LEBANON: Author Hanan al Shaykh Welcomes Role of Women in Arab Spring

Tuesday, February 7, 2012
DNA India
Western Asia
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
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When her father told her at the age of 10 that she should cover her hair with a veil, Hanan al Shaykh was quick to shoot him down with child-like curiosity and a rebellious streak, asking him why would God give her hair in the first place if they were meant to be covered.

No wonder, the tag of a rebel always stuck to her, even when she took to the pen, choosing to express among many things the often suppressed feelings of the women of her society.

Some of her books were even banned in some Gulf nations as they were considered too explicit in the conservative region, but the renowned Lebanese author is happy like never before, as she witnesses the churnings that are taking place today in the Arab society.

Particulary exciting to her is the active role women are playing to break the status quo.

"I am happy with the incidents of the Arab world. I am fascinated by the fact that women of the region, especially Egypt, are playing a central role in the uprisings," Shaykh says with a smile.

She recalls a time during her childhood when there were hardly any women writers of renown in the Arab world and is more than happy to see a new breed emerging in the present times, empowered by the Internet and social media revolution.

"As a young one, I was like a sponge, absorbing all the events around me. I did not grow up reading books but observing the world around me... I had a lot of friends and cousins but most of them did not question the existing norms of society. I was a questioning child," Shaykh, recently in India, told PTI during an interaction.

The fact that her mother was forced to wed at an early age, a marriage she later called off, perhaps had an impact on her growing up years.

And she even recalls with humour secretly disliking her mother's boyfriend, who later became her stepfather.

"A fly once went inside the nostril of my mother's lover, as he was talking to me. And because I used to be annoyed of him, I wrote a poem suggesting that the fly had taken revenge on my behalf," she says with a loud laugh when asked what were the first few things she ever wrote.

Now 66, Shaykh was born in a conservative and strict Shia family in Lebanon and pursued her higher education in Cairo in the 1960s.

She returned to Lebanon to work for a newspaper but left her country when the civil war broke out. While she also spent time in Saudi Arabia, Shaykh now lives in London and writes from there about her distant homeland.

Her works, many of which have been translated into English, include The Story of Zahra, Women of Sand and Myrrh and The Persian Carpet among others.

She has touched subjects like lesbianism, abortion, and sexual promiscuity, that were and still are quite a taboo in Arab society.

However, she has companions today who are pushing for a change from status quo, something her writings often appear to yearn for.

"The women are at the forefront of protests today (in the Arab world)... In Egypt they went to court against the forced virginity tests on them and won a verdict in their favour," she says, quite optimistic about the changing times.

Shaykh, who was in India recently, describes her visit to this country a fulfilment of a long cherished desire.

She says this might be physically her first visit to India, but she has often made "spiritual visits" to the country.

"I like what India stands for, for peace and compassion, and the beliefs like vegetarianism here are endearing," she says.

While the spiritual connect might be one angle, another aspect of her love for India is Bollywood.

"I grew up on Indian movies. Mangla, an old classic, was the first Indian movie I watched," she says.

"I remember finding a book written by a Saudi Arabian woman author a rare commodity when I was young. Today there are so many women writers, they are venting out their pent up feelings," she says.