Culture Clash

(Please refer to the New York Times National of Monday, October 28, 1991 for the full account described in this article)

There is a story in my files that has haunted me since 1991. It is a story that many in the Arab-American communities nationwide were talking and fretting about. It goes like this: Tina is a typical all-American teenager, the youngest in a large family, an honor student and a soccer player. She had quite a few confrontations with her family. One of those was that she decided to attend the school prom against her father’s wishes. However, irate family members, who considered it untraditional for a young girl to be dancing and having fun, especially with boys around, pulled her away from that event. Tina must have felt humiliated and angry. Her Palestinian father, owner of a grocery store, a Muslim, was as traditional and stubborn as they come. His wife, Maria, was a Roman Catholic by birth and upbringing and was, most probably, fearful of and subservient to her husband.

Suspicious of the father, and hoping to gather evidence of terrorist activities, the FBI had planted listening devices in the apartment where Tina and her family lived. (Oh, yes! Much before the latest NSA scandal, American spook agencies had been spying, wire-tapping, bugging, shadowing etc. etc. The fact that they now use the latest technology to become more invasive and spooky should not be surprising to anyone.) On the night of November 6, 1989 what the FBI heard was not a tape outlining terrorism plots, but a young girl crying for help as she was being stabbed to death – stabbed multiple times – by her father while her own mother held and restrained her!! This was a real crime taking place and not a movie!

The FBI turned the tapes over to the prosecutor and a trial was held in which the defense argued that it was Palestinian culture, traditions and religion that compelled the parents to kill their “Americanized” daughter. The chilled and angry jury convicted the parents and called for the death penalty.

The murder was shocking to everyone who heard of it. It still chills and raises my blood pressure to this day! What is more shocking is that it still happens here in the United States (the television show: Law & Order had a couple of episodes with similar storylines based on real FBI files). However, it seems that Arab men such as Tina’s father have learned about the law. They have every intention of continuing to murder their wayward daughters (newspaper articles have reported a few suspicious deaths of young Arab women that have made me truly wonder) but not to land a death penalty for their crime; choreographing their felony they might make it look like an accident: I didn’t see her in the driveway as I backed out, might be an alibi. She fell from the ladder, could be another. There are others!

Now, having said that, American society also suffers from crimes against women; in these free United States women are raped on a continuous basis. Young girls are being sexually molested every day and some are used as sex slaves. Wives are killed by their husbands and predators abound. However, these acts are considered crimes. Our police will go after the perpetrators and they will, more often than not, find them, shackle them, haul them off to jail and convict them. There are laws on the books that dictate this. In most of the Middle East the so-called “crimes of honor” are still allowed. The perpetrators are, more often than not, jailed for a day or two, maybe months, and then go free whence they are welcomed back into their neighborhoods as heroes who have redeemed honor! How utterly disgusting! The law still favors men no matter how vile their horrid crimes towards women are. And the more wretched wars we witness, the more women will be sexually and physically violated. We are the first victims of every war and upheaval in history. Every one! Whether it was Crusader invaded Jerusalem of olden times or Syrian refugee camps of modern times the atrocities of rape and violence against us females continues unabated, unashamed!! These crimes stretch across the globe from South Africa to Alaska and every country in between and all across. And the practice of the so-called “crimes of honor” continues in the Middle East on an unremitting ghastly basis! Truly, my vagina is not a trophy of honor, or an item in male congressional hearings where it is not even represented, nor should it be a cause or an excuse for rape and other male perpetrated acts of violence?! It simply should not be!


Feminist, I Am!

Sometime in their sixties, my grandmother and my mother-in-law, on separate occasions and while we were talking of someone’s recent death, took me to their cupboards to show me their “kafans” (shroud). One had a very simple white dress; the other had a lacy, embroidered one. They spoke in a matter-of-fact voice, a realism that I have since adopted as my own. Death was to be expected. It was a fact of life. One prepares for it as one prepares for any other eventuality.

Then, after centuries of this kind of acceptance and realism (notwithstanding Ponce de Leon’s and the Alchemist’s search for Eternal Youth, nor Cleopatra’s bathing in the milk of an ass as it was thought to retain youthful skin), came the post First World War 1920’s era followed quite soon thereafter by the Second World War and the1940’s years. Ah! What heady times were those! Things began happening very quickly! Major capitals across the world were witnessing the overlapping of the Agricultural Age with the Industrial Age, both going apace. The few cosmopolitan people from all over the world who dwelt in these capitals suddenly found themselves with all these new tools, appliances and gadgets! Cars for the men, ascot ties, bowler hats and all those beautiful jars of makeup for the women! Red lipstick and nail polish! Silk stockings! Perfume that came in fancy bottles! All that dance music! The films! The beautiful actors, actresses, hairstyles and clothes! So much to emulate, to live for! And so my mother’s generation shunned the kafan and all of its connotations. Life was too exhilarating! Too promising! They had absolutely no intention of dying! How “old-fashioned” to even consider that topic! Those grandmothers and old women whose wrinkled faces and hands told volumes of stories carried devotedly from one generation to another were being replaced by younger and yet younger-looking women of a certain global class who thought that they were going to live forever!

Gone with the kafan (among other things), and all it stood for were the reusable cloth rags that women used when they had their periods. I asked my mother about that once. She described to me how their maid had to wash all those blood-soiled rags (there were four sisters and their mother menstruating in that household!) until her father, a medical doctor back there in Palestine, hit upon the idea of using gauze and wrapping it in hospital cotton for disposable use by the females in his household. However, in 1919, an American company, Kimberley-Clark, had invented Kotex, a disposable sanitary napkin, and solved the problem for millions of cosmopolitan, city-dwelling women. By the mid forties and early fifties, many women (including, by that time, my mother and aunts) across the globe were using that amazing product. That was, I believe, a milestone of an event! Just think with me a little about a product that every woman today takes for granted and never ponders for a second how women’s lives without it were! No more having to touch blood-soaked, smelly (because sometimes they couldn’t be immediately washed) rags. Do you realize how liberating that must have been? I believe that this simple product – together with the war economy’s scrimping on fabric in order to save on cost – even changed the world of fashion because women didn’t have to wear layers and layers of clothing anymore in order to hide the lumpiness of their menstruation rags; the seepage; the odor. Do you fathom the possibilities that these women suddenly glimpsed ahead of them? Can you imagine how they began fantasizing about how some company might one day in their lifetimes come out with, for instance, something like birth control? An invention that was other than having to soak in a steaming bath while drinking gin in order to engender an abortion – which is what my very devout, Bible-reading mother-in-law in Lebanon did, back in the late twenties/early thirties, after having four children with barely a breather in between each of them and finding out that the fifth was on the way?!?! Do you appreciate how many women like her there were across the world and how each community resorted to its own abortion-inducing/life-threatening methods?

So, yes, those years between the twenties and forties and after that suddenly catapulted women of a certain class into a whole new way of thinking; a major change of vision lay ahead for them. They were now allowed to work outside their homes, to pursue an education, to be coquettes, to dance, to smoke, to drink and, oh, oh, what fun it was to be alive despite those terrible war years and notwithstanding the fact that many sexist bosses told their female stenographers to “lie down and take a letter!” A few were also daring enough to begin challenging the status quo and to endeavor treading into the world of politics that had for long eschewed them.

The writings of women, like the French Simone de Beauvoir, inspired the Women’s Liberation Movement to begin taking root. By then it was the Sixties, and what started in some European capitals echoed its demands across the oceans in the United States, and to all cosmopolitan women in the world’s capitals. Human Rights, Equality, the receding of Colonialism from more than half the globe and the awakening that was replacing a comatose existence of enslavement and subjugation were all factors of this changing landscape; travel was increasing, isolation diminishing, books were more available, radio, movies and television allowed ordinary people to witness the world and to see their lives through a different lens. It was all simply captivating! Breathtaking!

. . . and then came my generation . . . and, again, there was this small class of us all across the globe who were enthralled with finding ourselves, with self-expression and actualization, with our educations, jobs and careers, with being in control of our bodies, souls and destiny, who felt so empowered that we were going to change that image the world had of how women behaved, lived and aged! We fell madly in love (or thought that we did!); we had Dr. Spock babies (birth control planned babies) brought into the world by our epidural-dulled vaginas (why should we feel pain?); we had abortions (forgot the damn pill again!) performed by legitimate obstetricians (no back-alley chop shops performed in secrecy for us! No gin in steaming bathtubs!); we had wild sex, affairs, divorces and our scandals did not warrant a Scarlet Letter. We also earned university degrees and significant credentials. Women’s Liberation became our mantra; feminism our religion. We thought we had it all! But we didn’t, did we?

Those were the years during which the seeds that were planted in the Twenties and Forties (and sporadically by courageous women throughout time) began sprouting and eventually mushrooming into a world-wide movement that so threatened the good old boys clubs of the world as to cause – mainly during the last two decades – feminism (and feminists) to become almost a slur! It is, in many of the conservative and retrograde circles today, a failed movement that brought a Pandora’s box of ills to the male universe: rampant sex, single mothers, welfare, divorce, unhappiness to women, misery to their children and . . . and . . . and . . . Really? Are we to believe that seriously? And are those spiked, eight inch heels that a woman can barely walk in – along with the Botox lure, the bra straps that rudely show under the spaghetti strapped tops, the half-naked Lolitas in our schools and malls, thongs greeting me in every store (and does my nine-year-old granddaughter really need those? Really?!), mad and desperate housewives everywhere, the Kardash-who and the Miley Cyrus-what – setting us up as the very sex objects that we rebelled against? How can that be? How?

And, did many of today’s women who are now occupying political and corporate positions in our world really believe the rumor that we had burnt our bras and so they acquired all those chauvinistic traits that we were striving to unseat? And did they reinforce the concept of a failed movement with their war-mongering and needless stridency instead of introducing those feminine qualities that could move our world into being more compassionate and inclusive, more loving and forgiving, more tolerant and understanding, more peaceful and less jingoistic, more estrogen and less testosterone?

Yes, the Women’s Liberation Movement made its mistakes. Extremist positions did occur. Unintended consequences did take place. Many young women misunderstood and misread many of our slogans and got shafted in the process. We oftentimes demonized men, which wasn’t really fair. But the overall positives were pretty successful and astounding!

I am an unashamed feminist! I believe in the power of women to change our world to the better. I have fought for too long and for too hard as to be intimidated by cowards! I bear the numerous scars of those battles. I have exerted my maximum capabilities in order to strike that elusive and very difficult balance between being a liberated, progressive and modern woman and the traditional expectations of my society and it isn’t easy! It isn’t easy for any woman to do and there are millions upon millions worldwide who are attempting that every day.

No, I do not want to prepare my kafan. Not yet, anyway. But I do – very much do! – want to thank my grandmothers, my mother-in-law, my mother and aunts and all those terrific women who came before me and who planted the seeds that proudly made me the feminist that I am today. I want to unabashedly celebrate them and myself every single day! And, most of all, I want to celebrate the younger generations, my terrific daughters and their remarkable peers who are still struggling to keep it all together and to balance their hectic and exigent lives while checking their smart phones. We laid an invaluable inheritance on their shoulders, we knew that they would have to suffer through it and we knew that it will take many generations yet until their own descendants can reap the full benefits of that gift. It had to be done, though! It simply had to!