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Islamic Feminism and the Literature of Torture

Islamic Feminism and the Literature of Torture

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05/24/2012

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Islamic Feminism and the literature of torture

Islam’s relationship with the West has always been a fraught one and continues to be so; even in the light of globalisation and the increasingly pressing calls for international co-operation. It has severely deteriorated in the aftermath of that landmark event- the razing of the twin towers of the World trade Centre in September 2001. As many political analysts observed, on these brazen attacks on the nerve-centre of America’s political might, the Pentagon and its economic hub could wake up America and the rest of the world, which ironically, to most Americans is confined to America to the reality of Islamic terrorism. Many would allege that the CIA’s veiled and often, blatant intervention in world affairs, particularly at the height of the Cold War back-fired quite spectacularly back-fired on America. Subsequently, the disastrous military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrated American high-handedness amply. America’s naked aggression in the afore-mentioned countries wreaked havoc and destructionthe law and order situation degenerated drastically in the face of civil war and insurgency. Looting, murder, kidnapping, rape and other crimes became rife, increasing manifold in the wake of political instability and unrest. The motive of the US invasion was to deliver the ‘hapless’ and ‘oppressed’ inhabitants of Iraq from the authoritarian regime of Saddam Hussein as well as on the grounds of suspected possession and manufacture of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons. But the real intention behind the war was to acquire an unshakeable grip on Iraq’s oil wealth. In the Islamic world in general, even among the staunch allies of the United States in the Arab world there was bitter condemnation of American aggression. The world in general, along with these countries was profoundly disturbed and appalled by the many atrocities committed against civilians as well as rampant human rights abuse by detention centres like the now infamous and notorious Guantanamo bay. Already festering wounds and memories of humiliations in the Islamic world re-opened in the light of such events. They have felt increasingly threatened and secure- hence the need to re-adhere to religious conservatism by means like the veil to assert one’s personal identity which becomes part of a larger religious and communal framework. The mistrust and suspicion, deep-rooted and all -pervasive has served to widen the rift between the Islamic world and the West even further. The Islamic world has been naively demonised and generalised as bigoted and rabidly fanatical. Many have remarked that it is the battle of the Cross and Crescent yet againa modern crusade.

It is in this context that Islamic Feminism has come to occupy a place of necessary protest. The West has traditionally romanticized the concept of the harem in conjunction with the exotic Orient. The accounts of the English suffragist Grace Ellison in a book titled An English Woman in a Turkish Harem published in 1915 detail her experiences among women in Turkey. She shows genuine understanding of the manner in which reforms were bettering the lives of women and records the observation that women’s emancipation even found favour among men. She was only interested in the raging debate of the day regarding the traditional Islamic dress. But like many feminists of her day and even contemporary ones, she rued the growing number of women donning western garb, tending to romanticise the veil. Interestingly, when her Turkish friend, Zegreb Hamun visited her in England the tables were neatly and rather hilariously turned on Ellison. In Hanum’s collection of letters collectively published as A Turkish Woman’s European Impressions she dismissed the London ladies Club as dull and apathetic, lacking the mystery and charm of the harem. The veil is still remains a contentious issue- some women shun it vigorously, saying that Islam cannot be used as a premise to subjugate women’s freedom. Others find it liberating, saying that it grants them the freedom to move without hindrance and work at professions like medicine and law, by allowing them the scope to avert sexual harassment. Women in the Islamic world have been traditionally perceived as mute creatures subject to the excesses of the predatory and barbaric Muslim male who rules supreme over their ill-fated destinies, claiming loyalty and fidelity even higher than Allah himself. The rise of the torture novel seems to feed into this Western purview of the status or rather more aptly, so-called nonstatus of women in the Islamic world quite neatly. Authors like Jean Sasson specialise in this highly sensational yet incredibly popular and extensively read genre of writing. Sasson has written a number of books like with titles like The Rape of Kuwait, Daughters of Arabia, Desert Royal, Ester’s Child and Mayada: Daughter of Iraq. In the ‘Author’s note’ to Princess, which is apparently the real-life account of the lives of Saudi Arabia’s royal family she reveals herself to have been a close friend and confidante of Princess Sultana, whose family is closely related to the Saudi king. She confidently declared herself to the instrument of conveying to the unsuspecting larger world the reality of Saudi Arabian society. She is the Princesses’ voice as Sultans risks the castigation of the Saudi kingdom should she herself disclose the details of her life publicly. Saudi society is riddled with

contradictions and extremes and is openly and unabashedly discriminatory towards women. As Princess Sultana tells us through the pages of Sasson’s story, in spite of enjoying grandiose luxuries and living the high life replete with royal privileges, she is only valued as the progenitor of male offspring. She has no right to mingle freely in a mixed society, drive in public, let alone vote in elections. The book is filled with shocking incidents that convey the degree of brutalisation of women and the atrocities they are subjected to irrespective of rank, wealth, or status. For instance, the princesses’ beautiful sister Sara is drugged heavily to coerce her into marrying a man more than thrice her age, as his third wife. This is stated to be an obviously economic match to further her father’s business prospects. Sara eventually attempts suicide as a result of sexual torture and though her father ruthlessly insists she remain married to the man in question, it is Sultana’s mother’s brave resistance that eventually succeeds in annulling the hellish union. Sultana’s father’s fourth wife is her age and her father is seen to divorce her during the course of the book. Perhaps Sasson claims rather ambitiously, to be the instrument of a vast improvement in the condition of women the world over“These books about a feisty Saudi princess have changed have changed lives all over the world. Many young women worldwide now work to create an awareness and change. Students write to tell me that college courses are changed so that they can work on issues related to women. Mothers write to tell me that they are raising their sons to look upon their sisters, and other women as equal beings. Working together, we can make a huge difference in the role of women worldwide. I urge you to join Princess Sultana and me in our cherished goal to live in a world where every female has the right to live a life of dignity.” The book is an ‘acclaimed international best-seller’ and has gained worldwide renown and has a faithful readership. At times, Sasson’s tone of narration seems to pander towards satisfying her reader’s curiosity about the inner workings of a royal family and their closely guarded secrets. There is voyeuristic pleasure to be gained from the debaucheries indulged in quite shamelessly by the princess’ brother and her father- it is a male ‘sport’ which the father initiates the son into. The stories of the silently women, leading schizoid lives behind the cover of the veil are told with the right dose of sentiment and the abuse of Islam in the hands of monetary wealth and influence is meant to shock quite rudely.

It is a compelling, high octane drama with expected and unexpected twists and turns, sweeping in range and focus as it attempts to provide a panoramic overview of the ills of Saudi society. It largely concentrates in focus on the lives of the Saudi royalty but also ventures abroad with Sultana as she explores the chronicles of ordinary Saudi women and delves into the tales of misfortune that are the lives of servants who are mostly migrants and the harassment they face as women. The feisty princesses’ protests are portrayed small sparks of rebellion in an otherwise gloomy and suffocating atmosphere. Tehmina Durrani’s autobiographical book My Feudal Lord is another international bestseller which tells the story of her marriage with Mustafa Khar, a noted political figure in Pakistan and once Governor of the Punjab province. Khar is a misogynist, pervert, wife-beater who shattered Durrani psychologically and emotionally, subjecting her to a conjugal life of terrible humiliation and misery. His regular tortures made her live in a state of perpetual terror. The relentless and unabated abuse, which she had to conceal family honour almost succeed in unhinging her. It is, of course, like other books of the genre a riveting tear-jerker of a read made all the more appealing to a Pakistani readership with Durrani’s rather naïve anti-India and even anti-Hindu stance especially with respect to her views on the bi-lateral issue of Kashmir which she claims as Pakistan’s by right and the extreme discomfort, unease and even the suggestion of pollution she feels on a visit to the Ajmer Sharif darga in the company of Hindu security personnel. Its capacity to shock increases ten-fold as compared to Princess, as Durrani’s is a no-holds barred account which discloses the personal lives of well-known public figures of Pakistan and also her family members without disguising their identities and even divulges information about failed clandestine operations undertaken with her then husband, Khar supposedly with Indian assistance to overthrow General Zia’s regime. The mindless violence and horrific brutality which the reader is bombarded with at times fails to provoke any response of outrage or even outrage. It ceases to be real. However, Durrani sees the journey from being an innocent, naïve, guileless woman, terrorised by her demon lover and yet attracted to him as one of self-discovery and survival. She becomes a politically astute woman, who learns the roles of party politics and serves as her husband’s companion and aide helping to revive his political career by campaigning on his behalf to

regain his voter bank. The claim to truth is undoubtedly a huge factor in escalating the sales of such writing. The question is, can such literature have claims to being feminist or is it melodrama masquerading as feminism?

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