Dossier 17: Women in the Discourse of Crisis

Publication Author: 
Dr. Nasr Abu-Zeid
September 1997
Word Document89.72 KB
number of pages: 
Editors note:The work of Prof. Nasr Abu-Zeid has been subject of concerted attack by fundamentalist groups in Egypt. He is currently in exile following charges of apostasy brought against him and the ruling of the Apex court in Egypt ordering his divorce from his wife Dr. Ithal Younis.

The following extracts from the book "Women in the Discourse of Crisis" by Prof. Nasr Abu-Zeid have been translated from Arabic by Marlene Tadros.

The discourse over women in the Arab world is generally discriminatory. It is a discourse that places women in comparative relationships with the men. When a relationship between two parties is identified this way, then it means that one party succumbs to the other and obeys him. It is natural that the party that believes it is strong produces a racial discriminatory discourse. This is not the case with the religious discourse alone, but is also part of the current Arab discourse that is dominant in both culture and media. It is also not difficult to find in the discourse of “equality” and “participation” an undertone of superiority that emanates basically from the discourse which places males in the centre. When woman is equal to man, and when she is allowed to participate, she is merely participating with the man. But in all cases, the man becomes the centre of everything. The matter seems to be incontrovertible. And in some human societies, a woman’s social, cultural, and political activities are marginal and without meaning if a man is not involved as well.

Contemporary Arab discourse has its roots in language itself. It is a language that insists on differentiating between Arab names and foreign names with a sign that is called al-tanween. This is a sign that is put at the end of Arab names only when they are pronounced and not when they are written. One can therefore say Mohamadon or Aleyon. But this sign is not attached to non-Arab names like Bush or Abraham. We should also note that the term Aagam or Aagem (non-Arab or barbarian) refers to non-Arabs - the term is usually used for animals. This is a categorization that gives Arabs a superior status. It also gives their language the place of “the” language, as though any other language is not important, and that those who speak another language are like animals that cannot express themselves.

This linguistic discrimination between Arabs and non-Arabs on the basis of language and its meaning breeds another discrimination between males and females in Arab names. Female Arab names are also considered to be less important. In addition to the female “t” used to differentiate between males and females, the tanween is absent from female names just as it is absent from foreign names. There is therefore a linguistic racial discrimination not only against the “other” but also against females of the same race. This is noticeable in all existing contemporary discourse, in which women are treated as minorities since they are required to be under the “protection” and the “authority” of men. The linguistic discrimination is widespread. All nouns in the language are either male or female and there is no neuter in the Arabic language, like there are in other languages such as German, for example. Language professors differentiate between the true female word and the figurative female word, but this discrimination does not mean that the figurative female is exempt from succumbing to all the mechanisms of categorization to which she actually does succumb. On the other hand, we do not find a difference between the “true” male and the figurative male which reveals that there is a preconception that males are active, while females are inactive. Based on this assumption, the plural is treated as a male plural even if it is about a group of women, on the condition that one single male is present among that group of women. This means that one man’s presence is more important than the presence of a whole group of women. It is therefore called the male plural and not the female plural.

If we were to say that this does not concern the Arabic language alone and that is concerns many other languages on earth, this does not disprove its significance. Instead, it shows how widespread it is in human consciousness in general. If that is the case on the linguistic level, it is not always the case in the consciousness of groups throughout history. In some contemporary societies that speak English, for example, there is a growing consciousness of the ideology of language and the danger of succumbing to it. There are, for example, some attempts to change the language and replace it with a different consciousness, for example, when people try not to overuse “he” by using he or she alternately. People also avoid using the male or female to describe certain positions where we no longer say chairman but chairperson and spokesman but spokesperson. This new consciousness is absent from Arabic discourse and this is what concerns us here.

If language treats women from a racial and ethnic perspective that equals them to aagem, then it also reflects the level of consciousness of the people who created this language. Although consciousness does not develop in isolation of the language and language does not develop in isolation of those who speak it, every type of consciousness has its independent history and distinct path. Sometimes the two clash, which can lead to crucial changes in the structure of the language. This might sometimes lead to a victory of the traditional consciousness over the new consciousness. In the history of the Arabic language, which represents the history of the people who speak it, there is a distinct consciousness represented in the Qur'an, which addresses women as it addresses men. Addressing women has been performed in an indirect manner through addressing men; but the Qur’an is not so. In this context, we have to dismiss some of the illusions that people have concerning the inferiority of women’s status in Qur'anic discourse based on the fact that a woman’s inheritance is half that of the man’s. The real criteria for evaluation has to be the status of women and their position in the society before the Qur’an, not just a comparison between Qur’anic discourse and our legitimate wishful thinking concerning a woman’s status. Based on this criteria, addressing women independently from men in Qur’anic discourse is a new form of consciousness that is unprecedented except in some insignificant poems.

But this consciousness in Qur’anic discourse has entered into conflict with a consciousness already present in the language, and this is through a complex conflict on the ground of politics first and then on the level of religious thinking and the entire Arab culture after that. As much as the conflict has leaned towards the new consciousness, women’s status has developed, and as much as the balance has leaned towards traditional consciousness and what it represents in terms of enclosed tribal values, women’s status has changed from group to group and from state to state in the Islamic Empire. The status of women in Andalusian society was worthy of praise, so much that women had the right to stipulate that her husband would not marry another. None of the scholars at the time said that those conditions conflicted with the principle of superiority which became the norm in later eras.

In eras of backwardness and retardation, women are hidden, and they are seen as lacking intelligence and religion. The idea that women are not to be made love to during menstruation has evolved into avoiding speaking with her and eating with her, which goes back to mythical taboos. The story of Adam’s departure from paradise is rehashed in the Old Testament version, where Eve is tantamount to a snake and Satan. A discourse is created even in the film industry, where movies are called, The Devil is A Woman. Woman is transformed into a lust-inciting creature that provokes temptation. The only solution becomes burying women alive as the Bedouin Arabs in the Jahiliya (pre-Islamic period) did, but instead the modern reaction is to bury a live woman inside a black dress with two holes for eyes!

Following military defeat in 1967, Arabs increasingly felt a sense of shame. To compensate for his impotence, he resorted in escaping to the past, to his original identity, to the illusion of manhood. In politics, there was a move against unity, and on the social level, sectarianism instead of nationalism began to blossom. Religion substituted nation, history and geography.

Only fragmentation, sectarianism and religion were left. When the three are together they only breed terrorism that finds expression through the self: it is violence and terrorism on all levels: Muslim against the Christian, Christian against Muslim, Sunni against Shia’a and vice versa. In this environment charged with violence and terrorism, man turns against women: does he further need a partner to compete with him or something to defend or die for and protect? Let women go to hell. Let them stay at home, serve their husbands, sweep the floors and raise the kids to avoid all headaches.

Are we confronting religious discourse? It is wrong to say that. We are facing a backwardness that might use the language of religion or the language of politics or sociology or economics. But it is not merely a discourse of backwardness. It is also a terrorist aggressive discourse against women, not only through harassment and rape, but also through sentences such as those found in Mostafa Mahmoud’s article in Al Ahram 18/2/92, where he said: “These days, we hear rebellious calls by our sweeter halves - women - most of whom are wives of wealthy men, who demand to go out to work and leave their children in the street. Each one shouts to her husband that she wants to ‘find her identity’ and that she is equal to him. This sort of logic puzzles me: what kind of identity will a woman find as a secretary to so and so or a sewage engineer or bank teller or supermarket vendor. There is a lost identity in all those jobs. Achieving identity is merely words fit for novels.”

We notice here that the author begins with his point of view, which says that women must not go out to work except to fulfil their economic needs. This prescribes that males are wealthy, which makes it illogical for women to want to achieve. Mostafa Mahmoud therefore makes women going out to work a matter that enters into the field of the prohibited - something that is allowable only when necessary. Note how Mostafa Mahmoud is surprised that the women who want to go out are wives of wealthy men, and how, tragically they throw their kids in the street although they are wealthy and of course could bring in maids. But he does not say this - instead he says they throw them in the street. Look how Mostafa Mahmoud’s discourse changes to the melodramatic when he says “she shouts in the face of her husband, wanting to be equal to him”. If we assume this scenario is true, then what sort of man is this whose wife has to shout that sort of sentence to him? Undoubtedly it is the husband who thinks he has bought his wife with his money, a husband who treats her like he treats the most trivial things. Undoubtedly, a wife who speaks to her husband in this manner is responding to inhumane treatment. We suspect that Mostafa Mahmoud listened to some of the complaints of his wealthy friends concerning the rebellion of their wives so he simply wrote an article about it. That is why his discourse resorts to debasing women’s work through naming some jobs that he despises such as secretary, sewage engineer (note the mechanism of debasement) and so on. He then refers to his previous assertions and concludes that all these desires are bad. He therefore moves from sarcasm to debasement to social injury. Sarcasm to him is a manner of debasement, which leads to wounding that is not different from physical violence in the street.

Reproduced from: Peoples Rights a Quarterly Women’s Rights Journal. Issue 2, August 1996

(A chapter from his book with the same name, translated by Dr. Marlyn Tadros.) Peoples Rights, Legal Research and Resource Centre for Human Rights, 7 Al Higaz Street, Roxi, Heliopolis, Cairo, Egypt.