All children who are born healthy and normal feel that they are complete human beings. This, however, is not so for the female child.
From the moment she is born and even before she learns to pronounce words, the way people look at her, the expression in their eyes, and their glances somehow indicate that she was born ‘incomplete’ or ‘with something missing’. From the day of her birth to the moment of death, a question will continue to haunt her: ‘Why?’ Why is it that preference is given to her brother, despite the fact that they are the same, or that she may even be superior to him in many ways, or at least in some aspects?
The rate of infantile mortality remains very high in rural areas, and overall in most Arab countries, as a result of the low standards of living and education But the proportion is much higher in female children than it is in males, and this is often due to neglect. However the situation is improving as a result of better economic and educational standards, and the disparity in infantile mortality rates between females and males is rapidly disappearing.
The first aggression experienced by the female child in society is the feeling that people do not welcome her coming into the world. In some families, and especially in rural areas, this ‘coldness’ may go even further, and become an atmosphere of depression and sadness, or even lead to the punishment of the mother with insults or blows or even divorce. As a child, I saw one of my paternal aunts being submitted to resounding slaps on her face because she had given birth to a third daughter rather than a male child, and I overheard her husband threatening her with divorce if she ever gave birth to a female child again instead of giving him a son.1 The father so hated this child that he used to insult his wife if she used to care for her, or even just feed her sufficiently. The baby died before she had completed forty days of her life, and I do not know whether she died of neglect, or whether the mother smothered her to death in order to ‘have peace and give peace’, as we say in our country.
A female child may be met with much less gloom and more human feelings if born into an educated Arab family living in a city. Nevertheless, from the moment she starts to crawl or stand on her two feet, she is taught that her sexual organs are something to fear and should be treated withcaution, especially the part that much later in life she begins to know as the hymen.
Female children are therefore brought up in an atmosphere that is full of warning and fear when it comes to exposing or touching their sexual parts. No sooner does the hand of a female child fumble over her sexual organs in those exploratory movements that are normal and healthy in all children, since it is their way to knowledge, than it will be exposed immediately to a short, sharp tap or blow from the watchful fingers or hand of the mother, and sometimes the father. The child might even be taken unawares by a slap on the face, but the more reasonable of parents may limit themselves to a quick warning or a stern word.
The education that a female child receives in Arab society is a series of continuous warnings about things that are supposed to be harmful, forbidden, shameful or outlawed by religion. The child therefore is trained to suppress her own desires, to empty herself of authentic, original wants and wishes linked to her own self, and to fill the vacuum that results with the desires of others. Education of female children is therefore transformed into a slow process of annihilation, a gradual throttling of her personality and mind, leaving intact only the outside shell, the body, a lifeless mould of muscle and bone and blood that moves like a wound-up rubber doll.
A girl who has lost her personality, her capacity to think independently and to use her own mind, will do what others have told her and will become a toy in their hands and a victim of their decisions.
Now who are these others we are talking about? They are the males in her family, and sometimes males outside the family who happen to come in contact with her at one or other stage of life. These males who are of different ages, extending from childhood to old age, and who may be of different backgrounds, have one thing in common. They are also victims of a society that segregates the sexes, and that considers sex a sin and a shame which can only be practised within the framework of an official marriage contract. Apart from this permitted avenue for sexual relations, society forbids adolescents and young men to practise sex in any form, other than that of nocturnal emissions. This is almost word for word what is taught to adolescents in Egyptian secondary schools, under a chapter entitled ‘Customs and Traditions’.3 It is also mentioned that masturbation is forbidden because it is harmful and, more precisely, as harmful as practising sex with prostitutes.4 Young men therefore have no alternative but to wait until they have accumulated sufficient money in their pockets to permit them to marry according to Allah’s directives and those of the Prophet.
Since, however, the accumulation of some money in the pockets of a young man, whether the sum be relatively big or small, takes a certain number of years spent in education and work, especially in cities, the age of marriage there has gone up considerably as compared to rural areas. The sons or daughters of the more affluent sections can of course get married earlier, but this rarely happens. For other people, the inhibiting factors – apart from education and employment – are the steep rise in the cost of living, an extreme scarcity of housing, and exorbitant rents. The result is an increasing number of young men who are unable to get married for economic reasons, and a growing gap therefore between their biological maturity and sexual needs on the one hand, and their economic maturity and chances of marriage on the other. This gap, on average, is not less than a span of ten years. A question therefore arises. How are young men supposed to satisfy their natural sexual needs during this period in a society which warns against masturbation and forbids its practice as being harmful to them physically and mentally, and which also does not allow sexual relations with prostitutes because of the dangers to health, especially with the rapid spread in venereal diseases since prostitution has been made illegal in many Arab countries. In addition the price of a session with a prostitute has now become prohibitive for the vast majority of young men. Sexual relations outside marriage and homosexuality both being severely condemned by society, young people are left with absolutely no solution.
The only female whom a young boy or man can probably find within easy reach is therefore his young sister. In most homes she will be sleeping in the adjoining bed, or even by his side in the same bed. His hand will start touching her while she is asleep, or even awake. In any case it does not make much difference since, even when awake, she cannot stand up to her elder brother because of fear of his authority which is consecrated by custom and law, or fear of the family, or as a result of a deep-seated feeling of guilt arising from the fact that she may be experiencing some pleasure under the touches of his hand, or because she is only a child, not able to understand exactly what is happening to her.
Most female children are exposed to incidents of this type. They may be exactly similar, or very different, according to circumstances. The male in question may be the brother, the cousin, the paternal uncle, the maternal uncle, the grandfather or even the father. If not a family member, he may be the guardian or porter of the house, the teacher, the neighbour’s son, or any other man.
These incidents of sexual assault may take place without any force being used. If the girl however is grown up she may resist, in which case the aggressor has recourse either to a mixture of tenderness and deceit, or to his physical strength. In most cases the girl surrenders and is afraid to complain to anyone, since, if there is any punishment to be meted out, it will always end up by being inflicted on her. It is she alone who loses her honour and virginity. The man never loses anything, and the severest punishment he can expect (if he is not a member of the family) is to be obliged to marry the girl.
Most people think that such incidents are rare or unusual. The truth of the matter is that they are frequent, but remain hidden, stored up in the secret recesses of the female child’s self, since she dare not tell anyone of what has happened to her; neither will the man ever think of admitting what he has done.
Since these sexual aggressions usually happen to children or young girls, they are forgotten through the process known as ‘infantile amnesia’. The human memory has a natural capacity to forget what it wishes to forget, especially if related to painful incidents or accompanied by a feeling of guilt or regret. This is particularly true of certain happenings that have occurred in childhood, and which have not been discovered by anyone. But this amnesia is never complete in most cases since something of it remains buried in the subconscious, and may come to the surface for one reason or another, or during a mental or moral crisis.