Arab Women, in Their Own Voices

"You don't like your coco?" wonders one of four actresses. It was after the fifth draft and the censor's ban of typical Lebanese cab driver lingo that the word "coco" was chosen as the term that would be used for the female genital organ in "Hekeh Niswan" ("Women's Talk"), an adaptation of Eve Ensler's "The Vagina Monologues," which first appeared on stage in New York in 1997.

The censor also prohibited some of the gestures employed in the play, particularly one in which an actress grabs hold of her crotch. The officer did not explicitly describe his objection but he did request that the director demonstrate her alternative stage direction to prevent the appearance of an additional obscene gesture. Finally, after a year and a half of preparation, hundreds of interviews, cuts and additions, the play was mounted.

Talented Lebanese director Lina Khoury, who has a master's degree from the University of Arkansas, revised only three of Ensler's 12 original monologues. Khoury, who composed the rest of the blatantly cheeky monologues, showed no mercy in her treatment of nearly every Arab taboo. This is the first time a play of this sort will be performed in front of an Arab audience. It is also the first play that will tell the story of Arab women in their own voices rather than relying on the external observations of men or researchers.

In an interview in the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper, Khoury explained that the actresses are not "meant to be representative," but that the abuse, rape, relations between men and women, premarital sex, masturbation and also love are representative. She interviewed women between the ages of 18-55 - some of them emigrants who have returned to their homeland, some of them veteran citizens, women from cities and villages, Christians and Muslims. Her conversations with them produced an astonishing play.

It is no surprise that an outstanding play like this was produced in the relatively liberal nation of Lebanon. But even in the relative bastion of freedom that Lebanon represents, when compared with other Arab societies, Khoury was forced to amend or withdraw several scenes - and not only in response to the censor's orders. For example, she decided to avoid a detailed description of an act of rape because it was too difficult to watch. She also chose to forgo the use of veiled actresses to represent the conservative sector of the population.

In the interview, she says that when she read the script to her women friends they enjoyed it and laughed, but when she told them of her intentions to mount the play in a Lebanese theater they told her she was crazy. The extent of her "craziness" may be measured by the fact that the Lebanese Masrah al-Madina theater decided to nearly double the number of planned performances.

One can find nearly everything in this play. For example, one of the actresses confides how her mother followed her to prevent her from seeing men, "but she did not find out that I was having intimate relations with a woman." Another actress complained that, "I could tell my parents that Israel has invaded Beirut, but I could not tell them that their friend has invaded me."

Reactions to the play were mixed: Some were vulgar and aggressive - Khoury was invited to return to her mother's "coco" - others were encouraging and supportive.

Mixed reactions

Feminist critic and publicist Rima Irani, who saw the play with her daughter, wrote, "A society caught in a maze of nightmares, subjugation and repression cannot develop. Repression is not present in the avoidance of sex but in the shameful description of sex. How can we be prisoners of an act that we condemn and consider it shameful when it is the basis of our existence? Why is it that one of the most heinous insults we can foist at a man involves the use of the female genital organ?"

Khoury's play is unlikely to appear in any other Arab nation in the near future, but the burgeoning stir created by "Hekeh Niswan" is not bounded by the world of theater and certainly not limited to Lebanon.

One of the most sensational and impressive books published recently was written by young, female Saudi Arabian author Raja al-Sana. "The Girls of Riyadh" details the complex relations between young, upper-class women and men, and parents and children. Sana's piercing criticism takes predetermined relationships to task as she investigates courtship practices against the backdrop of conservative conventions. It is interesting to note that in a review written by Saudi Labor Minister Ghazi Al-Ghusaibi that appears on the back cover of the book, the minister and poet encourages the public to read Sana's book.