Thursday, November 12, 2009

Women as Children in The Wiles of Men

In Salwa Bakr's The Wiles of Men, we find a collective of misunderstood women who are marginalized for being different, discriminated against, in some cases, to the point of complete annihilation. With the exception of "An Occasion for Happiness" which deals primarily with the theme of nationalism, particularly how it is embedded in quotidienne Egyptian life, all of these stories feature female main characters who are effectively infantilized and forced to relinquish some facet of individual identity against their will. For Bakr's women, peculiarity is the ultimate downfall, marked uniqueness an act of symbolic suicide.

In "Thirty-one Beautiful Green Trees," Kareema is ostracized for a number of social trangressions -- kissing a man forwardly and in public, failing to wear a brassiere, painting her work desk red, and making a demonstration on election day. For the final offense, she is forced into confinement and eventually into an asylum. Essentially, she is being punished for taking a stake in her own well-being, and that of others. All she desires is to propogate happiness through beauty, hence the compulsion to preserve the thirty-one trees and brighten the office decor. Because her actions are out of the ordinary and draw untoward attention, her mother scolds her, "Have you reached the stage when you'll ruin the future of your brother?" (Bakr 24). Kareema, a sensitive soul, reasons that the only way to wrest herself and her family from turmoil and shame is to remove her own tongue, a task that seems bearable when compared to the circumcision that she endured at the age of nine (Bakr 25). Though she does not succeed in this endeavor, the implications are resonant. To be unable to speak is to be thrust back into early childhood, into helplessness. The best solution, Kareema asserts, is to silence herself, for those who have no voice can do no harm.

Voicelessness is a recurring theme throughout Bakr's collection, most poignantly in "That Beautiful Undiscovered Voice" in which housewife Sayyida suddenly inherits a heavenly, melodic singing voice. The tragedy in this story is that no one in Sayyida's life will believe her, or even take time to listen to her new talent. All she seeks is validation, a nod from outside herself that will prove her worth. Instead, she is met with scorn. Importantly, a major impediment is that she has no female friends to which she can turn. Her confinement, then, becomes two-fold. Not only is she trapped inside herself, the knowledge of this secret overflowing from her consciousness, but she is also isolated in the house, the private sphere. Unlike her husband who may visit public cafes and share his thoughts and frustrations with an array of male friends, Sayyida is expected to remain content within the confines of domestcity (Bakr 65). Furthermore, the men in which she chooses to confide -- Isa the grocer, her husband, the psychiatrist -- don't even concede the decency to let her explain. She is treated like a child, like some imaginitive little girl indulging in an elaborate fantasy. The joy that Sayyida garners from the discovery of this beautiful voice is symptomatic of a deeper cultural desire to be perceived in the public sphere and taken seriously. When she flushes the medications that quell the voice at the end of the story, she effectively makes a stand against traditional gender roles (Bakr 70).

"Dotty Noona" deals explicitly with a theme that underlies much of Bakr's work -- the institution of marriage. A peculiar girl, Noona has been denied the luxury of an education, so she lives vicariously through the children in whose home she is the maid, and also by listening to the school goings on across the street. Her mistress considers Noona abnormal because of her obsession with appropriating mundane, juvenile knowledge. She takes solace in the process of learning by dropping eaves, and the simplicity of this task works to infantilize her in the eyes of her adult peers. Specifically, when her father informs her that she is to be married, she breaks down in a tantrum, horrified by the prospect of being married off and "rooted in suffering" (Bakr 48). In this case, complying with social norms would result in the worst type of punishment for Noona who is content as an inward, solitary being.

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