Female Sexuality and Liberation of the Body in Contemporary Moroccan Literature: The Case of The Almond by Nedjma.
In Islamic societies, sexuality is one of the most delicate outlawed subjects that neither men nor women dare talking about publicly because it involves religious standards and cultural beliefs. But the Moroccan writer Nedjma (1) had the courage to write an erotic novel, The Almond, (2) where she depicts the sexual life of a young Moroccan Muslim girl named Badra as she goes through different stages in her life discovering her sexuality, and gaining "her sensuality, her physical desire, her body and her words" (Leick, 2005). This paper is an investigation of female sexuality in the Arab-Muslim world in general, and in Morocco in particular. More specifically, it will argue Badra's, the female protagonist of the novel, right and ability to use sexuality as a way to fight subjugation and oppression that Arab Muslim women endure. It will also provide insights on a number of Muslim taboos related to female sexuality, such as virginity, rape, and adultery, and how Badra rebels against these taboos and societal traditions. By avowing the right of Arab Muslim female sexuality, Nedjma not only challenges the sexual hegemonic discourse in the Arab-Islamic world but also its defenders.
Sexuality in Arab Muslim Societies
Even though in Arab Muslim societies sexuality is among the tabooed topics severely controlled and normalized in Shari'ah (Muslim laws), it is perceived positively in Quran and in Hadith (sayings of the Prophet) and early Islamic jurisprudence texts. Islam considers sex as a sacred reward, and "marriage as a desirable state and the fulfillment of a religious duty" (Obermeyer, 2000: 241), where both men and women live in a mutual consent and share pleasure and joy of sex. There are Qur'anic verses and Hadith that justify this, as in the verse 187 in Sourate Al Baqara: "They are your garments and ye are their garments." But, in Islam sexual encounters are only permitted within marriage. Free male--female sexual relations outside marriage are considered zina (sin and crime) in Islam, and represent punishable offences. Qur'anic verses describe in details which sexual relations are legitimate in Islam, and the type of punishment for any crime committed outside these boundaries. Both men and women are penalized for adultery as in this verse: "Those who commit adultery, men or women, give each of them a hundred lashes" (24: 2). Some Muslim countries even call for the woman to be killed because it is a disgrace and dishonor to her family (Ilkkaracan, 2002: 757).
Wadud (1996) argued that this so-called "positive" attitude to sexuality in Islam is principally referring to only male asserting his sexual practice and enjoyment without even considering women's sexuality. This claim is based on Qur'anic verses that discuss male sexuality, pleasures, and fantasies, ignoring women and their sexuality. If in Islam female sexuality is acknowledged, it is only limited and confined to the sexual enjoyment of men and for their reproductive roles.
On the other side of the debate, certain scholars, like Ilkkaracan (2002), advanced that Islam is misinterpreted in most male-dominant Arab Muslim societies to justify mistreatment and abuse of women's rights. In these societies and under the fortification of Islam, men's right and control of sexuality is unchallenged, whereas Arab women's right and ability to sexuality is denied (Stephan, 2006: 163). Also, male control of women's sexuality has been used as a motive for their protection and supervision over women in the family and in the society (Mernissi, 1991; Dunne, 1998; Stephan, 2006). If a woman is not guarded and controlled, she could cause social chaos (or fitna, in Arabic). Charrad (2001) asserts that female sexuality is "a potential source of division among the men of the kin group. [It is represented] in the Islamic tradition as overpowering, destructive, and divisive. [...] Endowed with an all-triumphant sexuality and relating only to nature, the woman is depicted as blind to social barriers. When left to her own instincts, she lacks all sense of social propriety" (57).
These destructive qualities and powers of female sexuality have been mentioned in many Hadith, and cited in texts of renowned Muslim scholars like Al-Ghazali and Al-Bukhari. Two of Prophet's sayings quoted by Al-Ghazali are: "A woman is the string of the devil," and "A woman is like a private part when she comes out, the devil holds her high." Another example of Prophet's sayings cited by al-Bukhari is: "After I have gone, there will be no greater menace to my nation more liable to create anarchy and trouble than women."
Therefore, in order to limit women's fitna and to maintain male domination, patriarchal Muslim societies resort to practices and traditions that relegate women to the private sphere of the home, and confer them with a negative perception of themselves. This takes many forms, e.g. sexual repression, premarital seclusion, early arranged marriage, subordination etc. These established customs and traditions are also practiced to preserve purity of women's bodies, "a shameful entity that needs to be protected" (Hadded, 1998: 12), as well as their virginity, a symbol of family honor and pride. In this regard, Segarra (1997) asserts that: "One of the most important principles for a young girl's body is the preservation of virginity until marriage, question concerning the honor of the whole family. [...] The assertion of this rule [...] leads to a manic overprotection of this part of the body, which thus became a 'mythical object'" (59, translation mine).
Despite these negative and controversial opinions about sex and sexuality, there was an interest in writing about this topic throughout Muslim history and back to early centuries. A considerable number of male poets, philosophers, and theologians wrote poetry, tales, theological and erotological studies, and treaties. Among prominent Arabic poets, noteworthy are Umar ibn Abi Rabi'a, Jamil Buthayna, and Abu Nuwas, who are well recognized for their overt expression of love and sexuality during the Classical period. Some of the treaties that discuss ways to improve delight of sex and rules of purification related to intercourse include Garden of Lovers, by al-Jawziya, published in the 14th century, Perfumed Garden, by Nafzawi, in the 15th century, and 3ilm an-nikah (Science of Intercourse), by Suyuti, in the 16th century.
In recent centuries, and in the domain of literature, a significant number of North-African and Middle-Eastern Muslim female writers, namely Badia El Haj Nasser, Rita El Khayat, Soumaya Naamane Guessous, Bahaa Trabelsi, Colette Khouri, Layla Baalbaki, Ghadah Al-Samman, Nawal Al-Saadawi, and Alia Mamdouch, to name a few, contemplated their sexuality in fiction. Their main purpose is to search for their personal identity, to escape from "Thing-hood" by "universalizing the questions of individual freedom that confront the female characters," and to battle oppression and social discrimination established by religious norms (Accad, 1990: 2). These writers also put women's sexuality on the front scene by speaking publicly and openly about it, challenging thus cultural and religious expectations, and contesting widespread opinions in the society about Arab and Muslim female sexuality (Stephan, 2006: 165). For example, the Algerian writer Assia Djebar, in her novel Les Nuits de Strasbourg (The Nights of Strasbourg), narrated about the erotic encounter of nine nights of an unmarried couple, while the Syrian writer Collete Khouri wrote boldly on love and passion in her first heart-stirring novel, Ayyam maahu (The Days with Him), "at a time when Arab women only beginning to awaken to a sense of violated rights" (Cooke, 2005: 31). In similar vein, Alia Mamdouch, an Iraqi writer, wrote about the power relationship of lovers in her novel La Passion (The Passion). This tendency is carried on in the 21st century by many Arab Muslim female young writers like the Egyptian Mona Eltahaway, the Syrian Salwa-al-Neimi, and the Moroccan Leila Slimani, who talk explicitly about the pleasure of sex and sexuality while denouncing the archaic society. For example, in her book Sex et Mensonges: La vie sexuelle au Maroc (2016), Slimani unveils Muslim Women's sexuality by offering Moroccan women what they have been deprived of, a space to tell their stories, and to exist.
Likewise, new scholars and researchers have been interrogating Muslim tradition and women's rights in Islam through a critical feminist lens. For instance, the Moroccan feminist writer Asmaa Lamrabet, in her book Islam et femmes: Les questions qui fachent (2017), proves that the textual sources of Islam are not fundamentally patriarchal, and that female subordination, submission, and gender inequality, and other issues cannot be defended on religious grounds. It is, however, the interpretation of Qur'an and religious texts within male-dominated societies that is behind most of the misconceptions and prejudice.
Contemporary Moroccan cinema also takes the stand for Muslim women's cause. Moroccan female and male filmmakers and directors are often contesting conventional views of femininity and gender roles in their films (e.g. Amours Voilees by Aziz Salmy (2008), Number One by Zakia Tahiri (2009), and Les Oublies de L'histoire by Hassan Benjelloun (2010)), and deal with women's oppression and ways to outrival their conditions and to empower themselves (Saadia & Oumlil, 2016: 51).
Analysis of Sexuality and Other Taboos in The Almond
Critics consider The Almond as the first erotic narrative written by a Muslim woman to divulge a number of taboos in terms of female sexuality. "Cette evocation de l'eveil sexuel d'une femme musulmane (The Sexual Awakening of a Muslim Woman) qui laisse envisager un recit autofictionnel, n'est pas sans rappeler la vie sexuelle de Catherine M., roman avec lequel L'amande a d'ailleurs ete compare" (Rao & Monsef-Roa, 2007: 263). In an interview for the New York Times, Nedjma justifies that her major purpose of writing this novel is "to talk about the body, it is the last taboo, one where all the political and religious prohibitions are concentrated. It is the last battle for democracy. [She] didn't want to write politically, but [she] did look for something radical. It is a cry of protest" (The Almond, 1). Thus, this is a novel advocating the "rights of her own gender rather than writing a novel centered on the principles of Islam" (Ghounane, 2014: 181), and defending her use of sex and sexuality, which is something natural and normal. "I blushed about what I had written, then found it to be very right. What is to stop me from continuing? The chickens are cackling in the courtyard, the cows are calving and giving lavish milk, the rabbits fornicate and give birth every month. The world is turning. So am I. What should I be ashamed of?" (The Almond, 7-8).
In fact, Badra, the female protagonist of the novel, was curious to know about secrets and prettiness of her sex since her adolescence. Every night, she stimulates her own genitals for sexual pleasure.
Back home I put my head under the blankets, pulled down my panties, and looked at the little smooth and round triangle that had received the homage of an unfamiliar hand but one I knew to be a loving one. I took the same course again with a dreamy index finger. With eyelids closed and quivering nostrils, I swore that one day I would have the most beautiful sex in the world and it would impose its laws on men and stars, pitiless and relentless. The only thing was that I didn't know what such an object might look like once it had gained maturity. (The Almond, 83)
Badra even believes that she can control her male peers as she possesses "the most beautiful cunt on the earth, the deepest, warmest, wettest, noisiest, most fragrant and singing, the one most fond of cocks when they rise up like harpoons" (The Almond, 4). But she has to watch over her virginity until her wedding night. During her upbringing in the village Imchouk, she lived in a total confinement, and underwent constant supervision and continuous coaching by her mother for marital responsibilities.
I held it against Imchouk that it had connected my genitals with evil, had forbidden me to run, to climb trees, on to sit with my legs spread. I held it against those mothers who watch the girls, check their gait, palpate their lower abdomen, and eavesdrop on the sound they make when they take a piss to be sure their hymen is intact. I held it against my mother that she had all but armored my genitals and had married me off to Hmed. (The Almond, 81)
At the age of seventeen, Badra was pressed to marry a 40-year-old man, Hmed, a notary public, and husband of two other wives who failed to bear him a son. Badra accepted this forced marriage without any resistance, and in justifying her wordless acceptance to her aunt, she states: "Why interfere with the well-oiled codes that change the hammam into a souk where human flesh is sold at a third of the price of regular meat?" (The Almond, 31). Before the wedding ceremony, and in a preparation for the arranged marriage, Badra was subjected to a whole procession of barbaric traditions by old women of the village. From the traditional pre-marriage bath house ritual to the night of defloration, she was humiliated and treated like "an animal being prepared and inspected for sacrifice" (Boone, 2007: 7). As for the wedding night, it was a tragic experience for a 16-year-old girl. The sexual act was brutal, and deemed as a legitimate rape.
[Hmed] spread my legs, and his penis banged against my vagina. [...] It hurt me, and with every one of its movements I tightened up a little more. [...] I tried to extricate myself, but Hmed had me nailed down beneath his weight and [...] attempted to push [his penis] in. No success. Sweating and breathing hard, he lay me down on the sheepskin, raised my legs at the risk of dislocating my joints, and began the attack again. (The Almond, 113-114)
Unable to consummate the marriage, and as the wedding guests were banging on the door for a proof of Badra's virginity in the form of blood on a shirt, Hmed turned to his mother and Badra's sister for help. While Hmed's mother tied Badra's arms to the bedposts, her sister held down her legs as Hmed "with one hard blow, broke [her] in two, and for the first time in [her] life, [she] fainted" (The Almond, 115). The blood-spotted shirt shown to the guests "proved nothing except the stupidity of men and the cruelty of submissive women" (The Almond, 115). After five years of repugnant sex and submissive marital life, Badra finally finds the courage to put an end to the degrading life she has been enduring by fleeing to the city of Tangiers to her aunt Selma.
After eight hours of travel, which came of no sudden impulse, I got off in Tangiers. Like a drunken hearse, my life was heading straight for disaster, and to save it I had had no choice but to jump on the train that leaves the Imchouk station every morning at four o'clock sharp. For five years I had been hearing it arrive, blow its whistle, and leave without having the courage to cross the street and step over the station's low railing to put an end to contempt and corruption once and for all. (The Almond, 11)
Badra's escape from the oppressive and humiliating marital life and repulsive sex to Tangiers is an emblematic time of her life because it leads to her self-discovery, her emancipation, and her sexual freedom. She came across the marvel of sex and gained the delight and enjoyment of sex as a woman. As Irigaray (1985: 31) affirms, "in order for woman to reach the place where she takes pleasure as woman, a long detour by way of the analysis of the various systems of oppression brought to bear upon her is assuredly necessary." Also her aunt Selma's words of advice, when a young guy Sadeq whom she met upon her arrival to Tangiers asked her for marriage, open her eyes for the enlivening life she would have without Sadeq.
If you want something else, [...] something better or much worse, [...] if you'd like volcanoes and suns, if the earth isn't worth a dime in your eyes and you feel able to cut across it in a single stride, you know how to swallow hot charcoal without groaning or walk on water without drowning, if you want a thousand lives rather than just one, to reign over entire worlds without being satisfied with any, well then Sadeq is not for you. (The Almond, 50)
Later, Badra met a rich, educated doctor named Driss, and fell for him. "Driss did not rape or assault [her]. He waited for [her] to come to him, in love. [...] He waited until [she] surrendered [herself] to him" (The Almond, 95). By contrasting the two sexual acts that Badra experienced, one violent with a much older man, in Imchouk, in the night of her wedding, and the other tender and affectionate, with Driss, in Tangiers, Nedjma exposes two different ways of how sexual contact can be handled.
The romantic and passionate relationship with Driss is very significant in Badra's life, because she becomes a mistress of her body and her sexuality. It mostly contributes to her self-discovery and emancipation. Driss introduced her to a new world of sexuality and taught her "the mysteries of love and sex" with respect and attention (Riding, 2005). He also taught her how to decipher each part of her body, and explore all sexual techniques. Badra deployed the delights of sexual pleasure, and lived them fully with Driss for more than ten years. But this romantic affair is zina and banned in Islam, because Badra and Driss were living together as lovers without legalizing their marital relationship. Also, Badra committed zina and broke the Muslim's religious norms by making love in Ramadan: "I made love with Driss during Ramadan, breaking my vow. [...] All I could find to say to God was: 'Don't look at me now'" (The Almond, 186-187). What is evident here is that to satisfy her sexual desires and pleasure, Badra breaks all traditions, and contests all Islamic norms.
Badra ended this illegitimate love relationship when Driss started treating her without respect and dignity. Devastated and hurt, she left Driss, and started dealing with sexuality in an emotionally disconnected and fruitless way. "When I left Driss, my broken heart did not wait to become multi-faceted. By renouncing his face, I became prosaic, my ass within reach of the first comer--or almost--and, once the fooling around was done, not permitting my lovers to share my sleep, my ultimate citadel" (The Almond, 217).
Badra continued multiplying her short-lived sexual adventures and relationships in lavish nights and dark alleys of Tangiers, and enjoying various lovers before breaking loose from them. This sexual rampage brings her consolation to her broken soul and vengeance to her wounded heart, but most importantly, it helps her gain control and power over men. In her terms she explains:
There was a time when I changed lovers with the seasons. A different one every three months. I would have like a man to block the revolving door, to slow down my motor, too powerful for my frame-patient woman that I am, nothing is more impressive than people who know how to wait. But no one ever waited for me to calm down, to settle on his highest branch and begin to chip. Men are in too much of a hurry, always speeding--eat, run, ejaculate, forget. In that, they resemble me, and I don't hold it against them. (The Almond, 219)
After fourteen years of sexual adventures, Badra reunited again with Driss in his final days battling cancer. Driss pleaded for her forgiveness, and asked to go with her to Imchouk to spend his last days. In the beginning of the novel, Driss is depicted as an unconventional and immoral individual, living and satisfying his sexual pleasures, but during his final days, he becomes wise and spiritual. Like Nedjma, Driss undergoes a change and transformation, and strives to heal his body during this period of his life. Nedjma states in the beginning of her novel that her main writing goal is "to the health of Arab women, for whom recapturing the confiscated mention of the body is half the battle in the quest to healing their men" (The Almond, 1).
After Driss's death, Badra feels the need to extend the bond that unites her to him by relating her history, and her sexual liberation in which he remains the great initiator. The passionate relationship with Driss and her sexual relations behind closed doors of brothels in Tangiers are described in a provocative and shocking way mixing both poetic and vulgar elements. The excessive use of sex and sexuality, and the graphic description of sexual scenes, which are used as a storyline strategy, denote Badra's growth and development. In her description, she also turns to the forgotten ancient Arabic civilization drawn from "thick and very old Arabic volumes from which Driss used to fish up his clever sayings and his few bits of wisdom" (The Almond, 9). This reference to early Arabic culture and civilization, "in which desire came in many forms, where love was liberated from being sinful, and in which both having and giving pleasure was of the duties of the believer" (The Almond, 1), and to famous Muslim forefathers of erotic literature like Al-Nafzawi, and to his book The Perfumed Garden of Sensual Delight, is a tribute to the original wisdom and inheritance of Muslim ancestors who glorify fun and sex while praying God. With this reference to old Arab tradition and civilization, particularly erotic works, Nedjma tries to demonstrate that the art of sex and sexuality comes from the Arab world, and that Islamic literature was once prominent and renowned for its eroticism. "Praise be to God who created the penis straight as a lance so it may wage war inside the vagina. [...] Praise be to Him who bestowed upon us the gift of nibbling and sucking lips, of placing thigh against thigh, and of laying our scrotum down at the threshold of the door of Compassion" (The Almond, 3).
Even though The Almond defends the use of female sexuality as a pathway to independence and liberation of soul and body, critics viewed it as an erotic work, and a cry against Moroccan traditions, in particular, and Islamic rules, in general (Ghounane, 2006: 181). Lebbady (2009: 94) underlines that The Almond "reads like an erotic manifesto for modern [Muslim] women who want to break free from the repressive bonds of cultural tradition to unashamedly demand their right to pleasure," and the obstacles of taboos that the society has inflicted on them. This kind of sexual discourse, according to Sonnet (1999: 167), is a part of the post-feminist movement which takes into account erotica as a "site or 'empowerment' and of 'liberation' for women."
I have attempted in this paper to demonstrate that Nedjma defies the restricted and passive role of Muslim Arab women and makes them the forefront using their sexuality to reap authority and liberty. She tackles determinedly and blatantly female sexuality by depicting a life of an Arab Muslim woman who uses her sexual force not only as a way to achieve freedom and self-realization, but also as a weapon to fight sexual taboos, religious interdictions, injustice, gender inequality, and all forms of control and repression of Muslim archaic patriarchal society and rigid mentalities. With this goal, Nedjma joins all Muslim Arab women writers to end their silences, and voice their right in order to express themselves in any format. More importantly, she has traces the path to other new young writers in Morocco, in other parts of Arab world, and in its diaspora to carry the torch for their liberation and freedom.
The author confirms being the sole contributor of this work and approved it for publication.
Conflict of Interest Statement
The author declares that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
(1.) The Moroccan writer whose real identity remains unknown chose the pseudonym Nedjma (meaning Star in Arabic), a title of the first novel of the Algerian writer Kateb Yacine, published in 1956, which designates a legendary woman "often interpreted as a relic of French colonial occupation and a symbol for Algerian independence and recognition" (Villasenor, 2015: 154). In an interview, the writer admits that resorting to this pseudonym is way of protecting her identity from the Islamist devils (Lamberterie and Armanet, 2004: 145).
(2.) The novel was originally written in French, L'amande recit intime. Plon Press, Paris, 2004. The English translation, The Almond--The Sexual Awakening of a Muslim Woman, is made possible by Jane Hunter, Grove Press, New York, 2005.
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Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, Montclair State University, Montclair, NJ, USA
How to cite: Redouane, Rabia (2019). "Female Sexuality and Liberation of the Body in Contemporary Moroccan Literature: The Case of The Almond by Nedjma," Journal of Research in Gender Studies 9(1): 105-115. doi:10.22381/JRGS9120194
Received 19 January 2018 * Received in revised form 20 September 2018
Accepted 23 September 2018 * Available online 15 October 2018
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|Publication:||Journal of Research in Gender Studies|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2019|
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