September 18, 2010
Painting by Farideh Lashai, from her Alice and the Rabbits Series
One of my dear friends and an avid reader of this blog, has asked me to come up with a list of feminist writers, more specifically female ones. The only Western feminist writers I have read are Simone de Beauvoir and Virginia Wolf, and that I did only superficially.Truth be told, I have never truly espoused the feminist cause, despite the fact that one of my great-aunts, Ambara Salaam, mentioned in an earlier entry, was one of the most outspoken feminists of her era. When she removed the veil in a public act, she changed the course of history for many Muslim women. I have tremendous respect for her efforts and her stance, and could not imagine reversing the course of history. I quote her here:
"I wore a particularly severe form of hijab since the age of ten. It didn't only cover our faces, but also cut us off from the outside world entirely. I mean that we never saw the people who came to visit the house and my father. Women had their place in society and men had theirs..."
Here, Ambara discusses how she felt when she wore the veil. However, she wasn't stuck in this predicament for very long. Her father, Salim Salaam, treated her with the same regards as he did his sons. There had always been equal opportunity in the Salaam household. I wish to live in that same spirit.
That being said, I have never been fascinated academically with feminism. In fact I have always kept away from the ideology, out of pure disinterest or indifference. When I shifted my focus to Saudi Arabia for my PhD thesis, the pre-supposition was that I was researching "women in Saudi Arabia". In fact, except for a small paragraph about them in the dissertation, I do not differentiate the American educated Saudi men from the women (almost wishing that equal treatment in the study would reflect the same in practice). Perhaps, my lack of enthusiasm for the field of feminism stems from the fact that I, and my relatives, have never personally felt discriminated against. I have never felt the struggle that some of these women, like Ambara Salaam or Virginia Wolf, endured in their day. I was lucky, and I know I owe it to these influential men and women who have allowed women to finally stand on a practically equal footing with men.
The most curious thing is that I attended an all women's college, the flagship campus of feminism in the USA: Smith College. I didn't chose the college because I would have better chances to participate in class or because I thought the environment would invigorate my feminist instinct. Many are motivated by those reasons when applying there. I simply considered it to be a very good liberal arts school; in fact I was the defect product on the assembly line. Some may consider that I failed Smith by graduating indifferent to feminism. Perhaps I was scarred by the unisex education and it manifested itself by distancing myself from the cause. I do regret not having taken ANY women's studies (it was their forte) and especially Women's Biology (it sounds very interesting to me today.)
When I choose a book, I never seek the feminist ideology. I only discover it by chance. Centuries ago, the mere fact that women wrote, was a defiant feminist act: the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and George Sand (who used a masculine pseudonym to have the opportunity to write) were the early feminists. In the modern Middle East, writers like Nawal al Sadawi and Hanan al Sheikh are feminist. Painters like Farideh Lakshai and Monir Farman Farmayan are also feminists in their cohabitation in the art world with men, paving the way for Shireen Neshaat and Golnaz Fathi.
To these women, I make my reverence because they have proven that we can also be creative and opinionated. I especially have selected the beautiful painting by Farideh Lashai to illustrate this entry on feminism because I value my friendship with her and admire her feminist stance on issues as much as I appreciate the high quality of her art.
But many men have taken on the feminist cause. Moliere was one to denounce misanthrophy and Gustave Flaubert was one to narrate in the name of a woman, Madame Bovary, whom he endows with the power of fantasy. I am well acquainted with Atiq Rahimi, a man who wrote the narrative of a strong woman in "Sangue Sabour". Many in the Middle East rejected his portrait of such a strong and self-centered woman, claiming that the woman would realistically be subservient and docile and only altruistic. This author has defended his compatriots and character by denouncing such a generalization: why wouldn't his female protagonist be allowed to be strong headed and narcissistic?
Today I read Marguerite Duras, Colette, Francoise Sagan. They are women and they are feminists, but I read them for their style and their narrative. Feminism may be the fight of some; I have always appreciated their efforts but I have not investigated it. As a Smithie, I can be coined to be a "feminist drop out", living in its environment, yet choosing not to become one and not choosing a career path either. True feminists believe that we are renouncing our rights if we do not fight for a meaningful professional life. I believe raising a family is self fulfilling. I think, in this era of choice, where women like Gloria Steinem have fought for our rights in the 1960s and 1970s, I should be allowed to choose a life at home with my children, without feeling an outward pressure to have a career, because I have the choice. And once again, I know that having that choice is essential. It is the essence of feminism, but sometimes hard core feminists lose that sense, and belittle women like me, who stay at home.
In the end, I grew up as a tomboy who was encouraged to be feminine. I could only practice martial arts if I also attended ballet. At the base of my growing up was the certainty that men and women were equal. I think my parents were feminist in building the confidence in my sister and I, that all opportunities were open to us, regardless of our gender. I retain the confidence to always look at a person, male or female, straight in the eye. I believe it is that confidence that is the basis of equality.