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Oriana Fallaci on Moslem women

The Useless Sex
by Oriana Fallaci

Horizon Press 1964 pp. 26-32

Moslem women rarely walk alone along the street. Generally they walk in groups, with their children, and with the husband who keeps three paces ahead to make it clear that he is the master and she must follow him. There are times when even girls who are students, the most progressive girls, do not evade this ruling. You can see them coming out of high school, muffled up like nuns, and they are girls who know all about Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci, but if you come too close or try to photograph them, they'll suddenly huddle together in a group, lowering their heads as sheep do when they're afraid.

In a land which is struggling to convince women to take off their veils, explaining that they prevent the skin from breathing, carry infection, and enfeeble the sight, such anachronism is cruel. In the streets you might still happen to see cars with closed curtains: these are the cars of the richest Moslem women, for whom it is not enough to hide their head in purdah. Inside the houses, into which incidentally it is extremely difficult to gain admittance, you will very rarely set eyes on any women. At home they do not wear the veil, and if accidentally or on purpose you mistake the door and enter their quarters, you are met by a concert of shrillest screams. A friend of mine in Karachi who has employed a certain gardener for the last three years, tells me that she has never once seen his wife without her veil. 'I really think,' she says, 'that that woman has never been touched by a ray of sunshine.'

There's plenty of sun in the lands of Islam: a sun that is white, violent, blinding. But Moslem women never see it - their eyes are conditioned to gloom like the eyes of moles. From the darkness of the mother's womb they pass into the darkness of the father's house and from this to the darkness of the tomb. And in all this darkness nobody takes any notice of them. Asking a Moslem about his women is like asking him about a secret vice, and when one fine day I said to the editor of a Pakistani newspaper: 'I have come to ask you about the problem of Moslem women,' he became quite angry and answered: 'What problem? There isn't any problem of Moslem women.' Then. he handed me a sheaf of typescripts which were all about the dress of Moslem women, the jewels of Moslem women, the make-up of Moslem women, and about how they use coconut oil to give lustre to their hair, and how they use henna to stain the palms of their hands and the soles of their feet red, and how they use antimony mixed with rose water to colour their eyelashes. 'Here,' he said, 'you'll find everything about Moslem women.' Then I asked him what the percentage of illiteracy among Moslem women might be, and he replied angrily: 'Why should a woman have to learn reading and writing? And to whom would she need to write? The only person she could write to is her husband. If the husband is living with her, what would be the point of sending him a letter?'

A thousand and three hundred years have passed since Mohammed raised his voice in the scorching desert of Arabia, and although something new is now taking place among the women of Islam, the vast majority of his faithful followers continue to observe his laws as if time has stood still. It is true that in Tunisia President Bourguiba condemns to imprisonment any man who takes more than one wife and exhorts the young women to cast off their veils, but, as the weekly paper L'Action reports, 'the parents are ashamed of this'. It is quite true that at the American University in Beirut and at the Beirut College for Women the girls wear blue jeans, go water skiing and dance rock and roll, but, as Time Magazine reports, you are still likely to overhear a couple of male students make such remarks as: 'Would you ever marry a girl who had been to the cinema with another boy?' 'No, no I really don't think 1 would.' It is quite true that in Nigeria an eccentric woman called Zeinab Wali gives a weekly broadcast in the course of which she urges women to come out of their houses and get to know the trees, the mountains and the butterflies. But when the wife of a minister of Kaduna asked her husband's permission to go out and get to know, the trees, the mountains and the butterflies, the husband held a family council during which it was decided that she should be allowed out only after five in the evening - when there is still sufficient light to be able to see but when the sinful brilliance of the sun is turning to twilight. It is quite true that in Egypt there is an auxiliary force of women in the army, but Nasser still hasn't had the courage to abolish polygamy because, he well knows, the men would revolt against such a measure. If polygamy ceases it certainly won't be his doing; it will simply be because maintaining two wives is expensive.

Not even women of such authority as Princess Aisha in Morocco succeed in breaking down these laws that have been unchanged for, centuries. On one occasion in Tangiers I saw Aisha. She was defiantly attired in skirt and blouse, driving an open car, and the Moroccan women were wild with admiration. Some were hurling away their mantles, others were pressing round her at the risk of getting themselves run over, and a French journalist told me that this was nothing compared with what had happened a few years previously when, in a square in the Tangiers casbah, Aisha had climbed up on a platform and, dressed in a blue Lanvin outfit, had made, the following speech: 'I know well enough the wicked customs and prejudices that weigh down upon us; we must slough them off. Modern culture is calling us, and it is vital for the life of our nation that we should imitate 'our sisters in the West who are making a contribution to the progress of their countries.' However, the French journalist told me, next day Sidi Mohammed Tazi, mandate of Tangiers, had given orders that any Moroccan woman dressed in European clothes should be put under arrest: 'What is all right for a princess is not all right for other women. If our women start wearing Western clothes, before long they'll be drinking, then dancing, and then they'll be going down at night to sleep with men on the sea-shore:' When photographs appeared of Aisha in a swimsuit on the beach at Rabat, EI Glaoui of Marrakesh judged them outrageous and Aisha, with her jodhpurs, her brief tennis skirts and her Benny Goodman records, contributed not a little to the sultan's exile in Corsica and subsequently in Madagascar. When Aisha returned, acclaimed by thousands of women, the strongest among whom had refused for two 'years to surrender themselves to their husbands 'so that they should not give birth to children conceived in humiliation', she had to keep her speeches considerably more prudent. 'The emancipation of women,' she said, wearing a heavy mantle, 'should not be sudden like a surgical operation. The veil of itself has little importance. The important thing is that a woman should be free to choose whether to wear it or not.'

They are, therefore, the most unlucky women in the world, these women with the veil, and the paradox is that they often don't realise it because they don't know what goes on outside the sheet that imprisons them. They suffer and that's an end of the matter, like the Mother of the Departed I met one morning in Karachi. And they dare not even rebel.

I had gone, that morning, to speak with the Begum Tazeen Faridi who is head of the All Pakistan Women's Association in Karachi. Tazeen Faridi is a vivacious woman, with skin gold as honey, who likes to describe herself as 'a Moslem woman who doesn't wear the veil and possesses a surname'. She belongs to the limited number of women who count as somebody in this land, such as the Begum Liaquat Ali Khan, Ambassadress in Holland, and the Princess Abida Sultan, Ambassadress in Brazil. She has a husband who respects and admires her, an office prudently devoid of placards and posters, in front of which informed Moslems pass with the same grimace of disgust that teetotallers would reserve for a glass of whisky. The chief, aim of her life is the advancement of Moslem women: book of law and Koran in her hand, she fights like a wild cat against poly¬gamy, and is so modern-minded that some time ago she even tried to send a Miss Pakistan to the Miss Universe contest which is held in Long Beach. The story of this election is worth the telling: the daring maidens who agreed to take part in the con¬test paraded in swimsuits before twelve Moslem ladies and then in purdah before twelve Moslem gentlemen. What the Moslem gentlemen are supposed to have seen remains a mystery: purdah makes it impossible even to tell whether the wearer is fat or thin. However they placed their trust in Tazeen Faridi, who assured them that the favoured candidate hidden beneath the sheet was most beautiful and worthy to go to Long Beach. She never actually went, let us be clear about that. The Karachi Times revealed that the Begum had suppressed an important detail, namely that Miss Pakistan would not be parading in purdah at Long Beach but, on the contrary, in a swimsuit: the Begum barely escaped a lynching.

So there I was, talking with Tazeen Faridi in this little office full of useless manifestos, when this Mother of the Departed arrived. She came in looking suspiciously over her shoulder, as if she were afraid she was followed by a horde of religious fanatics intent on shaving her head, and her black burka didn't even have the little holes at eye level- how she managed to walk without tripping I do not know.

'Down with that rag,' said Tazeen Faridi. And because the woman drew back, hesitating, she snatched it off. I caught my breath at the dreadful stench that was released and stared. Be¬neath there was a woman of about forty, black and sweating, covered with jewels and bruises. The worst bruise was over her left eye, and one lip was swollen. She dabbed at her lip with a handkerchief and didn't dare to speak. Then, somehow, she managed to find her voice. And here, word for word, is what she said. I haven't altered so much as a comma in what Tazeen ,Faridi slowly told me, in English. And Tazeen is too honest to have invented anything.

'I was fourteen years old and he was thirty-two. My aunts and cousins told me that his nose had been eaten away by smallpox, but he was taking me for three thousand rupees and, ugly as I was, I couldn't expect anything better. They exchanged sweets and gifts, they signed the agreement and he took me to his house. He assigned a boy of thirteen to keep watch on me, but he always shut himself in the room with the boy and paid no attention to me. In the end he took me, but when the time came for me to give birth I was taken ill. My aunts and cousins looked for a lady doctor, but the lady doctor wasn't to be found. There was only a man doctor, but he didn't want me to take off my clothes in front of the doctor and my baby son died: I became the Mother of the Departed and he was kind because he didn't cast me out. However he took another wife, younger than me, and when her time came it was I who had to help her. He continued to keep me in the same manner as her and he used to give me the same jewels, exactly the same, but he used to beat me. The lady doctor came and she said I ought to have asked for a divorce. I said, "All right, but I haven't got any money for a lawsuit and anyway, what can a divorced woman do?" Then he saw another girl. She cost thirty thousand rupees because she's a beautiful girl so he wants to get back my three thousand rupees, but my aunts and cousins haven't got them any more. He also says he hasn't got enough money to keep three wives and then I'm old. So he said, "Talak, Talak, Talak", and repudiated me. The lady doctor told me to come here. I have come. But now where shal! I go, what shall I do?'
In the same way that doctors don't get upset about their patients' stomach aches, Tazeen Faridi showed no emotion at this tale and promised the woman that she would try to find a place for her in some institution or with some family that needed servants. Naturally the best thing would have been a widows' home, but then she wasn't a widow so there was no good hoping for that. Then she told her to leave, to come back if she was in need, and to me she explained that she had sent the woman away because in the Moslem world a woman cannot live alone, not even if she is working. If she does live alone it means she is a lost woman. 'This is the reason why there are no spinsters and why repudiation is the equivalent of civil death. According to the new law a woman can ask for a divorce, But, this means facing a lawsuit and along with the lawsuit the scandal. A man, on the other hand, can say 'Talak, Talak, Talak', without any lawsuit, and he becomes free as a chaffinch again. It isn't even necessary to give alimony. You understand?'

'No. I don't understand,' I answered. 'Is it really possible that these people never get fond of each other?'

'Sometimes,' said Tazeen Faridi, 'but they're ashamed to admit it,' rather as if it was a fault.

14/02/2010 21:37. plotino #. THIS WORLD

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