Nadia Yaqub and Rula Quawas’ “Bad Girls of the Arab World” (University of Texas Press, 2017) records and analyzes the experiences of Arab women who transgress social norms, telling the stories of Arab women from Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Palestine, Egypt, the Maghreb, and the United States. In her review of the book for Al Jadid, Pamela Nice notes that the strongest chapters in this work “break free from the bonds of academic jargon and present women in their full flesh-and-blood selves.”
The book offers the perspectives of several academics like Amal Amireh, Hanadi al-Samman, and Rawan W. Ibrahim. In one segment, the book profiles women’s use of their bodies to convey revolutionary messages. Such is the case of Tunisian Amina Sboui, one of many who used nudity to challenge their society’s traditional conventions for female purity.
However, one essay by Amal Amireh reminds readers that tales of transgression can be both celebratory and cautionary, claiming that though they may be “empowered by their participation,” they may “risk losing some of the hard-won rights they snatched from the toppled autocrats.”
Fayda Hamdi’s story is an example of how revolutionary regimes scapegoat women. Amireh describes how Hamdi was wrongly accused of driving Muhammad Buazizi, symbol of the Arab Spring, to set himself on fire after she had allegedly slapped him. Today, Hamdi lives her life as a social pariah, suffering continual physical, as well as emotional, trauma.
Hanadi al-Samman’s “Syrian Bad Girl Samar Yazbek: Refusing Burial” details how a member of Assad’s sect, Samar Yazbek, was seen as a traitor not only to her community but also to the regime, receiving threats and harassment for speaking out against the Assad government. In her personal writings, Yazbek compared w’ad (from jahiliya times, burying infant girls alive) to the practices of authoritarian regimes – specifically Assad’s – in burying not just vocal women, but whole societies, and described her psyche as intimately connected to Syrian society. Samman writes, “the trauma of the buried cities weighed heavily on her soul…she felt its effects on her own body as fear, anxiety, insomnia, vomiting, and madness…”
Orphaned girls pay a heavy price in the Arab world. In her chapter, “Paying for Her Father’s Sins: Yasmin as a Daughter of Unknown Lineage,” Rawan W. Ibrahim addresses this phenomenon, examining the difficulties experienced by an orphaned girl in Jordan. When a society equates identifiable parentage with honor, orphaned children like Yasmin are forced to carry a stigma from birth, on top of the multitude of problems they face as they come of age and leave institutional care.
The book also touches on grieving Palestinian mothers who are blamed for Israeli military decisions. As Adani Shibli explains in her chapter, “The Making of Bad Palestinian Mothers during the Second Intifada,” how Israeli authorities cynically turn mothers’ voices against them as they cry in rage and anguish for their killed children.
“Bad Girls of the Arab World” offers an important look into women’s interactions with oppression through their bodies and actions. Pamela Nice’s review of the book, “The Sexual Unconscious of the Arab Revolutions,” is scheduled to appear in the forthcoming issue of Al Jadid, Vol. 23, No. 76, 2019.
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