With the advent of her magazine Jasad (Bodies), Joumana Haddad became a lightning-rod for criticism — and not just from the religious conservatives she challenges. Some see Haddad as a would-be provocateur playing to western media. To others, she's a hero.
Haddad — a poet, public figure, author of I Killed Scheherazade: Confessions of an Angry Arab Woman and soon-to-be-talk-show host — is an outspoken critic of Sharia law, a devotee of sex-positivity, and an advocate for women (although she doesn't call herself a feminist.) But in a world fraught with political unrest, how does she justify focusing her considerable energies on erotica? As she tells the New York Times,
"People tell me, ‘There are so many things wrong with the Arab world, why do you just talk about sex?' And I say, ‘This is the main link.' Who decides what's haram - what's allowed and not allowed? The religious figures. They are linked with the political powers, and together they work to control the society through this medium, the sex drive. If you break the power over sex, you can start undermining and questioning the religious and political powers. You cannot do it the other way around."
It's a compelling argument, but one that doesn't convince critics who feel that Haddad is a "lightweight shock artist" using cheap PR tactics to garner attention away from real, earnest efforts for change.
The Lebanese-American professor As'ad AbuKhalil, who teaches at California State University and calls himself a radical feminist, has excoriated her in the leftist pro-Hezbollah paper Al-Akhbar and on his English-language blog, The Angry Arab. "She poses in the Western press, where people who write about her don't know Arabic, as a victim of fundamentalists, when I know of no fundamentalist who ever attacked her, and I don't think they know who she is," he says. As for Jasad, AbuKhalil pronounced it "nothing courageous and nothing daring: it is rather sleazy and attempts to satisfy Gulf oil princes. It is sold in Gulf countries as soft porn."
And Haddad's notoriety is understandably frustrating to Lebanese feminists who work towards more direct ends.
Farah Salka, a member of the Lebanese feminist collective Nasawiya, credits Haddad for raising awareness of sexual freedom but says she falls short as a sister in struggle. "She does not lend a helping hand in effecting change, or even connecting with women on the ground in any way," Salka says.
More puzzling is Haddad's rejection of the "feminist" label, which would seem to hearken back to hoary ideas of a granite-hewn militancy that doesn't jibe with her own more hedonistic approach. That's unfortunate, but doesn't nullify Haddad's visible work for sex-positivity. "Soft-core?" Haddad doesn't care who's buying her magazine — as long as people are, albeit online. It's its existence that matters. It seems like what's crucial here is not to stick a label on Haddad — and not insist she be some kind of short-hand proxy for all "Arab women," sex-positive or otherwise. There are a lot of women in Lebanon — and Haddad is one who's doing something specific and bold. What it says about women or the culture at large is open for debate.
Sex And The Souk [NY Times]