At the age of twenty-three, second-year doctoral student Joanne S. Frye married an emotionally difficult German professor who was a decade her senior. There were frustrations in their marriage early on, but it wasn’t until the arrival of their first child that their relationship was thrown into complete disarray. Since her husband was the one who worked outside of the home, she was expected to keep the house clean and do all of the child rearing and housekeeping.
In theory, she was fine with it at first. But the realities of this division of labor soon manifested themselves: she was expected to give up her office space for the nursery; he was not. She was expected to put domestic labor above her doctoral research; he became furious if anyone interrupted his research. She was expected to be selfless; he complained bitterly if he had to do anything domestic on “his time.”
By the time their second child arrived, the marriage was hanging on by a frayed thread, and it was becoming increasingly obvious to Frye that, for her own well-being and that of her daughters, she could no longer continue in this manner. Making a difficult decision, she left her husband with her two young daughters in tow, choosing to focus on her own needs for once and forge her life as a single mother.
Arab and Arab American Feminisms, edited by Rabab Abdulhadi, Evelyn Alsultany, and Nadine Naber, is a book I wish every feminist/womanist would pick up. Though it is mostly academic in nature, the book is also interspersed with personal anecdotes and poetry that revolve around the book’s focus on Arab and Arab American feminists’ experiences. The book addresses a plethora of issues regarding to Orientalism, sexism, U.S. imperialism, homophobia, and transphobia. Each of the authors illustrate the need for addressing all of these things overlapping, rather than separate, issues. More importantly, though the book embraces the important work done by radical feminists of color, it also turns the feminist “sisterhood is global” motto on its head, positing that “there is no universal woman’s experience.”
The book’s thirty-two essays are split into five sections: Living with/in Empire: Grounded Subjectivities; Defying Categories: Thinking and Living Out of the Box; Activist Communities: Representation, Resistance, and Power; On Our Own Terms: Discourses, Politics, and Feminisms; and Home and Homelands: Memories, Exile, and Belonging. From the outset, the book’s contributors illustrate the dangers of conflating experiences and identities into neat categories. The introduction alone explains just how much the dominant U.S. discourse erases the experiences of those who fall into the categories of “Arab” and “Muslim”:
[This discourse] assumes that all Arabs are Muslim, all Muslims are Arab, and all Muslim Arabs are the same. It obscures the existence of Arabs who are not Muslim (including, but not limited to, Christians and Jews) and Muslims who are not Arab (including Indonesians, Malaysians, Chinese South Asians, Africans, African Americans, and Latinos/as). It also erases the historic and vast ethnic communities who are neither Arab nor Muslim but who live amid and interact with a majority of Arabs or Muslims.
By ignoring this diversity and conflating all of these identities under the umbrella of “Arab” or “Muslim,” it becomes much easier for the mainstream U.S. discourse to espouse detrimental stereotypes. As a result, Arab and Muslim feminists find themselves always starting from scratch. They are frequently met with resistance and end up spending their time and energy on dismantling these stereotypes instead of addressing important issues affecting their communities. Many of the contributors wrote of personal experiences where they were delivering speeches or presenting papers at conferences, only to be met with silence or rude, off-topic comments–often based on stereotypes–during the Q & A session. The frequency of blatantly racist comments in an academic setting was alarming.
In 1889, a short book by an anonymous author made waves in Iran. Published at a time when European values were beginning to challenge traditional Iranian values, The Education of Women served to educate women about what their roles at home and in society should be. A book called The Vices of Men was written in response to the ridiculous demands that The Education of Women called for.
Originally published in Persian, this edition is the first time the books have been translated in English. The translators, Hasan Javadi and Willem Floor, worked to preserve the informal, humorous tone of the book. Following the two books, Javadi includes a fascinating essay about the history of satire in Persian literature that gives The Education of Women and The Vices of Men more context.
You know you’re in for a real treat when an author explains that he realized the need for such a guide upon the death of his wife:
Eleven years of my dear life were wasted until she died because she did not have a good temper, which is a requirement of womanhood…I thought that I was the only man who had to cope with a shrewish wife and that no one else had suffered from the same problem. But I did not know that humankind is the same and that this affliction is common to all, except women.
The author proceeds to instruct women on proper behavior, talking about everything from how to sit at the table to how to act in the bedroom. The book is written in flowery language, and several of his examples are ridiculously over-the-top and portray women as little more than uncivilized animals. A few of my favorite gems:
She must not be without eye shadow and must use rouge, but not excessively, so that her face will look natural, not like the red bottom of monkeys.
She should take each piece daintily and avoid bad-smelling or flatulent dishes so that her belching, either from above or below, occur not together; it does not make any difference whether it is the smell of radish or cabbage or wind from the belly.
Some men are infatuated with vulgar concubines. This is why the wife should not act so haughtily. She should be ready whenever the husband wants her and in whatever manner, even if she is in the restroom or the vestibule of the house. Whenever husbands ask for such women, these women are always ready, wherever it happens to be.
When you go to the restroom, you have no choice but to put up with bad smell, and there is no escape from it. But sitting with your wife should not be life going to the restroom, and her breath should not be like its smell.
Total charmer, no?