This series of posts is based on an interview conducted with Romy Lynn Attieh. The interview was conducted for a paper that Romy wrote entitled: “Exploring Kinship and Gender in the Return Narratives of Transnational Adoptees Born in Lebanon” for a class with Dr. Rosemary Sayegh called “Oral History and Gender”, in the Anthropology department at AUB. The first entry to the series can be found here: [link to entry].
RL: You were also telling me you were flabbergasted by things you’ve heard women do here by means of, kind of, confronting…I don’t know, I think you know what I mean, just in terms of sticking up for themselves, pointing at something and saying “no”. Could you give me an example?
RL: Just one. (CHUCKLES)
DD: I’ll give you a couple [out of so many]. For all of my students who ever had to go up and document a neighborhood [for projects in my classes], for example, the only ones who ever had problems photographing were the guys. Women could always, this is going to sound not the way I mean it, talk their way out of it. Not by giving in and being flirtatious and that kind of thing, but by challenging the poor darake [cop] and saying things like: “Who are you to tell me and why? Who gave you the right and what makes you think you own this street?” They get away with this. And if I did the same thing [I would have been carted off]…and some of my [male] students [did in fact] end[ed] up in jail! You know S.?
RL: Oh yeah! Really? (BOTH LAUGH)
DD: Wait this gets better. There was a concert on the Corniche for the Palestinian cause, and there was a boy, I think around 12, reading poetry. And apparently the Saudi ambassador called in to complain about the noise. When S. found out, she went right up, she marched up to the embassy and demanded to see the ambassador. She is standing outside causing this [big commotion]…And she’s telling me this story and I’m looking at her [dumbfounded]. The funny thing is she’s saying it as if this is completely normal.
And I’m looking at her waiting for her to be like “can you believe that I did that”. But no, she was like, “I went up there and I was demanding to see the ambassador!”…I was like, “S., you can’t go up [to the Saudi embassy] and demand entrance!” (BOTH LAUGH) And she’s like, “what’s wrong with you!” I’m like, “I’m putting myself in your place [and had I done the same thing] you wouldn’t know where I was right now, if that had been me!”
What other examples can I think of…Student of mine, you know, caught in traffic and someone, this was in Dahiye [the southern suburbs of Beirut], and someone made a comment to her, shouldn’t you be, shouldn’t that be your husband driving? She stopped the car, she got out and she stopped traffic for 20 minutes. And people were on her side, people took her side! And the poor guy, all he wanted to do was escape. But the traffic was blocked and she held court for 15 minutes and read him the riot act like nobody’s business.
RL: And this wouldn’t happen in the States, for example.
DD: I don’t think so, I don’t think so. The difference to me in the States is that the misogyny hides—I’m not saying the violence doesn’t exist here—the misogyny in the States hides a violence which is the [given and understood] next step [and so it keeps women in line in a different way]. The stories I know of things that [take place]…When I was in college and what the frat boys would do and brag about, it’s appalling. And this is the upper crust of the country, these aren’t the [perceived as] dregs of society we’re talking about. Whereas here there is the macho sense of “I have the ability to say this to you because I’m a guy”, but then they’re called out [on it and they cave]…
[For example] anytime it gets a little bit heavy at the corner, and the guys are checking out the women walking by, I just have to say, “what if that were your sister?” And then it gets into a whole Qur’anic discussion and I get into it as well as they can and it pisses them off (BOTH LAUGH). You know, the idea is that before women are told [in the Qur’an] to not even veil themselves but to cover themselves in terms of their upper body, men are told to lower their gaze. This still has currency. You can still use it.
RL: Call somebody on that.
There is a lot here that needs clarification in terms of audience. Between ourselves [two individuals living in Lebanon, and aware of the local situation], the citing of particular examples is understood as expansive, and representative of a greater “truth”, if you will. To a subset of the audience of this blog, with particular acculturation and views of adoption, these will be read as “individual truths” which do not expand out, and which are limited to the scope of those they address.
And so the bind for us in discussing them is unraveling these levels of “synecdoche”, in terms of the individual representing the whole, but also in terms of the whole not being limited only to the polis, or seen-as-valid bourgeois citizenry, as we’ve been discussing here. Likewise following up on previous discussions of this in terms of Arabic words which relate “nation” and “country” to the individuals thereof, it should be pointed out that the word jinsiye meaning “nationality” comes from a root that also gives us “gender” and “sex”, in the sense of “that which is alike or similar”.
The focus on these examples is also dangerous in terms of losing scope of the norm. Meaning, by pointing out certain instances or occurrences, it is implied that this is not the norm. This is the flip side of the Orientalist tropes that have Arab and particularly Muslim women as needing “saving” from the “West”, in and of itself a misogynist stance, especially given the plight of women in the “West” in terms of their absent voice, their inequality, and their targeting for exclusion. That these are ignored in “Western” mediation is not an oversight, but a focused means to shift “liberation” in terms of women in “Western” society to concepts which are actually more gender-based or having to do with sex and sexuality (as women relate to men), a misogynistic stance in and of itself.
For some counter-examples, I spoke of the violence that I see as inherent to the attitude toward women historically speaking within “Western” societies. I added mention of what I recall of the epitomy of class indoctrination that is represented by the Greek lifestyle on campuses across the United States, where women are marked with the physical evidence of particular sexual acts and made to perform a “walk of shame” down rows of houses that historically reference the “gentility” of a “bygone” era. I mentioned the level of rape and sexual abuse in the American armed forces that goes largely without reporting in U.S. media. It would likewise be valid to point out the incidents of domestic violence in which most women murdered in American cities are victims of spouses or partners, compared to the relatively much less frequent occurrence of “honor crime”. And the women disappeared in certain southern cities. And the girls trafficked into prostitution. And all of this before we even get to concepts of salarial equality, for example.
I don’t necessarily think it is valid to play the defensive game of citing examples as I did in this interview question, but it is worth pointing out that locally the subject of women and their role in society is still valid currency within the cultural and political landscape, as opposed to, say, the ridiculously disempowering Oprah or The View, or the idea that a conservative, war-mongering, corporate criminal such as Hillary Clinton, should she be elected president, is somehow seen as a gain for all women in terms of their “rights”. (See also: Barack Obama in terms of race relations.)
For just a few local examples, Zeina Daccache and her theater work that elicits performances from actual women prisoners in Baabda prison [link to article]; the fatwa of Sayyed Mohammad Fadlallah that allows women to defend themselves in cases of domestic violence [link to article]; Egyptian women who have been striking and organizing in textile factories for the past decade; similar women who fed the revolutionaries who took over Tahrir Square in Cairo; the presence and prominence of women activists in general.
But we are also speaking of patriarchy, and its resulting impositions on society, and I think it is possible to suss out the source of patriarchy, what aspects of religion and politics uphold this notion, which ones counter this notion, and in this light it would seem that the common nature of religious capitalisms has more to do in both realms in terms of misogyny and the denigration of women, then in one being “better” or “less evil” than the other. And if I had to “place bets” on which society was more likely to provide a revolutionary stand against such disempowerment of women, it would definitely be here and would not at all be in the United States, or Europe, where this kind of thing has had a longer time to be formalized and entrenched culturally speaking, and where agents of resistance have more thoroughly been exterminated.
Which brings us to adoption, in and of itself, and how it is possible to refer to it not only as a violence against a child, but also against a woman, as well as against a community (bringing us back to “umm” and “umma“). I am hard-pressed to consider a more loathsome mythology than that of the adoptive mother who has managed to block all empathy with the original mother of the child now temporarily in her care, or who has culturally excused this violence with the most vile, dreck-ridden, treacly, and offensive cultural garbage in terms of poems, “birth-mother” gifts, etc. This speaks of a woman “accepting of an acceptance”, mimicking the worst aspects of her emprisoning patriarchy, and passing on this violence to those she considers to be “lesser than”.
And so whereas I was once “flabbergasted” by such local expressions of agency and will, I now see them as “the norm”. When Umm S., who lives in the building one over from me, was heard cursing and screaming at local militiamen after the “street wars” of 2008 to “clean up their spent rifle shells”, I knew it was safe to go out on the street. When Soha Bouchara spoke at a local event on BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) with a grace and stature belying the many years she spent in prison for attempting the assassination of a South Lebanese Army officer, I sensed that there was hope locally speaking. For all of the women I know in terms of the local realm who act “outside of their role” without any sense of contradiction—in stark contrast to women I know in “professional settings” such as local universities who have taken on the modes and methods of patriarchy in order to advance their very careers at the expense of these, their fellow women—I have nothing but endless respect.
The series entries:
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (I)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (II)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (III)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (IV)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (V)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (V-postscript)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (VI)
On adoption, kinship, and gender. (VII)