I have met so many unhappy women, so very few who knew the causes of their unhappiness, and fewer who dared to think of solutions.
I was born and brought up in Tunisia, a small North African country where people did not talk much politics before the 2011 revolution, and talked too much politics after the revolution. Tunisians are known for their hospitality and gentle temperament, and a typical symbol of Tunisian identity is that of jasmine that accompanies most of Tunisian feasts and traditional celebrations. The revolution itself was dubbed the jasmine revolution by mainstream media, and the whole world nodded in agreement, for the world hated to see in Tunisia but the idyllic female that stands with open arms for its guests, greeting them with jasmine and offering its white shores to them. I don’t blame western media as much as I blame our ministry of tourism that corroborated the manufacture of this idea that I find now hard to challenge. Our culture carries the breath of the festive spirit of Mediterranean gods, blended with the unbending piety of ancestors who came from the Arabian Desert. My people manifest a strong taste of self-importance when they speak about themselves, with a sour sarcasm they had learned from a long contact with the French, and a lot of the stubbornness of the Berbers. We are all these, and there is nothing I love more than my north African-ness full of cultural incongruities. I love jasmine too, but it falls short in describing the essence my people.
As a woman, I was brought up on the interim between two schools, one of them required that a woman respect the codes of sobriety and heshma, to look down when in a conversation with men, not to speak until they are spoken with, while the other school was teaching them the competitive, somehow aggressive and cruel morals of modern age that were inspired by the ethics of the market: be a wolf among wolves, never trust anyone, go and have it before anyone else does.
I am lucky to have a father who instilled in me the love of reading books from a very early age, and I say lucky because only a few in the world know how to make their children love books and not just read them, and it was my fondness of learning that made me start to wonder how the world that existed beyond my borders looks like. The borders I am speaking about are the borders around my home and my immediate geographical surrounding, but also the borders of my psychological landscape located within the realm of my safety. Before I could know it, I was out in the larger world. Typically, before they could decide what to do with the new freedom, women brought up like me would either shy away into the morals of traditional upbringing, safe, cosy and reminiscent of family and home, or totally indulge into the wild and adventurous laws of modern age. I realised there was a lot of injustice in the world, so much injustice that trying to change it was a waste of time, and I chose the first reaction. For a long time, I was totally convinced that our world was the toy of a primeval demon, and whether we do something or nothing to save it, salvation was never going to come.
Beyond my borders, I also met people who devoted their lives to a long struggle and hard work to make things better, sometimes never to obtain any result, or sometimes to obtain a very insignificant one. They were always happy nonetheless. Their dictum was that if action was not a solution, then inaction was not the solution either. At least, by being active, one was participating in something called Life.
That is where life truly began for me. But where was I to begin? To stand amid the jungle of injustices and pick one, was a good solution, but it was the privilege of the very rich who had a lot of money togive away as charity and did not know where to start. But that was not my privilege. Innumerable were the injustices of the world, but varied and different as they were, they all had something in common, or to put it in a different way, they all shared the same injustice among themselves. Wherever I went, I was seeing something very peculiar. Muslims were discriminated against in the west, but where they belonged, there was no discrimination. Mexicans were killed by the hundreds if they crossed the borders northward, but by staying inside their borders, they did not have to worry about being called dirty Mexicans. Africans were racially discriminated against almost everywhere except in Africa (if we exclude the case of Apartheid). Kurds were hated in Iraq, Armenians despised in Turkey, Indians and Pakistanis looked down at in England. In all these examples, every one of these despised groups has a home where they would not suffer abuse, hatred or disdain. Every one of them had a dark period of history when their guardian angels deserted them, and so many of them regained national authority, international recognition, or at least, obtained an official apology. However, everywhere, the history of women was that of abuse, hatred and disdain, even where they belonged. Women had no country to run away to, they had no rights in a territory where they could ask and struggle for sovereignty. Most of the time, their oppressors were their countrymen, their husbands, brothers and fathers. They were also their own mothers and sisters who share with them the same portion of coercion.
I have seen women who were abused physically and psychologically, sometimes media and public opinion would fret about their situation and muster public support for their causes if political undertones were implied, like the case of Sakineh the Iranian woman sentenced to flagellation for adultery and for killing her husband. Yet most of the time, they would simply suffer and die unnoticed by the public opinion. That was not all. The solutions offered to women in most parts of the world were nothing more than traps that were inspired from a very old masculine game, when they were required to compete with masculine power according to masculine rules, like when my brother in the old days imposed on me competitions based on the power of muscles, and in which he always won. The reason is simple, by competing with masculine power, women were granted recognition. Disney gives us an example of how women should act in a masculine world; heroines such as Pocahontas and Mulan tell us that to be accepted in society, they had to wear the attire of men, carry swords and go into the battlefield to be honoured by the father or the emperor. The tricky thing about these old and seemingly innocent story lines is that their heroines struggle all through the story to gain recognition by acting like men, and thus, their victories in the end would look like the victory of the female body over its limitations. But are the real limitations summed up in being able to imitate men? What these stories do not tell us in fact is the cost that these women had to sacrifice, for like the Amazonian warriors who to remove a breast to be able to carry the bow and shoot the arrow, something crucial to these women’s identity had to be removed in order to be accepted and in order to gain recognition in a masculine order.
I have met many women whom society defined as successful, and who would sit across the table with trembling fingers and explaining the repercussions of their ambitions on their personal lives because their own definitions of success differed from the standards of the market, and yet they had never tried any other way because they did not know other ways existed. They were scared -- and I would be too, in their place -- to be part of the rat race. I have seen many a women in both conservative and liberal societies whose lives were turned into pathetic competitions against other women to win the approval of men by showing too much of their flesh, or hiding too much of it.
In my own country, I noticed that the more the society was conservative, the more the degree of women’s authority inside the family and the society would increase. It intrigued me so much at first, but then as I travelled northward, and outside the boundaries of my own country, I found a clue by encountering the same case though in opposite roles. In order for women to be accepted, they had to play by masculine rules, and to become the guardians of a body of moral and social ethics created by men when society is mostly regulated by the authority of morality. This explains why nearly everywhere, when there was an abuse against women for some moral reason, other women would be standing watching, or blessing the act of aggression altogether, if they would not participate in it. I have seen women harsher than men on other women and I understood that they were also afraid of being the next victims if they did not support the dominant morality. In liberal western society when the ethics of the market are stronger, women were gaining power by adhering to the masculine rules of the market, by becoming themselves slaves of this system and giving their time and energy in order to carve a success at the expense of their true ambitions.
Following this, I thought, the coming together of women as solid groups has never been possible, and if it happened, it was never strong enough to make influence. Not only were women already separated by lines of nationality, ethnicity and race, but they were also severed from seeing where their real potentials lied. Colonised nations fight for freedom, racial groups for equality and for recognition, and no matter how long the struggle would be, it would be fruitful in the end because they knew what their target was. Often, women’s struggle for freedom is agonisingly slow, and one which has been associated with the elites of the society. From generation to generation, female child after female child was born and suckled the necessary rules to initiate it into the system of discrimination against other generations of women.