The Dead Horse
Cairo, August 2014. We are sitting in a rickety old taxi, driving through Cairo’s Shoubra district after a meeting with physician, human rights advocate, feminist and author Nawal El Saadawi (b. 1931). It is Friday afternoon, the air filled with the melancholic and insistent strains from minarets of nearby mosques, of which there are many in this district. The mercury shows 41 degrees Celsius, testing the limits of how much heat one can take, at least those of us who are not used to it. The district is seething, the air is trembling and the time is four p.m. Another arid weekend is in store for this northern part of Cairo, whose population consists of lower-middle and working class Muslims and Coptic Christians. There isn’t a cloud in the sky, but the streets are chaotic, with heaps of rubbish and the leavings of people living at the edge of poverty. A bustling and desperate populace trying to escape their empty wallets. Grayish brown sand dust everywhere. Along the side of the road, the sand lies piled up in small heaps. We have entered a materially poor but culturally rich area along the banks of the Nile. Children and grown men are drifting around in the streets, desperately trying to scrape together some money for their daily bread. We can see it all from our taxi: with its browns and greens, the cityscape is beautiful and at the same time depleted. Something has been put on hold. Is it life itself? The image is amplified by the chaos of a society in resignation and the desperate gazes under the green tree tops along Nasser Street, Shoubra’s main thoroughfare. We exit the district to the south where big luxury hotels are lined up like pearls on a string, though currently almost entirely vacant. The taxi drivers in Shoubra are unfamiliar with the other side of Cairo, whose hotels are designed to look like the crown jewels of Egypt’s bygone golden age. I am absorbing Shoubra with every breath, thinking that I would never have strayed here alone, not even in a local taxi. I would have been easy prey for a criminal. Leaving this part of the city, we experience the real Cairo beneath the surface, behind the image, beyond political correctness. As we exit a tunnel, we see a large black horse lying stretched out on the asphalt. I can tell right away that it must have died of dehydration. I have never seen a dead horse, but I have seen human suffering. The owner left the horse when it drew its last breath after a final carriage ride through the streets of the capital with a few of the Western tourists who are left. Our taxi driver swerves to avoid the animal and gives a slight shake of his head. This is Cairo and Shoubra in 2014, not unlike many other parts of the Middle East. Left behind. To die. Something is left to die all the time, in the heat, in the terror, in desperation and in people’s minds. Cairo is parched, Egypt is parched. The whole Middle East is parched. The horse is dead because it needs water that no one is willing to provide. This urban landscape holds no maternal love or source of growth. But the uninterrupted strains from the minarets carry through our open car windows. Lamenting, complaining, admonishing. Like a cry from the hereafter or a promise of redemption after this life, proclaiming what awaits in paradise. My mouth feels dry, my body is restless, and my hotel is far away. Life as a stopover on the way to the hereafter is definitely not for me.
Even in our day, martyrdom is very much alive in the Middle East. Countries like Egypt are put on hold, ruled by men with absolute power while people forever and desperately try to scrape together a little money. Anything no longer able to earn some
fast cash is left to die in today’s Cairo. The dead horse is merely a symbol of the new Middle East: not the Middle East envisioned during the Arab Spring, but a depleted, desperate, arid and male-dominated region. In the streets, there is practically no sign of women at all, not even in modern Egypt with its parliamentary constitution. Most of them are waiting for their men at home, apathetic, out of touch with themselves and oppressed by their surroundings. It is as if the earth has become too dry for Egyptians to stand on, providing no nourishment and cracking wide open. The unbearable thirst for resources, growth and renewed hope bears with it human suffering, and the population is growing too fast considering what society can provide and offer. It is too dry. Too little water. Too many poor people. A motherless country currently ruled by an appointed general who doesn’t care one bit about his motherland, if we are to believe the reports about Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt and the Western media.
But is it possible to lay all the blame for the economic crisis in today’s Egypt on the henchmen of the dictatorship? In order to understand financial crises around the world, just go to any public men’s toilet to see what it looks like, says Danish author and feminist Suzanne Brøgger. This is what men leave behind without cleaning up. The same goes for Cairo’s streets in 2014.
Either way, Egypt is undergoing financial hardship in 2014, poverty is spreading and there are not enough jobs. The horse that has drawn one of the city’s sightseeing carriages is dead, the owner is left without work and the asphalt boils as hot as the rage of the individual. A society at the breaking point. In large areas of Cairo, ordinary men and women are unable to earn a living anywhere, and tourism is stymied by negative travel advice from European countries. Friday prayer provides a backbone for the population, but doesn’t leave any cash in the till. The city’s streets are conspicuously empty of women, in contrast to the country’s revolutions in 2011 and 2013, when Tahrir Square was teeming with women hungering for freedom, brandishing banners and shouting slogans and paroles. It is the man who represents Egyptian society, women can hold their tongue or scream as much as they like. The man rules like a dictator, or he leaves his horse to die. Darwin is whispering behind the scenes: only the fittest survive.
The Women and Their Countries
We cannot rely upon the silenced to tell us they are suffering.1
The Middle East. Once upon a time ruled by strong, reformist women without a need for dictatorial power. Queen Nefertiti in the 14th century BC, and Queen Cleopatra, Egypt’s last queen a few decades before the birth of Christ (51–30 BC). Over the past hundred years, these two ancient monarchs have been studied, admired and immortalized as works of art in famous European museums, cast and forged into precious metals or lent eternal life on the silver screen. In today’s Middle East, on the other hand, you can buy a package of “Cleopatra” cigarettes for a few paltry Jordanian dinars at a small food shop on the West Bank’s scorching and war-torn Gaza Strip. A symbol that the female powers that once governed Egypt have gone up in smoke?
“Middle East” is a relatively recent term, first firmly established after World War II and inspired by the Middle East conflict and the region’s economic importance as an exporter of oil and gas. The following countries from Libya to the Persian Gulf
comprise the Middle East’s so-called core region: Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Syria and the Palestinian Authority. In addition, the countries of the Arabian Peninsula: Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In choosing the countries represented in this book, it has been my goal to include ten central Middle Eastern nations that illustrate the region’s breadth and diversity in identity, culture and conflict, and that are of relevance to Norway. As a point of current interest, it has also seemed important to highlight the conflict between Palestine and Israel, but mainly from a female perspective. It was my wish to shed an impartial light on the issue by including a representative from both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but here I was outmaneuvered by my first interview subject, Nawal El Saadawi, who refused to contribute to my book if I were to include a woman from Israel. I was quite surprised by this. Addressing the issue in an email to Saadawi to ask her why she had taken this position, I never received an answer. But, as is commonly known, that is also an answer. The less-than-ideal solution was therefore to write about the Israel-Palestine conflict in the chapter on the Palestinian Authority by interviewing PLO spokeswoman, legislator and peace negotiator Hanan Ashrawi, and omitting Israel. As I see it, Saadawi’s reaction is severe and somewhat exaggerated. At the same time, it is interesting and symptomatic of the time we live in and shows the force with which the conflict between these countries has continued to blaze ever since the colonial era and its aftermath.
Thus, I decided not to interview a woman from Israel in order to include Nawal El Saadawi. The reason for this is her unique position in Egypt: you cannot get around Nawal El Saadawi (b. 1931) when writing about influential women in the Middle East in the past 50 years.
I am no expert on the Middle East or its history, but I have learned along the way. My own background is in the humanities and literary science, in which I took a master’s degree at the University of Oslo in 2004. I have written for the Norwegian press for 30 years, and in the past 10 years I have published three books in Norwegian about
women in the world. The first two are anthologies consisting of ten interviews each,2
and the third is a series of conversations with author Camille Paglia.3 I have long experience as a traveling investigative journalist and author, and a good deal of expertise interviewing women around the world for the past 20 years. In 2014, I decided to take another ten deep dives, this time into the fascinating and distressing reality of the Middle East. I wanted to travel the region and meet women who could share inside information about life and living conditions in Egypt, Syria, Iran, Palestine (Palestinian Authority), Jordan, Yemen, Turkey, Iraq, Libya and Saudi Arabia. This is how I planned to investigate the Middle East of our time: from individual to region, and through the words of ten women, each of whom would tell me about her country.
I began by making a selection of the women and countries I wanted to include in my book, based on the following four premises:
1. There must have been attempts at suppressing their voice, meaning that they must have been subject to censorship and punishment for their professional actions or speech.
2. They must have succeeded in breaking this silence, opposing censorship and repression and achieving a significant position in their society and nation, championing women’s rights in particular and human rights in general.
3. Each of them must represent her particular country in our modern definition of
the region we call the Middle East.
4. They must agree to an interview with me and engage in open dialogue, even on topics they might prefer to avoid for reasons of security.
I started with EGYPT, where I could see no better candidate than the 86-year-old physician, psychiatrist, writer and activist Nawal El Saadawi, the “mother” of Egypt, she who has practically lived in Cairo all her life, both on the outskirts and in the center of the city. Saadawi has followed Egypt and its capital through violent changes involving rebellion, civil war, coups and revolution, all the while with men in power. She has lived through, and will soon have survived, six presidents – the sixth, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has been president since 2014. The previous five were President Nasser (1956–1970), President Sadat (1970–1981), President Mubarak (1981–2011), President Mursi (2012–2013) and President Mansour (2013–2014). Saadawi has written 56 works of fiction about the women of Islam and about her own life. With her I was interested in talking about revolution, writing, and the consequences for women’s health in a patriarchal and corrupt society such as Egypt. Saadawi says: “Family law in Egypt is one of the worst family laws in the Arab world. Polygamy. The husband is almighty in the Muslim family.”
From SYRIA, I chose Rafah Nached (b. 1945) who currently lives in exile in Paris. Nached is an author and Syria’s first ever female psychiatrist. With her I wanted to talk about how language and individuals are affected by the state of war and crisis that her ravaged country Syria represents in the world today. She says: “There are only a few Arab men who are able to express our thoughts, our soul as Syrians to the rest of the world. Arabs are nostalgic when it comes to the past and everything that is forever lost.”
From TURKEY, I selected Canan Arin (b. 1942), a family lawyer and women’s activist who throughout her career has devoted her life to the fight against child marriage and violence against women in her native country. Censorship and child marriage are central topics to Turkey, and I have been particularly interested in learning how these issues impact Turkish women today and women’s rights in general. Arin says: “It is particularly difficult for young women in Turkey today … Young girls are forced to marry early because women are not considered human beings, but the property of their men.”
From PALESTINE, it was natural to select lawyer, activist and spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi (b. 1946) to talk about her homeland, which continues to struggle under the ever-present conflict with Israel, and how constant war and hostility make women particularly vulnerable. Ashrawi says: “We cannot be sure that those who are forced into silence will tell us that they are suffering.”
From YEMEN, I selected the women’s activist and human rights advocate Amal Basha (b. 1962) who lives in exile in Egypt. With her I wanted to talk about the “war on humanity” that in my view represents the ongoing conflict in Yemen, and how she believes women can change the soul of the nation. Talking about her homeland Yemen in 2016, Basha says: “Women in this country are not allowed to participate in any constitutional decision-making. They are not considered equal human beings, and they are far from being in the positions they deserve to be in, their education and qualifications taken into account.”
I was convinced that the young law student and peace activist Hajer Sharief (b. 1994) from LIBYA would be the ideal candidate to talk about peace and the future of women in Libya. In autumn 2016, when this book was written, Sharief studied at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences in Ås, near Oslo, on a Norwegian government grant and won the student peace prize, awarded by the Norwegian Students’ and Academics’ International Assistance Fund in February 2017. I wanted to talk to Sharief about her native Libya, about surviving her childhood in Tripoli during the civil war and establishing herself as a young global peace activist, and about what peace means to young women and men today. Sharief says: “Extremely Together (the name of her organization) means that different mindsets pool their resources to work for peace by bringing together people from different origins, backgrounds, religions, perspectives and environments.”
In Erbil, IRAQ, I found peace activist and head of the Women’s Empowerment Organization, 55-year-old Suzan Aref who has dedicated her life to securing work for Iraqi women (widows of the Gulf War) despite their difficult situation. My question to her was how peace and security can be achieved for women in Iraq in years to come, and how her organization specifically contributes to this end. Aref says: “The biggest problem for women in Iraq today is that they still live under men’s dictatorship.”
From JORDAN, I chose journalist, human rights activist, feminist and author Rana Husseini (b. 1968), who for years has worked against honor killings in her homeland, both as a newspaper journalist and a writer. One of the questions I asked her was what happens in a society where a woman’s life is worth less than a man’s honor? Husseini says: “Many of these so-called honor killings we see in Jordan today have nothing to do with family honor. Some women are killed due to inheritance issues while others are killed when their husband gets tired of them.”
From IRAN, it was natural to include the first Muslim woman ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize (2003), Shirin Ebadi (b.1947), a human rights activist and one of the country’s first female lawyers. With her I wanted to talk about censorship and freedom of speech in Iran, and whether there is a common understanding of peace in the world today. She says: “I want to remind you that cemeteries are calm, too. Silence is not worth anything. Silence does not mean peace.” She reminds us that human rights are a “standard that should be a central component of any religion, and of any civilization.”
Finally, from SAUDI ARABIA, I managed to complete my list with Dr. Mehla Ahmed Talebna (b. 1961), Director of Cultural, Social and Family Affairs of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation, the world’s second largest international organization after the UN), an organization also known as The Collective Voice of The Muslim World. My question to her was how to prevent the future rise of extremism and terrorism in Arab countries and thus forestall the inevitably resulting Islamophobia. Ahmed Talebna says: “Ironically, terrorist groups like Daesh (better known as ISIS) and far-right extremist groups in the West spur each other on with the help of negative media campaigns. Here at the OIC, we are keen to oppose far-right extremism and fight terrorist groups like Daesh.”
A Common Thread
One of the most striking shortcomings in Arab societies is that we are not accustomed to examine critically and think over the values that we have inherited from past generations, and particularly those related to women, sex and love. Many people think that these values have descended upon us from the Heavens whereas in fact they are no more than the reflections of patriarchal and class society, where one class rules
over another, and where man rules over woman.4
There is no doubt that we must continue to fight for women’s rights on a global scale. And we must also sustain a common thread from former feminist-minded women and activists of the Arab Spring into the dry seasons of our own time. It is a sad but readily proven fact that women are more oppressed than ever. Women are left without an education and are stigmatized and shunned in much of today’s Middle East. And the situation does not seem to improve. The majority of women in the region have power neither over themselves, their lives, their own time or their communities. A new rebellious wave for women’s rights must sweep over the Third World and the Middle East, and we must contribute to it. It is a necessity we can’t afford not to believe in. Women must be educated, employed and contribute as landowners, both in a symbolic and concrete material sense. In 2017, women own as little as 12 percent of the world’s land area, the rest is owned by men, and governments across the world still use the category “women and other minorities” as a low-priority item in their national budgets. This helps ensure that even today women remain underprivileged citizens and second-rate human beings in a global world.
And that is why books about women in the Middle East continue to be written. Because we have not heard enough about Arab and Muslim women, their suffering, hardship and lack of rights and just treatment in their own countries, societies and families, to react constructively and give them our support. We have not heard enough, much is yet to be said and written, many silent voices have yet to be raised. Throughout the past years, newspaper articles, films and TV documentaries have given us a “peek behind the veil” into the lives and homes of many women from the Arab world and their individual destinies. But that is not enough. They are forgotten too soon. The images of suffering that mainly affects women and children in these countries are flickering past our eyes in virtually every news broadcast and on all the other screens that demand our attention around the clock. We see the human slaughter in Syria and Yemen, in the latter case with a large share of Norwegian weapons that exterminate the local population and level all life with the ground, we see nations falling apart and left without a shred of national identity, we see Northern Iraq, the country of widows and young fatherless sons, under siege and attacked by ISIS’ bombs, we see refugees in the Mediterranean, their suffering incomprehensible, cynically referred to by some as “planted migration,” and we see the suicide bombers on the Gaza Strip and the ever-explosive conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people on the West Bank. But we have to persevere, because there will be more. It is always darkest just before dawn. The British writer and Middle East expert Paul Danahar calls the time we live in “the collapse of the Old Middle East” (The New Middle East, Bloomsbury, 2013, p. 19). The new Middle East is still looming far in the distance.
We must help it along. This book is a contribution.
History and Gender
Sexual difference is probably the issue in our time which could be our “salvation” if we thought it through.5
Men often write about the Middle East in historical time, also called linear time, by structuring the events of world history through sequentially and directly descending periods and epochs like beads on a string. They tend to analyze empires, wars and nations in retrospect by beginning with the here-and-now and narrating backwards in linear time to understand a given phenomenon or topic. Or vice versa, by beginning with an early age, a historic event such as a war, and spinning their narrative linearly in year-by-year chronological order. Men tend to wield their pen with relative freedom as natural spokesmen for their time, whose overview and influence allows them to see themselves as the begetters of their age. They write about coup d’états in regions like the Middle East with their historic pens, and they write about men. The appendices of their books hardly mention a single woman. Conflict, war, the fall of empires, nation building and attempts at cooperation and democracy have always been fascinating topics for authors with a background in academia. Historical contours are outlined, one’s own understanding and analysis serving as the underlying fuel. This is how men successfully write themselves into the history of the Middle East, positioning themselves by rewriting world history over and over again. But there are also women who write themselves into the history of the Middle East in this way. In Norway, authors such as professor of history at the University of Oslo, Hilde Henriksen Waage, writes in a male tradition in terms of topics and target audience in her book Conflict and Great Power Politics in the Middle East (Konflikt og stormaktspolitikk i Midtøsten, Cappelen Damm 2013).
Women who write about the Middle East usually do not adopt the same linear approach to their subject matter as men. To speak with Simone de Beauvoir, they are more “particular” in form and more cyclical in their topics by pointing to a circle of events, developments and discoveries. Their books often lean more toward journalism, and their topics are more focused on individuals, areas or specific cases, often dealing with war, terror, human rights or travel/documentary. In Norway,
notable authors are Sidsel Wold,6 Åsne Seierstad,7 Åshild Eidem,8 Kristin Solberg,9 Hege Storhaug10 and Cecilie Hellestveit.11
In writing about the Middle East, the art is to reconcile linear and cyclical time and to build a bridge between male and female in form and in content. In this way, the message can also reach women’s potential for influence in the region. If we write about women who are able to change history and the world, the fact that she is capable of precisely that can quickly become reality. She is part of history and the cycle all life depends on. She exists in linear and in cyclical time, as an individual and as a member of society. Much has been written about the suffering of women in the Middle East. We have heard the women’s stories, both in their own words and those of others. We have seen their tears and felt their pain. Each generation has put forward these women to “open our eyes” to the Arab and Muslim world and its betrayal of women, founded on an awareness of a rigid and to all appearances immutable patriarchal and inherited Arab Muslim culture. And we also like to blame religion and
Islamic fundamentalism for everything that has gone wrong, including the situation for women. But perhaps we are forgetting that Islam, as it is practiced in many Middle Eastern societies today, is more of an ideology than a religion.
This is not a book that discusses religion. And why not? First and foremost, because half of my interviewees refused to talk about Islam. It is too risky for their own personal safety, not a difficult position to understand considering the sheer number of inmates in Arab prisons today due to their views, writings, or for being too outspoken.
Half a Human Being?
I raise up my voice – not so I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.12
The women in this region live their lives in cultures whose ambivalence and contempt for the female body goes hand in hand with their rejection of women as individuals and equal human beings. But this is not a book trying to ride the wave of sympathy for the oppressed lives of Middle Eastern women. It is a book which asks why oppression exists where it exists, and which searches for new solutions. It is also a book which asks how the Middle East is being portrayed and depicted today, what consequences this has for the position of women in society, and what it takes to promote new laws and reforms that benefit women and all people in the region. Therefore, we must also dare to ask critical questions about coverage of the Middle East in Western media. The region has become a tale of woe for them and for us, but this is a far too one-sided perspective. It is no secret that the media are also bought and paid. We cannot be blind to what actually takes place once the TV cameras have been turned off and the journalists no longer are on site. Because a change is taking place for women in the Middle East, even if it is happening step by step and often with two steps forward and one back. In 2014, for example, the young Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai received the Nobel Peace Prize for her personal courage and her global work and commitment for the right to compulsory education for all girls. At the age of 14, Malala was shot on the bus on her way to school one morning after having criticized the Taliban on her blog. We must never stop calling attention to those who use their (young) lives to work for women’s rights and for peace in the Middle East. Writing about them is only a beginning.
Never have there been as many international meetings and conferences with seminars, lectures and workshops in the name of Arab and Muslim women as during the past few decades. Our global and Western responsibility as citizens of the world is nurtured by these types of social, political and cultural events, but our genuine and compassionate involvement needs something more to grow. It is not enough to see women wearing a hijab, niqab or abaya in politically correct panels all across the world. We must see her face and hear her words, and we must always ask her where the real problem lies.
Is there such a thing as a common thread leading from the rebellious years of Western feminism in the 1970s, through the time of upheaval for European women in the ‘80s and ‘90s, all the way to today’s perhaps somewhat self-satisfied eagerness to present ourselves to “Third World” women and their “misery and difficult circumstances”? I am not quite sure, but I really wonder where my fellow feminists from the ‘70s were when the story of Arab and Muslim women was meant to be written. Because the
revolution is alive, but not in our Western reality. Books, newspaper articles and lectures with different views set the agenda on women’s rights all across the world. The focus is on the “victims,” those fleeing across the Mediterranean, the young women who have been mutilated and married away, subjected to violence, torture and discrimination. But where are all those who have not been victimized? Where are the empowered women in the region? Not everything we are served by the media typifies today’s Middle East, far from it, but we are indoctrinated to believe so. Images, as we all know, are powerful.
The liberal radicals of the ‘70s have definitely left the barricades and pulled up the ladder. Behind them, younger generations of socially engaged women have followed. Their leanings are far more moderate or environmental, they are politically correct and have a personal interest in the Middle East and in Arab life and culture. With a global eye, they explore the culture of these desert countries in the spirit of feminism from a contemporary point of view: sexism, male dominance, patriarchy, loss and lack of women’s rights, and the religious influence of different environments. We write about what offends us most, where open wounds are bleeding and where events shock us into waking up. As writers and feminists, we are the eyes and ears of our time and thereby align ourselves with generations of truth-seeking feminists before us. But our vision is blurred by all the images flickering by – it can be difficult to make out the individual among all the women and children in need. We have a new region at which to wield our pen, a region that actually does not exist: the Middle East, a cluster of nations concocted by the colonial powers after World War I, especially Britain and France. As writers, we have happily embraced this redefinition of the region and allowed ourselves to be shocked (“deeply concerned,” cf. Kerry), distressed and frightened in order to be able to analyze the region from our Western viewpoint. But it is easy to forget this particular viewpoint. For those living in the Middle East, the name by which we refer to the region does not even exist. Here, it is commonly known as Northeast Africa or Southwest Asia in recent history, the Near Orient or Near East in days gone by, and Asia Minor in ancient times.
A Global Specter
Woman must put herself into the text – as into the world and into history – by her own movement.13
When we are gathering for a workshop in Oslo on a cold, gray November morning in 2014, we become all too alike in our sisterhood, the room is getting too hot and the red plastic chairs turn softer under our weight as we sit there hour after hour. What we are forgetting, is that our very diverse cultures have been shaped by centuries of inherited differences which we may not be able to bridge, as much as we would like to do so in order to show our solidarity and understanding.
Why all this engagement now for women living far south of Europe, in the Middle East and the Arab regions? Is there any point at all when everything seems to be going in the wrong direction anyway? We honor those whose suffering has no end, we welcome a flood of refugees each year, giving them dignity in the form of shelter and housing, and through our silent acceptance and support in meeting all these women from another part of the world. Many of them are worthy representatives for freedom of expression who give of themselves and tell us about human rights violations, devastating social and political injunctions and lack of equal rights before the law in
their homelands. The question is: when will we get enough of this overwhelming and enveloped debris of human dignity without becoming immune and indifferent as listeners and spectators? I am one of those who have worn down more than one seminar chair over the years at different universities and in various forums, listening, observing and trying to digest and follow the stories about “Arab reality,” telling of abuse, torture and injustice against women. And it never ends. In 2017, the violence against women is on a steady rise. This year, just as in the years before, three women are killed in the Middle East every day, six years after hope briefly flickered across the desert lands during the Arab Spring. As a rule, these killings occur either within the privacy of the home or on the run from violent husbands and/or male family members who feel they have been defamed. In this part of the world, the term woman also applies to children, young girls as young as eight or nine years of age who are considered adults and ready for marriage when they get their first period.
This is not meant to be a history of suffering in the Arab countries. Nor is it meant to be a “story of hope” for all the women who are marginalized in the world. It is a series of narratives in a female spirit with “feet in the sand” about the challenges of life and society, of courage and will, and of fairness between genders and nations in today’s Middle East. In my opinion, equality between men and women is the most interesting topic in today’s Arab world, and in the Middle East in particular. Equality between men and women, or its lack, has never been more important than today. And that is why we persevere: because equality is a human right, not least in the balance between the sexes. That is why we must make our way through even more rugged terrain for women’s rights, because we need to write and talk about human dignity and what happens when equality between men and women is violated and challenged, or silenced by society and the family. It is an undeniable fact that half of society is made up of women, the other half of men. Rights and reforms must be our top priority, it is often said, but what about the value of human life and the fairness between the sexes? Should this not come first and be carved into the parenting programs of every Muslim and Arab family? Without equality and justice as a moral imperative in the cerebral cortex of (Arab) men from the time they are born, no reform for women’s rights can come about for good. We need laws that can be firmly implanted in the minds of men and take root in new generations of men and women to launch a new age.
The importance of equality between genders and countries is what I wanted to write about in this book. For amidst the deafening call for rights, freedom of speech, legislative reforms, equality and respect or lack of respect for women, it is easy to forget the principle of value and justice: she and he as equally valuable entities in a world where violence, war, threats and terror must be coped with. Our fight for equality and women’s rights must never lead us to forget the more moral principle of value and justice. It is basically wrong, of course, to have to demand rights for women at all, they should be a matter of course in any world. But we must also acknowledge the man. We must see each other as two different sexes, only then will dialogue be possible, only then will peace negotiations and solid new reforms find their form, including negotiations in the “battle” between man and woman. And the best way to talk about women is by also talking about the man and his nature and culture. We have to better incorporate both sexes into our understanding of the modern Arab world as part of our own. We have to look at society as a common arena where both male and female forces play out on different levels, and we must never assign the role of enemy or opponent to one gender before the other.
This, then, is a book about gender, identity and human value in the Middle East, about ten nations and their women, represented by ten of those who have succeeded and
who work for their country and for other women in the region. Their aim is to find new solutions for unity, development, freedom of expression and peace. It takes a great woman to bring about genuine change in history, because it also requires the ability to view time in a cyclical perspective, to realize that time is circular, like the seasons, and that all growth is based on this cycle. Furthermore, women are bearers of language and life. They give birth, they feed and they nurture where everything else is as dry, dead and desolate as a desert landscape.