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'Brainwashed women wear veils'

Hanan Al-Shaykh talks about using humour against repression.

books Updated: Jan 24, 2012 18:38 IST
Amitava Sanyal, Hindustan Times

'Women bake the cake. The men just sprinkle some sugar on top and claim the cake to be their own. Arab women have been at the forefront on many occasions - in Algeria, earlier in Egypt. This time they are defending the cake for themselves," says Hanan Al-Shaykh.

But the Lebanese society into which the 65-year-old author was born did not allow women the 'keep the cake'. Her mother Kamila was forced to marry a much older brother-in-law at 14, despite loud protests that she was too young and in love with someone else. "We wasted too much time on getting simple things -- the right to go out, to watch films... My father and brother didn't allow me to step out after 6 pm in winter," says the author of taboo-breaking works such as Women of Sand and Myrrh and The Story of Zahra, which are often sexually explicit.

Humour is one of the most potent weapons against such repression. "My mother didn't like my father praying loudly all the time because it interfered with her listening to the radio. So once when he was bowing in prayer, she stuck a tail to his pajama," says Al-Shaykh, her face creasing into a laugh. "She used laughter to survive. She once got into a taxi without a penny. When it was time to pay, she gave the driver a photo of her father, saying that it would protect the driver. She cried later that she was so poor."

"These days the veil seems to have come back into fashion in many Arab countries," says the writer who admires Hoda Shaarawi, the Egyptian feminist who refused to wear a veil in the 1920s. "If you ask the women today, many of them will tell you they do it out of choice. It's not true. What will you do if you are told time and again that you will be skinned alive in hell for showing your face? They are simply brainwashed."

First Published: Jan 24, 2012 18:38 IST