My Yemeni friend, Mohammed Al-Asaadi, recently gave me a link via Facebook to an article on the role of women in the ongoing political protests in his country. The article describes the increasing role of women in the movement to overthrow President Saleh. It also describes near-feudal Yemeni traditions that have limited many women to lives of involuntary servitude. In a country where domestic violence is not a legal offense, a woman who defies her family and her neighbors by engaging in public protest is in danger from not only the army and pro-Saleh thugs but also from outraged traditionalists who might well see her public engagement as a stain on family honor.
Reading about the Yemeni women who join the street protests despite the risk reminded me of a woman who only exists in a poem. In “A Letter from a Stupid Woman” the Syrian poet Nizar Kabbani gives voice to a woman who is well aware that she faces death for her subversive views of the Arab patriarchy but, nevertheless, dares to speak. Even though Kabbani died in 1998, he still is routinely referred to as the most popular poet in the Arab world. He was an intensely political poet, who nevertheless earned the title “Poet of Women” for both his empathy with the plight of women in the middle East and his celebration of erotic love.
“Letters” takes the form of a letter written by a woman to her nameless “Master”. She tells him that she is afraid to write her thoughts because his “East”, meaning Arab culture:
It uses knives…
to speak to women
And further on in the poem, she seems to speak about her Master’s religion:
For your East, my dear Master,
Surrounds women with spears
And your East, my dear Master
elects the men to become Prophets,
and buries the women in the dust.
Kabbani’s “stupid woman” would be proud of her sisters in Yemen.