Reading Arab Women’s Literature through Intersectionality

- B. V. Saraswathy


The Omani writer Jokha Alharthi has been awarded the Man Booker International Prize for 2019 for her novel Celestial Bodies translated by Marilyn Booth, who also shares the award. This paper aims to analyse the intersectionality of religion, societal traditions and patriarchy in the novel Celestial Bodies. The novel describes the changes in the country of Oman brought in by the discovery of petroleum resources. Alharthi beguilingly coalesces the history of the land with that of the people by interweaving the changes in the lives of three generations of characters that she presents in the novel. The women in the novel have to fight against the combined triad of religion, tradition and patriarchy to preserve their individuality and carve an identity of their own. Portrayals of women in Arabic literature serve as a barometer by which the status and role of Arab women in society can be measured (Mona Mikhailis). The narration compiles the lives of the women pulling at the edges of rapid change in the country and is narrated alternatively by a character, Abdallah and the third person voice of the author. The bond between the grandmother, daughter and granddaughter are brought out from the intense private sphere of family life in which the Arab world has placed it and “the great unwritten story” of the “cathexis between mother and daughter” that is “essential, distorted, misused” (Adrienne Rich) is presented with finesse and sensitivity with an underlying urgency and passion. The paper aims to demonstrate how an intersectional reading of the novel reveals the gender dynamics and social change in Oman and the importance of this novel as a palimpsest.

Key words: Arab women’s novels, Omani women, gender, patriarchy.

Bio-note: Dr. B. V. Saraswathy is an Assistant Professor, Department of English at C.T.T.E. College for Women, Chennai. Email-
The term ‘Intersectionality’ was coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw and it “emerged in the late 1980s as an analytic frame capable of attending to the particular positionality of black women and other women of color” (Cooper 385). Crenshaw argues that the problems of black women were set against a ‘single axis’ whereas they should be considered against the backdrop of “multidimensionality of Black women’s experiences” (385) and that they should not be included within an already established analytical structure. Crenshaw sees ‘intersectionality’ as ‘structural intersectionality’ (where the three systems of power, i.e. race, gender and class domination, converge) and ‘political intersectionality’ (where women of colour are situated within at least two subordinated groups that pursue conflicting political agenda).
Intersectionality thus “encapsulated and expanded to a body of work about a set of social problems” (389) and advanced the idea that systems of power became the systems of oppression under which women of colour lived. It focuses on the social and institutional practices that shape the experiences and lives of marginalised women and is recognised as “one of the most useful and expansive paradigms” (405) for thinking about operations of power. For the analysis of the relationship between the dominant, privileged, hegemonic sides of societal structural categories and their antithesis, intersectionality is an apt tool. Applying this tool to study the situation of the women of the Arabian countries, a fourth system of power - Religion - should also be considered in conjunction with race, gender and class. This paper aims to analyse the intersectionality of religion, societal traditions and patriarchy in the novel Celestial Bodies. The prominent role of religion is evident when it is used to institutionalise and perpetuate patriarchy.
In Arab culture, women had a low status for centuries. Economic development and state expansion are two major sources of social change in the Gulf countries since World War II and has effected a change in the social stratification and concomitantly the position of women in the new modernised society. While the influx of wealth from the discovery of oil in the region has created a materialistic society, the loyalties to Islam, and family and tribe, is supported by the state. Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad explains that “Islam became an integral part of tribal society” and the prevalent “tribal customs became a sacred tradition passed down from their ancestors” (149) which in praxis, counteracted the tenets of the Quran regarding the autonomy of a woman. Ever since the Western influence and processes of modernisation planted the seeds, feminist ideas began to germinate and the voice of the women protesting their lack of rights is becoming more and more strident. Arab women writers began feminist discourses about education, work and marriage. They examine the ways in which the power structures dictated the framework of their lives. In Mona Fayad’s perception:
                                       … one of the most difficult tasks confronting Arab women writers in inscribing themselves as subjects lies in resisting and renegotiating their role within a master national narrative that not only homogenizes the concept of national identity itself, but also assigns Woman a fixed role as a historical metaphor buried deep within the foundations of the narrative. Through this historical metaphor, Woman is appropriated as signifier of traditionalism, reservoir of a communal identity …. (147)
Rifat Hassan discusses feminism in Islam and the sources of the Islamic tradition and points out that women are considered “derivative creatures who can never be considered equal to men” (256). Hassan exhorts Muslim women to challenge the male-centered and male-controlled Muslim societies to acknowledge the egalitarianism evident in the Qur’anic statements about human creation. Hassan asserts that: “the Qur’an, which is the primary source on which Islam is founded, consistently affirms women’s equality with men and their fundamental right to actualize the human potential that they possess equally with men” (275). Early nineteenth century saw the gathering momentum of the modern women’s movement in the Arab world as a result of increased contact with the West. The Arab intellectuals and women activists debated the question of whether Islam itself required the practices of veiling and denying education to women or if the patriarchal system had imposed the restrictions on pseudo-religious grounds (Zeidan). When writings were produced the works imitated the norms established by the existing male-dominated literary tradition. In the genre of poetry, Arab women writers began to develop a distinct aesthetic as they developed more political awareness of themselves as women. The women began to subvert the system that denied them education and literary society, by establishing salons and journals of their own and managed to bring them into mainstream literary criticism and discussion.
            Many educated women writers arrived on the scene and began writing about their own lives in the first–person narration signifying their break away from the established literary tradition of the previous generation (Zeidan). “Key themes were individualism, the drive to assert a personal and distinctly female identity, and demands for the social, sexual and political rights of women” (6).
Official education for girls was initiated in Oman in 1970 and therefore not much of written literature in English appears until the second half of the twentieth century, specifically in the 1980s. Yusuf al-Sharuni declares that “1983 is the year the Omani short story of all kinds was born [before that there was only] an embryo taking shape in the womb of the awakening” (Qtd. Ashur et al 281). Considering the genres in women’s literature in the Arab peninsula, poetry seems to have been given more importance than novel, with drama falling far behind, although some importance has been given to children’s literature and reaches the reading public through newspapers and magazines. Writers like Badriya al-Shihhi,90 Tiba Bint ‘Abd Allah al-Kindi, ‘A’isha Bint ‘Ali ibn Sa‘id al-Ni‘mi, Zakiya Bint Salim al-‘Ilwi, Safiya Bint Muhammad Sa‘id al-Harithi, and Turkiya al-Busa‘idi are referred to by Su’ad al-Mana in the chapter “The Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf” in which the author discusses the important writers of the area up to the year 1999 (Ashur et al 271). Al-Mana also mentions that in 1998, Khawla al-Zahiri published her collection, Saba’ (Sheba), won a prize from the Girls’ Clubs in Sharjah. Jokha Alharthi is an Omani writer whose novel in Arabic, Sayyidat al-Qamar was shortlisted for Zayed Award 2011. It has been translated into English by Marilyn Booth and published in 2018 under the title Celestial Bodies which won the Man Booker International Prize 2019.
The country of Oman is rich in oil, but poor in other resources, and its economy depends on industries that are not conducive for female employment as they are mainly capital oriented and not labour intensive. According to Haddad, the Quran guarantees the right of a woman to gainful employment. However, the denial of the right to exercise this freedom by family members, should be blamed on tradition, she opines.
The novel Celestial Bodies is set in a small town called as-Awafi and is woven around women characters, although there is a male voice that narrates in alternation with the third person point of view of the author. There are three sisters whose marriages are at the centre of the novel. The eldest is Mayya who has fallen in love with an empty handed scholar recently returned from London. She burns for him with her soul: “Mayya fixed all her thoughts on her beloved’s spirit. She mustered every atom in her being and sent the lot marching into his. Then she held her breath. … She sent her spirit into the ether, detaching herself completely from the world (CB 5).
However, a marriage with Abdallah, the narrator, is arranged by her parents. She docilely succumbs to the arrangement and remains a good wife. Her devotion, however, is towards her children rather than the husband who dotes on her. To his direct question “Do you love me?’, she evades a direct answer and ripostes with: ‘Where did you pick up these TV-show words? … have they eaten up your mind?’(11). Mayya’s acceptance of the marriage is the dictates of tradition.
In defiance of society, Mayya names her first born daughter, London. Everyone around her is nonplussed at the unusual appellation. Only she knows that it is a paean to her lost love, the unsuccessful scholar who had returned from London. Later when London is a Physician in Muscat and wants to marry another doctor whose parents had been slaves in the family of her mother and grandmother, Mayya renounces her daughter. Mayya locks London in a room and breaks her mobile phone to sever contact with the son of a slave. As much as Mayya is aware of the changes happening in society and the world and even though she has seen to it that her daughter has education, and every luxury in life that money could buy, it is not possible for Mayya to give up on the ideas and practices that have been followed for generations.
The second sister, Asma, reads the books that she rescued from the damp in the locked rooms of the house and aspired to be a ‘bluestocking’, a genteel young woman who has acquired knowledge of the world from reading books, without having the benefit of a formal education. The ideas that classical Arabic love poetry inspire in her are tested severely in her life when she is married to a man who finds his freedom only when he paints horses. Khalid, Asma’s husband, had chosen her because he envisaged that she would “fall instantly into the orbit he had marked out, who would always be there but would also always stay just outside, yet without wanting to create her own celestial sphere, her own orbit” (194). This patriarchal attitude towards his wife and marriage does not intimidate Asma. Khalid’s exuberant love and his intense withdrawal when the artistic mood possessed him, teaches ‘Asma to accommodate to the situation’ (196). Asma cultivates her own circle of friends, she pursues her education and acquires a job, she has also collected a number of books and she has ‘formed her own celestial orbit’ (196). The couple learn that they could orbit freely without colliding with each other, by creating enough space within the marriage. Domestic space is reclaimed by Asma when she understands that her husband is an artist who has to indulge in his flights of fancy to be able to create his art. Asma manages to establish an orbit above the confluence of patriarchy, gender and religion.
Khawla, the youngest sister refuses the alliance proposed by her parents and waits for her cousin to return from Canada, who eventually arrives, marries and leaves. Nasir had been her playmate when they were children and had marked her as his wife when another cousin tried to win her favour. He proclaimed that Khawla was his ‘wife’. On this declaration is based Khawla faith in Khalid, as she waits for him to return from Canada. Nasir’s mother sponsors his trip and his stay in Canada. On her death, the money stops flowing and he is forced to return. Propitiously, his marriage with Khawla reopens his route to Canada. He had already set up a home with his Canadian girlfriend whom he now returns and visits his wife and growing number of children for ten years, after which his girlfriend kicks him out which forces him to return home permanently.
Khawla, who has waited for four years to marry Nasir, and a further ten years for him to return home for good and settle down with his family, reclaims her domestic space by asking for a divorce. She had steered her life with him in mind after both her sisters had been married and waited for him with unflagging confidence in his return. She preserved her beauty and looks for her husband who had already married a foreigner. However, after the children are grown up and Nasir has settled down in his native country, Khawla feels that her identity has to be reclaimed. Now, Khawla is not willing to subjugate herself anymore: “She couldn’t bear the past any longer” (239). She bears the responsibility of her decision to marry only Nasir, has maintained her family in the absence of her husband. But the loneliness that she suffered has become a living thing, “the years were live creatures” (241). She relies on the neighbours for emergency help with the children that Nasir should have done, she suffers the ignominy of taking monetary help from her sisters and mother. “Khawla did not forget anything she had gone through, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute, everything inside her sapping her spirit” (241). To gainsay Nasir’s argument was not difficult for Khawla. His patriarchal attitude that he could marry and yet live with another woman, could leave his wife pregnant after each visit and compensate with phone calls after midnight or with oversized clothes for his children, because he never knew their required sizes, appear dispassionate and apathetic to Khawla and she departs from the marriage.
Presiding over these lives, is the matriarch of the family, Salima, who suffered a lot when she was young. She had been claimed by her paternal uncle Shaykh Said, after the death of her father, but there was a definite disparity in treatment between Salima and her cousins. She suffered privations and her mother was unable to alleviate her situation, since she was sent to live with her brother. Salima is allowed to move to her maternal uncle’s home with her mother after her thirteenth birthday and those are the halcyon days of her life. Soon after, Shaykh Said orders her return as he has negotiated her marriage with his kinsman Azzan. When she does not agree to the marriage, mercenaries hired by Shaykh Said swim through the canal or falaj and enter the maternal uncle’s house. After a few hours, Salima earns the title ‘bride of the falaj’ and is forced into a marriage that turns out to be reasonably successful. She loses a son, but her three daughters survive and she is happy in their marriages. When her eldest granddaughter London chooses a husband whose forefathers had been slaves to her family, Salima’s sense of honour is outraged. The ingrained customs and traditions of the desert do not allow her to accept on equal terms the choice made by her grand daughter London.
Slave trade is ubiquitous in the history of Oman. Zarifa is a slave, who has been working in the household of Sulyman, the merchant. Being a slave, she was married off to another slave and expected to bow down to the whims and fancies of the master who owned her. Her husband, however, had different ideas and ran off to freedom when he got the opportunity, abandoning his wife and unborn child. She has also been the resident concubine and foster mother to Abdallah. Her ancestors were brought clandestinely from Africa and sold as slaves to rich merchants. Her mother Ankabuta “grew up, after her brothers had all been sold away, as an orphan in the home of Shaykh Said” (192). The patriarchal power over the body and soul of the slave has two sides, both of which are seen in Zarifa’s and her husband Habib’s. While Zarifa takes over the responsibility of bringing up the infant born to Sulayman, Habib looks for his chance to flee and return to his native country from where he was forcibly taken. Even on his deathbed, Sulyman orders his son to bring back the errant slave, tie him up and thrash him for disobedience. The son, Abdallah, patiently explains that there are no slaves and that they are all free and equal in the country. This is how the author higlights that slave trade was part of the history of the country and an important factor in its economy. Zarifa manages to impose an equality in status between herself and the other women in Mayya’s house when she visits them, even though she is a slave. Abdallah has known no motherly love except that of Zarifa’s, yet, he is unaware that she has passed away, when he was busy with his business in Muscat. His heartfelt “I didn’t know!” reveals the depth of the attachment that existed between the master and the late slave.
The rituals of routine life presented in the novel, epitomise the simple life intertwined with traditional beliefs that sometimes border on superstition. Zarifa offers food and drink to the spirits that are believed to be lurking around and waiting for a chance to do ill to the humans. When children are born, Zarifa carries a full platter and offers it to the ‘Jinns’ to propitiate them and request them to stay away from the new born baby and the new mother. She is constantly taking the name of the Almighty, as a prefix and suffix, to her sentences, to justify her thoughts, words and actions.
A Bedouin beauty whose name is Najiya, labelled Qamar (the moon), is enamoured of Azzan, the father of Mayya, Asma and Khawla. He does not play any active part in the household and leaves the practicalities to his wife, Salima. The first time Qamar accosts Azzan with: “I am Najiya. I am Qamar, the Moon. It is you I want” (41) Azzan is scared and runs to the safety of his home. Relentless and beautiful Qamar, has her wish and ensnares Azzan. Their relationship fulfils the loneliness that Qamar has felt, despite her success in business and restoration of the health of her ailing brother. She is a strong character who pursues with single mindedness what she wants and obtains it. She is not cowed down by tradition nor the patriarchal society as she consolidates her position after her father’s demise. Being a successful business woman in such a society incites the jealousy of others and the author does not delineate what happens to this woman in the novel, although there is a hint that Mayya suspects that her mother Salima has something to do with the disappearance of the alluring Bedouin. The novelist gives over a separate chapter “The Man in the Desert” who ‘communicates with Saturn’ and performs a ritual which would result in “knotting Azzan’s carnal desire for Najiya” at the behest of the Bride of the falaj i.e. Salima.
The granddaughter of Salima, London, is a modern woman, who has received good education and is a practising physician. She is pursued by her classmate and an aspiring poet, Ahmad and when she reciprocates his love, her mother and her grandmother oppose. The fidelity of young love triumphs and a marriage contract is signed and betrothal vows are exchanged between London and Ahmad. Ahmad claims that their “marriage is a victory over the disgusting hidebound class structure of society, and a crowning of true love” (232). This is another reality that the author brings to the fore, the clash of history and modernity in the form the descendant of a former slave winning the hand of the descendant of the family of owners of the slave. However, this idealised situation implodes when Ahmad becomes violent and physically abuses London. Again, the author foregrounds the reality behind the veneer of civilisation. It becomes very difficult for London to forget her near marriage and move on with life, as recommended by her friend Hannan. Hannan is yet another representative of the modern young woman who has to find a career and succeed in order to receive recognition. She is more worldly wise and brutally advises London that love is a mirage and what Ahmad had apparently given her was not the real version. Hannan had been a victim of sexual assault and London had nursed her through when she was training to be a doctor. Much as London would like to heed Hannan’s words, she finds it a monumental task to ‘hit the delete button on Ahmad’ as suggested by Hannan.
Alharthi in this novel Celestial Bodies, makes the foreign familiar by providing a unique, sometimes poetic description. Combining history, descriptions of rituals and traditions, and stories that are intertwined, Alharthi presents an alluring picture of Omani society. Celestial Bodies are those that exist in a sphere beyond the reach of humans. Of all the celestial bodies, the closest celestial body to the Moon is the Earth. The Moon phase of the Moon affects the tides on the Earth and demonstrates the movement between the high and low phases of life on this planet.
                                       Know that the stars of the firmament empty their gems into the moon, and the moon spills them into the water. … The moon is a treasure house for what is on high and what lies below. The moon moves between high and low, between the sublime and the filth of creation. Of all the celestial bodies, the moon is closest to the matters of this lower world. And so it is a guide to all things. (CB 217)
When Asma is a new bride, she returns to visit her parents and sees that her father is indisposed and wants her to read a book that he pulls out from under his pillow. The passage extolls the moon:
                                       Contemplate the state of the moon until you know it well. Its soundness is the strength of all things, its ruin the corruption of all things. If the moon moves closer to another celestial body then it gives more force to whatever that body cane tell us or give us. When the moon moves away from another body in the firmament it weakens that sphere’s power. (CB 217)
In his weakened state, Azzan is still pining for the exquisite Qamar. When their relationship prospered, he was in his best state. When he has separated from the moon (Qamar), partly by his choice and partly by his wife’s emissary to the celestial bodies, he is at his lowest state.
                                       When the moon’s light intensifies in its approach to Mercury, that is the best state of all. But if the Moonlight is weak as it confronts Saturn, or moves closer to it, this is the worst of all worlds. (CB 217)
The power of a woman is equated to that of a celestial body and the fate of man kind hinges on their relationship with women.
Alharthi portrays the multiplicity of roles that women play and perform in the novel that is a microcosm of society: the possessive wife, the spurned lover, the unrequited lover, mother, sister, daughter, granddaughter. When the woman is free of patriarchy, she is subdued by religion and tradition, when she overcomes the obstacles of religion and tradition, her gender is held up to chain her again. Alharthi portrays how the “gender dynamics in Oman are affected by the neopatriarchal state, which are often pronatalist, emphasize sex differences and complementary roles rather than legal equality and serve to perpetuate stratification based on gender” (Haddad 144).
Crenshaw says that she has used intersectionality as a prism to examine a host of issues, conditions, policies and rhetorics even while “black feminism figured as the widely acknowledged generative source of intersectionality” (Lutz 224). She points out that it is not just about black women, as scholars have “deploy[ed] intersectionality to analyse a plethora of issues” (224) all around the globe. It is a dynamic interface of systems of power across a variety of institutions and contexts. That is the reason this tool is apt for an analysis of Celestial Bodies one of the first novels to be acclaimed from Oman and distinguished with the Man Booker International award. The paper catches glimpses of the various woman characters that the novelist has portrayed. Each is fighting a battle of her own and winning or adapting to strike her own path, to create her own celestial orbit to revolve in. The novel undermines recurrent stereotypes, presents the changing socio-economic structures and shows how it impacts the family. Alharthi argues that the position of women is manifold and it is always a struggle to find a foothold and carve out a niche for herself, fighting against the combined powers of gender, religion and patriarchy that is cemented by tradition.

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