Behind Closed Doors: Women's Oral Narratives in Tunis
By Monia Hejaiej
Rutgers University Press
369 pp., $17.95 (paperback)
It's easy to adopt the Western view - clich now - that most Muslim women in the Middle East are oppressed. News reports inform us of how women are forced to cover themselves from head to toe, aren't allowed to drive cars or associate with men in public, for example. Witness the recent crackdown on women in Afghanistan after the Islamic Taliban captured the capital of Kabul.
But seldom do we have an opportunity to hear from the women themselves on what they think about their roles, their beliefs, or their aspirations.
In "Behind Closed Doors," Monia Hejaiej opens a window on female Muslim life. Hejaiej, who was born and raised in the old city of Tunis, returned there for four months to do the field work on her scholarly book. She examines the age-old tradition of storytelling as a medium of self-expression for Beldi women - the elite, highly civilized city-dwellers.
Tunisia, like many Middle Eastern countries, is undergoing a modernization process, where many traditions are fading. Hejaiej wanted to capture the art of women's storytelling before it is lost. She writes that she sees herself as part of the link in this chain of carrying on the tradition in written form. And she remembers that during her childhood, most storytelling sessions "were informal gatherings on winter evenings, in domestic quarters among women and children."
She was able to find three women like those she remembered from her childhood - Ghaya, Sadiyya, and Kheira. Now considered the elders of their society, they agreed to share with her the tales they have been telling since they were very young, which they were taught by their elders.
All three belong to the upper class, or Beldi society. Two - Ghaya and Kheira - attended school. Ghaya has been married since she was young and has grown children. Sadiyya was married for three years, then widowed. Kheira never married. All three had unhappy and unfulfilling relationships with the men in their lives.
Hejaiej's lengthy introduction delves deeply into the backgrounds of the three, and explains how the women creatively use the art of oral storytelling to interject circumstances from their personal lives to embellish or change the tales they tell.
"Tale-telling gives the women the space to probe certain issues, pass on values, condemn what they see as wrong, sanction what they approve of as being valuable and want to keep." Hejaiej also decodes many of the tales. She highlights one that depicts women's social standards. Silence, for example, is "valued very highly" in women - it shows modesty and good upbringing, Hejaiej says.
In Ghaya's tale of "Sabra'a," a very handsome prince arrives to marry a beautiful princess and takes her far away. But things turn sour. They have three children - each born while the prince is away fighting a war. When he returns each time to find a new child, he throws the child into the sea. The princess "never uttered a word of complaint." She did what women were supposed to do - remained quiet and honored her husband's wishes. The prince rewards her patience at the end of the story by presenting her with her three grown children and tells her that he was "testing" her virtue.
The tales provide a snapshot of this one section of women's lives. An outsider is given a glimpse of what Beldi women's lives are like behind closed doors. It doesn't, however, break stereotypes of Mideast women. It puts faces behind those veils - faces of women who were raised with their own fairy tales much like the ones we grew up with in the West with their own handsome princes, wicked stepmothers, Sleeping Beauties, and Rapunzels.
*Faye Bowers is a Monitor staff writer.