Joumana Haddad: 'Arab women have been brainwashed'

Joumana Haddad is a voice rarely heard in the Middle East – an unapologetic feminist who wants to challenge the way both Arab men and women think. Tahira Yaqoob meets the Germaine Greer of Lebanon.

It begins as a tender love letter to the sons who have given her the "greatest, most enriching adventure of all"– motherhood. But, writes Joumana Haddad, there is something she needs to tell her two boys as they become adults.

She is tired. Tired of the never-ending battle of the sexes, of being made to feel guilty for working, of faking orgasms, of commitment-phobic partners, of worrying about her appearance, and of not initiating sex for fear of being labelled aggressive or pushy.

"We (women, most of us)," she writes in her new book, "are tired of you (men, most of you) seeing us as only your mothers, your daughters, your sisters, your lovers, your wives, your properties, your accessories, your servants, your toys ... we are tired of you needing us to cover up with a black cloak, or to over-expose ourselves like cheap sex objects, in order for you to feel secure in your manhood."

Haddad's polemic is the credo behind Superman is an Arab: On God, Marriage, Macho Men and Other Disastrous Inventions, the soon-to-be-published sequel to I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman (2008) in which she tackled Arab machismo, which she says makes men think they are as invincible as superheroes, and is responsible for many of the evils perpetrated in the region. And, if it unleashes another avalanche of opprobrium, Beirut-born Haddad is bracing herself; she has already spent most of her 41 years swimming against the tide.

As the writer of sexually explicit poetry, the publisher of an erotic magazine called Jasad, (meaning 'body'), and as the author of I Killed Scheherazade, in which she railed against religious bigotry and social oppression, Haddad has earnt the epithet of 'the most hated woman in Lebanon'. She's also been called the (arguably equally unflattering) 'Carrie Bradshaw of Beirut' by a British newspaper.

We meet amid the lofty colonnades and palm fronds of the Sofitel Santa Clara in historic Cartagena, Colombia, where the tiny, doll-like Haddad, in a sleeveless vest, tight jeans, skyscraper heels and a tangle of wild curls, is talking at a literary festival.

"The macho culture is how religious leaders become terrorists, bosses become slave owners and husbands become obsessive," she tells me. In her new book, due to be published in the UK in September, Haddad tackles the Arab world's macho culture, which she says is responsible for atrocities on both a global and personal scales, from the rise to power of Muammar Gaddafi and Hosni Mubarak to the condescension shown by husbands to their wives.

Haddad is equally censorious towards Arab women. She was incensed when, at the height of the Arab Spring last year, she saw a BBC report which showed footage of a female Egyptian lawyer approaching a group of women gathered in Tahrir Square to tell them they had no right to participate in political demonstrations, and that their place was at home. Even educated women, she believes, are responsible for holding back women and preaching passivity.

At a talk she gave in Qatar on the role of women in the Arab revolution, Haddad was reproached by a female audience member for focusing on trivial matters. She put her accuser in her place.

"She told me she thought it was shameful I was talking about women's rights at such an important time when systems were changing and dictatorships were falling – as if women's rights were just irrelevant, a minor issue compared to the issue of revolution. I told her it was shameful she called herself a woman.

"It is not exaggerating to say it is a crime when a woman talks like that. We have all seen women participate in the demonstrations and be very active in the revolutions, so I would have expected them to be more assertive at the moment of the formation of the new structures. Instead, they just allowed themselves to be used as pawns.

"Women's rights are a human rights issue and cannot be perceived as a luxury; they are a necessity in any political system that claims to be a democracy."

Haddad also blames Arab women who have become too reliant on men as both a financial and social crutch: "They have been brainwashed into thinking they just need to submit themselves to their destinies".

It worries her that post-revolution, both Tunisia and Egypt have seen the rise of political parties whose roots lie firmly in Islamic fundamentalism, from the landslide victory of the Islamist Ennahda Movement after Zine el Abidine Ben Ali was ousted, to the Muslim Brotherhood and the hardline Al-Nour party in Egypt.

To Haddad, who was raised a Catholic but is now an atheist, the main monotheistic religions are equally to blame for creating a society where women are left without a voice. She writes: "What revolutions are they if they will only bring forth a new form of backwardness – that of religious extremism – to replace the one which has been toppled? I do not believe this is an Arab Spring but the last phase of an Arab winter."

The new book will further inflame her critics, of which there are many. Her tirades against religious leaders and her frank writings on sex and erotica in Jasad – which also features reports on more serious topics like polygamy – have unleashed a torrent of hate mail from extremists, which she reads once and then files away in a separate folder on her computer.

Her first book is banned in most of the Arab world, despite being translated into Arabic. Academics like the Lebanese-American professor As'ad AbuKhalil, who blogs as Angry Arab, accuses her of feeding a Western Orientalist perception of Arab society and has branded the magazine "soft porn" for oil princes.

But nor does Haddad sit comfortably alongside traditional feminists, who censure her for refusing to support female politicians. "They don't understand it when I say if a woman is running for president..." she says, "I'm not going to vote for her just because she has a vagina."

And she is tired. A lone voice, Haddad travels the planet to defend herself and her often-unpopular stance. Couple that with the multiple hats she wears – she also edits the cultural pages of the Lebanese daily newspaper, An-Nahar, teaches Italian at the Lebanese-American University in Beirut and is a consultant for the Arab Booker prize – and it is no wonder it's all taking its toll.

"Everything I've experienced, all the emotions, all the thoughts – it is like a weight that is always there with me," she says. "I wish I could find the button to turn my head off. It is like swimming against the current. Your arms get tired and you get weary."

The setting for our interview, in Colombia, is an ironic one; the Santa Clara hotel is a former 17th-century convent and Haddad spent most of her younger years trying to escape the draconian regime imposed by nuns at the Notre Dame de la Paix Catholic school she attended in Beirut. Every Sunday, she was dragged to mass by her mother.

Born Joumana Salloum in Beirut in late 1970, she was four years old when civil war broke out. Her early years were shaped by violence and fear; walking to school one morning, she had to step over the dead body of a neighbour in the street.

"At home," she tells me, "there was a different kind of war going on in my traditional, conservative family."

If anything in her past shaped her outspoken nature, it was these constraints and fear imbued in her from an early age.

"My life growing up was about fear – fear of dying, fear of going out, of saying or doing such a thing," she says. "I was reacting to not being free, whether it was freedom of thought, action or expression. I think it was this kind of rebellion inside me, nourished by my unconventional readings, that shaped me the most."

Haddad says she was "saved" by books, often ones unsuitable for her age, and fished from the top shelf of her father's extensive library when he was out.

Aged 12, she devoured the Marquis de Sade's Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue – a novel which tells the story of a young girl's extreme sexual experiences, but also questions the traditional roles of the sexes – which Haddad now calls her "baptism by subversion".

The young Haddad began writing poetry, but also began training to become a doctor, more to fulfil her parents' ambitions than her own.

Two years later, she dropped out and at 20, married her first husband, a student she had met on a family holiday in southern Lebanon when she was 17. It was, she laughs now, a Machiavellian decision: "I wanted to be my own boss and the only way for me to do that was to have my own family and get married".

Her son Mounir, now 20, was born a year later and she taught Italian to fund her husband's studies, then took a job as a presenter on a Lebanese TV show.

At first, marriage suited them both, but as her ideology began to take shape and her ambitions to write strengthened with the publication of two anthologies of her poems, they grew apart.

"Marriages have an expiry date, like everything else in life," she says flatly. "It was a very amicable divorce. I just woke one night and thought: 'Why is this man in my bed?' We had nothing in common any more."

Significantly, Haddad had pursued her own dreams to write by joining An-Nahar as a translator in 1997, a year before her divorce. After five years on the paper, she was promoted to the cultural section, where she interviewed authors including Paul Auster, Jose Saramago and Peter Handke before becoming the cultural editor in 2005.

She returned to university in 2000 but this time studied for a degree in French and English, followed by a masters on the subject of Lebanese poet Ounsi el-Hage and embarking on a yet-to-be-completed doctorate on the Marquis de Sade in 2007.

In the An-Nahar newsroom, she met her current husband, Akl Awit. A fellow journalist and poet, he was 20 years her senior and after marrying in 1999, they rejected convention when they agreed to live in separate houses, sharing the care of their 11-year-old son, Ounsi. Meanwhile, Haddad kept her first husband's surname as her nom-de-plume.

Of this arrangement she says now: "It is important to keep a certain space, both figuratively and literally, and this is what has saved our relationship to a large extent. Akl is very supportive and open-minded.

"I know he doesn't share my views; he always tells me he would never have done a project like Jasad. But he does respect my choices."

Her magazine, though, has been put on hold for the past seven months. Without any advertisers coming forward in the three years since it launched, Haddad is struggling to find the $25,000 cost of bringing out each glossy issue.

"Although I live in a country where you wouldn't be able to see an advertisement for a TV set without a half-naked woman behind it, my potential clients say the magazine is too much," she admits.

Her forties, though, have brought a certain degree of serenity and seeing her sons, who had little in the way of the strict discipline their mother had faced, growing to have a respect for women fills her with hope and pride. 'Letter to my Sons', the last chapter in the book, was written for the "men I hope they will turn out to be and the men they would be proud to be".

Joumana Haddad never set out to be a saviour of women or to change the world, she announces; she simply wants the right for herself and others like her to be able to express themselves freely without fear of condemnation. "It is about women's rights, the fight for secularism, freedom of expression and sexual freedom – they all form one block for me.

"I would just like to be living in a country where waking up does not feel like going to war every morning."

'Superman is an Arab: On God, Marriage, Macho Men and Other Disastrous Inventions' will be published by Saqi Books in September

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