Lebanese Writer Joumana Haddad's Call to Arab Women

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Lisa Mullins: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. Lebanese poet and writer, Joumana Haddad is used to controversy. She's the founder of a print and online magazine called "Jasad" or "The Body". It's the first erotic magazine published in Arabic for women in the Islamic world. Haddad has now written a new book out with a very provocative title. It's called "I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman". The book is part autobiography, part political diatribe. Haddad says it's a call to Arab women and the entire Eastern and Western worlds to rethink their idea of what an Arab woman is.

Joumana Haddad: The first motivation behind this book has been an interview that a Western journalist was doing with me. You know, two years ago I started doing a cultural magazine called "Body" which is an erotic, quite controversial magazine and this particular journalist asked me a question which made me feel frustrated. She said, "I didn't imagine that there were women like you in the Arab world," and so I...

Mullins: Do you know how common that that thought would be?

Haddad: I know. I know. Whenever you say "Arab woman" what's the first image that pops in to mind? You know, veil, subdued, oppressed, etc, and I'm not saying that's not true. The cliche is always true, unfortunately, and they do represent the majority. This is one of our biggest problems, but what I wanted to say here is that it is incomplete and that there is a difference Arab woman and that she deserves to be heard and seen especially in the West, but also in the Arab world, because, in my opinion, she represents hope just by being there, just by staying there.

Mullins: What about when you make the distinction between yourself and the other women who, for instance, wear the veil? Just to put it very basically, inherent in that argument is the idea that they are trapped, that they cannot think for themselves, that they don't think for themselves, that they don't choose to wear the veil when you know that there are women who do.

Haddad: I'm quite convinced and I can say it in a very extreme way that I know they don't because either it's the result of a brainwashing that makes them think it is their choice or they have so much, you know, dignity that they don't want to admit that it has been forced on them, but you can only talk about choice and freedom of choice when you have alternatives. You cannot talk about freedom of choice when, if you don't wear the veil, you're going to be either harassed or beaten up or killed or whatever.

Mullins: Although, you know, there are young people even, who have grown up when they have not had the veil imposed on them and, again, we're just using this as one example, who have chosen now to wear if for whatever reason. I mean you've, you know these people. I've met some of them myself.

Haddad: I know.

Mullins: They've had the freedom to not do it and they choose to.

Haddad: I know and this, many of these cases are, in a way, a reaction to what they perceive as an invasion of the West, of Western values on their lives and they do it as a self punishment I think without realizing it and when I talk about patriarchal societies, I'm talking also about women, because many women have patriarchal values. I know many women until now even in the West where they are pregnant are happier when they have boys than girls. I know many women who still raise their girls to dream ultimately of the rich guy or the husband that the, the good husband that will save them. So this is where it has to change at first.

Mullins: I want to ask you about something that you were also identified with because of your writings, because of your writings, because of your influences, and certainly because of the website. How has sexuality and eroticism become part of what defines you and your mission?

Haddad: It was a very spontaneous rebirth for me because ever since I started reading on my own, and I mean by that not reading the books that my father used to bring me because my father was an intellectual and he used to read a lot and bring me books.

Mullins: Like what?

Haddad: And then I started, book from my age, you know, books for kids like, especially from the French and Arabic literature, but then at the age of eleven, twelve I started searching in his library for the books he had hidden and this is how I read [xx], Miller, Nabokov, [xx] etc, etc.

Mullins: Were they in the back of the shelf?

Haddad: Exactly. They were hidden. I always see myself up on a chair trying to reach...

Mullins: Such a troublemaker.

Haddad: ...trying to reach for the hidden books. So I think it's not something you choose. I think it's something that chooses you. I mean I don't know why I'm interested in erotica and sexuality, but I know I am and I know that when I write, I feel like I'm writing with my body. I feel like I'm writing with my fingernails, with my flesh, with my blood. It's a very sensual and a very physical act for me.

Mullins: But this is political as well?

Haddad: It's very political, especially in a country like mine. Like, for example, when I started writing, my first book was in French and I thought, "Well, it's because French is our mother tongue in Lebanon and it's fine. This is why I chose French." But then I realized in my twenties that no, that it was because of cowardice. I was afraid to confront the Arabic language and to say the things that I say in that language and this is how I switched. I started writing my poetry in Arabic and my first poem in that are like scenes of war. You could see even the dead and the wounded on the floor.

Mullins: One of the things you say in the book is, "I'm not the Hugh Hefner of the Arab world," but I wonder, but you definitely, I can vouch for that because you're sitting across for me, but I'm still curious as to how writing about it and writing about in such a provocative way or even talking about ancient Arab writers who have written about sexuality, why that is an useful tool?

Haddad: I think because the taboos that have been imposed on the Arabic culture and language are insulting for us. It means that we are minors. It means that we can not discuss these things.

Mullins: You mean women or Arabs?

Haddad: Everything that I talk about becomes, the dose of it becomes even higher when we're talking about women. All the constrictions and the chains, they become even worse, but they are imposed on the Arab human being in general. I'm fed up with the castration of my language and my culture. We, in the Arab world, live in a certain denial of our body and sexualities and it is generating lots of, you know, complexes and unhealthy relationships with ourselves. It's as if we have to be ashamed of having those bodies and this cannot be a good way to live your life.

Mullins: OK, but again, let me just ask this: Why the body?

Haddad: Why not? Because it's a total part of who we are. It's an important part of who we are. I'm not one of those who separate between the body and the spirit and the mind. It's a whole for me. If I'm not connected with my body, then I'm not connected with my mind and vice versa. So if I'm just deleting that part of who I am, I'm a stranger to myself and I don't think it's, this is how I want to live my life at least.

Mullins: Joumana Haddad, Thank you.

Haddad: Thank you so much.

Mullins: Joumana Haddad is a Lebanese writer and poet and the editor of the cultural erotic magazine "Jasad" or "Body". We have a link to her website at theworld.org.