I recently read a theory set forth in the 19th century by a Muslim man who married a French woman. In summary, it said that one of the reasons why the Arabic world lags so far behind the west in terms of economy and power is because it subjugates it’s women. Our Arabic language instructor, a woman named Mona, told Lydian recently that if she wanted to say that a boy was cute, she should say, “Hoowa Asaal.” (He’s Honey). I thought it was ironic that these words sound so apt in English and I wondered why or how any Arabic woman could find any Arabic man attractive given the fact that most Muslim men see women as lesser human beings. Someday I’ll ask Mona this question if I ever get good enough at speaking Arabic.
I’ve never been to a place in the world where I’ve been silenced or ignored as much as I have been in Tunisia and let me tell you, it’s NOT a turn on. It’s interesting to think that actively and willfully oppressing a group of people could lead to karmic repercussions for a country. I find solace in the idea that oppressing women has caused Arabic countries to seriously fall behind economically. That’s a good argument for women’s rights, if you ask me. When we silence a group of people just because they’re different from us, we don’t get the advantage of having their perspectives, innovative ideas, and alternative ways of thinking about things as part of our social consciousness. Eventually, things like Ebola, or environmental change leads the laggers, the oppressors into peril (I’d like to see the Arab countries manufacture an Ebola vaccine on a deadline to save the world). It’s a warning to us all. There’s value in diversity.
Mexican machismo men look sensitive up against the Muslim men here. According to the Koran, two women are roughly equivalent to one man and it’s clear that many of the Muslim men here fervently ascribe to that belief. When Lydian and I have gone walking alone (rarely), men whistle at us or do cat calls. They stare at us, ogling us as though they’ve never seen a woman before in their lives. Women are supposed to be silent, but sweet and never ever upset. Men have prescribed rules for how women are supposed to behave and think and since one of the rules is silence and another is submission, women never get to set forth their expectations for men. Men can be how they are. Women must be how they ought.
Women cover themselves, sometimes head to toe so that they walk like ghosts through the streets. They’re supposed to really like their condition of servitude and appreciate the virtues of their virtual non-existence. Indeed, women are urged to praise God for their own oppression, but from another area of the mosque where they won’t be bending over in supplication to God in front of the men, which might be a distraction and a temptation to the real humans (the ones with penises, of course). Men, after all, have voracious sexual appetites while women are like baby lambs, completely innocent and asexual. (As Stanley Kubrick put it in Eyes Wide Shut, “if you men only knew…”)
It’s always the woman’s fault if she’s raped. Even if she’s wearing a full burka, the woman is blamed for enticing her rapist.
And it’s okay for men to beat their wives.
A man can be married to up to four different women and after that, if that still isn’t enough to satisfy his male urges, he can have “concubines” (although I think this practice is no longer as popular as it once was for economic reasons). He can marry a woman for a day or a week (for travel purposes, of course) and then the marriage is automatically annulled. A man can divorce his wife, but women cannot divorce their husbands. Men can marry non-Muslim women but Muslim women cannot marry non-Muslim men.
Men debate the value of this system of oppression using various arguments to support their points of view since women aren’t a part of the discussion. For example, Muslim men say that it’s better for them to take more than one wife than solicit prostitutes or have affairs that result in illegitimate children like western men do. They say that by marrying more than one woman or marrying a woman for only a few days (totally legal in Islamic societies), at least they afford her the dignity and respect that prostitutes don’t get. It’s an interesting argument, but one that lacks something really important: a woman’s point of view.
Women walk arm-in-arm with other women down the street as men sit together arguing loudly at coffeehouses throughout Tunisia. The sexual frustration here is at a high ebb. The men are easily angered. The women are submissive and irritable. Sex is a one-sided event performed merely to satisfy a man’s primal needs. The idea that women could enjoy sex hasn’t occurred to these men yet. Women can be devious and tempt men, even while fully cloaked in a burka, but during an act of consensual sex, Muslim love-making couldn’t possibly be anything but a dispassionate bestial charade focused on just one person in the party: the man.
It’s doubtful that the madrasa offers sex ed classes to help dispel myths in Muslim society and bring the two genders to an understanding. Even in the United States sex ed classes fail to present information about sex that could be truly helpful to young people. Sex ed in our liberal country focuses on the menstrual cycle for girls and erections for boys, not the mechanics of sex itself, contraception, or the complex rituals of courtship. I can’t fathom the misinformation circulating in Arab countries about the opposite sex and sexuality in general. It seems probable that terrorist groups would lose their fury and find something more worthwhile to do with their time if they only knew a thing or two about sex, women, and relationships. Sex ed, in this context could literally save the world.