Living Between the Haram and A’ayb: Women in Gulf Societies

By: Mytha Alqumzi

I had already been thinking about the difference between the words haram and a’ayb when I stumbled upon the 2019 Arab-language series Banat al Mulakama or Boxing Girls, directed by Saudi filmmaker Samir Aref, and written by Emirati screenwriter Afnan Al Qasimi. Aref and Al Qasimi aim to combat stigma and prejudice in Gulf society against and surrounding Gulf women. The series follows Nujood, as she studies boxing in California and then returns home to Saudi to confront the challenges of continuing to box in her native society. The series also focuses on other young women, each with their own complicated relationship to a narrow-minded society. These young women fight and face their circumstances to overcome obstacles and achieve their aspirations.

Women in the Gulf tend to have more cultural restrictions than men. Even though some actions are permitted in Islam, the word a’ayb is thrown with abandon at women specifically. The literal translation of the Arabic word a’ayb is a “disadvantage or flaw” but colloquially it is mostly used to mean “stigma, shame or taboo.” The phrase a’ayb a’alayk, — ‘shame on you’ — is another term that is appropriated by groups of conservatives in the Gulf, towards perceived shameful acts. For example, in Boxing Girls, when Nujood loses during her college championship, she physically attacks her opponent and is then called “America’s crazy woman” by her Arab Instagram followers. Many of her relatives criticize her for pursuing an education in boxing, which harms her self-esteem and leads her to reject Saudi society further.

Boxing is not necessarily haram, (a word which means forbidden according to Islam). In fact, there are several sports that were practiced during the Prophet’s era, such as wrestling, fencing, foot racing, archery, swimming, and horse racing. Considering the hadith; “Any action without remembrance of Allah is either diversion or heedlessness excepting four acts: Walking from target to target (during archery practice), training a horse, playing with one’s family and learning to swim (Sahih AlMuslim).” Boxing is doing something good within Islam because it keeps you healthy. Yett the stigma persists. Some perceive it as a shame because a woman is not supposed to show herself on TV, study abroad alone, post her photos on Instagram, or attack a competitor outside of the ring. This is why it’s important to distinguish between the haram and a’ayb because society so often casts Nujood or women like Nujood out as the former. A woman is not necessarily a good Muslim just because she follows her society’s ideologies. A female boxer who eschews her society’s ideologies of shame, can still be a devout Muslim.

Boxing also carries negative connotations of violence and masculinity, especially in the Gulf. Through boxing, women are in danger of developing less feminine traits, which challenges their expected roles as soft, subordinate, petite, and motherly. But some women are neither all soft or all hard, and it is impossible to expect them all to be one thing.

There are several examples of women who are currently breaking the mold between haram and a’ayab. For example, women driving in Saudi Arabia is no longer haram but a’ayb, and I am proud that Saudi women fought for those rights with the Women2Drive campaign. Other examples that are now a’ayb in Gulf societies: going out of your house alone as a single mother or divorced woman, going to see a therapist, working as a taxi driver, having a different opinion than the majority of people, and even having discussions about menstrual cycles that can actually benefit women to know more about their health. Menstrual cycles should be specifically talked about because of the fasting ritual in Islam and how that can affect the female body.

To combat the rigidity of labels and their connotations, as Gulf sisters we can all support each other and not put each other down. Unfortunately, women also contribute to repressing other women. Gulf sisters, let’s applaud and lift each other up, let’s embrace each other’s collective failure, and learn from our mistakes as a sisterhood. Leave the competition in the rink, as Nujood says: “People here, if you succeed they applaud you a little, but if you did something and it fails (humiliating), they tell you you’re crazy.”

Artwork by Shadi Ghandirian

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