The Saudi housewife who received death threats after reciting defiant poetry aimed at religious clerics on the television show Million's Poet is again courting controversy with a book of poems about divorce.
Hissa Hilal insists that Divorce and Kholu' Poetry: A Reading of the Status of Women in Tribal Society, Nabati Poetry as a Witness, a compilation of pre-1950 poems written by Bedouin women living in the Gulf, represents the common view that divorce was easier - and women had more freedom - all those years ago. But today's Emirati women speak with several voices when asked if divorce is easier than it used to be. Their answers offer different perspectives on the web of social obligation and its effect on personal freedom, both then and now.
Brigadier General Asma al Mughairi, 65, a retired dentist who works as a consultant for Sheikh Zayed Military Hospital, believes that women have more freedom in marriage than previously. "Women now have more voice than ever before," she said. "They are educated and are taking positions only taken by men in the past." Brig Gen al Mughairi, a widow, said this social standing made it much easier for women to get divorced, which to her mind is why the divorce rate has risen.
Shatha al Romaithi, 32, a communications manager at Flash Entertainment, does not see attitudes towards divorce as having changed. "It was frowned upon in the past and is still frowned upon today. It's one of the reasons I haven't got married yet. I want to be sure." But Laila Salem, a 25-year-old divorcee who works as an administrator for Abu Dhabi Police, said: "In tribal communities, once a woman was divorced, it was very common for her to remarry. My grandmother married six times."
It is not that women were stronger, but life was just different back then, said Ms Salem. "Dowries were lower, making it easy for men to have more than one wife," she said. "Women had no problem being a second, third, or fourth wife, and it was a disgrace once divorced to be sent back to your father's house, which is why women jumped at any chance to remarry. These days, women are not as eager to remarry as they have the chance to be educated, work and fend for themselves."
Hilal said she chose the poems in the book because they were "strong female Bedouin voices, poems showing that women then had more say in domestic matters than they do now. It was easier for them to divorce and remarry. Their voices were heard." Dr Fatima al Sayegh, a professor of UAE and Gulf history at UAE University, said most modern divorces happened in the first few years of marriage because of financial strains. However, while divorces were easier for women to obtain, there were repercussions, she said.
"Our society is so open today, so once a woman is divorced a man thinks she is easy," said Dr al Sayegh. "She is not a virgin when he marries her so he will think she may well have affairs. But 70 to 100 years ago, society was more closed. After divorce, she would move into the family house and remarrying was easier because it was more like neighbourhood solidarity. Someone would marry her to take care of her." Dr al Sayegh said the poems did not represent everyone. "Not every woman could speak out and not every family gave women freedom or there would be no evidence of forced marriages," she said.
Sultan al Amimi, the director of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage's Poetry Academy, which published the book, said its poems redressed stereotypes of women in the Islamic world as oppressed. "Ms Hilal wants to show that women have always had the right to voice their opinions about who they wanted to marry," he said. "It is an important book for the new generation to read." Hilal hopes the book can educate people in the Gulf and lead to change.
Dr al Sayegh praised Hilal's efforts to empower women, but believes that more needs to be written and said on the subject before real change can happen. "It is up against competition from hundreds of books, magazines and TV programmes which take women back to the Middle Ages and turn them into objects for sexual desire. Sadly one book is not enough to turn back that tide." * The National