A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
“For it is clear immediately: human life as such is a defeat. All we can do in the face of that ineluctable defeat called life is to try to understand it. That is the raison d’être of the art of the novel.” Milan Kundera
The novel and society
Despite limited readership among Yemenis, the art of the novel in the country has developed, and so has the number of novelists; there are now well-known practitioners of the art. Setting aside their artistic quality, the novels address societal issues, wrestle with the local imagination, and challenge social taboos.
Yemeni society is in constant flux; and novelists are the first among those trying to document these changes, and to further agitate and enlighten. They have put forward proposals to modernize society, overcoming the obstacles impeding movement toward that goal; some have even tried to address societal taboos. Due to the situation of women in Yemeni society, women have been the subject of numerous novels, and are the narrative voice in a number of novels written by female authors.
The characterization of women in the novel
Art work courtesy of Lona al-Wadie
Upon investigating the characterization of women in the Yemeni novel, we find that most depictions are generalized, without depth or nuance. However, these depictions reveal how women are perceived in Yemeni society, as the depictions are not completely removed from reality. That is, the writer is influenced by many factors, some related to ideological convictions, some not, and what is written is more an indicator of the writer’s perspective than actual fact.
In novels where the main character is a woman, or where there are male and female characters, we find that women living diverse lives are presented, along with how that diversity can affect the character and her motivations.
In A Donkey in the Choir (2004) by Wajdi al-Ahdal, we find a woman in three forms: Thai’ra, Zainab and Arwa – always repressed and yielding. The law, represented by a chauvinist male, sees no value in woman, and always seeks to exploit her weakness, reflecting the discriminatory perception of women in society. As a ‘police officer’, the male character, the supposed preserver of public values, becomes an aggressive force seeking to degrade and repress women, manipulating the law in order to exploit their bodies. Through this patriarchal perspective, the rule of law becomes an extension of traditional customs, and the lawman’s lust for women’s bodies is motivation to employ his authority against women.
In Hurma (2011) by Ali al-Muqri, women are fenced-in by religious perceptions which see them as a vessel for temptation and sin. Her very existence is shameful and must be sequestered from the world of men. She cannot be trusted to determine what is good for her, and what is not. She is a submissive extension of the male, obeying and surrendering to the male for only he can administer her affairs. He owns her body, turning her into a tool for pleasure, a recreational object for the man chosen to be her husband. In turn, she must accept this patriarchal domination with complete submission. However, as soon as the protagonist discovers her emotional needs, and the impotence of the partners chosen for her, she reacts with indignation and rejection, which soon turns into a search for a partner to fill those needs. The male characters’ impotence is perhaps an indication of their feelings of inferiority, their lack of trust in women, their need to control women and therefore put them under constant surveillance. She soon finds herself rejecting attempts to erase her existence, and begins to defy the rules she once followed unquestioningly. We soon find that the chauvinist, patriarchal, pseudo-intellectual and self-righteous society is nothing more than hypocritical and a weak construct. Everything she once feared in this construct was nothing more than illusion, implanted in her through socialization and religious platitudes.
In Bushra al-Maqtari’s Behind the Sun (2012), women are victims of a different kind. Here the protagonist is a victim by extension, as everything that affects males in her sphere – through war and political oppression – also affects her both psychologically and economically, and reflects on her life and her choices. However, patriarchal society ignores her sacrifices, and sees her as nothing but a hurma, with all the condemnation and disdain this word implies. Furthermore, her husband imagines her to be taking advantage of his forced absence in order to cheat on him. This highlights the stereotypical perceptions of women in society, always invoking doubt and suspicion, instead of respect and gratitude for their brave role. The unjust treatment leads her to become mentally unstable.
In the novel Aqeelat by Nadia al-Kawkabani, various women are presented, all experiencing the oppression and unjust treatment of a patriarchal society. They are defined by the terms and labels attached to them as defined by their relationships to men:
You’re right! Nothing defines us, no matter how logical, like the labels they’ve given us:
‘Wife’ – a label they love!
‘Divorced’ – a label they despise!
‘Spinster’ – this one they disagree on!
They are not terms which reflect reality. A divorced woman can be a better mother than a neglectful married one, but the neglectful wife holds higher esteem according to their idiotic labels.
However, Rawda is a woman who liberates herself by speaking out when requested to do so by her friend Jood. Rawda breaks social taboos and speaks out about her struggle through the women in her stories; women who represent the struggle caused by the shackles of Yemeni society’s traditions, and her need for employment in order to become financially independent. Al-Kawkabani’s work is an attempt to represent a large majority of women whose struggle is identical: “We are all the same, even if we are different in some small ways.” However, the author presents oppressed women and then lays the blame for their oppression on men. In this way, the narrative becomes an incitement against men, and is not aimed at raising awareness on the need for healthy relationships between men and women.
Art work courtesy of Ibi Ibrahim
The women in A Pair of Shoes for Aisha (2012), by Nabeela al-Zubair, are all victims of a male-dominated culture: a culture that disregards the difference between minor and adult, and which does not see a role for women independent of men. Zainab, Amani, Nashwa and Raja, while representing seductive women, are victims of their situation, and of a culture which preys on their bodies. They are victims of a society which is outwardly virtuous, but is festering and corrupt within. Zainab is no different than the many women who suffer in silence, serving the sexual appetites of men, becoming objects of pleasure:
A car picked her up and left, without occasion or note, in a daily errand to an apartment full of men. One man cannot fill the time, as after the first ten minutes he has nothing left to do or say. The apartment door opens, then many men, and women… those aren’t women, they’re whores for their pleasure.
In the novel It’s My Body! (2000), by Nabeela al-Zubair, the artist-poet protagonist, Sakinah Omar, works through her talent and intuition in order to become who she wants to be, not who she is expected to be. Sakinah attempts to reconstruct her identity, to achieve her own rebirth, working hard to break the stereotype, defending with fatalism her ideals. However, she suffers the consequences of declaring herself, and is forced to face a society in which men dominate women – not only within the family, but at home, at work and all other aspects of life. The male refuses to recognize her ability, despite her achievements and seriousness in proving her intellectual and technical abilities.
Sakinah begins to realize that unspoken classification of women as nothing more than flesh. Sakinah decides to break the silence, shouting “It’s my body!” By declaring herself separate from society, she attempts to regain ownership of herself and to neutralize any judgments made of her value. In so doing, she employs her body as an expression of her being, rather than as a tool for her suppression and the elimination of her existence and intellect. Based on this premise – of the body being used as a medium of expression, rather than suppression and oppression – Sakinah presents a foundation, unfamiliar to Yemeni society, on which to build relationships between men and women. Women are then allowed to make their own decisions, and to bear the consequences of their actions, and the psychological, cultural and personal effects that entails. She utilizes her writing to dissect the cultural awareness of society, eliciting disdain from men who mock her oppression. The detachment of her inner self from society reflects the tears within the community, the family, and the tensions within those relationships. The ‘Sakinah’ character is an affirmation that a woman can be who she wants to be in this society, if she wants to be – and that is the story of the struggle between women and their reality with all its shackles of tradition and custom.
In Arwa (2013), by Habib al-Sorouri, the eponymous character is torn between four lovers in each of whom she sees a quality she loves, and detests, in turn. She is careful not to lose any of them, and even when she decides to marry one of them, she cannot ignore her feelings towards the others, and does not know how to consolidate her love towards them. She is lost in the selfishness that defines her relationships.
Arwa’s tragedy comes to a head when her husband, Moneef, forces her to make the choice between staying in the marriage – knowing that he has many lovers – or to leave. After struggling with emotions of jealousy, and in an attempt to reconcile reality and expectations, Arwa chooses herself. The challenge is in finding herself elsewhere, and in resolving her inner turmoil, and so she seeks an education in London. Escaping to a place so culturally distinct seems like a natural resolution to her struggle. It is as if being in her country had had an influence which requires the struggle against male authority, which is empowered to eliminate a woman’s existence. Furthermore, an education might help her in regaining her emotional stability.
Art work courtesy of Eclectic Yemeni
In Habib Sorouri’s Vein of the Gods (2008), Hanaya, despite her preoccupation with scientific research and logical deduction in all matters, including life, cannot ignore the feelings which push her to accept the role of a lover to a fellow student, Shamsan. The role contradicts her logical nature, and compels her to reconcile her scientific curiosity and emotional needs. Working with Shamsan seems like a solution, and, for a time, he succeeds in his relationships with his wife Firdaws and his lover Hanaya. However, maintaining the relationships becomes impossible as the situation becomes a conflict between needing and knowing. Here, the woman becomes a function of the man’s lust, gratifying the lust that cannot be controlled according to a law of mutual emotional and intellectual parity. Hanaya is a representation of women’s isolation in a society where feminine emotions are besieged and suppressed.
In Sireen Hassan’s In a Woman’s Coffin (2014), women struggle against a society which refuses to recognize their rights, oppressed by all men equally. “Why do all men carry my father’s scent? Why?” she says. Sarah, the protagonist, is not a pessimistic woman; she works hard to improve her situation – sometimes by running away, and sometimes by facing it head on. Motherhood forces her to choose between sacrificing herself to protect her children, and sacrificing her children in order to realize herself. After a bitter struggle to choose between the traditions which pretend to preserve virtue, and the practices which defy social values, Sarah decides to accept her situation, which she could not control, and to look for a minimum standard of living which preserves her children’s safety and stability. However, her difficult circumstances force her into accepting society’s terms. She comes to feel that it is useless to keep her name, or to change it – or to go elsewhere. After all, her body is the source of her suffering, and her body is the coffin she is buried in, alive.
The conflict between the male and female is present in the Yemeni novel, in both its social and cultural aspects. In depicting reality, as is done in novels written by female authors, the narrative voice is lost and is replaced by common and readymade accusations. Accusations that are readily made by both the cultured and the uncultured, the educated and the illiterate, the depraved and the virtuous; and so the narrative voice tells the story of each character in the same tone, and on the same level of awareness. That is, these accusations are the masks worn by the novelist. As a consequence, the narrative loses its ability to convince and persuade.
In most of these novels we do not find an objective explanation for the tumultuous relationships between men and women. This can be done by presenting the male in the social context, and the circumstances imposed on him, which are no less oppressive on him as they are to women. We can then shine a light on the effect of a discriminatory social consciousness on the relationship between men and women.
Female characters in the novel are quick to condemn the male, as if his biology is responsible for every problem, and not the social consciousness in which he was raised. Men and women must work together to change this consciousness, and the turbulent relationships it has imposed on them, described by suspicion, apprehension and disdain.
In some novels, female characters are depicted as being governed by conservative customs and tradition, and its hierarchical and discriminatory rules, without attempting to investigate the factors which lead to the formation of the character. That is, it becomes meaningless without examining the effect of the class and biological differences on personal relationships, individual choices, the warmth of human relationships, freedom of choice, and the ability to communicate effectively. An example can be seen in Echoes of Pain (2005) by Elham Mane’.
In sum, the characterization of women in Yemeni novels shines a light on the cultural and social protocols which control the relations between men and women, and there seems to be a similar narrative pattern. This pattern arises from a cultural and social system with a long history, which controls women by stereotyping their representations, and imposes itself on the perspective of both the male and female writer. Cultural factors dominating men and women are often ignored, and women are presented as being the victim, yielding, oppressed, abused, crushed, and belittled, depicted as flesh without mind or soul. By narrowing the depiction of women to their bodies, they are forbidden from free and independent choices – forbidden to express themselves, how they relate what is within to what is without, and making a woman’s cause one of constant conflict and struggle for existence.