Joumana Haddad Talks Erotica, Atheism, and Feminism in the Middle East

joumana haddad

Joumana Haddad is an opinionated atheist and the publisher of the only erotica magazine in Arabic. She's also a poet, writer, activist, journalist, and speaks seven languages. How’s that for knocking down Western stereotypes of the passive Arab woman? 

Haddad’s 2010 book I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman broke down the idea that Arab woman are voiceless and compromising. Scheherazade, the storytelling harem beauty—who negotiated for her basic human rights for 1,001 nights—is now dead.  Next Haddad tackled Clark Kent with some literary kryptonite with a 2012 book entitled Superman is an Arab: On God, Marriage, Macho Men, and Other Disastrous Inventions. Clearly, Haddad isn’t afraid to court controversy—it helps to get her message out to the world. Last year, she was named one of The World’s 100 Most Powerful Arab Women. 

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Two issues of Jasad, the Arabic-language erotica magazine Haddad founded in 2008. 

But all the attention can cause problems, too. Haddad, who is Lebanese and lives in Beirut, told the Guardian, “I grew up in a country that hates me.” Earlier this year, Haddad was denied an entry visa to Bahrain, where she had had been invited to host a banquet of poetry and music as part of a spring festival organized by the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities. The grounds for the denial: her open atheism. But Haddad sticks to her ideals. She was raised a Catholic but believes all three Abrahamic religions are misogynistic and do not recognize woman as complete. She hates the part in Genesis where Eve is formed from Adam’s rib. To celebrate International Woman’s Day this year, she tweeted “You are not a rib. YOU ARE NOT A RIB.”

In a region in which fine art nudes are rarely shown in public, even at established cultural institutions, Haddad started erotica magazine Jasad in 2008. Its representation of bodies and sexuality through art, literature, and culture remains heavily contentious. Haddad was quick to point out in our interview that there are billboards in Lebanon featurirng scantily clad women pushing home appliances, and that feminist erotica is far more respectful of women. Haddad stopped publishing the print magazine in 2011, but hopes to bring it back in December of this year. 

DANNA LORCH: Contemporary Arabic uses metaphors for the body and sexuality rather than describing physical acts openly. Has that always been the case?  

JOUMANA HADDAD: The words for talking candidly about the body do exist, but the Arabic language has been violated by taboos, fears and prohibitions that have deprived it of part of its inherent erotic potential. If you go back to early literature like The Perfumed Garden or even the uncensored version of One Thousand and One Nights, you’ll find erotica. One reason I wanted to publish Jasad in Arabic rather than French or English was because Arabic is quite capable of conveying all those words, scenes, and ideas in a very beautiful and direct way with no need for metaphors. 

You once said that you had to work your way up to writing erotica in Arabic by beginning first in French. 

The violence that has been imposed on the language has also been imposed on the minds of Arab people. You grow up in a society where you are scared of words, scared of thoughts, scared of acts. So you take refuge in another language in order to be able to say what you don’t dare speak in your own. When I stopped writing erotica in French and began to write in Arabic, it was a declaration of war but also of love. I wanted to claim my language back and show my respect for it at the same time. Writing in French had been an act of cowardice.

Is it possible to write erotically about the body without objectifying it? 

Once you get past the sexist notion that the female body is an object, it is possible.  

You may be surprised to learn that I don’t support the FEMEN Movement even though I publish an erotica magazine. In the Arab world, when you demand, “Listen to me! In order for you to hear me I am showing you my bare breasts,” you are really going to the other extreme of sexism. It is still a patriarchal way of treating your body. This form of protest would be productive only in societies where women’s breasts are no longer charged with erotic significance.

In Superman you write a lot about things that men are doing wrong in the Arab world. What are some practical things that women can do to change the status quo?

It all starts with the mother who raises Superman by telling his sister to serve him, by treating him like a god. Secondly, women need to be financially independent. This is a major issue. You see many women calling for their rights and yet they wouldn’t lift their fingers to be responsible. It’s not about having three maids at home and the latest car. The third thing is for a woman to believe in herself. Stop being Scheherazade and compromising your basic rights. Don’t feel like bribing the man is the only way to get what you want. Have the guts to say no. The hell with being thought of as a good woman! Let other people insult you and point fingers. But believe me, if they do that they will also fear you. Transparency scares the assholes.

In Scheherazade you write, “Being an Arab today means being a hypocrite.” One of the critical aspects of your books is how you unmask what you see as your own society’s duplicity. For example, you mention that Nabokov’s Lolita is banned in much of the region, yet child marriage is practically encouraged according to much of the Islamic legal framework.

People inherit a huge suitcase when they are born. They carry it around without ever thinking about whether the contents fit them. Few people have the courage to unpack the suitcase. This is why there is so much hypocrisy—people don’t want to deal with their truth without defacing the fake status quo.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but there is not a single country in the Arab League in which it is legal to be openly homosexual or transgender, right?

You are completely right. In Beirut, I’m on the Board of Advisors of a [civil rights and anti-censorship] NGO called March, and we were planning next year’s events. I wanted to do something to legalize civil marriage as it’s still not recognized in Lebanon. I suggested, “Next year let’s do an event for gay marriage,” and my colleagues all laughed their asses off because it’s impossible. I could imagine my two sons as old men and gay marriage would still not being legalized here.

In Superman, you call attention to Samira Ibrahim, an Egyptian activist who after being arrested for participating in a 2011 protest in Tahrir Square, was the first woman to speak out publicly about the military practice of subjecting female protestors to virginity tests, as well as torture. Do you feel that the Arab Spring was a failure for women’s rights or did it never have anything to do with improving equality in the first place?

I wouldn’t call it a spring at all. It’s just another winter. We watched many brave women fight on the frontlines during demonstrations, but unfortunately the extremists had been waiting for this opportunity for more than 40 years. They used women as pawns to say, “Look, we have young people, we have women.” Even in Lebanon, which people call the most open country and all that bullshit—we only have three women deputies. 

Danna Lorch is a Dubai-based writer and blogger covering Middle Eastern art and pop culture, with a focus on gender. Her writing appears in Bitch, ArtSlant, Vogue India and elsewhere. 

This article was updated to include information about Jasad going out of print and its potential return. 

by Danna Weiss
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