“The hypocrisy I’ve seen and experienced is what has driven me to challenge my society”

Joumana Haddad

Retrat de Joumana Haddad © Albert Armengol

The Lebanese activist Joumana Haddad (Beirut, 1970) is one of the most influential Arab women. She knows what she is talking about and when she speaks she cuts through the silence with her sincere, eloquent words. She has worked for 20 years on the Lebanese newspaper An Nahar and her tireless drive to denounce led her to stand at the last legislative elections in Lebanon.

With more than ten books published – non-fiction, poetry and drama – and numerous awards, Haddad has gradually disembowelled the patriarchy and shone a light on the chief taboos of the Arab world, like sex or hypocrisy. She received us at a hotel in the Eixample before giving a talk at the Biennal de Pensament Ciutat Oberta (Open City Biennale of Thought), where she was invited by the European Institute of the Mediterranean (IEMed). And she agreed to unravel some of the threads that make up her life, such as writing, Lebanon, the Arab Springs or the rights of women.

‘I am what they told me not to be’, you write in the book I Killed Scheherazade (Saqi Books, 2010). You come across as a free woman who identifies with Lilith, the mythological woman who never flinched in the fight against injustice. But, what’s freedom for you?

There’s no strict, stable definition of freedom because the objectives and meaning of life change. But if I go back to the beginning of my personal voyage towards freedom, I would say it is being who I want, writing what I want, owning my body, my mind, taking my decisions and, of course, paying the price. True freedom calls for continuous awareness: before taking any decision, we must think whether we really want that or whether it’s what we have been told we want.

You speak of paying a price for being free. In your case, what price have you had to pay?

Freedom isn’t free, but what I have when I’m free is so important I don’t feel I’ve made a sacrifice. The threats and insults I’ve received are a price I can afford. Human dignity has no price.

There’s another legendary woman in your life. I mean the literary figure Scheherazade. You decide to kill her metaphorically in the book we were talking about because you say she negotiated her rights instead of rebelling. Is it worth rebelling individually?

Yes. I don’t think we should wait for the collective moment: all of us have the duty to carry out our own revolution to change our lives and those of others. And if this individual revolution becomes the link in a collective revolution, better still. Speaking of Scheherazade, I decided the character had to die so as to be born freer. In the context she was created in, she represented a strong, intelligent female figure, but today this figure falls short. I’m constantly seeing women who negotiate in many ways all over the world... And I don’t believe that’s the way.

In I Killed Scheherazade, in fact, you speak out against the stereotyped view we in western society have of Arab women. ‘We’re not subjected, we’re not just victims’, you argue. Is there still so much incomprehension?

My view has evolved. Now I prefer to keep away from women-man or east-west binomials. Perhaps you and I, western and Arab women, have more in common than you have with another western woman or I have with another Arab woman, because personality, your view of life, your dreams and emotions also matter. Obviously, culture and civilisation have an influence, but if we have the free awareness we talked about earlier we can eventually choose aspects of other cultures that appeal more to us and not be driven by features we have supposedly inherited. We are born with an enormous suitcase that can decide our lives, and we have to open it to decide what we want in it and what we don’t. It’s true that few people have the luxury of opening the suitcase, but there are also a lot who do get the chance and don’t take advantage.

You say you read a lot as a child. And that with the Marquis de Sade you learned to detect the hypocrisy around us. ‘Being Arab is to live in hypocrisy’. You defend in your essays. In what sense?

As a girl educated in a nuns’ school in Lebanon, I first discovered the hypocrisy of Christianity: the same double standards we find in Arab identity. In the Arab countries we live surrounded by taboos and prohibitions, and a lot of people satisfy their needs by combining two lives: their public and social life, where they keep up appearances, and their private life, where they satisfy their desires. In fact, the hypocrisy I’ve seen and experienced is what has driven me to challenge my society. Now there are a lot of young Lebanese women who are stronger because they see that I’ve rebelled, I’ve written what I thought even if it was controversial, and I’m still alive. I know that many women will rebel when they feel the moment has arrived, they just need to build up enough strength and emotional and financial independence.

In I Killed Scheherazade you depict yourself as a woman infuriated by the Arab victim mentality, by western paternalism, by male chauvinism, by religious oppression... If you were to rewrite this essay today, after the Arab springs, would you still be infuriated by those same topics?

I would write exactly the same. Unfortunately, the so-called Arab Springs have led us backwards rather than forwards.

So the fight for women’s rights became watered down in these rebellions?

Yes. The Islamists didn’t miss their chance to get power. Now another kind of dictatorship has been imposed, religious extremism. We had dictators and we’ve got them again. In Egypt, for example, there is already another dictatorship; in Syria, after a bloody war, the same dictator is still in power... Two reasons come to mind to explain the failure of the revolts: the first is that most Arab peoples weren’t ready for this change because the dictatorships prevented it through powerful manipulation. The second reason is that the dictators had plenty of time to prepare themselves. For example, all the Syrian leaders of Islamic State have become a weapon which Al-Assad’s regime has used when it felt threatened to blackmail the people: ‘Them or me’. Now we’re suffering as a result of the cooperation between the dictatorships and the Islamic leaders, the same as happened here under the Franco regime between Franco and the Catholic Church.

Getting back to women’s rights, do you agree with the idea that a feminist revolution could break out in the most extremist Arab countries, like Saudi Arabia, before countries like Lebanon?

Yes. In countries where there’s more oppression there are also more occasions for rebellion. In Lebanon, on the other hand, there’s a false illusion of freedom. But we mustn’t forget that the Muslim regimes in certain countries won’t let these revolutions break out until at least 100 years from now, when gulf oil has run out and perhaps international relations are beginning to change.

Now let’s talk about your trade. Why do you write? To provoke? To understand?

I write to breathe, to exist. Never to provoke: the provocation in my writing is collateral damage. And I’ve been doing it since I was nine because it’s a need. Even though it’s not daily. There are times in life when I feel I need to experiment and live, and other times I use to explain myself and write what I’ve experienced. Writing is what lets me know who I am at any time.

Your last novel, The Seamstress’ Daughter, published in Spanish by Penguin Random House, tells the story of your grandmother, a survivor of the Armenian genocide, who one day decided to commit suicide...

Yes, I needed to tell her story. In fact, everything I wrote before this novel may have been a rehearsal for it. I don’t mean that the earlier books aren’t important, but that perhaps they were necessary layers that had to be applied before this one.

Retrat de Joumana Haddad © Albert Armengol © Albert Armengol

Your work has been translated into many languages and read in many countries. Are there places where your books are still banned?

In many Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, for example, or Egypt. There you can only find a bit of poetry, but no non-fiction.

Speaking with your readers, do you think they read you differently depending on the country?

I’ve discovered something wonderful and, at the same time, very sad. I’ve got readers all over the world, but the problems I deal with are commoner than I thought. I thought people in countries like Spain, Italy or even France wouldn’t be interested in reading essays about sexism or patriarchy, but many women in these places tell me I seem to be talking about them...

And what would you like people to feel when they finish reading a book of yours?

A desire for more. More hope, more strength, more generosity towards others, more understanding of what’s different, more acceptance... and more curiosity too! Curiosity doesn’t cause problems, as they say, it kindles interest.

One example of your curiosity is the magazine Jasad (‘body’ in English), which you published in 2008, despite the threats, so that Lebanese citizens could have a space to discuss aspects related to the body. Does talking about our bodies make us freer?

Not just talking about them, but gaining greater awareness about what to do with our bodies and with our desires. The body is no proof of freedom or oppression; it helps us live as happily as possible, but we have to discover it. Discussing the body and experimenting with it is important, but being aware of what we want to do with it is even more important.

You said that Jasad had to serve to put words to so much silence. And this makes me think that in many western societies the opposite happens. Apparently, we talk a lot about sex, but in the end we always reproduce the same heteropatriarchal myths. Could this be the other side to the coin?

Yes, and that’s wild. But it is for women as well as for men...

Let’s talk of men, then. In the book Superman is an Arab (Westbourne Press, 2012) you said that the men we deserve as humans need to change a lot. To become humanus. What are these humanus like?

Continuing the Superman analogy, the humanus would be rather like Clark Kent, who isn’t ashamed to show his vulnerability. Superman is a consequence of an educational problem: we are educated to fill certain roles, even if they’re unnatural. The same way that women in many cases are taught not to be self-confident, men can’t show their vulnerability or emotions because they’ve got to save the women. I have women friends who are divorced, who are 48 like me and who are still waiting for a prince in shining armour to save them from hardship!

In Superman is an Arab you also defend ‘third-generation feminism’, which distances itself from the war of the sexes and argues for collaboration. Can you explain a bit more about this concept?

I think men are accomplices in the feminist struggle, which is based on human dignity. Feminism is universal, it transcends gender, sexual orientation, nationality, religion... And now, more than ever, I feel the need to defend this word because there’s more incomprehension than ever.

For you, though, Islamic feminism isn’t feminism...

It can’t be. You can say you’re fighting to improve women’s rights through religion, but in my opinion you can’t say you’re a feminist because equality doesn’t exist in religions. Feminism, by its very nature, must be secular.

The researcher Sara al-Masri says that feminism in conservative Arab societies is still viewed negatively because it puts ‘family honour’ and ‘women’s decency’ at stake in its moral systems. Do you agree?

Yes. They’re very patriarchal societies and for the Muslim and Christian religions family honour lies between the women’s thighs. I, for example, have the honour of the whole of the Haddad family between my thighs and everything I do with my body has repercussions... It’s so absurd! We need women who will answer ‘Go to hell!’. In the countries where we wouldn’t be killed for saying that, it’s cowardice that stops women rebelling. That way we’ll never be free...

I’d like to stop for a moment in Lebanon. How has your identity been marked by the fact of being a woman, Arab, of Christian origin, but profoundly atheist in such a confessional country?

I discovered I was a sort of monster last May when I stood in the elections. In fact, I won and they overturned my candidacy... I’ve always said that there’s a cliché according to which Lebanon is a modern, open-minded country, but that if you scratch a bit you might find that’s not true. When I stood with the citizens’ platform I was criticised for incredible things: like being an atheist or defending the rights of homosexuals... A lot of journalists when they interviewed me, instead of talking about my political agenda asked questions about my appearance or about my personal life.

This misogyny in the political sphere can be found in many countries...

For sure! It’s terrible to look at the political and economic world, where things ought to change, and to see it so masculinised... Lebanon, on top of that, has the disadvantage of being very confessional: there are a lot of religions and religious leaders want power and use fear. The younger generations still have this confessional view: ‘I’m Christian’, ‘I’m Shiite’, I’m Sunni’... I think the state should be secular, because identity comes from nationality and not from confession. Right now there’s no feeling of belonging to Lebanon, we all proclaim our foreign allegiances: the Shiites to Iran, the Sunnis to Saudi Arabia and the Christians to France, as though the French were saying to us ‘Yes, yes, come and live in France my dears...’

Anyone who reads you will discover that your relationship with Lebanon is a complex one. You say you don’t feel any special ties, but at the same time you still live there...

Sometimes misfortunes bind us more than other things in life. We establish more emotional relationships with the facts, the people and places that have seen us suffer than with the places where we’ve been happy. I’ve lost so many things in Lebanon – so many days, so many opportunities, so much effort...–, that I hate it, but at the same time I feel tied to it. What’s more, I lived through a war there and that bred a Quixotic urge to do things in me. I’m not the typical Don Quixote, but I’m a woman who fights.

Joumana, on your road to rebellion and freedom, what part is played by love?

It’s essential. I’m a firm believer in it. When I started sharing my life, my vision, my time and my dreams with another person I was able to feel the joy of life better. Now I’m in a relationship with a man and we’re living together without getting married – I’ve been married twice and I think that’s enough! –, even though our situation is not foreseen in the laws of my country and I could get put in prison... For my family it’s also been dramatic. But I don’t make concessions. I can’t negotiate.