Hissa Hilal’s public statements always deserve a thoughtful response. Much more than just “controversial” ideas, they inspire us to question and even change contemporary social norms affecting women. When Hilal competed on Abu Dhabi’s Million’s Poet earlier this year, for example, she gained worldwide attention for reciting an original poem that was a sharp-tongued condemnation of clerics who issue inhumane edicts. In 15 short but powerful verses, Hilal stirred up a heated public debate over the responsibilities of scholars to their audiences, and questioned the severe laws put into effect by Muslim clerics.
Nowadays, her recent book, Divorce and Kholu’ Poetry: A Reading of the Status of Women in Tribal Society, Nabati Poetry as a Witness, is to blame for her returned fame. The book is a compilation of 95 poems written prior to the 1950s by, as Hilal describes, strong Bedoin women. She wanted to demonstrate that, in the past, Bedoin women “had more say in domestic matters than they do now. It was easier for them to divorce and remarry.” Hilal’s purpose, as expressed by the book’s publisher, is to inspire readers in the Arab states of the Persian Gulf to question contemporary understandings of divorce and marriage in Islam. Hilal inevitably argues that, if women had more agency – or our favorite F-word: freedom –to marry or divorce almost a century ago, then why don’t they enjoy the same, if not more, freedom now?
But not many people are sure that this is true. Numerous web responses to Hilal’s book fall in line with a different, more critical interpretation of the past. “Our grandparents, they say, practiced a more stringent interpretation of Islamic laws regarding marriage and divorce. Things are different for women now.” Many claim that divorce and remarriage are easier for women now, not then.
We all make claims about “then and now,” but very few of us are informed about what “then” really means and are even less clear on what “now” is for that matter. Part of the problem is that most of our evidence is anecdotal. When my husband and I conducted a two-year interview-based research regarding Palestinian refugees in Jordan, for instance, the answer to one question seemed to be consistently inconsistent. When asked to comment on how life today differed from life then, time and time again the youth replied that people were more God-fearing in the past and that, although life was probably more difficult, it was richer in Islam. And, just as consistently, the older generation would express to us their admiration for the youth who they praised as a more Islamically-conscious generation. “No one knew their religion back in my time. We didn’t have access to our religion the way that people do now,” was a common sentiment. What both groups seem to be missing was an accurate understanding of the past. Trapped in the struggles of the present, the past seemed more like something hoped for, not something that was.
Alongside the challenge of understanding the past, evaluating the “female-friendliness” of a society at different points of its history is even more difficult. Until recently, very there was very little interest in the specifics of women’s lives. What little we did have, came from men, and even these studies tended to be ruled by the logic of several overpowering agendas. Women’s lives come into play only when they support the idea of an “oppressive Islamic past” or authenticate their “pre-modern status as victims.” Suffice it to say that it seems difficult to pin down an accurate picture of how marriage and divorce, for example, took place in predominately-Muslim-populated countries a century ago. And is it possible to peer into the past without projecting contemporary expectations?
Ten years ago, a close Saudi-Arabian friend of mine and I sought out books that objectively illustrated the daily lives of women who lived in the Middle East less than a century ago. I was curious, for example, to learn how these women wore make-up, how their prayer space at mosques was organized, and whether women led any groups that included men? Unfortunately, our efforts turned up short. There was simply not enough accessible recorded history that could answer our seemingly simple questions. The books we did manage to locate were flawed because they were either written from a colonial perspective or written by men. This is not to suggest that a man’s anatomy makes him a faulty authority on history but, if you are looking augment your understanding of the lives, traditions and habits of Muslim women, shouldn’t you go directly do the source?
Hissa Hilal is doing just that. She is going to women to say something about women. She is relying on pre-1950s writings from Bedouin women on marriage and divorce to narrate how pre-1950s Bedouin women thought of and experienced marriage and divorce. Simple enough. Some may object to the idea that women’s poetry can offer us a historical perspective on women’s lives, but historians regularly employ literature and art to narrate a people’s past: Charles Dickens’s novels and short stories, for example, helped contemporary historians present the lives of the working class in Victorian era England – a group of people that would have otherwise been shunned from history books. Similarly, there is not enough recorded evidence outside of poetry that testifies to the lives of Saudi women in the past century. In other words, poetry is the history of women.
As much as readers might want to direct their criticisms at Hilal, they are missing the point that it is not Hilal who is narrating the stories of the lives of Muslim women’s, it is the Muslim women themselves. Their poetry, if anything, compels us to think differently about a past that, in their words, seems to have offered women certain opportunities that they don’t have today. In this sense, Hilal is a messenger who, like Charles Dickens’s Ghost of Christmas Past, warn us about the present and its potential for the future.
Fatima Bahloul is Multimedia Editor of Altmuslimah