneh (Razan’s husband) and Nazim Hamadi—whose fates are still unknown to this day.
This is what revolution is, like the history of women: enemies raise alien slogans, hiding behind them to achieve their goals, while the revolution, or woman, remains the least of their concerns.
The same is true throughout the schizophrenic history of men: men who defend the rights of women to whom they have no biological or legal ties, batter these same rights about their own homes to assert the fact that they are in charge.
Some men whitewash their own black records with a magic cleaning fluid called “women’s issues”. And so in the revolution we also find those who try to conceal the dark stains that mar their thoughts, behaviour and intentions, with the occult bleach called revolution.
That which cannot be feminized cannot be relied upon. Revolutions that cannot be feminized can only become battlefields and mutual slaughter. Revolution fares well if the woman within it fares well. The revolution fares well when we all bow our heads before women and hold their image aloft, as other nations have done. The French, for instance, still raise Marianne aloft, unwavering, more powerful than the portraits of their leaders. Marianne, embodiment of the French republic, the bonneted woman whose statues and paintings feature during state celebrations, who stands on equal footing with the flag. Though the choice of name remains a mystery, Marie-Anne was a very popular first-name in the seventeenth century and often used as shorthand for “the people”. Under the revolution, Marianne came to symbolize liberty and the republic. She became the inspiration for a number of artworks, such as Eugene Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.
The revolution is a woman. Free, she has no need for fathers, guides or leaders. She needs children, working with love and faith for change and to champion women (in particular) and mankind.
The spring, women and culture
Last year, in May 2013, I participated in a forum that was part of a cultural demonstration, itself one the events put on to mark the founding of PEN in Lebanon, a series of celebrations organized in cooperation with PEN International and with the support of the Hay Festival. The discussion at the forum revolved around the Arab revolutions and women.
What was said about women’s rights seems almost self-indulgent now in light of current events in Syria: like trying to save a book from a building that’s burning down around the ears of its inhabitants. I emphasized that I was against the militarization of the revolution and against Islamist groups coming to power because I was sure they would repeal what little gains women had made. I said it is only possible to talk of women’s rights in times of peace, that women themselves might find themselves the losers in both war and peace. I laid out the levels of despotism in Arab society, saying that Arab societies are deeply despotic and this despotism in our countries is complex, like sedimentary layers. If you peel back political despotism you encounter religious despotism. Remove that and familial despotism lies exposed. Wheels within wheels, most of them borne by woman who, like man, is the victim of every one of these layers but in the end is the victim of man’s despotism, too—no matter that he himself might have been victim of an earlier phase of oppression. It is as thought woman dwells in a field of barbed wire fences. Ultimately, woman is the greatest loser, loser in peace and war alike. Now, as revolutions take place around them, revolutions in which they do not have the option to take up arms (principally because most women are against it, though this is a deep and thorny issue related to research into women’s instinctively peaceful tendencies and to their predilection for family, home life, familiarity and the processes of non-confrontational, rational change), women do not surrender but pursue their non-violent struggle within the interlocking circles of violence.
A discussion about violence carried out by all parties does not for one second mean we are equating perpetrator and victim, but it does entail forcing women to enter a fight that is not her fight in her capacity as a citizen and equal partner who enters politics, civil society or aid work and pays, in the process, double the price paid by men. In the end, in the view of the overwhelming majority, she is object and symbol, never an independent entity. In wartime, she is a hostage, in peacetime she is the family honour: in both she is a symbol laden with generalized values and never a person unto herself. Women is the daughter, the honour and the shame, first of the family, then of the tribe, then of the neighbourhood, then of the country.
Women caught up in the revolution are not immediately concerned with their rights. Of course, a few small efforts being made by the women’s collectives and associations that work to document and monitor the situation of women in Syria and the violations of their rights, but given the mass killings and massacres such efforts seem unrealistic.
Woman is the loser because she sets her rights aside, because she joins with men in a revolution, which she believes will secure her rights as a citizen and the concept of citizenship itself; which will, necessarily, guarantee her these rights and equal standing. But all that is just theory, because the reality is that revolutions in neighbouring countries have ushered in dictatorial regimes, dictatorial regimes of a different stamp—but religious dictatorship is no less dangerous and abusive to women than political dictatorship. Syrian women did not take to the streets in support of Sharia councils or the implementation of Islamic punishments—they took to the streets for the sake of contemporary, civil concepts: for justice and equality.
Then there is social tyranny, where women suffer male authoritarianism: the dictates of brother, husband, neighbour’s son or cousin. All these men have rights over woman, because she carries their honour and their shame. There is no post-oppression: after today’s tyranny there is always another to come.
The deepest layer of the tyranny that women must battle with is that of the reactionary man, the shadow man inside every Eastern male that prevents him admitting woman as his equal. Women’s attendance at political and cultural conferences is tokenistic. Deep down all men think woman is less than him, that she needs his advice, and there are women that identify with this male mind-set, who oppress women and subscribe, with subconscious inferiority, to the idea of man as protector, who huddle round men and reap the benefits: contentment, protection, a sense of security.
Because woman is responsible for honour, and because all men have the right to intervene in her affairs to protect this honour, what happens is that even those women who have risen up against the regime—once the regime’s power has been broken—collide with religious and patriarchal authority. This is what happened to Samira Khalil and Razan Zeitouneh, who fought against the regime and political despotism, only to become some of the first victims of the religious-patriarchal revolution that, indistinguishable from the regime, stifled their freedom and locked them away.