In a Land of Queens: Daughters of Yemen

Presided over by Queens in ancient and medieval times, modern Yemen has been called the worst place to be female.

 

Women in Yemen are encouraged to stay home rather than going to school or work. Almost half of Yemeni women are married by the age of eighteen and child brides are common. Many have no identification and don’t vote, although technically they are eligible to do so under the constitution. Leaving the house requires the permission of a male family member and very few women drive (until recently driving while female was a crime).

A woman’s voice in Yemeni courts is worth half of that of a man, so to equal a man’s testimony it takes two women. Women may not testify at all in cases of slander, theft, adultery or sodomy. If a woman wants to end her marriage for any reason, even if her husband is beating her, she must obtain his consent for the case to be presented.

This seems an especially cruel reality when you consider the history of Yemen. This is a people who remain fiercely proud to call the Queen of Sheba their ancestor. Perhaps the most beloved ruler of Yemen is the medieval Queen Arwa, a Muslim woman who buried two husbands and went on to rule for decades on her own, creating peace, prosperity and stability in her nation.

Queen Arwa al-Sulayhi was born in 1048 in the Haraz Mountains, a fertile area of picturesque villages and mountainsides terraced for farming. Her parents died when she was young, and her Aunt, the formidable Queen Asma, who ruled alongside her husband, Caliph Ali al-Sulayhi, brought her to the palace in Sana’a to be raised. Asma was known as al-Sayyida al-Hurrat-ul, “The noble lady who is free and independent, the woman sovereign who bows to no superior authority.” She recognized in Arwa a woman who could be heir to that title.

Arwa proved to be brilliant, with a great mind for history, poetry and stories. A devout Muslim, she became a scholar of the Quran and Hadith (the latter being a collection of reports and stories which describe the life and habits of Muhammad). When the time came for Prince Ahmad al-Mukarram to be married, Queen Asma was set on Arwa. In 1067, Caliph Ali was assassinated and Arwa became Queen, ruling alongside her husband and mother-in-law. She was nineteen years old.

As time wore on, Asma died and Caliph Ahmad became paralyzed and bedridden, so all power passed to Arwa in 1086. She moved the capital from cosmopolitan Sana’a to the smaller city of Jibla, where she felt more in control, and was able to avenge her father-in-law’s murder. She had a new palace built, converting an older palace into a mosque where she would later be buried. Arwa attended state councils with men, refusing to conduct meetings while hidden by a screen, although she did wear a veil, unlike Queen Asma, who had been older and bolder when she came into power. Arwa would have time to grow her boldness.

512px-Queen_Arwa_Mosque_-_Jibla

Queen Arwa Mosque, Jibla © yeowatzup with CCLicense

When Caliph Ahmad died in 1091, Arwa was advised to marry his cousin, Saba ibn Ahmad to cement her power. This she did, but the marriage remained a reality in name only and her second husband died ten years after the first. From 1101 to 1138 she ruled alone. She had four children by her first marriage, none of whom outlived their mother, making her the last ruler of the Sulayhid dynasty. Arwa founded many schools, improved roads and took an active role in encouraging agriculture, which created a robust economy.

Not only was Arwa respected as the sovereign ruler of Yemen, she was the first woman to be proclaimed hujjat, proof or demonstration of Allah, her life sanctified as a sign pointing to God. She sent Shia missionaries to India and built many mosques. During her lifetime, prayers were proclaimed in her name; after her death, her grave became a place of pilgrimage. Much more than a ruler; she became a beacon of truth and an individual to emulate and revere.

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Mausoleum of Queen Arwa, Jibla © Rod Waddington with CCLicense

Arwa’s story is a powerful reminder that there have always been strong women in the Muslim faith. It is also a warning that attitudes and cultures are never uniform and can change dramatically. In a place where a woman ruled and was declared to be close to God, a majority of women are not even allowed to go to school. Arwa would be appalled.

Want to read more?

Is this the Worst Place on Earth to be a Woman?

This is the second post in a series exploring Yemen. You can see our first post here.

 

 

 

 

 

Undercurrents of Sensuality and Aggression in Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

Bela Lugosi as Dracula

The most famous of vampires is Dracula. Why are we mesmerized by this character created more than a century ago?

We owe our acquaintance with Dracula, a figure who has laced himself through western culture and has been portrayed on film more than Sherlock Holmes, to the mind of Bram Stoker, who wove him from legend and his own imagination with daring skill. Stoker was known during his lifetime chiefly as the personal assistant to actor Henry Irving and the manager of Irving’s theatre, the Lyceum, in London. It is ironic that his name would eclipse that of Irving, only to be overshadowed by his greatest creation, the aristocratic vampire known as Count Dracula.

Origins of a Monster

Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Dracula

Vlad the Impaler, aka Vlad Dracula

Stoker spent seven years researching vampires before writing Dracula, with particular attention to the strigoi, or undead, of the Balkan peninsula. The strigoi were peasant men and women who came back from the dead to feast upon the blood of their own kin. Although he was excited by the animal ferocity of these creatures, who often transformed themselves into wolves or bats, these folktales were not completely satisfying to Stoker, who wanted to create a character to be played by his own employer, Henry Irving, a regal and noble presence who often played impressive villains onstage. Much to his delight, he ran across the history of a Wallachian prince of Transylvania, now a region of central Romania, renowned for his unspeakable cruelty and bloodlust. This prince was called Vlad Țepeș, the Impaler, after his habit of impaling his enemies on long wooden stakes, but not while he was within earshot. His title was Vlad Dracula, son of the Dragon, after his father who had been knighted into the Order of the Dragon and was thus sworn to keep Christianity safe from the invading Ottoman Turks. In fusing the strigoi with this infamous historical warrior, Stoker produced a menacing and enduring personality who contained both aristocratic and uncivilized elements.

A Shadow of Victorian Values

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Christopher Lee as Dracula

Contrary to what we often see in movies, Stoker’s Dracula is not charming and seductive, nor does he seem susceptible to romance. He is a violent and methodical predator who is capable of taking what he requires by overwhelming and out-thinking his victims against their will. Although he cannot enter a home without being invited in, he has, over centuries, amassed techniques for tricking the inhabitants into doing just that. Thus he uses Lucy’s sleepwalking to trap her and his power over the insane Renfield to gain access to Seward’s asylum and his guests.  With the exception of a quick glimpse on the street, neither Lucy nor Mina ever meet him in a normal social situation.

© Il Fatto Quotidiano with CCLicense

© Il Fatto Quotidiano with CCLicense

If he is not conventionally seductive, why are Dracula’s victims women and why do they end up under his power? Here lies a deep shadow. At the time Stoker wrote Dracula the push for women’s rights and universal suffrage was beginning, hence there are many references to the “new women”, usually spoken by Mina or Lucy in a pejorative fashion that belies considerable fascination. In addition, Sigmund Freud was promoting his ideas about sexuality and the subconscious. Victorian blood was beginning to boil. We see the men in Stoker’s novel trying to protect their women from the vampire while seeking to retain the proper distance and decorum between genders that was required by society. This strategy very nearly gets them all murdered and the ladies turned into immortal killing machines. It is ultimately Mina’s coordination and communication across the gender divide that provides hope for overcoming Dracula, not the overprotective schemes of Van Helsing and his crew, who consistently make quite a mess of things. These men are crippled by their own refusal to see women as complete beings and their idealization of the feminine. Unfortunately, it is usually the women who pay the price for their ignorance.

374px-1800-jumprope-pinup-Sophia-WesternShe is one of God’s women, fashioned by His own hand to show us men and other women that there is a heaven where we can enter, and that its light can be here on earth. So true, so sweet, so noble, so little an egoist – and that, let me tell you, is much in this age, so sceptical and selfish. 

–Professor Van Helsing, speaking of Madam Mina, Chapter 14

The Victorian lady was presented with few options: she could retain an innocent, angelic personality and show childlike devotion to a husband whom she would regard worshipfully without lust, she could become a spinster on the edge of society who would always be dependent on male relatives and regarded with some suspicion, or she could become a lady of ill repute. Female sensuality was taboo and any woman who admitted to enjoying sex, even within the bonds of wedlock, was not considered wholesome or healthy, although mothers were revered. There is a sense in Dracula that, rather than see their women as sexual creatures, these men would see them dead and their bodies desecrated. Are they engaged in battle with a vampire, or are they victim to their own fears and imaginations?

The unfortunate Miss Lucy has three suitors. In her letters to Mina, she expresses dismay at having to choose between them, admitting to having the scandalous thought of marrying all of them. Later, in an attempt to keep her alive, she will receive blood transfusions from each of these suitors, as well as one from old man Van Helsing himself. Is it this underlying sensuality which condemns her, and if so, are the men guiltless in this regard? Perhaps Dracula is terrifying because he lies at the intersection of female sensuality with male aggression.

Dracula in the 21st Century

Dracula takes place in a culture where women are not permitted to make choices vital to their own survival and where they are stigmatized for their natural sexuality. Old habits die hard, because these issues are front page news these days, although women have many more options and a stronger voice than they did in the Victorian era. Maybe we can put a stake through the heart of misogyny some day in the future.

© FICG.mx with CCLicense

© FICG.mx with CCLicense

Dracula may seem like your grandfather’s vampire, but there is life in him yet. A foreign invader possessing skill, intelligence, and animal sensuality, he remains a persuasive argument against eternal youth at a time when our culture seems ready to embrace it as a path of little risk. Come to think of it, maybe the vampires of the 21st century are more frightening. Would anyone want to spend eternity as a sparkly teenager?

Painting the Face of the Arab Spring: Street Art of Tripoli, Beirut, and Cairo

Cairo © Jairo Londono with CCLicense

Cairo, Egypt © Jairo Londono with CCLicense

Art starts conversations and inspires thought that frightens tyrants. What is the future of art in a society in transition?

Beirut, Lebanon

Beirut, Lebanon

Synkroniciti is excited to share three jaw-dropping short films produced by the Art in the Streets series from the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles. They feature street artists in the capital cities of Libya, Lebanon and Egypt, where the medium known as graffiti is gaining some acceptance even as it creates conflict. Beirut, which knew revolution before the so called Arab Spring, is a city where graffiti is legal, causing street artists to flock there from all over the world. Artists in Cairo and Tripoli are finding their voices in a culture that is divided. Some cheer their efforts and praise their abilities. Others react in fear and find their art an affront to God. Women painting on the streets and artists representing faces and words are considered by many to be offenses punishable by violence.

Tripoli, Libya © Panoramas with CCLicense

Tripoli, Libya © Panoramas with CCLicense

The Arab Spring is not a short term project, nor did it begin with the wave of protests and demonstrations of 2010, no matter how convenient that may be for outsiders and history books. This revival and renewal has been brewing for many moons and will continue. It has many facets and motivations, and like any revolution, those who participate have their own prejudices and failures. These artists are perhaps the most inspiring spokesmen and women for the changes occurring across the Middle East and North Africa. They do more to construct a new society than all the armies of the world.

Videos via MOCAtv on YouTube.

Want to delve into this subject with us? Read Synkroniciti’s article on Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red or our article on the currents behind Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Made for Flight: Alouette, the Femmebot

Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna), from The Burgess Bird Book for Children by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Eastern Meadowlark (Sturnella magna), from The Burgess Bird Book for Children by Louis Agassiz Fuertes

Writers are encouraged to write about what they know. This has merit, but does it shortchange our imagination or compassion? When we take the time to tell the story of others, which requires empathy, interpretation, care and research, this can broaden our understanding and cross borders. The stories that inspired the following video poetry are not mine, but they are not unfamiliar. They float between us and around the corner from us, becoming part of the great cloud of our subconscious mind. When the unspeakable happens it makes ripples that resound through all of us.

Alouette is the French word for a family of birds English speakers know as larks. It is also the title of a French nursery song known all over the globe. The song is intended as a way to teach children the parts of the body, but, as with a great deal of children’s songs, there is a sadistic streak in it that cuts deep.

Lark, nice lark,
Lark, I will pluck you…

I will pluck your back. I will pluck your back.

And your tail!  
And your feet!  
And your wings!  
And your neck!  
And your eyes!
And your beak!  
And your head!  
Lark!

Alouette is also the name of the Femmebot, who identifies this song with unmentionable abuse that has rendered her damaged and changed her nature. But who is she and what is that nature?

Modifying Tradition: Tian-Ming Wu’s King of Masks

220px-KingofmasksWe all have traditions. Sometimes the reason traditions fail to thrive is because we don’t allow them to change.

Tian-Ming Wu’s film King of Masks takes us to the China of the 1930s, where we meet an aged street performer, Wang Bianlian. He is a master at the art of bian lian, mask changing, in which silk masks are removed at dazzling speeds to reveal changes in mood or character. The mechanism and techniques behind this art are secret, passed on only to male heirs. Much to his anguish, Wang has no son. After turning down a serious job offer from a star performer of the Sichuan Opera, Wang decides to buy a child. He finds a feisty young thing who takes to him immediately and proves to be a hard worker. At last his dreams are coming true and he will be able to pass his skills to the young boy. But fate plays one more trick: the boy, affectionately named Doggie (a term of endearment in China), is really a girl in disguise. Surely he cannot pass his skills on to a girl, considered a liability by society! How desperate will Wang need to become before he will consider doing so?

Video via sonico67 on Youtube. This is a beautiful film which asks some deep questions about tradition and reveals the paradoxical need for change in order to keep it alive. The portrayal of women, or perhaps the lack of it, is shocking. The Sichuan Opera of the 1930s doesn’t employ women. Wang’s friend at the opera is a famous female impersonator, a man playing women’s roles, sighed after by generals. The stigma against women and against them having any sort of work outside of the home is so great that Wang would almost let his art die before teaching Doggie. Almost.

Here is a stunning excerpt from a more recent Sichuan Opera performance featuring mask changing. Note that one of the performers is female.

Video via blur Wu on Youtube.

Sing and Dance to End Violence Against Women: Break the Chain Video

On February 14, 2013, people all around the globe will be coming together to dance, sing, and support ending violence against women. If you are interested, look here for an event near you.

Produced by Eve Ensler and V-Day, directed by Tony Stroebel, written and produced by Tena Clark with music by Tena Clark and Tim Heintz, and featuring dancer and choreographer Debbie Allen. Video via vdayorg on Youtube.

“Break the Chain” aims to raise awareness around the world about V-Day’s fastest escalating global campaign to date, ONE BILLION RISING. The ONE BILLION RISING campaign began as a call to action based on the staggering statistic that 1 in 3 women on the planet will be beaten or raped during her lifetime… On 14 February 2013, V-Day’s 15th anniversary, activists, writers, thinkers, celebrities and women and men across the world will come together to express their outrage, strike, dance, and RISE in defiance of the injustices women suffer, demanding an end at last to violence against women.” V-day.org