BEIRUT: Joumana Haddad prefers Clark Kent to Superman. This may not be much of a revelation for womankind. For years women have seen the flaws in loving, and encouraging, the machismo personified by the comic book hero – a machismo that’s been a factor in women’s oppression.
So there’s little original in Haddad’s confession. Yet the Lebanese poet and journalist’s retelling of what led to her to this realization – and what it means for humanity to move beyond a society that lauds supermen and instead embraces “real” men – makes for compelling reading.
As a child Haddad felt “a kind of discomfort and distress” when the mild-mannered Kent ripped off his clothes to reveal his heroic alter ego. She also, rather than envying the superhero’s girl, “strongly resented Lois Lane’s affection for Superman and rejection of Kent.”
Some 30 years hence, Haddad the woman unpacks her 10-year-old self’s visceral reaction in “Superman is an Arab.” Never one to shy away from controversial statements, she proclaims in her latest book that her disliked superhero is “an Arab” whose “muscles are just a façade for his insecurities.”
She then goes on to account for no fewer than seven “disastrous inventions” which, she contends, bear responsibility for the creation of this horrendous superman. Some of these inventions are obvious: original sin and machismo. Others less so: the battle of the sexes and old age, for instance.
All Haddad’s arguments are posited with the self-assurance, defiant assertiveness and occasional flippancy with which those know her work have grown accustomed.
Though not short on polemic, “Superman is an Arab” is far more palatable than Haddad’s first book. “I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman” is a vitriolic and oft self-aggrandizing tract railing against the oppression of Arab women. As such, it succeeded in irking as many of its readers as it inspired.
Haddad, the editor of “Jasad,” the Arab world’s first erotic cultural magazine, is controversial and brave, for sure. However, she has the propensity to take a gratuitous, almost wicked, pleasure in vocalizing taboos that, as one of her readers attests, left her blushing even when reading the book alone.
While “Scheherazade” seems to relish inducing embarrassment as much as it does making a convincing and progressive argument, in “Superman” Haddad’s conjecture is made in a far more reasoned way.
She takes the position of a third-wave feminist, a woman who believes that for both sexes to attain equality, both men and women need reassess core societal values. Through personal stories, social commentary and a keen assessment of changing the political terrain of the Arab world, she convinces readers that she just might be right.
Moreover, she demonstrates an appealing awareness of her own penchant for diatribe. She includes a section in each chapter overtly labeled “the rant.” This helpfully gives readers not amused by her scathing humor an opportunity to ignore her more theatrical ravings.
In the first of these rants, the author does issue a disclaimer to those who might criticize her agenda – which many will assume is a call to her fellow Arab women to free themselves from the shackles of patriarchy.
How could Haddad hope to achieve this end, critics may ask, with a book written in English that not only objects to aspects of Shariah law but radically rejects monotheistic religion outright?
“It is not my key aim to prove to the burqa ladies that they are subjected to, and brainwashed by, tools of patriarchal oppression,” the author assures her readers. She then goes on to claim her agenda has nothing to do with changing the world and everything to do with the author asserting her “right” to “be whoever I want to be” and “say whatever I want to say.”
Insulating herself from charges of social activism, Haddad proceeds.
She begins each chapter with a poem, follows with a rant and concludes with a narrative, in the process presenting a delightfully esoteric read. Some rants are more reasoned than others, and some narratives more fictional, but most are lively and fun, making this 170-page volume a pleasant one-sit read if you have a spare afternoon.
Some of Haddad’s advice is liberating in its practicality: Get a job and be financially independent from others, she tells women.
Meanwhile, her encouragement of an immediate move to third wave feminism in the Arab world, bypassing the battle of the sexes associated with the feminism of the ’60s and ’70s, and rejecting limited gender definitions makes a lot of sense.
The author’s assessment of the assertion of women’s liberty in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions is also interesting.
Listing the revolutions and subsequent elections’ failure to promote women’s equality and rights, Haddad asks if these uprisings constitute “real revolutions” at all.
While declaring the Arab Spring a “cosmetic spring,” the writer is not wholly pessimistic. “There has to be a start somewhere,” she writes, “even if it is a disappointing, flawed start.”
Indeed, a flawed start is better than no start at all. That is why readers may just be able to see their way to forgiving Lebanon’s most outspoken and controversial feminist for, perhaps subconsciously, promulgating just the machismo she seeks to tear down.
As a liberated and professed lover of hetero-sex Haddad frequently shares her preferences, often jibing and joking about the inadequacy of the male member. In a poem entitled “Saying grace,” she caustically thanks God for all manner of natural disasters and manmade atrocities. Alongside Hurricane Katrina and World War II, this list includes “body hair and small penises.” In another poem, she tells men that she hopes they aren’t counting on women not caring about size.
Oh sure, she’s amusing, but does it not occur to Haddad that while she speaks to liberating women, she is objectifying men? Do her comments not reduce men to mere objects for her enjoyment rather than the “real men” replete with the personalities, vulnerabilities and deep consideration for their female partners with whom she so longs to replace the world’s supermen?
If Clark Kent had a small member, would Haddad still prefer him?
Joumana Haddad’s “Superman is an Arab,” 170 pages, is due to be released on Sept. 13 by The Westbourne Press.