By Rehab Mouna Chaker
Setting aside the agitation caused by raising serious feminist issues in real and virtual life, the general perception common among people is that men openly flirt with women, and women grumble about love, at times secretly and other times publicly. Men sing songs about the woman/home, whose waist is wrapped in stars and over whose breasts clouds roam. Women, in their turn, disdain poetry, and they will not hesitate to assassinate Cupid if necessary.
I remember well one evening when I met up with several young Syrian women who had recently taken refuge in the Netherlands. Our conversation inevitably shifted to our favorite topic – love! We wondered, how do you define love? One of us said, “Love is the feeling that another person cares for you, not only receiving it from you!” Definitions usually come from specific experiences, and I don’t think I need to detail the experience that led to this definition of love. I still remember how our conversation moved, immediately and without hesitation, from love to complicated romantic relationships – the kind from which we sometimes can’t get out. We noticed coincidentally that many of us had ended hopeless relationships that were no longer salvageable – after frank sit-downs with one’s self, each of these women had discovered that they did not want to turn seventy next to someone who cares only about himself. Is it a coincidence that so many of us have gone through this very particular experience? I won’t deny how many times these young women said bluntly, “I don’t want an Arab man!” It seems that women have been profoundly let down, and that men need to wake up from their rosy dreams. Things are not alright. It would do no harm for men to scratch their heads a little and think alongside these beautiful women who have discovered that they can take no more pain, listen to their views on love and get rid of false romance not directed to any real lover, and which indicates a deep disconnection and aloneness.
It is natural for a person to come into this world with a decent sense of safety and trust, which is then either reinforced or compromised according to life experience. Infants surrender themselves to whoever will teach them, through coddling or cruelty, in what direction to go and whether they shall remain trusting or become suspicious. When I think about this childish confidence in relation to the difference I have noticed in men and (some) women’s attitudes toward love, I conclude that in general, men still feel safe in their emotional relationships – their instincts for attachment are still healthy, and their relationships with women still constitute a source of emotional support. Sure, they struggle, toil, and suffer the world’s deteriorating conditions, but most of the time this happens in an environment that isn’t hostile towards them as males. This is the natural order of things.
What’s ‘unnatural’ is the new attitude that (some) women have toward love, an attitude which expresses a loss of trust. What happened to make all these women tell acerbic jokes about love, which indicate deep pain – joking phrases such as “love is idiocy!” or “this isn’t love dummy, it’s hormones!” or “I spent half my life in love, and the other half was better!” or “I’m not divorced, I’m free!” In fact, I’m surprised that anyone is surprised by the sudden rise in divorces between Syrian men and women in recent years; and that some still wonder where women’s general anger and emotional pessimism come from. Is it possible that the imbalances have not been as clear as day to everyone? So it seems! Reality has proven time and time again that in general, and compared to men, women are quicker to pick up on prejudices and signs of gender oppression. Their position on the margin allows them to grasp both marginal and ‘central’ perspectives; whereas the privileged need plenty of time and good faith to discover their own blind spots.
In my view, the ‘unnatural’ attitude these women have toward love didn’t come from anywhere – their romantic experiences seem to be burdened with worry and gloom. I’m not generalizing out of disregard of healthy romantic relationships or cases of positive masculinity, which aren’t few. Rather, I am generalizing so that we can draw conclusions that do not ignore the basic structure of society. There is no doubt that women’s ‘unnatural’ attitudes towards love come from both an accumulation, and a newfound awareness of the formula of loss, of which they are the first victim: the loss of energy, humanity, best interests, as well as physical and psychological health. A woman invests all her efforts and life in taking care of her family members, she tucks herself and her dreams away in order to push them forward, and after all that generosity, she finds herself empty-handed or alone, facing indifference and selfishness at times, or bullying, violence, and arrogance at others. Therefore, it’s not a surprise that some women opt to become free as soon as they have the chance to gain independence in a country that protects their rights as women.
Sentimentalists will, of course, consider my words blasphemy, since everything is fair-game except for Love. But why weren’t they upset when they could clearly see that intimate relationships both inside and outside the sphere of the family are often based on the discrimination of one party for the other? Why didn’t they jealously protect love when they noticed that it has rarely helped create a balance of mutual interest between the sexes? Or that emotional attachment often leads to relationships that are economically, socially, legally, culturally and psychologically imbalanced? Let’s not lie to ourselves. Consider what John Stuart Mill pointed out in “The Subjection of Women” (1869), that the affection a woman has for a man is unfortunately the very chain that keeps her prisoner to an inferior status. The man, for his part, wants not only the obedience of a woman, but also her feelings – she should submit to him of her own free will. For this reason, women have been exposed to various means of mental subjugation throughout history, so that they may learn the art of attraction and to jump with glee when one gets the admiration and approval of a man. There is no other enslaved class in whose enslavement feelings play such a major role – this is why the situation of women is uniquely and exceptionally difficult.
However noble love may be, it is no more noble than justice. It should not be used as an excuse for oppressing others. Some may believe that injustice in love does not hurt, or that it is less painful than other forms of injustice. How many times have we heard loathsome sayings such as “a beating from the beloved is like eating raisins”… As for me, I say that injustice in love is the most painful, for in love a person is fragile and exposed. When the borders between human beings are removed, the curtains are pulled open on either humanity or inhumanity. Individuals are either completed or further compromised, filled with the other or stripped of themselves. Not all love is reciprocal generosity, and reality has proven that nothing is so sacred about lovers.
I won’t dwell for long on cases of romantic attachment outside marriage in Arab societies, or among Arab communities in the diaspora, since the situation of women in such relationships deserves a detailed study. It does happen, however, that men and women become involved in undisclosed relationships, either for personal reasons or because they are still getting to know one another. In some of these, abuse occurs that often remains unrevealed, known only to the woman herself. She does not speak out either due to their ugliness or because they are beyond legal intervention or societal recognition. Society remains in the dark about these experiences and the women know no justice. What’s more, most cases of blatant harassment, which are estimated to affect a large proportion of women, are framed as forms of passion and attraction. Bypassing the institution of marriage, therefore, and contrary to what is believed by some does not necessarily lead to women’s liberation. I tend to think, instead, that more cases of abuse occur outside of marriage than within it, though they may be briefer in terms of duration, since outside marriage, a woman gives up the safeguards (however tenuous) that traditional matrimony offers, and receives no replacement for them. Meanwhile, the man continues to dictate the rules of the game. Without the positive oversight that relatives and friends usually exercise over spouses in our societies, women are essentially left at the whim of good and bad intentions. Their feelings may be exposed to abuse or they may fall victim to so-called honor crimes. What’s more, this kind of liberation does not automatically free women from their traditional responsibilities. A woman’s partner, along with the rest of society, may punish her for any out-of-the-ordinary behavior. Yes, like a microcosm of society, it so happens that a woman’s partner may pull the rug from under her because she isn’t how she originally seemed to him. She was supposed to resist his sweet-talking persistence. How will he marry her now? How!?
In marital relationships, the situation is generally different. A man and a woman enter into matrimony hoping that each one of them will support the other, that the honeymoon phase will last forever so long as luck doesn’t betray them, and they both bear material and emotional responsibility for the family. What often happens, however, is that the relationship becomes a process of encouraging the woman to serve the family and home, and directing the man toward the outside world. The woman’s world shrinks, and her mind is left with no room to grow, while the man continues to learn from others through experience and getting up after falling down. Usually, this all happens not as one among many choices that women take voluntarily, but rather as a system that is imposed on them. It can’t be avoided, even with an educated man whose fight against tradition is all talk and no action. The man doesn’t object to the woman working outside the home, provided that she doesn’t neglect her home, husband, and children. He doesn’t object to her reading and studying, provided that she isn’t under the illusion that she understands more than he does, that she doesn’t prioritize her interests over his superior ones, and that her world does not exceed the limits of his. It is very frustrating to discover that most educated men are virtually identical to uneducated men when it comes to women’s issues. They think they get it, that they are liberated men if they allow their wives to dress however they please (removing the headscarf, for example), or if they don’t stand in the way of their work. But this is merely a confusion of superficial modernity with actual justice. The result is that modern marriage frees men from their traditional duties (dowry and exclusive financial responsibility for the family) without forcing them to share the burden of care and emotional responsibility. Meanwhile, women are made to bear modern burdens on top of their traditional ones. We come here to an important point, the perception of giving as a feminine virtue! When a woman gives incessantly and endures silently the bitterness of life, her social standing rises. Of course, this kind of giving is conditioned on the denial of self and its desires and does not ask for anything in return. How many times have I met families who put the needs of the wife/mother at the bottom of their priorities list. But when giving doesn’t elicit the same from the other party, can we call it giving, or is it something else? This formula is, no doubt, a waste of women’s entity, energy, and rights.
This waste happens all the time and will continue to happen as long as we stay complacent. But sometimes the situation may deteriorate partially or completely when a woman grumbles, revolts, or tries to advance her position without sacrificing herself. Here, the aura of sanctity will inevitably be lost for the woman, because she did not bear her grief to the very end. She may succeed in pulling the rug to the edge a bit, so to speak, but her failure will make married life hell for both parties. And in an attempt to return things to normal, the husband might turn violent out of “habit”. He may exercise his toxic masculinity, which will not accept defeat until the tables are turned on everyone. The wife’s reactions may vary from “rational” attempts to save the ship from sinking to destructive attempts that will largely fire back at her. Not because she isn’t violent, but because she will be the first loser, and her violence will be punished exponentially. Strangely enough, women become responsible for both her own violence and his. Sometimes, of course, she gives up and caves in, fearing that her husband will use her point of weakness: her children.
I don’t think that’s the love you are defending, is it?
Let us suppose, in spite of everything, that the partner was a gentleman and didn’t beat the woman, threaten her with the children, leave her in a limbo unmarried yet undivorced, didn’t refuse to pay child support, and didn’t try to take revenge because she dared to desert him. Such men are out there too, and they’re not few, fortunately. But their nobility stems from their own selves, and not because we have fair laws that protect women. Justice in our country is left to the human conscience, which is known to err or do well, calm down or blow up. But if a man wants to hurt a woman, he will find a hundred legal and illegal ways to do so, ranging from defamation to physical and/or psychological harm. Physical and/or psychological violence may escalate in a horrific way when the partner loses the direct social deterrent, or when the woman finds herself without support, as in times of social disintegration following wars, or as is the case among immigrants and refugees – for then, murder and death threats are not rare at all.
But let us proceed from the positive scenario, and assume that things didn’t go as far, that the divorced woman’s losses were reasonable, and that her attempts to steer the ship to safety were somewhat successful. What awaits her then?
In theory, the world will still be open to her, and she can start over whenever she wants, just like a man. But in practice, she will withdraw into herself after repeated disappointments, and will most likely stay alone for the rest of her life if she isn’t young, dazzling, childless, and ambitious on a personal level. She might also need a great deal of energy to suppress her affection for fear of being exploited by those who want to try their luck with a forty-year-old woman with no moral obligations, especially since she is the one who knows best the psychological and/or social consequences that will exclusively affect her. In addition, life won’t wait for her until her children grow up and stop needing her. And whereas people will treat her with a mixture of suspicion, fear, caution, and curiosity, they will reserve their pity for the divorced man. Who will take care of him now?! The man, however, will soon return to his natural and healthy attempts at attachment; he will probably seek a woman younger than the first, and be much more cautious this time, picking someone who is both naive and a virgin. Moreover, he won’t forget to investigate the woman’s history, kiss by kiss, before falling into the trap.
Now you might say that the fault lies in lovers and not in love, and you’re probably right. But what do we need in order to rehabilitate these lovers, and to preserve the dignity of love as a noble emotion that binds human hearts?
It is clear that the problems of love that I have mentioned can’t be solved fundamentally at the individual level alone. We may demand our men to read the twenty most important feminist books globally, in the hope that they will deviate a little from centering themselves and their privileges, glimpse parts of our suffering, and restore to us our right to anger, without resorting, consciously or unconsciously, to dwarfing our opinions, and without disregarding our unfulfilled desires and turning them into a source of mutual squandering, instead of a deeper understanding and harmony. We know now that we won’t receive an adequate response from everyone. Undoubtedly, there are men who are slowly trying to work on themselves, and they admit that they are partly responsible for crossing the distances between us, which they did not create themselves but were the result of a long-term socialization process. But the lucky women who stumbled upon a man of this type are not so many that the general formula changes, and I advise them not to reveal their positive experiences to us, lest they fall for the envious eye.
In order to preserve the dignity of love, we will first need to connect the concerns of one woman with the concerns of all women, because when our concerns remain in the private sphere and we are unable to utter them, we will always assume they are primarily personal problems and must be resolved by each one of us alone. But when we acknowledge that women’s problems are more similar and intersecting than they are individual, and we bring them together into the public sphere, and place the responsibility for them on the shoulders of those directly concerned as well as those who are not, that is, when the personal becomes political, and individual pain becomes a public issue, we will have taken our first step toward change.
Therefore, we must work on several intersecting paths. The first is political/legal, and the second is cultural/social. First we need to use the political means to change all the erroneous laws that perpetuate gender inequality. This means canceling the Personal Status Law, which favors men over women in matters of marriage, divorce, child custody, inheritance, nationality, and others – not just amending an article here or there, but torpedoing the whole law. There is no doubt that this road is long and difficult, especially in the condition of statelessness and the lack of democracy and security that Syrians currently experience. However, putting the matter up for discussion is very important, given its negative impact in the event that it comes into force or even remains as mere ink on paper.
The ideas presented by the law are dangerous and have a psychological effect on all of us. On the one hand, the law makes women feel helpless and worthless, forcing them to accept grievances as fate, and preventing them from advancing and getting out of toxic relationships and circumstances. On the other hand, it inflates the worth of men, making them feel more important than they really are. A man who believes that he is capable of having four wives will exaggerate his delusions about his sexual abilities, and subconsciously identify with Harun al-Rashid; he will feel implicitly wronged if he is satisfied with one woman, and this may affect his dealings with women in general. A man who readily accepts the idea that the male has the same fortune as two females will consciously or unconsciously believe that his value is twice that of a woman, and deduce that his word is necessarily worthier. It’s not possible that a law based on the principle of male guardianship over women would not have an effect on the psychological formation of both men and women. How then have cases of physical and moral violence pervaded throughout society if there is no complicity between legitimized male dominion and learned female weakness? Therefore, it is necessary to continue to discuss, disprove and refute the Personal Status Law to no end, even if changing it in the short term is not feasible in practice. This is everyone’s task, and it requires the cooperation of liberal and Islamic feminists, who must work together from within and outside the system, in order to annihilate these fortresses of masculinity. We should raise the bar for our demands, and not be satisfied with a law dealing with love and marriage in a language akin to commodity trade, in the hope that we will be able to uproot it radically with time.
We will also need to work intensively on the societal and cultural aspects of the matter, in order to extract love from taboo or rid the consideration of love as taboo for women only. There can be no love without fear, guilt, and unromantic calculations, as long as the relationship between the two do not hold them to the same standards of chastity. It’s not a coincidence that a woman usually clings to the monogamous ideal of love, and puts all her weight on the first relationship she suddenly stumbles upon – not finding in it what she deserves as a full-fledged human being, yet not rejecting it until she is sure that she is close to losing her own self. This woman was raised from an early age on the idea that the first love is also the last, and she is disappointed when she discovers that that is a false notion. I can’t believe that there are many women who get out of romantic relationships, or ask for divorce before all other options are eliminated, whereas most men tend toward spontaneous pluralism in consuming and replacing love until they find beauty, youth, and modesty in someone with whom to enter into a traditional marriage. These differences between the standards imposed on the sexes lead to psychological and social traumas, of which women have the largest share. On the one hand, a woman finds herself required to preserve her virginity and avoid all suspicions, and on the other hand, she finds herself chased by numerous men seeking her affection. The woman can only solve this dilemma with hypocrisy, either towards herself or towards society.
It isn’t only women who are compelled to hypocrisy, but also men. For the standards of chastity also apply to men, albeit indirectly. A man is required to guard his women – but what about other people’s daughters, is he responsible for them too? Men suffer from a schism caused by a contrast between the value of a woman before she becomes theirs and after she does. Hence the famous question that men pose among each other: “Would you accept that for your sister?” On the one hand, we see men perish for the sake of winning hearts, but as soon as that goal is achieved, they get overwhelmed by a strange anxiety, and they start doubting the value of the woman who just entered their lives. Surprised, the man asks the woman: Don’t you feel regret? How do you not feel regret? Thus begins the process in which the man’s sense of inferiority is projected unto the woman. And if the relationship lasts longer than love allows, and if it doesn’t turn to shit, the man won’t forget to rub salt on the wound and remind the woman from time to time that she has fallen. Even if he takes responsibility and eventually marries her, that fall will remain a sword hanging over her neck for the rest of her life.
The problem is that the man was complicit with the woman from the very beginning, and is fully aware that she didn’t throw herself at him – but does she have the right to what he is entitled to? What I say here may not apply to all men, and not to the same degree, but I do think my point stands. It is remarkable in this regard that some of our Eastern men are ready to suddenly change themselves once they marry a European/Western woman. How strange it is when they suddenly become liberal, get rid of their masculine complexes, automatically reduce their contradictions and some of their dominion, and accept women as they are, with their strings and pulls, their past, present and ambitions, so much so they remain polite in case the relationship fails despite concessions. Imagine! The question remains: why don’t they do that with women of their kin, too? And how full exactly are we with contradictions?
Of course, I have not yet talked about the sexual behavior of some men. I don’t know why they think they have a monopoly over lust. Sometimes I feel curious to get into their minds, in order to see how they perceive and communicate with women. Would I be surprised if I found out that someone is thinking, for example, of writing a novel in which their penis is the protagonist? Men’s bodies are different from women’s bodies, no doubt, but not to that degree – not to the point where some women won’t experience climax for the entirety of their married lives, which extends for decades some times. This happens without the man feeling any responsibility for it. No need to bother himself, the problem’s with her. The important thing is that he got rid of his congestion, good night! But does’nt the relationship between two partners, which is created and affected by both them, succeed or fail for reasons that pertain to them as a couple? Let us suppose that this man’s behavior stems from nothing more than ignorance of the woman’s body, and this is possible because the patriarchy has no interest in caring for the female body. But why does a man with erectile dysfunction not hesitate to direct his anger at his partner, or even insult her, for – according to him – not being able to turn him on? Who told these men that women are at their service? It is true that these two examples represent extremes, but they are real, and they express the situation frankly, in all its crudeness. Sometimes sexuality becomes more of a burden on the (married) woman, than a source of satisfaction and fulfillment. This is the literal and direct effect of objectifying women on in the collective imagination of harem culture.
Freud also shares some responsibility for this. I wish his books did not reach us! Through his books, our young men learn that women are passive and receptive sexual beings, and can never be initiative, otherwise they are jealous of men. Some even know how a woman thinks and feels better than she does, because Freud told them so. Whereas the West relegated Freud’s works to the intellectual inheritance over which they built through critique and development, our enlightened youth still believe his words literally as they were revealed to them. They accept these ideas easily, because they support an ancient masculinity latent in them. Where did this Freud come from? Is it not enough for us to be concerned with our own local cultural heritage?
It seems to me that the gap between the practical experiences of both men and women makes each march to the beat of their own drum, as if the Lord hath descended and confounded their tongues so they wouldn’t understand each other. Women hold men responsible for their suffering, and men don’t understand what women want – and so they conjure religion, tradition, or Freud. Religion, traditions and Freud are all fine, but doesn’t a woman deal with a person of blood and flesh, a person who is very aware of his interests and privileges, and even surpasses her in many cases with knowledge, opportunities and capabilities? Where is his responsibility as an individual, a sane person, a moral person?
While I deeply respect the mighty and sometimes unfair challenges that all men in our societies face, I also take note of the qualitative differences in suffering within intimate relationships. It seems to me, according to my humble observations, that men who fail emotionally tend in general to idealize women, that is, to form in their minds a mythological image of her, an image that is unearthly and contradictory in character – both saint and whore. They continue to search for this ideal without finding her in any real woman. They do not actually suffer from any real wrongs that a woman commits in the name of society, they only suffer from the fact that their imagined sweetheart doesn’t exist in their lives to lavish them with her tenderness and legendary beauty. The woman they want doesn’t even exist, what a tragedy indeed! As for women who fail emotionally, they often tend to demonize men, that is, to hold all men responsible for the mistakes of one careless man (or more than one man) whom they have given so much and who did not treat them with respect. This demonization is reinforced by the reasonable and logical connection between her fresh wounds and the lack of her societal immunity. In my opinion, this is a realistic psychological reaction, and in some respects even a healthy one, to a sad reality in general. Women temporarily need to demonize the man in order to protect themselves from new bruises. This may leave a lasting impact on their attitude to life and their views on love. This gulf between the experiences of women and men in love makes women appear chronically unsatisfied and men – God bless them – chronic seekers of intimacy, despite the opposite being true.
All the differences I have mentioned so far between the experiences of men and women in love do not stem from fundamental differences between femininity and masculinity, but rather from structural differences in social, economic, political, religious and historical status. We need, then, to analyze love affairs culturally, from a perspective that takes all considerations of power into account, and is not content with regurgitating romantic theories written by pampered male thinkers, for those have always forgotten that emotions arise in non-neutral environments, and do not emanate freely from the depths of the individual human being. The reason for their lacunae, in my opinion, is that they have not experienced the existential repression and oppression women experience. Even if men and women are created to love in the same way, they will differ according to societal expectations and the consequences of their behavior and choices. Nevertheless, these theorists proceed from an ideal situation free from pressures and tensions, as if love between a man and a woman is an experience among equals, which will remain uncontested by prevailing customs and power balances once lust is sated.
In order to understand love and analyze it honestly, we must listen to women’s voices and their expressions of their own experiences, we shouldn’t overlook the masculine dimension of individuals’ behavior, even if they initially proceed from good intentions; and we shouldn’t forget the double standards and misogyny prevalent in society, which undoubtedly affect intimate relationships between men and women. Misogyny is the contempt for women and the belief that they are inferior to men. What are you saying, misogyny? I can hear some men denouncing thus: ‘Misogyny? You mean hatred of women? What, then, about our true infatuation with you, women? And our bitter pursuits of you, and how we attach ourselves to the hem of your dresses? What about the long poems we wrote about you, and about your beautiful eyes? Wouldn’t you call that love? What about our deep need for you then? What would you call it if not love?’ I’m sure these are the questions that cross some men’s minds when they hear the term misogyny for the first time. This is because they mistake transient eroticism for love. Eroticism often revolves around one’s own desires more than they do the other’s. No, that is not love, my friends. To love me is to respect me as a full-fledged human being, to protect my limits, my body, my secrets, my future and my ambitions; respect my mind, be honest with me, care for my troubles, speak and listen, take and give, cooperate for you and for me, and apologize when you make a mistake; and if all that proves impossible, then to withdraw without destroying what you leave behind. Are you capable of doing all that? Then you know love.
I am yet to find an analysis of love that is nearer to my heart than Nawal el-Saadawi’s in the chapter titled, ‘What is Love?’ from her book Women and Sex (1972). In my opinion, this book should be required reading for all adolescents. It is an easy, honest and straightforward book that addresses key issues and answers questions that preoccupy those who have yet to experience life, and who are still open to learning outside of petrified frameworks. In that chapter, in which Saadawi treats various aspects of the sexual upbringing of girls, she writes: “One of the conditions of love is equivalence, meaning that the two lovers are equal. If one of them is a human being with a body, a soul, and a mind, then the other must be a person with a body, soul, and mind. Love cannot occur between a person with complete elements and another who has only a body.” She adds, “Love is the finest act that human beings practice, because through it all their physical, psychological and mental components exercise their highest and most deeply human functions.” It turns out that a person who has not developed all these components is unable to exchange love with another. This means that maturity is a condition of love – and that is what society does not provide for women sufficiently; and that is what men fail to benefit from because they don’t regard women as equal to them. If you don’t recognize the other as being equal to you, or if the other is incapable of being equal to you, there can’t be such a thing as love! Saadawi also stresses that “the ability to love depends on a person’s ability to perceive the freedom, truth and dignity of the other.” How badly we need women’s writings which outline the features of love from the perspective of the revolutionary who aspires to create a world more loving and respectful of women! I repeat: love and respect! Love and respect! For there is respect without love, but there is no love without respect. In your opinion, what drives women to constantly emphasize respect in love?
I still don’t know how I dared to write about love, that thorny subject which affects us all. I hope my writing has an added value, and that it provokes, like a stone thrown into still water. And by the way: I don’t think this water will remain still for much longer, now that cases of harassment, domestic violence, and violation of women’s privacy are beginning to reach the public sphere. All of these cases address a pain very specific to women. I hope that love will soon come out of its golden cage, and that we will learn about the experiences of ordinary women. We need to break the silence first. It is okay to learn from those who preceded us on the path of feminism. One of the most important tools used by Western feminists, for example, was women’s talking circles. Dutch feminist Anja Meulenbelt told me in an interview I had with her: “If talking sessions were not organized, there would be no feminism, and we wouldn’t have talked about the topics that concern us.” Talking sessions dealt with topics such as love, sex, the body, beauty, marriage, motherhood, abortion, parenting, infidelity, divorce, housekeeping, unpaid work, occupational empowerment, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and so on. It seems that these periodic sessions pushed women towards a greater awareness of their problems, their responsibility in staying in draining relationships, and helped them recover and discover their strengths. The topics they raised constituted the raw material for subsequent writings and testimonies, which in turn encouraged the creation of support networks for abused women, and opened the way for positive thinking about solutions at the individual, family and community levels.
And since one hand doesn’t clap, I would like to quote in this context what global feminists say: “Men are not only part of the problem, but part of the solution as well.” I wonder why, so far, no signs of a feminist movement have appeared among Syrian men, despite all the ambition and talk about democracy and change; a movement that aspires to liberate not only women, but also men, from the patriarchy. It is not inconceivable that some young men who still believe in their role in change will want to form the nucleus. We need pioneers who think about these sensitive issues, seek solutions with us, and provide us with women-friendly writings that address love from a reformist and realistic perspective. We need them to bend the public discourse towards the essence of the issue, so as not to get lost in mazes and side battles. Perhaps their contributions will broaden our view of the problem; perhaps they will help us find ways to stem patriarchal behaviors in a manner that reaches abusive men; perhaps they can provide examples of positive masculinity, design awareness programs aimed at improving the institution of marriage and the role of fatherhood, not to mention reducing post-divorce problems, violent behavior and harassment, and develop methods of care for both the self and others. War and diaspora may not allow all of this at once, but it is okay to start gradually and build up until the time comes. Am I dreamy? Why not?
Talking about love does not end, and I don’t think I did the subject full justice, especially since every relationship has its own pitfalls that pertain to the two partners as a couple, and so differs in detail from any other. Nevertheless, I expect that many women (and men) will recognize some of their own personal experiences in my writing, because I did not invent anything; I only drew from my own experience and the experiences of the women I know. I hope I put it well. Of course, I would not be surprised if my writing drew criticism, as some readers see that I have greatly underestimated the extent of the damage, and have not yet touched upon the most heinous violations that afflict women in our societies. Is it time to criticize love – they ask – when women are raped at gunpoint in these troubled days? And what is the meaning of all these small pains in a time when women’s enslavement is making a comeback? My answer to that is: the latter stems from the former! If we hadn’t ignored these imbalances before, we wouldn’t have ended up here. Do you think that the brutal violence women face in the shadow of war has suddenly fallen from the sky? Did it not begin in the form of abuses of women’s privacy within the family and the public sphere? Weren’t its seeds already planted in laws, upbringing, curricula and the media? And why should we object only to gross violations? Wouldn’t that be too late? Is it useful to object only if we don’t link these violations to the “domestic” ones which we are so accustomed to, to the point of normalization? Is it reasonable to consider repairing intimate relationships secondary? The roots of violence really lie in our habitual, even bored behaviors, not in gross abuses which are but the hideous and relatively rare outburst of the common and the recurring. The world may not end if a woman hears an insult directed at her; but insulting a woman with a word is the first step on the path to stoning her.
Others may find that I have wronged love and imposed on it intolerable and generalized experiences, while neglecting others. My answer to that is I didn’t do more than uncover some hidden experiences. I have not overlooked experiences that are unable to find their way to light on their own. It’s easy to admit successful love, but it’s hard to talk about our failures. The proverb says: a reputation for richness is better than a reputation for poverty. This also applies to love. I realize there are sublime love experiences, but they are only part of the truth. I only tried to express the voice of the margins, of which I am a part, knowing that it would certainly sound discordant. The voice of the margins is necessarily discordant. However, I did not forget while writing for one second that love has more than one face. Believe me, though, I don’t know what is normal anymore. Is it normal for love to smack our hearts from the first or second attempt, so that we live a steady, vegetative and safe life? Or is it normal that we never find that love, because it is an illusion, and so remain as lonely as a cut tree, or dwell with someone with whom we share only the practical matters of life? Which one is normal? My focus on the negative stems from a desire to change for the better. Do you think I would have written all these words if I had completely given up on love?
I mentioned a while ago that the problems of love cannot be solved fundamentally at the level of the individual alone, but this does not mean that individuals can’t create lush oases of love in the midst of drought and mirages. We desperately need those oases. Given the great changes, negative and positive, that are taking place in our societies, and the exposure of many to new circumstances, environments and miraculous experiences, I believe the issue of love is as contemporaneous as ever. We will not overcome oppression, loss and alienation if we do not free love from its chains, so it would help us gather our pieces and become a salve for our deep wounds. It takes courage from both women and men; the courage of women to say the truth, and the courage of men to accept the truth.
In conclusion, I believe criticizing love does not mean revoking it. All I wanted was to add another point of view to our understanding of love, for a good part of our misery has to do with delusions, misunderstandings, and prejudices regarding love. Love needs a revolution in our thinking and behavior, and a reversal of outdated norms. Will it be a revolution in love, or a revolution against it? Each of us has her own revolution!
Rehab Mouna Chaker
Syrian feminist and Dutch-to-Arabic translator.