By Shyanne Sarris
An Essay on The Story Of Zahra
Intimate partner violence, in the middle east, is a cause of lost female identity. This specific type of violence is defined as, “behavior by an intimate partner or ex-partner that causes physical, sexual or psychological harm, including physical aggression, sexual coercion, psychological abuse and controlling behaviors,” by the World Health Organization. Infact, in Hanan al-Shaykh’s novel, The Story of Zahra, Shaykh argues, through the development of her female characters, that due to IPV (intimate partner violence) women never find identity despite their valiant efforts to battle patriarchal authority. Sadly, this lack of identity leaves women with a palette of psychological issues. Shaykh explicitly explores, through Zahra’s character, how the psyche of women responds to the violent patriarchy commanding their lives. Unfortunately, Zahra is infected with IPV as a child and as a result she suffers from PTSD, anxiety, depression, social disfunction, eating disorders, and eventually an early death. Shaykh’s goal in creating Zahra’s character is to portray how male to female IPV shrouds women in a cloak of invisibility and prevents them from finding identity whilst simultaneously causing psychological disfunction.
When Zahra is a young child, she is exposed to her parent’s male to female intimate partner violence relationship, which establishes her androphobia (fear men) and begins the process of unraveling her sanity. Zahra’s mother became infatuated with a man not her husband, however, afraid to be alone, Zahra’s “mother took [her] along,” because she actually needed [her] protection” (Shaykh 12). This behavior not only exposed Zahra to sexual escapades at a young age but put Zahra directly in the middle of her parents’ IPV. After Zahra’s father, Ibrahim, discovers that his wife is sleeping with another man he demands of Zahra, “Tell the truth! Where did you used to go with your mother?” as he delivers blows to Zahra’s “face and head” (Shaykh 14). However, Zahra protects her mother’s secrets, so Ibrahim then turns his violence to Fatmé, and beats her as Zahra watches. This relationship, a compilation of secrets, fear, anger and pain, is the example Zahra’s parents set for her future romantic relations. Zahra’s parents are her example and therefore her expectation and standard. Zahra is only familiar with disfunction and as a result, all three of her significant relationships exist in the realm of IPV.
Zahra’s first IPV relationship is with a man named Malek (a married man with children) who sexually and psychologically manipulates her for his own sexual gratification. Malek begins their relationship by telling Zahra “how much he liked [her] face with its pimples, how the disfigurements actually excited him…” (Shaykh 30). For Zahra, this backhanded compliment is flattering, because of the shame that her mother and father make her feel over her plaguing acne. She states, “whoever has a face and body like mine is easily persuaded…” and so she allows Malek to “lay on top of [her] and penetrate [her] virginity” (Shaykh 30). Zahrah’s submissive response to Malek’s sexual advancement is a result of childhood trauma. “The physical violence the protagonist endures from her father figure impacts her choice of her future male companions/husband negatively…” because she is framing her choices in partners based on her father’s abusive personality (Atiyat 146). And consequently, Malek is abusive. Once Zahra sees the blood, proof of her innocence and virgin state, she panics and demands, “Swear before God that we are married” (Shaykh 33). Malek, however, had other plans. He has no interest in Zahra, save using her as a vessel for pleasure. And so, to avoid marriage to a “disfigured” girl he claims, “He didn’t wish to tie [Zahra] down, to stand in [her] way” (Shaykh 33). This is an example of sexual coercion and psychological abuse. Referencing Showalter, Atiyat writes, “such behaviour is a form of overt abuse through the exercise of which a woman is denied full control over her body (Shaykh 146). Malek mentally manipulates Zahra into passivity which provides him with reins of control. These reins of power bridle Zahra into submission which even allows Malek to convince Zahra to abort two of his offspring. As a result of the psychological and physical damage, Zahra feels she is unmarriageable, and she refuses offers of marriage. Regrettably, Zahra’s refusal to marry delivers ignominy to her and her family and negates the opportunity of normalcy. This public shame collaborates with Zahra’s IPV exposure to deconstruct any conceptualized ideas of individual identity.
Zahra’s second relationship, which occurs in Africa with a Lebanese man, Majed, is fated to collapse due to Zahra’s subjection to IPV. Majed has personal ulterior motives and proposes and weds Zahra with the goals of replacing masturbation with sex, conserving the expenses of travel and trousseau, and receiving a social class upgrade. Majed’s bloodline is traced to a poor family, and this makes Zahra, a girl born into a family of wealth and social prominence, a first-class ticket to esteem. However, on their wedding night, Majed discovers that Zahra is not a virgin. At this revelation, Majed exclaims, “I did not ask for a sea of blood, I would have settled for one drop… Cursed woman! Daughter of a cursed woman!” (Shaykh 84). At this point in their relationship, the first night of marriage, Majed has already engaged in the male to female IPV. He is psychologically reprimanding and shaming Zahra, forcing her to exist in a category of tarnished object rather than treating her as a human being. Zahra’s self-worth relies on how the eyes of the masculine audit her mental, physical and sexual identity. As a result, Zahra often tries to hide in the bathroom, safe from the roving, ravishing optic globes of misogyny. This encounter emphasizes that IPV has stripped Zahra of individual identity.
At first, Majed attempts to maintain their marriage, but as a repercussion from the IPV exposure Zarah has encountered with her parents, Malek and now Majed, she becomes “rigid as wood” (Shaykh 88). Majed, identical to the other men in Zahra’s life, represents the patriarchal authority responsible for battering Zahra’s identity. Inevitably, the heterosexual relationship fragments due to Zahra’s inability to form attachments. During the time Zahra and Majed are husband and wife, Zahra experiences mental collapses and she is taken to the hospital for being distant, cold, weeping and refusing to eat and drink (Shaykh 88). This aggregation of symptoms is a result from Zahra’s inability to cope with her traumatic past. Sadly, the hospital only treats the surface issues, and in the long run she is further damaged by the hospitals use of electrotherapy – this adds to her physical damage. The psychological and physical abuse Zahra has endured at the hands, minds and penises of men causes her to think, “I will have nothing to do with any man. I hate all men” (Shaykh 111). Her hate of men eventually leads her to divorce Majed and to move back home to Beirut.
Upon Zahra’s return to Beirut she discovers Lebanon is engaged in a civil war. Strangely, the war is a comfort for Zahra and when she and her parents flee to a nearby village, safe from the war, Zahra opts to return to the turmoil plaguing Beirut. Her return to chaos reflects her reliance on the crippling IPV. She states, “When I heard that the battles raged fiercely and every front was an inferno, I felt calm” (Shaykh 125). Zahra feels calm and even empowered by the war, because dysfunction is her normalcy. Zahra does not understand how to function in her expected social roles (wife, mother, and submission), but war speaks her language. The culmination of past traumatic personal events overshadows the fear she should feel toward war. As one of the outcomes of war, Zahra becomes attracted to Sami, a man she refers to as “the sniper.” Zahra’s relationship with the sniper is purely instated as a method for both Zahra and Sami to experience sexual gratification. And despite the fact Zahra “felt a sense of shame when [Sami] touched her” she continued to return to the abandoned building, where Sami resided, day after day (Shaykh 152). This man, though still dysfunctional, is slightly different from Zahra’s first two suiters in that the sniper can “understand [Zahra’s] needs” and bring her “ecstasy for the first time in thirty years” (Shaykh 152 and 154). This is a first for Zahra, because men before the sniper, have not cared for Zahra’s needs and wants. She was simply a vessel seen to be used for the purpose of pleasure and procreation. This begs the question, why is Sami different from the other men in Zahra’s life?
Sami is the personified result of Zahra’s extreme abuse in her IPV relationships. Shakh shrouds Sami in a veil of surrealism, making the reader unsure of his existence, and that is because the sniper only exists in the mind of Zahra – he is her sexual fantasy. There are several passages that imply Sami is a fabrication of Zahra’s tormented mind. At one point, Zahra says, “he was no longer a fantasy,” which implies at some point, Zahra recognized he was indeed a fantasy (Shaykh 156). However, due to Zahra’s deteriorating mental stability, the lines of reality and fantasy are blurred, and her sexual fantasy becomes her favorite reality. In another passage, Zahra “Convinced [herself] that the man in the café was the sniper” (Shaykh 157). In this section, Zahra must mentally convince herself that she sees the sniper in a public setting. This cements his reality in her psyche. The man she sees in the café is either a different man or does not exist altogether. Finally, in a conversation with her mother, Zahra claims, “There’s no sniper, so don’t concern yourself” (Shaykh 182). By professing this to Fatmé, there is an admission, by Zahra’s own mouth, that Sami does not exist. Sami’s existence, or lack thereof, is paramount to the narrative, because he is the culmination of Zahra’s insanity due to IPV.
By alluding that Sami only exists in the mind of Zahra, readers observe the severity of Zahra’s mental instability. Throughout Shaykh’s book, Zahra is only comfortable when she is alone – when she is the sole narrator of her story. Her solitary state frees her of patriarchal projection. When Zahra first meets the sniper, she contemplates, “I was alone with a fear I couldn’t quite manage to grasp. Was it the kind of fear that came to the sane or the mad?… Looking up, I could make out a face in the darkness. It was a face which I recognized, already familiar to me” (Shaykh 148). The face Zahra sees is the face of her androphobia personified by creation of her insanity – the result from her lifetime experiences with IPV. Through her fantasy, Zarah finally attains pleasure, even despite the dysfunctionality of its nature.
Because Sami is the creation of Zahra’s fear, she can dysfunctionally function with his form of masculinity, because it is a masculinity created from the ménage à trois of her insanity, fear, and chauvinistic experiences. The patriarchal society rules that women should engage in true womanhood (morals of piety, purity, submissiveness, and domesticity) and motherhood. However, the IPV in Zahra’s life strips her of social adaptability and attachment. Therefore, Zahra can only respond to herself and the creation of her mental instability. Because Sami is a fabrication of her imagination, Zahra is not required to comply with the expected values of men. Sami’s only expectation of Zahra is pleasure. And though his relationship with Zahra remains toxic (because virulent relationships are all Zahra knows), it does provide Zahra with the control over her life she desires. She can come and see Sami when she wishes, and she can leave when she wishes. Zahra’s desensitization to fear gifts her a small portion of power. Due to the consummation of fear and the inability to connect with social expectations, Zahra does not fit into the role of patriarchally destined woman.
Through the societal calamity of IPV, Shaykh speaks of lost female identity by exposing to her audience to the tragic life of Zahra. Zahra extends past a one-dimensional protagonist with unresolved issues, she is a victim of intimate partner violence, sired and born from a misogynistic patriarchy. Zahra was denied the opportunity to be a normal child due to her early IPV exposure. Through dysfunctional and violent contribution, her parents injected toxic expectations into the heart of Zahra’s self-worth and capability to love. Inevitably, Zahra never found love for herself, because her eyes were “never truly opened” (Shaykh 215). Intimate partner violence prevents Zahra from functioning as her society dictates incumbent. Her inability to function with her culture, as a result of IPV, forces Zahra to forfeit her identity. Consequently, her lack of identity and ability to connect with others causes Zahra’s sanity to wilt and whither. Hanan al-Shaykh uses her book, The Story of Zahra, as a testimony to the abject and catastrophic ramification IPV delivers to women suffering from a society infected with the common identified disease of toxic patriarchy.
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