Written by: Kareem Amer
Translation by: Reem Abdel Razek
Translation by: Reem Abdel Razek
"4:32 And do not wish for that by which Allah has made some of you exceed others. For men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned. And ask Allah of his bounty. Indeed Allah is ever, of all things, Knowing.
4:33 And for all, We have made heirs to what is left by parents and relatives. And to those whom your oaths have bound [to you] - give them their share. Indeed Allah is ever, over all things, a Witness.
4:34 Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand.
4:35 And if you fear dissension between the two, send an arbitrator from his people and an arbitrator from her people. If they both desire reconciliation, Allah will cause it between them. Indeed, Allah is ever Knowing and Acquainted [with all things]." Quran, Surat An-Nisā'
She dumped her skinny body on the wooden chair after setting it by the table, then opened the Quran to these verses of Surat An-Nisā' (The Women Chapter) that she'd marked with a small piece of paper. She began reciting these verses repeatedly out loud in an attempt to memorize them before her father came back from work that night. Peeking at her wristwatch every now and then, she felt time tighten its grip on her as the watch did on her wrist.
She felt a surge of adrenaline rushing through her veins as her recitation pace got faster, dominated by anxiety, restlessness, and panic, and her brown cheeks turned red. If she made a mistake with one syllable of those verses, her father would mercilessly punish her with the plastic red hose that left its usual marks on her frail body, the hose that had become so familiar since he decided to "protect her morals from corruption" by pulling her out of Azhar Elementary School and ending her education at a very young age.
She reiterated those verses, then closed the Quran and tested her ability to recite them from memory. Mistakes made her face more anxious and red as she breathlessly revised with the ghost of that red plastic hose hovering above her Quran, showing her fear of what awaited her that night.
Though her mind roamed in distant memories, she had to remain focused on her current reality; all time meant to her was measuring how much of it was left before her father came from work and tested her every night. He assigned her verses every day and if she failed to recite them correctly by even a syllable it would be a catastrophe. All her memories since early childhood had been dominated by her father’s physical and psychological abuse; memories devoid of abuse were a rare exception to the rule. Her father's brutal punishments were always accompanied by excuses, the most frequent being that he did this to teach her. She had reached the point where “teaching” had become a word with a bad reputation; whenever she heard that word she knew that it meant a beating, a brutal merciless beating. Whenever he said, “I’ll teach you…" to any of his children, they knew that what he really meant was, "I’ll beat the hell out of you”. To her, there were no other meanings of that word which had left its marks on her body since she was an infant.
Zainab's head reeled and her exhaustion came between her and the assignment as she surrendered to sleep, lacking the luxury of resilience. The red hose hovered in her mind and the conscious and unconscious blurred as her memory flew back five years to the day she remembered as if it were yesterday, when her mother had decided to end her marriage to the monster with whom she had lived for so long and had children. That spring, at the beginning of the new millennium, twelve year old Zainab, whose life like the rest of her family's had been full of suffering, inadvertently brought about the end of her parents' marriage.
A year before, Zainab’s father had decided to pull Zainab and her younger sister out of school and forced them to wear a burqa just like the one their mother wore every time she went out. At first he did not think it essential to make this decision because his two daughters attended Azhar Elementary School, which specialized in the teaching of the Koran. Although the school was not gender-segregated, he did not mind very much while his girls were very young, although deep down he wished boys and girls could be segregated from birth. He was always anxious and afraid of what might happen otherwise.
Zainab's devoutly religious father worked for the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture, and volunteered at the nearby mosque, the keys to which always remained in his possession. He was proud of volunteering because he believed, as in a statement attributed to Muhammad, that service to the mosque would lengthen his neck on the Day of Judgment. The rest of his time was mostly occupied with obsessions about the “moral corruption” that he believed had infiltrated Egypt. To him, this “moral corruption" boiled down to the behavior and clothes of the girls he saw while taking public transportation on his way to and from work.
He disapproved of their dress, which he described as “naked clothes,” and of any social contact between boys and girls before marriage. He stated that school girls were a living example of the moral decay of society for they laughed out loud, talked shamelessly and openly about their relationships with the opposite sex, rarely left school without walking with a male who was not their relative, and did not observe the proper hijab, instead wearing clothes that defined their bodies. One could only marvel at how much time such a devout and religious bearded man (in his view, the beard symbolized his strong adherence to Islam’s principles, for which he gained respect among his like minded friends) spent observing and talking about these schoolgirls.
He was keen on keeping his daughters from mingling with members of this “morally corrupt and religiously ignorant” Egyptian society. They never mingled with anyone outside the family. The moment Zainab turned two, he asked her mother to design a headscarf that would fit her small head and did the same with Zainab’s younger sister when she turned two. Even though he knew that girls were not religiously obligated to wear headscarves at that age, he believed that by enforcing the hijab when they were too young to make conscious decisions about what to do and wear, he ensured that they would wear it for life.
These happy little girls were unaware that this small piece of cloth covering their heads would abort their dreams and murder their childhoods, that they were wearing their own coffins.
Their father believed that a virtuous woman went outdoors only twice in her life, once when she moved from her father’s home to her husband’s, and once when she left her husband’s home for the graveyard. He believed that raising his daughters according to this principle would ensure his entrance into heaven— having girls was a huge ordeal, but by enduring this ordeal and raising his girls the way he did, he erased his sins. He often quoted Muhammed’s wife Aisha, saying that whoever faced the ordeal of having girls by being good to them would be protected from the fires of Hell.
The two little girls did not mingle with any other children, even relatives; they lived secluded within the boundaries of their home. Once, when Zainab was five, she shook hands with her Seven year old male cousin in front of her brother; he was then brutally beaten by their father for “lacking in manhood” because he had done nothing to prevent this shame.
Their father was always anxious, mistrustful and suspicious even though the only thing his little girls did besides household chores was play with the toys that he approved of (he believed dolls and stuffed animals were forbidden). They never stepped outside the home unless it was absolutely necessary and even then they were always escorted by either him or one of their brothers.
When Zainab turned eight, her father became overwhelmed by anxiety because a new law issued by the Ministry of Health prevented doctors from performing FGM; this new problem echoed in his head, giving him constant headaches. He would frequently say, “If the girls walking around outside now are already at this high level of immorality even though they have been circumcised, then what will a generation of uncircumcised girls look like?” He saw FGM as an essential protection of morality and honor, which to him, consisted entirely in avoiding premarital sexual relations.
Still at the table but no longer able to resist sleep, Zainab surrendered to it and dreamed haunting memories of the day she inadvertently caused her parents' divorce. That day, her father had called her upon returning home from work and asked her to recite the verses she was supposed to memorize. She couldn’t recite them word for word but made mistakes. He calmly asked her to go and get the red hose to so she could be punished. She went but couldn’t find it. After looking long and hard, she finally saw her mother using it for some household chores in the kitchen. Zainab asked to borrow the red hose and when her mother asked why, Zainab answered innocently, "So Father can beat me because I did not memorize the verses which he assigned me.”
Zainab’s father was her mother’s older first cousin; they had been married twenty-four years. Both had graduated from Alexandria University during the seventies. Her mother majored in history and her father majored in agriculture. While they belonged to a socially conservative family, like most families from the countryside, they had no inclination towards religious fundamentalism in those days.
Old pictures of Zainab’s parents leaked by relatives showed her mother unveiled and wearing a short skirt, while her father was a slim clean-shaven man who showed none of the facial expressions his children were accustomed to seeing all the time. He looked so different, his children doubted these were really pictures of their parents. When he was in college, her father did not want to study agriculture; he wanted to study stage directing, but his father saw this as trivial and threatened to cut him off financially if he majored in theatre.
Unable to rebel, Zainabl's father attended Alexandria University's Faculty of Agriculture, which accepted the low scores he’d obtained during high school as other university faculties would not. With other students, he formed a drama club that put quite a number of plays on the school’s stage. Some members of that club moved on to become well known in the Egyptian art scene, but Zainab's father left the drama club, retired from all theatrical activities, and became strongly opposed to art and theatre, claiming to have received a divine calling.
While in college, he was known for his multiple relationships with women, which may be partially responsible for his insane suspicion of all women, including his relatives, wife and children. He made many unwise decision that he claimed were to protect his wife and daughters from falling into the sins of ex-girlfriends who had fancied him and had sex with him.
Immediately after graduation, Zainab’s mother worked as a high school English and history teacher while her father worked for the Egyptian Ministry of Agriculture. This job required him to constantly move and travel. After marriage, he and his wife settled in a village in the province of Albuhaira, an hour and a half away by train from Alexandria, where they had their first child. Due to the contractual obligations of his employment, he had to leave to work in Italy
One day, months later, he got a vacation from work and decided to return to Egypt to visit his family, whom he had been missing. He boarded a vessel from Milan to Alexandria, then took a train to the village. It was raining heavily but his yearning to see his wife and son made him forget to take his umbrella out so his clothes got soaking wet. He walked into the village and saw a group of about ten people walking together and holding umbrellas. He got a little closer and saw his wife walking next to a male colleague and sharing his umbrella. His veins popping and his blood boiling with rage, he put down his suitcase and headed towards the group.
His wife was delightfully surprised to see him but he knocked her down with a slap and started dragging her by her hair while she cried and screamed, unable to comprehend what was going on. He told her to follow him home and on the way showered her with curses, insults and accusations of infidelity. This incident was always brought up in their house, told and retold during every fight; Zainab’s father told the story as evidence of his wife’s immorality and his own “manhood." He used it as an example when teaching Zainab’s brothers how to treat their wives in the future, stating that if "they (women) are not treated like garbage they will bear no respect or appreciation or submission to you.”
This was not the first nor last time her husband treated her with such violence; during their engagement, he often yelled at her and sometimes slapped her in public, but she loved him to the point where she would constantly forget, hoping that he would change after they got married. These hopes were mere illusions that destroyed her own life and the lives of her children.
There’s an Egyptian saying that describes her husband: “A dog’s tail won’t straighten even if you put it into a mold.” She realized this too late, after living for more then two decades in the same home with a monster who never hesitated to hurt her or her children with or without a reason, even if that reason was simply cutting her hair a tiny bit. He had different levels of expressing his rage, starting with curses and insults and ending with throwing pots and pans, or threatening to burn down the place with them in it with the gas used for cooking.
On the day in question, Zainab's mother asked, “Could you repeat what you just said? The child replied in true innocence, "So Father can beat me because I did not memorize the verses which he assigned me.” The mother couldn’t take it any longer. She put down the plate she was washing and went to the room where the father was sitting, pushing the door open loudly and yelling, "Who are you? Satan? Why are you doing this to her? Do you want to ruin her life like you ruined mine?"
The father acted confused for a second then said, "What’re you babbling about you, crazy woman?" She told him what Zainab had asked of her, and he said, “Do not to interfere with the way I raise my children! God knows I am the only one who knows how. Your interference will corrupt them!” He insinuated that she herself was immoral and badly brought up. She began to scream and before anyone could figure out what she was saying, he got up and began to beat her. The boys interfered, trying to calm things down before this fight got as bloody as they often had before. She walked away, yelling, "That is enough! My life with you is over and you will never touch me again! I want a divorce."
The mother thought she could protect her daughters from the violence and cruelty of this man if they separated. The father tried to "calm things down" as he had in the past, but she had reached the end of her endurance and patience; this was the last straw. She rejected all mediation and reconciliation initiatives by relatives and held to her position.
The family lived in an apartment she had inherited from her father. He had no other place to stay, which is the reason he was always hesitant when she asked him for a divorce. Now he began looking for an apartment to rent, and moved his belongings there. The whole time he kept trying to get things back like they were before, but she rejected that with unprecedented strength. All her life she had been docile and submissive, but now she had become a woman nobody knew, someone else. The wounded female had awakened in her pride and dignity, and made the only right choice for the first time since she had been with him.
He asked her if her menstruation period was over, she nodded
He asked, “Have you changed your mind?” She said, “No, I no longer want us living under one roof.” He waited in silence for a few minutes, serenely looking from her to the children and back. Then he got up and looked at her a last time before uttering the words she had been waiting for "… I divorce thee.” Zainab's mother got up quickly and put a piece of cloth on her head since he was no longer her husband from the moment he said so. After the divorce he insisted on taking the girls to live with him in his new apartment, stating that he feared his immoral ex-wife would corrupt them
A nagging voice woke Zainab. Lifting her head, she found her father standing in front of her. She was frightened because she had fallen asleep before finishing her memorization; now there was no time left. He stared at her for a long time before asking in his rough voice, "Did you memorize or do you go get the hose?"
Zainab nodded in terror and gave him the Quran. He sat in her place, opened the Quran and ordered her to sit on the floor and recite what she’d been told to memorize. The girl began to recite from memory while he distributed his looks between the verses and her eyes, which were filled with unmistakable horror and dread. She began reciting, "And do not wish for that by which Allah has made some of you exceed others. For men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned. And ask Allah of his bounty. Indeed Allah is ever, of all things, Knowing. And for all, we have made heirs to what is left by parents and relatives. And to those whom your oaths have bound [to you] - give them their share. Indeed Allah is ever, over all things, a Witness. Women are in charge of men by….”
He screamed at her before she finished the verse in which she had inadvertently exchanged the position of men and women, saying, “Changing the Quran? You will be punished, you heathen!” She wept, trying to explain, “ I didn’t mean to, I was just tired and fell asleep while revising what you’d asked of me.” In a rage he yelled at her, “And you dare talk back!” then began to slap her. She burst into tears but that didn’t stop him from yelling some more and accusing her of blasphemy for "changing the Quran" and of immorality for talking back. He ended his screaming with, "Go get the hose, bitch!” And, as usual, Zainab went to get her tool of punishment while tears rolled down her cheeks.
(such stories have no end)