Every time I hear a belittling and above all gratuitous patriarchal statement by a man or by a woman, I recall the picture of a Palestinian woman named Micheline Awwad, captured by photographer Alfred Yaghobzadeh during the first intifada.
In this 1988 photo, Awwad is seen standing barefoot on a West Bank road, wearing a black skirt, holding a pair of yellow high-heeled shoes in one hand and with her other arm curved inward. Powerfully and seemingly without fear, she is throwing a stone. In this picture, her face is not visible, nor is the stone she has thrown. All one sees is the movement of her body.
That is how I remembered the first intifada: that is how I remembered the Palestinian women standing steadfastly on both fronts – the intra-Palestinian front and the Israeli front. I remembered these women at the front, until the Oslo Accords came along and they were all sent back into the kitchen.
During this past year I have heard shocking statements by both men and women in the Arab world, mainly from the political arena but also elsewhere. These aren’t Oslo people but they all wanted to send us back to the kitchen again. They succeeded in shocking me because some of said declarations were made by young male and female figures in the cultural realm. Meaning, they came out of the mouths of a young, politically aware Arab generation that’s exposed both practically and theoretically to feminist discourse, as well as to the injustices of the patriarchy.
Among these figures was Hanady Mehanna, a 23-year-old Egyptian actress starting out in her career, who said that she does not like girls and only wants to bring sons into the world. Ramy Ayach, a very well-known Lebanese singer, expressed opposition to the law in his country that prohibits marriage of underage girls, and presented the ridiculous argument that 16-year-old girls are sufficiently mature, both mentally and physically, to be wed. And Cairo-born actress Laila Elwi declared in an interview that Egyptian society is not at all patriarchal. You are probably thinking she had very convincing, factual justification for this. Well, you are mistaken. Her society, she said, is not patriarchal because there are more women than men in Egypt’s population.
But when I heard a remark by Malika Bendouda – a doctor of political philosophy, lecturer and journalist who is currently serving as Algeria’s minister of culture and arts – I told myself that this is already a destructive trend. After UNESCO recognized couscous as eligible for its Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity List, Bendouda said last December: “A woman who doesn’t know how to make couscous constitutes a threat to family life.”
This statement aroused a great deal of anger, mainly in certain feminist circles that argued that it diminishes Algerian women and subscribes to the traditional-patriarchal discourse that has long called for women to return to the kitchen. This is particularly evident in the rise of religious movements like Jabhat al-Inqaz, the Islamic National Salvation Front – which won in the Algerian elections in 1991.
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At the same time, Bendouda’s statement has been received in a completely different way in traditional Islamic circles in Algeria: They not only found nothing wrong with it but argued such an utterance bestows honor and prestige upon Algerian women because couscous is a national cultural symbol and accordingly, the connection between women, womanliness, couscous and nationalism amounts to a huge compliment.
Bendouda, who is still in her first year as minister, was subjected to criticism not only from feminist groups but also from quite a number of cultural and media circles. They have argued that she is generally engaging with trivial matters instead of formulating and presenting her agenda for the coming years to the government and the public.
However, instead of confronting the criticism and citing social and cultural elements to address the essence, problematic nature and implications of her declaration – Bendouda claimed that it had been taken out of context. Moreover, she insisted that her remark reflected a very legitimate national, social perception of Algerian femininity in recent years.
French colonialist womanhood
Algerian women’s anger is completely justified, not just because of the content of Bendouda’s statement but mainly because, relative to most women in the Arab world, Algerian women have sweated, fought and struggled for hundreds of years to establish a feminist discourse and culture in a fanatical, bloody and combustible religious and social reality. And yet parallel to that, women like Bendouda are popping up and defending the patriarchy, shattering to smithereens all the achievements that other women have worked toward for many years.
Modern feminism arrived in Algeria only in the early 1980s. While in the 1940s Iraqi, Egyptian and Palestinian women rose up against the hijab and the social exclusion they suffered, Algerian women lived under French occupation for nearly 100 years, until independence in 1963, and endured a blood-soaked civil war that lasted throughout the 1990s. To this day, they continue to be under the control of what for the most part is still a traditional Muslim society.
Any attempt to establish civil, egalitarian, feminist discourse gives rise to accusations of treachery, of subverting Algerian nationalism, of Westernization and even of efforts to imitate French colonialist womanhood. In this sense, feminist discourse in the country is entrapped in the exact same way as Palestinian feminist discourse is, with any challenge to intra-Palestinian oppression being considered collaboration with the occupation.
A statement like Bendouda’s is very problematic, especially as it reiterates, preserves and solidifies the role of women as providers of services like food, sex and love. While nationalism among men is automatically associated with employment and broad public and political responsibilities, women’s nationalism in this case is anchored in ... couscous.
The sophisticated patriarchy links feeding, love and monogamous sex with nationalism, and makes the channeling of women into their roles attractive, paints it all in bogus nationalist-political colors just as it pleases, making the message quite clear: There is no room for "service providers" in the national political narrative – Algerian or Palestinian. To Bendouda and others like her I say: Nationalism has as much to do with couscous as za’atar seasoning has to do with feminism.