Joumana Haddad's new book, Superman is an Arab, is a polemic about the corrosive effects of macho culture and patriarchal attitudes on the women and the men of the Middle East.
Joumana Haddad - writing against machismo and for freedom
A short walk from Beirut’s most picturesque university campus is a coffee shop, set on a corner on Rue Clemenceau. With its Ottoman-era decor and shisha pipes, it’s an easy place for travellers to sit and soak up the atmosphere of the old Arab world, surrounded by students flirting over their textbooks and young couples whiling away long hours over coffee.
To the south is a warren of bars and nightclubs, and as evening falls, a procession of scantily dressed women wander past the coffee shop, causing travellers, many of whom have only the most cursory understanding of life in the modern Arab world, to gasp and gawp. They stand, transfixed by this scene, as it overturns all their preconceptions about Lebanon.
Joumana Haddad has the same effect on journalists. Ever since she burst into the consciousness of the English-speaking world with her 2010 polemic I Killed Scheherazade, the Lebanese author has mesmerised Anglo-American and European audiences.
Adoring profiles have been published in The New York Times and Elle, among many others, all illustrated with flattering portraits of the photogenic Haddad.
Thousands of words have been lavished on her biography: the daughter of a middle-class Lebanese intellectual, the product of a strict Catholic upbringing, who was scandalised as a young girl by the writings of the Marquis de Sade and now, in addition to working as an editor at an Arabic newspaper, also publishes poetry and prose in several languages. Fewer words, however, have been expended understanding her ideas.
This oversight is hardly Haddad’s fault. Even a cursory glance at the profiles about her reveal an astonishing ignorance on the part of the writers about the world from which she comes, a mess of burqas, turbans and Sharia law, a mangled imagining of received information from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
These writers, like many of their readers, are so enchanted by one-dimensional fragments about the Arab world that they cannot conceive of a woman like Haddad, immaculately attired, independently employed, liberally peppering her speech and her text with sexual references.
Even this, though, is hardly the fault of the writers. Language can be a prison and the linguistic terms to describe Arab complexity do not have common currency in many western circles. That this image of Haddad is quite ordinary – in the sense that such women exist in every Arab city, from Casablanca to Cairo – does not detract from the extraordinary quality of Haddad’s work and life. If she is not the outlier of western imagination, nor is she a representative sample, as Arab liberals sometimes wish.
All the more reason to understand what she is saying, at a time of great change in the Arab world. Haddad’s second book in English is a continuation of the arguments first advanced in I Killed Scheherazade, this time with machismo as its target. It too is peppered with biographical stories, digestible metaphors – and ferocious, sparkling criticism. In Superman is an Arab, Haddad, with the fury of the famished, tears into what the Saudi Arabian author Abdo Khal called “the sacrosanct trio of taboos in the Arab world”: sex, politics and religion.
Each chapter starts with “The disastrous invention of …” and is split into a poem, a rant and a narrative on the subject – monotheism, machismo, marriage, each get their own chapters – with Haddad’s polemic turned on them in turn.
“Bullies, gangsters, mobsters, women-beaters and sexual abusers: many men are trapped in a vicious circle of violence that derives from a flawed theory of manhood,” she writes of the cult of machismo. “Frankly, I don’t know how a woman can be a woman today without being constantly furious at the insults and abuses that affect her, whether these aim to eliminate or exploit her.”
Haddad’s argument that hyper-masculinity has robbed men of the ability to be fully human is both particular and universal. Superman is an Arab, she writes, because “there are so many of these self-appointed superheroes here, in my dear old Arab region … The same split personality. The same pretentious ‘I can save the day’ attitude. The same ‘I am indestructible’ delusion.”
At the same time, Haddad is aware that she is not writing about the Arab world alone, but there are broader applications of her arguments. “This is not a manifesto against men in general, nor is it a manifesto against Arab men in particular. It is a howl in the face of the patriarchal system and its absurd ‘values’.” Haddad attacks that system as it is exists in the Arab world, but her denunciations apply equally to other societies, and she often explicitly draws out the parallels.
Yet while Haddad is harsh and unforgiving about all the ways patriarchy has failed women (“Who decided that the normal needs of my body conflict with my moral values? How does my freedom of choice insult my feminine identity?”), she is equally unforgiving about individual men.
“I loved Clark Kent right away,” she writes, on discovering a stack of Superman comics in her aunt’s house when she was nine. “He was a timid, clumsy, honest, sweet, mild-mannered man. He was, in short, genuine. This world doesn’t need manufactured ‘men of steel’. It needs real men. Real men, yes: with all their clumsiness, timidity, flaws, slips and weak spots.”
Yet a few paragraphs later, she castigates men for precisely those things: “Indeed, Superman is an Arab. He may appear powerful, but his muscles are just a facade for his insecurities … He may look resistant, but he doesn’t last long. A simple challenge can shake him, scare him and break him.”
The difficulty with this line of argument is that it precludes the possibility that men, as well as women, suffer the disturbance of coping with patriarchy. In reality, most men are burdened by these same expectations.
If, as Haddad later writes, men have confused “manhood with machismo, faith with fanaticism, ethics with stale traditions, love with possession and strength with despotism”, it is hardly fair to blame each of them individually for the stale soup of societal pressures in which they swim.
I recognise the men Haddad discusses in the autobiographical parts of the book – the hypocritical religious leaders, the only publicly pious boyfriends, the men forcing their rules of honour on women – but equally, after more than a decade travelling and reporting on the Middle East, I recognise the men she doesn’t name: the men who try to do the best they can in difficult circumstances; the men who hold too tightly the things they love because the precariousness of life too easily takes them away; the men, the boys, who look for a way to negotiate societies that are rapidly changing and are at the same time too stagnant. The picture she paints only partly corresponds to these messy, illogical, often unfair lived realities.
To recognise this is not to absolve these men of their sins, nor to apply specific circumstances to the Middle East (the challenges men face are much the same everywhere) but it is to acknowledge that patriarchal systems have affected men as well. The many millions who strive to find love, happiness and fulfilment have often been gifted particular methods of acting by society.
It is true they often seamlessly act them out, reinforcing such behaviour and benefiting from its effects, but they do not all do so gleefully. Societies reward certain behaviours, regardless of intent. In Superman, Haddad on occasion seems unwilling to forgive men for what society has done to them too.
The biographical elements of the book, where Haddad tells amusing stories of the hypocrisy of men she has known, are among its best parts, but the accumulation of arguments across the chapters also espouse a coherent philosophy, although Haddad never explicitly spells this out. Rather, she alludes to it, first in her poetry and then in her prose. It is worth seeking out, however, because the intellectual underpinning of both ultimately proves to be unexpectedly radical.
Haddad’s published poetry is among her most socially exploratory work. In Superman, the poems are both personal and metaphysical; Haddad explores the dynamic of her womanhood more abstractly than she does in her prose and it is through her poetry that a reader can best grasp her version of feminism.
The poems focus on the impossibility of reconciling so many desires in a short life. Towards the book’s end, when Haddad meditates on marriage and getting old, there are hints of a desire for a simpler life, where the outside world – the world of social norms, of urban life, even of time itself – cannot intrude.
One of her most moving poems, Still, is a wistful hymn to an ageless life of still moments, a world where a woman and her companion – the relationship to this confidante goes deliberately unnamed – can be free of the expectations of marriage, of children, of modern life. A world, she writes, with “No sad wrinkles around the mouth/no dark circles around the heart/no tight chains around the neck”. Even here, Haddad is not railing against getting old, but against the societal expectations that come with it.
As each poem unravels, a consistent theme emerges. Namely that women’s strength, depth and passions are caged by society’s strictures. Haddad’s poems constantly look to subvert expectations of the proper behaviour of women. She wants to show the opposite: that if chaste, they are passionate; if timid, they are violent; if calm, they are boiling; if irrational, they are cunning.
But it is not that she believes a woman is all of these things, rather that she believes women can be all these things. Her poems seek to enlarge the possibilities of how women are viewed. That’s why she is equally enraged by the burqa and the bikini – both, her poems imply, are ways of dominating women, of putting them in boxes, of limiting the free expression of their true natures.
Criticism of Haddad’s work for appearing to demand that all women be libertines is misplaced: she doesn’t think that at all. Rather, she thinks they should have the option to be whatever they want.
How women can live free is also a theme that emerges from the prose, but here the arguments are made more vigorously and the reasons why women are unfree more clearly articulated.
Haddad calls herself a third-wave feminist, equating herself with a broad movement of ideas that has been current for two decades. In some respects, she is very clearly that. Her writing celebrates the individual, highlights the importance of pleasure, and is careful to understand the plurality of views that exists among women.
Yet, at the same time, Haddad’s prose occasionally argues for a different version of feminism. She believes in the importance of a responsive legal framework for women, a demand which most western third-wave feminists take for granted. She also derides the notion that Islamic feminism can be a vehicle for change.
Her arguments about women and their place in society run much deeper than those of many of her western colleagues. Third-wave feminists in the West want to work within the existing institutions, but Haddad wants to go further. Her broad critique of patriarchal society in the Arab world would chime very well with feminists critiquing patriarchal western societies. But western feminism has a specificity to it and Haddad’s critique of Arab society goes beyond its notions of liberation. Those of Haddad’s critics who see her merely as a troublemaker underestimate her: she is far more politically radical than they imagine.
The feminists of the modern Middle East are facing two distinct, parallel challenges: an attempt to change the patriarchal status quo while at the same time fighting the entrenched effects of post-colonialism and external influence.
One can see those two strands in the feminist movements that straddle the region: the feminism, broadly speaking, of the Islamists is very focused on post-colonialism, on rebuilding a society free of external influences. Islamists see the patriarchal status quo through this lens of western interference. The attempt to create two separate but equal spheres of influence for women and men is an attempt to return to what Islamists conceive of as a more enlightened and equal society.
The same is broadly true of the secular feminism of the modern Middle East. Secularism in the Arab world in the post-Second World War period was intimately tied to resisting outside influences. It is no surprise that those countries where secularist movements and governments flourished were also those in the vanguard of resisting foreign interference – that of the British in Egypt, Iraq and South Yemen; of the French in the Levant.
The modern secularism of Arab feminist movements bears this same imprimatur. In Lebanon, resisting the influence of both Syria and Israel has had a profound effect on secular feminism, which is very clearly about removing both male and external domination. The two are intimately linked.
Haddad goes further than that. Her problem is with the establishment, with the ruling institutions. Her objections are to external influence on the individual, rather than on the society. Seen in that light, her book merely appears to be liberal, but it is not. Her philosophy is actually profoundly anti-establishment.
Part of the reason why Haddad’s is seen as a liberal critique of society is the writer herself. In person, she is open and unrestrained; in her writing she is open-minded and tolerant. She espouses casual relationships and edits a risqué magazine.
These things have given rise to critics seeing her criticism of the stifling conservatism of some parts of Lebanese and Arab society as a liberal critique.
But a closer examination of her book shows this is not the case. Haddad herself may be liberal, but her critique is not. She does not, for example, encourage conservative Lebanese to raise their hemlines. In fact, she denounces the objectification of women both in the West and in Lebanon, disgusted at a Lebanese government film promoting tourism by “playing upon tourists’ desire for the half-naked bodies of Lebanese girls”.
Rather, Haddad is fundamentally anti-establishment; her issue is with institutions. In this context, her critique is not liberal but libertarian. She sees the bonds of institutions holding individuals too tightly. It is the institutions of society that she thinks constrain people’s passions, their ideas, their freedom, their creativity. Unleashed from that, she appears to suggest, human beings could reach their optimum potential.
Whereas modern political liberals look to government to guarantee the rights of the individual, Haddad rails against all forms of coercion, even state coercion, which she feels has created in Lebanon a stodgy state of confessional “red lines”. She believes rather in the freedom of individuals, away from intervention by any institution.
She is not – although she is often accused of being – a libertine, someone for whom there are no moral constraints. Although Haddad argues there should be no moral judgements between consenting adults, she doesn’t extend that to society: unlike her much-admired author the Marquis de Sade – whom she spends some time defending in the book – she does not argue for a complete lack of morality. On the contrary, she doesn’t argue for any form of coercion in moral affairs.
Even her chapter on age, “The disastrous invention of getting old”, is about social bonds. She doesn’t mind getting old – she relishes her experiences and her future. But it is the expectations in a consumerised society of what age means that she dislikes. Haddad is arguing against a society that sees youth, beauty and perfection as the only goods, advances them as the only images of living people, and portrays them as the only way to even exist. (A view, she tells us in one moving passage, even uttered by her own son.)
Society has denatured women from their true selves: beauty, she argues, is not found beneath a surgeon’s knife. “It is because of such patriarchal values that living became a synonym for ‘performing’,” she says, “We seem to have forgotten that only when the idea of an audience fades away, do we become truly alive.”
In some ways, she goes further than libertarians and espouses anarchist arguments. For Haddad, social norms and institutions are mere restrictions on our true nature, which is, originally, free and good. She refuses to accept the argument that human beings are in any way rotten and that institutions – for example, marriage, about which she is unrelentingly critical – serve to keep our weaker natures in check. On the contrary, her arguments are based on a positive belief in the liberty of human beings’ true selves.
“Faithfulness as a strict ethic, and not as a natural, spontaneous instinct, generates frustration. And I do not want a frustrated man in my life,” she writes. “Duplicity generates lies. Lies produce disappointment. Disappointment leads to revulsion: an endless vicious circle of unnatural behaviours.”
Haddad wants none of these. She wants beautiful, natural human behaviour, a human nature that, she implies, stripped of the dehumanising effects of state and society, is moral and free.
In Lebanon, the bonds of the state are often thought to be too weak. Haddad believes, in fact, they are too tight. Politics, religion, marriage, machismo: all of these grasp the individual too severely and constrict her ability to freely express herself.
Haddad herself is doing that, though she admits she is a work in progress, trying to live socially free and without compromise in a society she believes frowns upon her.
Superman is a cri de coeur to a world she cannot comprehend but which she cannot give up. Haddad hears the “beautiful, hijacked voices” of Arabs in her head “day after day, word after word” and writes in order to give them life. Her book is the cry of one who, having thrown off the chains that bind, urges everyone around her to recognise their own bondage.
Faisal Al Yafai is a columnist for The National. His book about feminism in the modern Middle East is forthcoming from I?B Tauris, London.