Literary Assertions on Women’s Rights in the Middle East
Women’s issues have permeated societies throughout the world for decades, and many authors have attempted to deal with issues such as women’s rights through their own literary works. In Egypt, one such author is Alifa Rifaat, who addresses women’s rights in general, but also more specifically challenges conventional ideas regarding a woman’s right to sexual gratification in the short story “My World of the Unknown.” Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain is another international writer whose work reflects feminist issues of India in her short story “Sultana’s Dream.” Although the two stories deal with the common issue of women’s rights, they differ greatly in their content and their style because, although both countries’ attitudes towards women are antiquated, the specific circumstances of each country and each particular concern is different, and therefore the issues must be dealt with accordingly.
Rafaat’s most obvious statement in “My World of the Unknown” is a call for the sexual empowerment of women. At this time, Egyptian women are not expected, or even allowed, to enjoy sexual encounters. Sex is a practice to bring pleasure to a woman’s husband but not to herself. Rafaat’s story is so provoking because, not only does the character have an affair that brings her joy, but her lover is a female snake. The story directly brings about many subjects that are taboo in the Egyptian society, and not only acknowledges that they exist, but asserts that they are acceptable.
However, on a broader level, Rifaat argues on behalf of women’s equality in general. The snake that becomes the character’s lover is representative of these rights, and the attributes that Rifaat gives to the snake are the key to these issues. Most importantly, the snake is a divine being, signifying that women are endowed by the Creator with the rights that they are asking for. Also, the snake has an incredible power over the woman, as she says her “soul [is] intoxicated with a strange elation at the exciting beauty of the snake” (Rifaat 1135). The snake’s beauty and appeal persist throughout the story, and Rifaat compares it to “jewels” (Rifaat 1134). These positive images of the snake, and hence women’s rights, attempt to influence attitudes about the expectations of women in Egypt. Rifaat also connects the snake with Cleopatra, a woman known for her power in Egypt, which further supports the snake as a strong symbol of women’s rights.
The description of the snake also serves to symbolize the troubles that women have faced in gaining their rights. She is described as having “bright, wary eyes” (Rifaat 1135), illustrating her tiredness from the fight she has encountered. She is also seen “curled round on [her]self” (Rifaat 1135), a sign of the endless cyclical battle that the women have faced in gaining their rights. The snake is portrayed as a seductive but unreal creature, which points to a disillusionment with the fight for rights, as does Rifaat’s reference to the snake as something of a “fairy tale” (Rifaat 1134).
Rifaat also shows the reaction to the movement for women’s rights in many ways. When the main character first encounters the previous inhabitant of the home, the poor lady is seen by the men as desperate and a “mad woman” (Rifaat 1132), a reflection of men’s ideas towards women’s rights in the Middle East. The woman’s unwillingness to leave and her fight to cling to the beautiful snake is an illustration of the Egyptian women’s desperate condition. However, Rifaat acknowledges that the women themselves are also fearful of their new rights. When the character is introduced to the snake, she is overcome with “terror” (Rifaat 1135) the first several times that they meet. She even tells her husband of her fear of the snake, although she is intrigued by its company. However, the priest encourages the character to “talk to [the snake] with all politeness and friendliness” (Rifaat 1136)—a plea from Rifaat to accept women as equals.
Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream” is a call not merely for women’s equality, but for the complete empowerment of women. She makes her bold statement in favor of women’s rights through the portrayal of perfection in an entirely matriarchal society. Her argument is more audacious and outrageous than Rifaat’s, but her circumstances are also very different. As opposed to Egypt where the desires and powers of women are simply suppressed, the women of India are shut away from society in zenanas and are required to cover their heads when they go out in public. Therefore, the more dire situation of the women in India requires Hossain to present her views more rashly than does Rifaat’s.
Hossain’s primary method of advocating feminist ideals is through her bitter and derogatory depiction of men. In the short story, Sister Sarah does not deny the weakness of women, in fact she acknowledges it, but she regards it as irrelevant so long as the presence of men does not exist to threaten the women. In her reasoning for keeping the men locked in the mardana, she compares the males to “a wild animal [in] a market place” (Hossain 324) and even to “lunatics,” asserting that one would not lock up all of the sane people to protect them from the mad men but would lock up the insane people instead, which is exactly what the mardana system does when it shuts away the men of the city (Hossain 325). She states that with the men out of the main society, there are no more crimes and no more violence. Through these small pieces of reasoning, Hossain insinuates that men are the root of evil and fear. She points out the men’s lack of taste for horticultural beauty, their absence of patience, and their ability to “dawdle away their time in smoking” (Hossain 326). She illustrates that an entirely matriarchal society would be free of evil and would be even more productive than India’s currently patriarchal culture.
The similarities between the stories of Rifaat and Hossain demonstrate the mixture of both disparity and hope in the movement towards women’s rights in the Middle East. Both are heavily dream-like and present a deep longing and wishing for equality. The artificiality of “Sultana’s Dream,” seen in the controlled weather, and the complete unreality of the djinn snake in “My World of the Unknown” give a slight feeling of lost hope toward the subject. While the dreams present a wistful anticipation, the falseness of the circumstances are disheartening. The secrecy employed in both stories, through Rifaat’s character’s secret affair and Hossain’s character’s secret dream, assists to imply the delicacy of the subject. Women’s rights are still very taboo in the Middle East, and both stories end unresolved with the open question of what is to happen next.
Hossain, Rokeya Sakhawat. “Sultana’s Dream.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: Twentieth Century, 1900-The Present. Ed. Paul Davis, et al. Book 6. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003. 320-331.
Rifaat, Alifa. “My World of the Unknown.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: Twentieth Century, 1900-The Present. Ed. Paul Davis, et al. Book 6. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2003. 1127-1140.