A Women’s World

A Women’s World

by Rosina-Fawzia Al-Rawi, Ph.D.

Ever since I turned four, my grandmother had been taking me along whenever she paid her visits. She always dressed very modestly; unlike other women I observed, she cared neither for jewels nor for magnificence. When we left the house, she put on her black abaya, which covered her from head to toe. In Baghdad, all the older women donned such abayas when they left their homes. Since they all looked the same, colored threads on the lower hem helped distinguish them from one another. My grandmother had a red thread in the shape of five little crosses. I was always very impressed by this abaya because it made her look solemn, unapproachable and seemed to be the symbol of a secret sisterhood.

Photo (from book): Andi Diem

Our visits usually took us to large gatherings, to which women of all ages came with their children. Friends who were particularly close to the hostess helped her serve and clear up. When a meal was planned, they helped with the preparations, and they could also count on being helped when they were the hostesses.

The women chatted, drank tea, ate Arabic sweets, exchanged news, and discussed their worries and problems. The activities, reactions and feelings of each woman were shared and commented on. There seemed to be no end to the giving and receiving of mutual criticism and praise, well?intentioned advice, and comments born from experience. There was openness and trust between the women. A deep honesty permeated those meetings and created a feeling of well?being, which put aside all reverence and ladylike attitudes. One woman opened her legs shamelessly when she felt in the mood to talk; another flung herself to the floor in laughter. The naked truth was told without any window?dressing, weak spots were tickled, silly things said and done and laughter came from deep in the belly, so that these gatherings made the women stronger, giving them the courage to see things in a different light and take them with a lighter heart.

Of course, the women also talked about the lives and attitudes of the men, their jobs, their high or low income and their striving to improve the family’s social position. Their behavior within the family was discussed quite openly, right down to their sex lives. Women often made fun of their own desires, their own sexuality and overpowering sensuality, in such an obvious way that, although we girls couldn’t quite understand it all, we shared in their laughs while at the same time receiving a social and sexual education.

Excitement always reached its peak when one of women got up to turn on music, tie a scarf around her hips, and slowly sway into another world, dancing for us. All the attention focused on her, tension grew in the bodies of the other women. They stood up, their eyes filling with an old, so far forgotten knowledge as they began to spur on the dancer:

“How beautiful is the shape of her eyes, blessed be Allah!”

“Brave and strong as bamboo stem!”

“Hold your head high, proud Fatima!”

“She dyes her hair with henna!”

“Have you seen how pampered her feet are?”

“Look how softly her hips are circling!”

The onlookers clapped in rhythm and trilled shrilly, conveying their enthusiasm.

“Ya ayni, ya ayni!” (Oh you, light of my eyes!)

“Ya leli, ya leli!” (Oh you, darkness of my night!)

The acclamations were wild and our excitement made us talk all at the same time. Joy exploded in shouts. The women experienced all their beauty and all their femininity in a relaxed and supportive atmosphere. Once the dancer finished, she took her scarf and tied it around another woman’s hips, thereby passing the dance over. Often two women danced together, completing and inspiring each other. I loved it when life was in effervescence like that, when we were among ourselves.

Whenever a little girl ran to the dancers in the middle of the room and started dancing, the faces of the older women lit up, they laughed loudly, for life had taken on a new rhythm, a rhythm that was before us and would continue after we had gone. Of course, these performances were also used by the mothers?in?law to take a close look at their future daughters?in?law. And we girls knew about it! Yet when an old woman got up to dance, suddenly, something was there that could not be expressed in words—a gift, a woman’s prayer filled the room, borne by the subtle, nearly wise movements of one who stood far ahead of us in the long chain of women. So when an old woman got up to dance and show her mature sensuality and her old beauty, we kissed her hands gratefully while smiling at her cheekily.

My grandmother took me to many such gatherings and every time I watched, fascinated, and listened closely to the older women. They gave each other advice about their appearance and their behavior and enjoyed their beauty. Since they could laugh about their weaknesses, they shared them without shame or fear. Never were any nasty comments to be heard, “You’re too fat” or “You’re too thin,” “Your breasts are too big” or “Your breasts are too small. Each body shape was seen as a gift, an intended destiny.

It was a duty to make the best out of it. If some were pretty and others less so, well nasib, “Destiny!” Compassion towards oneself and others was part of their philosophy of life.

Even women who didn’t particularly like each other never failed to behave politely and respectfully. The Arabic language itself, with all its greetings and polite forms, did not allow them to be rude to each other. There was nevertheless gossip, but this too was part of being a woman. The community found itself enriched by the existence of every single woman. As girls, we received all of this through these gatherings, through our women’s rituals. So we were helped on our way to womanhood, motherhood, and old age.

Dr. Rosina-Fawzia Al-Rawi has a Ph.D. in linguistics and Islamic sciences, having studied at the University of Cairo and the University of Vienna. Her specialty is Sufism and Islam, about which she lectures in various institutions each year. She has written four books, including Golden Sky, Red Earth: Women’s Lives in Palestine, all concerning women and the Middle East. She is currently writing a novel about a girl who travels over the years to thirteen different Islamic countries and tells about them from the point of view of a girl, a young woman and a mother. Dr. Al-Rawi has lived in several Arabic countries, including Iraq, Lebanon, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Israel/Palestine. She currently resides in Jerusalem and Vienna, Austria, where she teaches Oriental dance. She travels in Europe twice each year with her three children to give workshops in various countries, and travels once each year with a group of women to Morocco, to the city of Marrakesh or the desert.

Reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher, Interlink Publications. Interlink Publishing can be contacted at 46 Crosby Street, Northampton, MA 01060; 800/238-LINK; e-mail: interpg@aol.com; website: www.interlinkbooks.com.

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