A Symbolic Wa'd: Silencing Arab Women
Layla Alammar | Lancaster University
Asked to introduce herself to a European readership, the Syrian novelist, journalist, and short story writer Ghada al-Samman (b. 1942) replied, ‘I am a two-thousand-year-old Arab woman. They tried to bury me in the desert, but they failed. They killed me several times, but I always resurrected myself from the ashes to fly, and to write.’ (1) With these words the prolific and prominent writer invoked a profound transgenerational trauma that lingers in the Arab female psyche and which continues to manifest in the present day.
Her words reference the act of Wa’d, or female infant burial, which is believed to have been widely practiced in Jahiliya times, that is to say, the era of ignorance that predated the advent of Islam in 610 C.E. This form of infanticide was (bizarrely) seen as more humane as it did not involve the spilling of blood. Among the nomadic tribes of Arabia, there were many purported reasons for female infanticide, ranging from poverty to elimination of sick or illegitimate infants or those with abnormalities to manipulation of the sex ratio. It was viewed, in its simplest terms, as a lessening of burdens. Beyond that females were viewed unfavourably for the possibility of shame they harboured. As vessels for male honour, they represented an infinite possibility for scandal in the minds of their male kin: they could engage in illicit, premarital relations; they could run away from the camp; they could be captured by an enemy tribe and “sullied.” As feminist and sociologist Fatima Mernissi says in Women’s Rebellion and Islamic Memory (1996): ‘The concepts of honour and virginity locate the prestige of a man between the legs of a woman.’(2) This system of thought led to a fervent desire to abort the potential for dishonour in any way possible.
There continues to be scholarly debate on whether the ritual of wa’d was as commonplace as believed given the underdeveloped system of writing in an Arabia characterised by oral tradition; however, references to the act survive in poetry fragments as well as legends and traditions that have been preserved across the region. Perhaps the major indication that it was widespread enough to warrant special intervention comes from the fact that it is specifically mentioned, and abolished, in Quranic verse. Surat al-Takwir (81) contains the verses (8-9) stating: ‘And when the female infant (buried alive) is asked | for what sin was she killed.’ This unequivocal rejection of the practice meant it was subsequently abandoned—at least by those tribes that embraced Islam.
Though the abhorrent ritual was firmly prohibited under Islamic law, the spirit of wa’d survives to the present day. One of the central theses of Women’s Rebellion shows how the concealment and confinement of women within the home serves as a symbolic wa’d, or burial. It constitutes a physical exclusion from the public domain of knowledge—a traditionally masculine sphere. Furthermore, in a 2001 article on intrafamily femicide in Jordan, the novelist Fadia Faqir speaks to the widespread understanding of females maintaining sitr, that is to say “modesty,” and how this embodies a physical and psychological confinement to the domestic sphere and exclusion from the public. (3) This is because the Arabic goes beyond simple modesty, for sitr means “veiling,” and so carries within it a religious inflection that goes beyond demure or proper behaviour. Consequently, the physical erasure of women that wa’d accomplished was replaced with a symbolic and psychological erasure where women went unseen and unheard.
Nevertheless, despite these measures, women did emerge into the public domain, attaining education, forming political and social movements, pursuing careers, and traveling far beyond the home. This naturally resulted in women’s voices, whether verbal or written, entering the public arena in a more permanent and far-reaching fashion. Egyptian novelist Miral al-Tahawy, in a piece on body rhetoric in Arab women’s writing, shows how this literature emerged as a manifestation of the feminist movements in the first half of the twentieth century: the primary concerns for such writers as May Ziadeh, Doria Shafik, Latifa al-Zayyat, Assia Djebar, Nawal el-Saadawy, and many others were the exposure of women’s (sub)status across the region as well as the liberation of women (and their bodies) from a patriarchal order that persists in suppressing and erasing them. The act of writing, given its permanent nature, was a powerful attack on a patriarchal discourse that viewed female speech as an indecency and incitement to sin. In fact, a well-known adage in the Arab world states that “ṣawt al-mar’a ‘awra”, which is usually translated as “A woman’s voice is sinful.” However, again the English misses the piercing connotations of the Arabic. The word ‘awra literally means “nakedness,” which imbues the saying with a misogynist condemnation of the implicit shame and explicit eroticism that is ascribed to female nudity.
Women continue to protest and reclaim the narratives that have been foisted on their bodies and identity. During the 2019 revolution in Sudan, the saying was co-opted to highlight female leadership in the protests, epitomised by Sudanese Alaa’ Saleh who—in her sharp white robe and with an accusatory gesture—stood on a high platform and led protest chants, subsequently emerging as an icon of the revolution. This led to the dissemination of the Twitter hashtag ‘ṣawt al-mar’a thawra,’ which substitutes the word ‘awra with thawra (revolution), to render the meaning 'A woman’s voice is a revolution.' Thus, a saying, which has for centuries justified the silencing of women, was turned into a resounding gesture of empowerment. These movements and reclamations are intricately tied to women’s writing, which, at its core, is an act of protest. It takes the multiplicity of erasures to which women have been subjected—along with the attendant pain, degradation, and trauma—and releases them to the public where they are crystallised for posterity. It attempts to unlock what Lebanese novelist Etel Adnan has called intersecting 'circles of oppression.'(4) This is a familiar sentiment for al-Tahawy who claims that all her protagonists reside in 'these closed circles of oppression' and that, when she writes, she is writing ‘an autobiography of my soul and the pains and dilemmas of millions of women.’(5) In other words, there is a duty, stretching back generations, that Arab women writers feel obligated to honour.
It must be said, though, that there is an undeniable, and perhaps not entirely unexpected, violence to this process. Writing does not emerge from a vacuum nor do words, once published, float, inert, in empty space. In “The Laugh of the Medusa” Hélène Cixous says, ‘A feminine text [...] is volcanic; as it is written it brings about the upheaval of the old property crust, carrier of masculine investments; there is no other way.’(6) Therefore, women’s writing is born out of and precipitates seismic changes in the local/regional environment. It arises from the personal being made political. Mernissi reminds us in Women’s Rebellion that ‘wherever there is inequality, there is also dishonesty, subterfuge, hypocrisy, and a wish, whether acknowledged or not, for revenge.’(7) At times this revenge is explicit in the exposure and revelation of matters that men would rather we left unsaid, but in other cases, it is given dramatic representation.
Consider Ghada al-Samman’s short story “Thirty Years of Bees” (1994) wherein the protagonist is a brilliant, driven woman who has dedicated her life to building a successful publishing firm alongside her husband. In the narrative, the couple is being driven to a banquet to honour the firm and, more explicitly, her husband. She has been excluded from the official ceremony. In the car, the sycophantic driver heaps compliment upon compliment on the husband, who entirely omits any mention or recognition of his wife’s role in their success. The wife sits alone in the backseat, seething, and begins to feel a humming in her chest which migrates up into her throat. Arriving at the banquet, their peers pour accolades on the husband for his services to the industry while the wife sits alone and ignored with an ever-intensifying hum in her throat. Then, when she opens her mouth, it is not words that emerge, but bees. A huge swarm, thirty years’ worth, of bees fills the hall, stinging the attendees and her husband while leaving her unharmed.
The symbolism here is significant. In a hive, the female (or worker) bee is responsible for all labour: she gathers the pollen and packs it; she carries water in and fans the hive to keep it cool; she builds the honeycomb and seals it; she attends to the queen bee and guards the hive. Meanwhile, the male (or drone) bees have no stingers with which to protect anything and undertake no hive duties. Their only job is to mate with the queen. The symbolism gestures to the imbalance in the distribution of labour within many homes, whereby the woman essentially works two full-time jobs—one outside the home and another within it—in a juggling act that is frequently taken for granted. And so, with this eerie tale, al-Samman sharply illustrates the anger and frustration women feel at being unacknowledged and buried while reclaiming the space of the throat, once filled with dirt, as a powerful weapon of agency. It is clear that women’s writing, by its very nature, overturns terra masculinus, succeeding not only in striking at and interrogating the patriarchal system but also in unearthing all that the system seeks to conceal. For Arab women, in particular, writing allows us to excavate the wounds of the past and bear witness to them; and while such writing may not lead to immediate or lasting social change, it stands as a permanent testament to the shared trauma that Arab women embody and their refusal to be silenced.
This exchange is recounted in Al-Samman, Hanadi, Anxiety of Erasure: Trauma, Authorship, and the Diaspora in Arab Women's Writings (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015), p. 45. The book succeeds in showing how many Arab women writers (including Ghada al-Samman) activate the cultural/mythological tropes of Shahrazad and the Wa’d in order to revisit traumatic histories as a path to resistance and recovery.
Mernissi, Fatima, Women’s Rebellion and Islamic Memory (New Jersey: Zed Books, 1996), p. 39.
Faqir, Fadia, ‘Intrafamily Femicide in Defence of Honour: The Case of Jordan’, Third World Quarterly, 22 (2001), pp. 65-82, p. 69.
Adnan is quoted in Majaj, Lisa Suhair, Paula W. Sunderman and Therese Saliba, eds. Intersections: Gender, Nation and Community in Arab Women's Novels (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2002), p. xix.
Al-Tahawy, Miral, ‘Writing as an Autobiography of the Soul’, DisORIENTation: Contemporary Arab Artists from the Middle East, (2003) archiv.hkw.de/en/dossiers/disorientation/kapitel2.html
Cixous, Hélène, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’, In Critical Theory since 1965, ed. by Hazard Adams and Leory Searle, (Tallahassee: Florida State University Press, 1986), pp. 308– 20, (p. 316).
Mernissi, Women’s Rebellion, p. 40.
Al-Tahawy, Miral, ‘Writing the Body and the Rhetoric of Protest in Arab Women’s Literature’, trans. by Shoshana London Sappir, Journal of Levantine Studies - Blog, 7.1 (2017) https://levantine-journal.org/writing-body-rhetoric-protest-arab-womens-literature/
Mehta, Brinda, Rituals of Memory: in Contemporary Arab Women’s Writing (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007)
Layla AlAmmar is a writer from Kuwait. Her debut, The Pact We Made, was published in 2019 and longlisted for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award. Her second novel, Silence is a Sense, will be published in March 2021. She is a PhD candidate at Lancaster University researching the intersection of Arab Women’s Fiction and Literary Trauma Theory. Find out more here.