Caged birds: Songs of freedom, dirges of oppression

BEIRUT: Lebanon has witnessed a surge of women’s rights activism on the streets recently, as women rally for greater equality and for protection for victims of gender violence. In this sense, Joumana Haddad’s tragicomic novel “Kafas” (Cage) could not have come at a better time. Haddad’s book suggests that the gender divide is a more complex thing than “haves” and “have nots,” that it is not only women who live in cages.

Born in Beirut in 1970, Haddad is a renowned advocate of women’s rights. Her previous books include “I Killed Scheherazade,” which discusses the place of women in the Arab world, and “Superman is an Arab,” which examines representation and reception of masculinity in the region.

Her latest book takes aim at a common trope in feminist thought: women’s confinement in society, their enslavement to tradition, including religion, and their revolt against it.

“Kafas” is divided into two “acts,” devised in a manner that suggests a stage play – with each act written script-fashion and including stage-like diagrams. There is some formal play at work too, with the first act written in colloquial Lebanese Arabic, while the second is in classical Arabic.

The poet explains how she was 'manufactured' with many flaws and that she can never 'be fixed'

The first act centers on six characters, five women and a man – who remains unnamed throughout. This male figure acts as a narrator of sorts, controlling the story’s direction, questioning each woman and moving on to the next as he sees fit. He is at center stage, while each of his female interlocutors faces a door that resembles a cage.

The five women each represent a female archetype that’s arisen from patriarchal control of society: the spinster; the “ninja;” the whore; the lesbian; the cow.

Despite their strong personas – expressed as angry outbursts and expressions of defiance – the women also exhibit a range of insecurities, which the male figure manipulates with personal questions designed to provoke them.

At the end of the first act the female characters, overwhelmed with anger, break free of their cages. They chant folkloric songs and declaim that everyone is in a cage, not only themselves.

The male figure is placed in a large cage of his own, as the “ninja” removes her niqab and drapes it over his face. Five locks enclose him.

In the second act, roles are reversed – a device used to great comic effect by English-language writers like Martin Amis.

The audience is introduced to a family of three. The male figure, still in the niqab, is continuously mocked by his wife, who assumes the role of the stereotypical husband. The couple’s daughter, apparently in her 20s or early 30s, both behaves, and is treated, like a son.

The plot of the second act is simple. The family spends few moments chatting in a homey manner. The daughter ends the conversation, saying that she and a friend are off to Maameltein – a town north of Beirut infamous for its “super night clubs” (aka strip bars) – to “watch Russian and Ukrainian men.”

Afterward, the wife warns the husband not to wear tight jeans, so as not to attract the attention of other women. In response, the husband takes out a gun and shoots her in the heart. He then removes his niqab, turns to the audience, and declares that everyone is in a cage.

The book ends with a long poem written in the first person – presumably the voice of Haddad herself. The poet explains how she was “manufactured” with many flaws and that she can never “be fixed.” She is unable to keep quiet about her opinions, and seeks a reality different from the one she’s living, a place where she can be herself.

Like the novel’s two theatrical chapters, Haddad’s poem closes with an evocation of the book’s title: Cages are unending, and one finds freedom only in death.

The cage motif is obviously essential to Haddad’s book.

While she concedes that Arab women’s freedoms are limited and that their roles in society are already set from birth, the work, speaking through its female characters, soon moves on to suggest that everyone has been “duped.” We are all confined within multiple enclosures – of sex, religion, politics, money, class and tradition, to name only a few.

Ironically, the female figures seem to speak more freely and comfortably from within their cages, singing and finding no shame in voicing their opinions, detailing their sexual experiences, sometimes using earthy language to do so, in a bid to challenge audience perceptions.

Such provocation is not unusual in Haddad’s work. The author often uses defiant rhetoric to make her point, demanding a more active role for women in society. Women must let go of their fears if they wish to break their cages.

In the first act, the male figure is a stereotypical middle-aged man – a reactionary who often criticizes women for their choices and shuts them up if they speak out of turn.

His bullying control of the plot, and violation of the women’s privacy, is a less-than-subtle metaphor for the patriarchy embedded within the Arab world’s authoritarian regimes – and society generally, Lebanese society in particular.

He also often tries to justify their actions which – as is the case with many Lebanese men of a certain age – he sees to be inappropriate.

“Has something traumatizing ever happened to you as a child?” he asks Yara, the lesbian. “Did you see a doctor? Did someone ever violate you?” When she is irritated by his questions, he accuses her of being “aggressive.”

While the second act is less entertaining in its characterization and witty banter, it is thought-provoking that the reader may have difficulty noticing that gender roles have been reversed. This can be frustrating at first, but it also serves as a reminder of the distinct and separate qualities of each gender, which are so ingrained in one’s thinking that it is difficult to picture them otherwise.

The sudden acts of “revolutionary” resistance at the end of each act can easily be read as expressions of Haddad’s desire for long-awaited cultural change. Yet both these reversals also suggest that female figures can behave as badly as men: the oppressed are all too likely to remake themselves as oppressors.

The clever back-and-forth and the humor employed in the dialogue make for an enjoyable read for anyone seeking insight into Lebanon’s version of patriarchy.

The characters are subtly rendered and surprisingly easy to relate to, as long as the reader doesn’t mind a bit of bad language now and then.

Joumana Haddad’s “Kafas” is published in Arabic by Hachette Antoine/Nawfal and is available at Beirut area bookshops.





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