Mothers and Daughters in Arab Women’s Literature
MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS IN ARAB WOMENS LITERATURE – Book Samples
Introduction: WHY Mouthers AND DAUGHTERS?
Probably there is nothing in human nature more resonant with charges than the flow of energy between two biologically alike bodies, one of which has lain in amniotic bliss inside the other, one of which has labored to give birth to the other. The materials are here for the deepest mutuality and the most painful
The Cathexis between M other and Daughter
One of the most popular Palestinian folk tales, “The Blue Charm and the Return of Tubayna,” tells ofa childless village woman who, while she was making cheese, used to pray to God to give her a daughter as fair-skinned and round-faced as the cheese in her hands. God answered her prayers. She gave birth to a beautiful girl whom she called Tubayna.
The mother loved her daughter dearly and raised her with the utmost care and devotion. To protect her from the evil eye, she hung a beaded blue charm around Tubayna’s wrist. Despite this precaution, Tubayna was kidnaped by gypsies and carried away to distant lands. The bro ken-hearted mother wept for her lost daughter until she went blind.
As for Tubayna, after many wanderings she ended up tending geese in the pastures ofa prince in a remote country. one day the prince happened to hear her singing while she was tending the geese and fell pas sionately in love with her. He took her from the pasture to the palace and made her his wife and princess. After a year she bore him a son. When the child was one year old, Tubayna confided in her husband how much she missed her mother and longed to see her.
The husband gave her permission to visit her mother her son became thirsty, so she asked a village woman to fetch her some water. The woman replied that the spring had dried since the day Tubayna had disappeared. Tubayna told her that the spring was run ning with water again. When the woman looked, she saw that water was gushing forth from the earth, and she understood at once that Tubayna had returned. A boy rushed to tel1 Tubayna’s mother the good news, but the grief-stricken mother did not believe him.
So Tubayna gave him the blue charm that encircled her wrist and sent him back to her mother. He put it in her mother’s hands, and she smelled it and rubbed her eyes against it, whereupon they welled up with tears and sight returned to them. Then the mother and her daughter were joy fully reunited, and they all lived happily ever afte r.2
This Palestinian folk tale, which has many parallels in other cultural traditions, illustrates the centrality and intensity of the mother daughter bond. Like the Greek myth of Persephone and Demeter, it lends itself to various interpretations: as a narrative of abduction, forced separation of mother and daughter, and ultimate reunion; as a metaphor for a girl’s loss of virginity and transition into womanhood within patriarchy; as an allegory of a daughter’s reconciliation with her lost self; and asa cyclical story of birth, death, and renewal on both the personal and the national level.
“The cathexis between mother and daughter-essential, distorted, misused-is the great unwritten story,” wrote the poet Adrienne Rich in her seminal book, Of Woman Bom: Motherhood as Experience and Institution, in 19763. Rich’s book was a watershed. In the quarter cen tury since she wrote those words, an outpouring of publications on this topic has broken the silence. In the West, the mother-daughter relationship has become the subject of numerous studies, both aca demic and journalistic; it has emerged as a salient issue in feminist inquiry; and it has enjoyed much attention in popular culture.4
But in the Arab world, the topic has remained shrouded in mystery and silence. The reason for this situation is the concept of privacy and sanctity of family life.5 As the Moroccan writer Leila Abouzeid explains: “A Muslim’s private life is considered an ‘awra (an intimate part ofthe body), and sitr (concealing it) is imperative. As the Qur’an says: Allah amara bissitr (God ordered the concealing of that which is shameful and embarrassing ).”6 Needless to say, the intense privacy surrounding personal, sexual, and family matters has been an impedi ment to research.
The anthropologist Suad Joseph attribu tes the paucity of informa
tion on intimate Arab familial relationships to the hypervalorization of the family: “In both scholarly research and popular culture the centrality of the family in the Arab world has been so axiomatic that there has been relatively little problematizing of the psychodynamics of family life.”7
Those who violate the sacrosanct space of the family run the risk of being accused of disloyalty and betrayal. Joseph notes that, in view of this obstacle, the most profound insights into the forbidden grounds of Arab family life often come from autobiographical or semi fictional accounts.8
This study examines how the mother-daughter relationship in Arab families is represented in Arab women’s literature of the last half century.
I use both early and contemporary writings of female authors from across the Arab world to illuminate the traditional and evolving nature of mother-daughter relationships in Arab families and how these family dynamics reflect and influence modern Arab life.
In exploring this topic, I offer a new perspective on Arab women writers their position in society, their major interests and concerns, and their preferred forms of creative writing-while filling a void in the exist ing scholarship about intimate relationships between women in Arab families. To fully understand the ties that bind mothers and daughters, I analyze their relationship from various perspectives: psychological, feminist, cultural, religious, and political.
I illustrate the myriad pat terns of this primary bond and gauge its far-reaching implications not only for mothers and daughters but also for the family and the wider society. In the course of this study, many myths and stereotypes about Arab mothers and daughters are shattered, and new conceptions and definitions of the relationship between them are demonstrated.
Why mothers and daughters? There are several compelling reasons for focusing on this subject. First, the lifelong bond that is forged at birth between mothers and daughters is of importance to all women, whatever their ethnicity or background. This relationship is a central connection between women; it is also a central aspect of family life.
An exploration of mothers and daughters sheds light on a key family relationship which is vital for the shaping of self, gender personality, and gender roles, and which has profound effects on women’s individual development and choices. The subject, however, is of equal importance to men, especially fathers and sons, because they are major figures in the drama between mothers and daughters and the quality of their lives is affected by the mothers and daughters in their families.
Second, mothers (and in due course their daughters) play a pivotal role in bringing up children and socializing them as functioning members of society. Psychoanalytic theory recognizes that interaction with the mother, who is the child’s primary caretaker during infancy and early childhood, has determining effects on the development of the child’s personality.
Patterns of mothering and child-rearing not only influence later adult behavior but are also decisive in producing the kind of “self” or “personality” that may be regarded as typical of a given society. Steph Lawler, in her insightful study, Mothering the Self Mothers, Daughters, Subjects, focuses on the question of what it means to be a mother and/or a daughter. She observes that “issues of self and subjectivity are intrinsically bound up with these mean ings, as mothers have become increasingly responsible for nurturing a specific type of self within the daughter (and the son)-in short, for mothering the self.”9 This observation is particularly applicable to…
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