BOTH RIGHT AND LEFT HANDED Arab Women Talk About Their Lives By Bouthaina Shaaban Indiana University Press 242 pp. $35; paperback, $12.95
WHEN A group of Saudi women grabbed the wheels of their cars in 1990 to stage a "protest drive" against the kingdom's archaic ban on female drivers, they were arrested, fired from their jobs, deprived of their passports, called "prostitutes," "secularists" and a threat to the nation's way of life. The government then turned what had been a mere custom against women drivers into a prohibition with criminal penalties.
Some might be inclined to say, "Oh well, that's Saudi Arabia," an Arab country whose unique interpretation of Islam produces many ideas about women that seem strange to foreigners. But women in other Arab countries, despite having relatively more freedom than their Saudi peers, are not much better off. In most places, females are still bound by unwritten customs and traditions that keep them second-class citizens -- sometimes not much more than slaves to domineering husbands, fathers and brothers.
Politics, education and mass communications remain overwhelmingly male bastions in the Arab world. The family hearth is rarely one where mother's voice carries equal weight to father's. And in several countries, a male who kills a female relative because of adulterous or premarital sex is regarded as a redeemer of the family's virtue. According to laws still on the books, this so-called "crime of honor" is punishable by six months in jail.
What do Arab women think of all this? Why don't they do something about it? In a region where politics, war and strife have for so long overshadowed and perverted "normal life," there are few books by Arabs that attempt to answer such questions. Even fewer by women, and fewer still in English.
Bouthaina Shaaban has begun to fill that void. In Both Right and Left Handed: Arab Women Talk About Their Lives, the 38-year-old Syrian university professor of English has produced a highly readable, sometimes riveting book about how Arab women regard their position in Arab societies. The bulk of its 242 pages is taken up with their personal stories as told to Shaaban.
The interviews with Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian and Algerian women are interspersed with Shaaban's own observations about women's problems in Arab society. What comes through most of all is their frustration and resentment about their place in society. As the late novelist Makboula Shalaq, who became Syria's first female university graduate in 1941, told Shabaan: "Even if you are a Tolstoy working on your masterpiece you are not excused from the social duty of cooking kebab and doulma for your guests, whereas anything, even writing a letter, will excuse a man from a social duty."
The unnamed wife of a Syrian university lecturer tells how her husband beat her, banned her from seeing her own family and wouldn't eat her food because he feared she would poison him."But I know that had I not submitted to his will our marriage couldn't have lasted until now," the woman said. "I am now the person he wants; there is hardly anything left of me," she added, breaking into tears.
A 32-year-old Algerian working mother of two, asked what made her angry as a woman, replied: "As a married women . . . I don't have the freedom to do what I want to do. Suppose I want to go out for a walk -- I can't. I have to ask my husband and he has to agree; I have to explain why or where I want to go . . . Sometimes I have to wait until my husband comes home and it is either too late or I've stopped wanting to do what I fancied doing two hours ago."
Then there is the interview with a 60-year-old Syrian woman identified as Um Mohamad, or Mother of Mohamad, who was married off to a man who already had another wife. She described a marriage of 48 years marked by beatings and perpetual work on their farm while her philandering husband ignored his family. The two wives became best friends -- and lovers.
Algerian Farida Almnouar lamented that the growing Islamic fundamentalist influence in her country meant "there is no hope for women . . . We are going backwards, not forwards . . . How can things ever improve if the teacher at my son's school tells the children that God doesn't like women driving cars, smoking cigarettes or putting on make-up? So my son, who is only 6 years old, comes out of school demanding to go home with his friend because . . . I am driving and I am a woman."
Many Arab women expressed mixed feelings about western women, telling Shaaban that they envied their freedom, but disapproved of the toll this was taking on western family life. They also doubted that their western peers are happier than they used to be because, like Arab females, they are bearing the double burden of families and jobs. As a Syrian woman named Abla said of her imagined western counterpart: "She must also be exhausted."
With compelling honesty Shaaban also lays out her own difficult story of growing up female in a traditional Syrian family: how she learned to write as an escape from family pressures; how humiliated she felt when she began to menstruate because she hadn't the faintest idea of what was happening; and how her father severed his relationship with his daughter when she decided to marry someone he refused to accept.
Her decision provoked "an unstoppable flood of horrid letters" from her father, complete with "threats that he would kill me wherever I was if I didn't obey his injunction to give up Khalil," Shaaban wrote. All this, she added, from a man who had been the "loving, affectionate father of my early childhood." IT IS CLEAR that Shaaban's personal experiences have deeply influenced her feminist outlook and contributed to her anger, which comes across stridently at times, over male domination in the Arab family. "To most Arab women extended families mean one thing: extra male authority," she wrote, adding later: "The supposedly warm and supportive family atmosphere at times turns into a male inferno."
But Shaaban joins her indictment of male attitudes with equal criticism of women for failing to improve their situation with more urgency and vigor. "What are needed are some strong, aggressive feminist politicians," comments Shaaban, who wrote her book in English and has not yet translated it into Arabic.
Some of the interviews are repetitive in parts. One, with a Palestinian woman, rambles on about the woman's wartime experience in a refugee camp during a period of extended shelling and fighting. Presumably, this dire situation affected male and female alike and seems irrelevant to the larger issues raised in the book.
It also appears that most women Shaaban interviewed are married to beastly men whom no one could bear living with; many reported being beaten by their fathers, brothers or husbands. These accounts serve to highlight the problem of the battering of Arab women -- an issue widely ignored by Arab governments. But Shaaban's book might more truthfully have reflected Arab society at large had it contained more interviews with women who, like herself, are happily married, although still frustrated by social restraints imposed on their sex.
Despite these flaws, Both Right and Left Handed is an intriguing voyage into the otherwise hidden lives of Arab women. It is above all else a personal book by a woman on a topic that gets little attention in her own society. And herein lies its value.
Caryle Murphy is the Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post.