Thursday, May 5, 2011

"Finding Nouf" by Zoe Ferraris

I have not finished reading "Finding Nouf" but I feel compelled to comment not so much on the novel, which so far I am enjoying, as on the cultural milieu it presents.  Zoe Ferraris was at one time married to a Saudi-Palestinian-Bedouin and lived in Saudi Arabia with her husband's extended family.  I am relieved to read on the book jacket that she now lives in San Francisco, no longer with said husband.

What this book gives is a stark picture of how women in Saudi Arabia are forced to live.  This may be the 21st century, but so far as Saudi women are concerned it might as well be the fourteenth.  Here are just some of the things a good Muslim woman in Saudi Arabia may not do: leave her home unescorted by a male relative, show her face to men outside her family, vote, drive, enter a government building by the same entrance as the men, have sex outside marriage, leave the country without her father's or husband's written permission.  If a man has completed his ablutions before praying but sees a woman before he actually begins to pray, he must do his ablutions again, as he has seen something unclean.

Forcing women to follow these strict rules, often on pain of death, is more than just wrong; it is abominable.  The Arab world needs a women's liberation movement.  I am a student of the Victorian age, and part of its fascination for me lies in the roles played by women, from prostitutes in the Haymarket to pampered aristocrats without rights to property or their own children.  Girls today have, I believe, little notion what generations of women before them had to fight to overcome.  In my own girlhood I remember being told by my mother that I shouldn't necessarily make good grades, or if I did to keep quiet about it for fear of putting the boys off.  There were so many things girls couldn't do that boys could.  They may seem trivial, but to a young woman with an independent spirit the restrictions seemed arbitrary, unfair, and demeaning.  When I was in college, we had a dress code: no pants or shorts to be worn to class or in the library; a 10:30 curfew on weekdays, 12:00 on weekends; no leaving campus overnight without parental permission.  I was not allowed to phone a boy or visit him in his home, with rare exceptions.  In college, men were not allowed above the first floor of the dorm and its public rooms.  It amuses me to recall that because there was no privacy, couples kissed and groped each other in full view of whoever was around.  We were used to ignoring the semi-orgy that occurred each night on the porch before the doors were locked. 

Obviously, these restrictions were designed to prevent unsanctioned sex, and where very young girls are involved such restrictions are, of course, acceptable.  But when grown women are discouraged from getting a full education, have their husbands chosen for them, or are restricted in their movements, something is very wrong.  Cultural differences can be charming and should be celebrated.  The Japanese tea ceremony is lovely; Native American dancing can be exciting; French cuisine is rightly celebrated.  Customs, diet, dress, music and art--differences here make the world a more colorful place.  Making virtual slaves of half the population is not colorful; it is cruel.  When I was a child, my beloved grandmother explained to me that American slaves in the South were happy with their lot.  We are all aware of the cognitive dissonance of, say, Thomas Jefferson, who believed in individual freedom and owned slaves simultaneously.  My rather Victorian mother wanted to protect me and shelter me from possible unpleasantness.  She certainly meant me no harm, even when she goaded me about my support for the Equal Rights Amendment.  I have no doubt that many, if not most, Arab men love their wives and daughters.  Many things throughout the course of human history have been undertaken because they were deemed "for your own good."

I can understand that it is easier--and safer--to go along with family and societal demands if you live in a traditional culture.  Often it is women themselves who exercise vigilance when it comes to other women's behavior.  How much easier it is when slaves themselves guard other slaves.  It is no accident that it is educated women who make the most noise about rights.  The fact that some Arab women want to cover themselves from head to foot in voluminous black cloaks when the temperature is 100 degrees is no argument. 

I feel sorry for those women who are forbidden to have male friendships.  I have always enjoyed the company of men and not just physically.  One of the most significant friendships between a man and a woman occurs in George Eliot's "Middlemarch" when Dorothea and Lydgate join forces to help their community and each other.  Their relationship is not sexual but is based on mutual respect and shared interests.  Had they been denied each other's company, much would have been lost.  To assume that the overriding current between men and women is necessarily sexual is to pervert human possibility.  How can it be right for men to devise the rules for women to follow?  How infantilizing it is to render women impotent!

It is so hard to live in a state of constant anger.  I can understand how women in difficult circumstances are able to convince themselves that being submissive is being womanly, but it is certainly not natural, nor is it mandated by some supernatural power whose very nature is problematic.  Religion has always been used to trump dissenting argument.  When God himself declares something to be so, who are we flawed humans to quibble?  I realize that I will not convince religious people to abandon their beliefs, but I do wish people would recognize how equivocal those beliefs are.  Whatever gets you through the night, is my view, so long as you don't find your own comfort in another's loss of autonomy.

The Islamic, or indeed the Christian, fetish for virginity strikes me as more than a little creepy.  What is it they say, "Who thinks more about sex than a monk or a fourteen-year old boy?"  An entire culture that is preoccupied with the sexual behavior of its members strikes me as perverse, if not perverted.  Yes, I am a product of my own culture that values women (to a fair degree) and has come a long way toward granting them the freedom of action that any adult human being deserves, but I am still capable of making moral discriminations on my own.  I know that if any preacher, mullah, or shaman tried to tell me what to do, I would be mad as hell.

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