A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)
“Men are not born males and women are not born females, society does that, it makes men males and women females.” This statement from Simone de Beauvoir highlights how socially constructed roles create a sense of identity, and how biological differences are not definitive in developing a human identity.
Some novelists adopt this idea when they write novels. Society creates cultural barriers between men and women, generating emotional separation and imposing frameworks for relationships between them. As time goes by, these practices become the social norm, strengthened by the law, and they begin to control society, seeping into its fabric. Until finally they become a lived reality, inherited by generations blinded to the effects and implications these norms have on individuals and the social structure.
The portrayal of men in novels
image courtesy of Eclectic Yemeni
Men are portrayed clearly in novels written by women, almost dominating the narrative and topic of the novel even in stories where female characters are the heroes. In most novels written by women, men are portrayed in a negative way, typically as dominating figures, whether as a father, husband, lover, brother, son or colleague – meaning that the domination starts from inside the family or from someone close to it.
The sheer number of Yemeni novels means there are many kinds of male character in stories written by women. While examining those male characters, it is striking to see that their involvement revolves around societal relations within the community; and usually women highlight many taboo subjects in society. Women’s narratives had always been strong, starting from Scheherazade’s ability to articulate and express her stance towards men.
This article is about the relationship between men and women in society, and it will discuss men from the platform of novels. In the next article on this subject, the portrayal of men in novels will be shown through the eyes of male novelists. Male characters are usually made in many images, and so some of those character types are classified in the ways articulated below.
The image of the father
In life, a father is usually the first male figure in his daughter’s life, and he’s the example from which she forms her image of men and how she engages with them in the future. The presentation of fathers in Serein Hassan’s novel In the Coffin of a Woman is very shocking, for instead of him being a role model and a source of love and safety, the father is a symbol of oppression and brutality. He does not hesitate in beating or harassing his daughter, and confiscates the right to object from her mother and sisters, and becomes the biggest cause of the destruction of their lives.
Similarly, in A Pair of Shoes for Aisha by Nabila Zubair, the father appears in many narratives, three of which are the most noteworthy. The first is Abu Zainab, who disowned his daughter in her time of need because of fear of shame: “Her father didn’t abandon her, but denied that she’s his daughter.” The second is Abu Raja, who lost his job because of a disability, and when he was in dire need of money, he turned a blind eye on the men who came to his house in order to have sex with his daughter under the guise of guests: “They all came to see him anyways, but they came to the house for Raja.” Finally, Abu Nashwa, who had many relationships with women and forced his daughter to keep his secret, until finally, the mother pleads with her daughter to reveal his secrets, and she replies: “I saw the man who was always your husband, but I didn’t see my father.”
In these novels’ narratives, there are negative portrayals of fathers, the man who doesn’t refrain from oppressing his daughter or colluding with her oppressors, and depriving her of humanity. Instead of being a role model to base her search for a husband on, he becomes the symbol of domination. Any attack on him is an attack on unjust authority; distorting the stereotype and dissipating his halo comes from the antiestablishment context, or the search for justice and equality which should first happen within the family.
However, the image of the father in My Fathers Wedding, Aziza Abdullah’s novel, is the image of a social and intellectual man, a reputable man among his community. His community is reflected in his actions – he is a polygamist without appearing to act contrary to the norms of his culture. His daughter paints an image of her father’s marriages without forgetting to highlight her mother’s suffering in order to show the negative side of this image.
The positive image of a father comes in The Cocoons Rituals, Serein Hassan’s novel, to an extreme point where Retaj, the novel’s hero, gets very attached to her father and is almost driven to kill him from jealousy of Munira, who had stolen her father’s heart and become his new wife after her mother died.
The image of the husband
image courtesy of Hadeer Omar
The image of husbands is the most frequent role for men in women’s novels, and it is the most negative, demonstrating a masculine society with a stereotypical image of women. In most novels written by women, husbands are mocked or condemned for their role, as the novelists draw a caricature of their relationships with their wives, with husbands reducing marriage to the appearance of the wife’s body, and not the intimate connection between two souls.
Her existence is based on her body, which is only required to satisfy the sensual needs of her husband; but this relationship is always in danger of collapsing, and enforces the marginalization of women. An example of this kind of marriage is Tarek and Zainab’s in A Pair of Shoes for Aisha. Despite Tarek’s religiousness, he wants Zainab to perform sexual acts she had learned before their marriage, while she wants to repent and sees what he is asking for as an extension of her previous life: “The problem is that he married me as a whore, not a repentful sinner like I thought he did.” Her friend replies, “This is not a problem. He married a person who has experiences to share with him in wedlock”.
In this portrayal, Tarek’s ruthlessness and religious authority is highlighted through a different side to his character, because he wears the cloak of religion. It reduces him to what his beard achieves for him; since he’s not good at anything, all he was good for was a job as a security guard for his father’s business: “His beard was the one that had a job, it was going to the office. A pole with two wooden arms that don’t move, they are not required to move, at the end of this pole was a beard, and it was the one working”.
Close to this kind of negative image of men is found in that of Fathia’s husband in It’s My Body and Halima’s husband in Noble Dreams, where the husband is always portrayed as the predator and his wife the prey. He is selfish, unfaithful, an oppressor and a rapist, and the wife is an oppressed victim, patient and fraught.
The image of the lover
Lovers are frequently portrayed as suitors, not loved ones; women’s responses to their advances are due to the persistence of the men. This image appears to be linked to the husband image. Lovers are a symbol of a masculine society. The usual relationship between women and their lovers presents an image of a man who can’t think of the woman beyond her body. And when he achieves his aim, he relinquishes the ‘love’ and sends her away. The most noteworthy example is the lover in Female Ashes, Nada Shalan’s novel, whose image reflects the social norms. Faris falls in ‘love’ with Haneen and captivates her senses; however, after he preys on her body, he abandons all emotions and discards her, leaving her surrounded with fear of a scandal, to the point that she is reluctant to marry:
“He jumped on me and tore my dress wildly in a terrifying manner, he pressed against me and started biting my neck while his hands squeezed my breasts as if to displace them… I tried to resist, kicking and scratching him, but he was not affected since I was very small compared to his big stature… He carried me off the floor very easily after I had been battered by his blows, and threw me violently onto the bed and raped me brutally. After he finished his crime, he left me destroyed on the bed. He exhausted all my being and left, he left me a wreck, ashes of a woman, and left.”
The image of brothers
image courtesy of Eclectic Yemeni
Brothers are portrayed as an extension of the father: an oppressor, next in line to the throne of authority, always violent and restrictive, and monitoring his sister’s activities. Abdulrahman, Halima’s brother in Noble Dreams, is similar to his father in terms of oppression: “Oh my god, he’s so similar to my father, I never noticed that before.” This similarity adds salt to her wound: “I felt angry, my entire life flashed before my eyes, which was full of injustice and deprivation.” Abdulrahman awakened in Halima her father’s brutal image, the one that forced her to marry and later forced her husband to divorce her and take her child.
Worse, the authority of the brother is often disguised as defense of virtue, but in reality it’s something else. Faisal’s character, who is Haneen’s older brother in Female Ashes, is one example:
“Faisal wasn’t opposed to my work because of cultural norms or the sectarian shackles that imprison women and forbid them from working with men. There is nothing worse to those who follow this sect than women being around men, but his true motive was that he couldn’t take from my salary like he does from my mother.”
There are many negative images of brothers’ relationships with sisters; however, some positive images emerge, like Haneen’s younger brother in Female Ashes. He looked after Haneen’s child and would sometimes intervene when his older brother began oppressing her. This beautiful image of a brother is rare, and he appears as the gentle supporting figure who is always marginalized by the father and older brother. He has no role in the family.
The image of the son
The relationship between a mother and her son is effectively shown in the relationship between Faisal and his mother in Females Ashes. He appears to be a respectable son, but not because he appreciates her, but so that he can exploit her since he is in need of money. Similarly, Nashwa’s third brother, whom they used to call ‘mom’s boy’, used to view his mom as the treasury, while simultaneously her other brothers, Ameen and Tarek, compete to relieve the father of his fortune. Ameen eventually accuses his father of debauchery and attempts to seize his assets. Nashwa says, “There are no men except my sisters, and they are always angry with them, they don’t receive my father’s acceptance unless he wants, or when he finds time”.
Sons always appears helpless before a father’s will, surrendering immediately with no power. This image reaches its peak of negativity in A Woman’s Coffin, where the son isn’t capable of standing with his sister against his father’s supremacy.
The colleague’s image
The image of the colleague epitomizes the cultural views of men in society, and are most revealing about how men view women. These women aren’t related to them, and they behave towards them according to what the community expects. In a work environment, they disregard women’s roles, effectiveness and efforts, and reduce them to their biological identity. They discriminate against women and don’t believe in women’s right to work, despite qualifications, experience and success.
image courtesy of Hadeer Omar
Sakina Omar’s colleagues in It’s My Body appear very incompetent in the work environment, distracted and always ridiculing the work of women, demonstrating their masculinity, with its unjust social dimensions. Women also suffer at the hands of men who frequent their offices to complete transactions, as the men assume the same role and are willing to abuse and harass them. The images of these men portray them as grasping and corpulent, also constantly eager to accept bribes and engage in corruption.
Hence Sakina Omar takes one string that attaches all masculine thinking, starting with her father, who glorifies her brother’s failures, although he’s only good at spying on her, through to her male colleagues, ending with her lover who only wants her body, uninterested in her being, humanity, intellect or feelings.
The dream man image
An example of a role model man is absent; he’s only included in the form of wishful thinking, a dream – not reality – usually from outside of the Yemeni community. An example can be found in the Iraqi man from A Pair of Shoes for Aisha. He is an asylum seeker, and despite his age he is articulate with women, meaning respect for women is part of his cultural background: “Our young men never utter a sweet word, even when they catcall, they attempt to say sexy things but it comes out offensive.” This sentence highlights the cultural differences between Iraqi and local men – they can’t even flirt in an appreciative way of women’s beauty and humanity, always uttering words that reflect the mental images of women in our society.
Through the relationships that occur in these novels, the image of man is negative. He is often an unstable person, and most problems are attributed to him. He is obsessed with sex, prone to vulgarity, opportunism, exploitation and violence. He does not respect feelings, does not care about love, only cares about women’s bodies and satisfying his sexual desires. Apart from that, women mean nothing to him.
The image of this predator highlights what women endure and suffer. Novelists attempt to draw a stereotypical image to confront the stereotypical image men have of women – as creatures of subversion, lust and temptation. Prisoners, Nadia al-Kawkabani’s novel, includes these images, as does In a Woman’s Coffin, It’s My Body, A Pair of Shoes for Aisha, Victim of Greed by Ramzia al-Eryani, My Father’s Wedding, and Noble Dreams by Aziza Abdullah.
The novelists, through these negative images, attempt to dent the masculine cultures, and shatter the idea of a perfect relationship between men and women in our culture. They absorb the psychological image of men, and reproduce it in fictional characters. These images are built from a social context which needs to be abandoned and dismantled so it doesn’t control reality, for women can’t achieve victory in equality alone, they must fight with men to undermine the historical social backwardness, and what it produces in the form of discrimination and prejudice.