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Ali al-Muqri: حرمة(Hurma)

A few days ago, I read and reviewed a novel by a Djibouti woman. The basic theme of the book was the excessive use of the drug khat by Djibouti men and the destructive effect this had on Djibouti families and society. However there was another key theme, namely the subjugation of women under Islamic sharia law. Asli, the heroine becomes a devoted Muslim, finding solace in her religion but nevertheless she does oppose female genital mutilation for her younger sisters and does show women trying to free themselves from the constraints of Islam, usually with negative results.

While, as we shall see, this book is very different, not least because it is written by a man and, moreover, a man no longer living in Yemen and one who uses mockery and sarcasm to mock the constraints on women, it has certain similarities. The father of the heroine is a khat user, though this is not a key theme as in the other book.However we very much see the constraints on women under sharia law andl-Muqri is clearly critical of them.

In this book, our heroine is never named. She is called hurma by her husband which means sanctity and is a name often applied to women in that country. She lives with her parents and an older brother and older sister.

The basic sharia rules in Yemen, at least in this book, are that once she is eight, a girl must be covered from head to toe, including a veil, and cannot be seen by any male, except her father and brother(s) and, when she marries (and yes, she can be married at age eight) her husband. Married women must spend all their time in the home and cannot leave except with special permission from their husbands. She must be obedient to her male guardian (father/husband) at all times. Her parents will choose her husband for her. She has no say in the matter. And, of course, she must be a good Muslim. That is theory though not always the practice, as we shall see.

Her brother, Raqeem is a rebel. He mocks his father’s piety (behind his back, of course) and reads communist literature. He rejects the various potential brides chosen for him by his parents. Eventually, he meets his sister’s friend Nura and is taken to her. They marry and he immediately changes, becoming a very jealous husband but also very religious. Eventually it all goes wrong and they divorce and Raqeem reverts, to a certain degree, to his old self.

The older sister, Lula (Nura’s friend), is very different. She has a seemingly good job (though, as we learn later, it involves various non-conventional tasks.) She is allowed to come and go as she pleases (and does). Her father tolerates this, indeed, frequently defends her, purely because she brings in money of which she gives fair amount to her father. It is Lula who introduces our heroine to cultural audio and video tapes. Cultural turns out to be a euphemism for pornographic. Our hero gets to hear/see these and is both fascinated and repelled, though more the latter when Lula shows her how to masturbate.

Our heroine is sent to the Islamic Scientific Academy, which is a strict Islamic school , where the sexes are strictly segregated so much so that the male teachers are shown only on video and only their hands are shown writing, nothing else. Al-Maqri mocks this when the camera inadvertently slips when a male teacher is giving his charges instructions as to how young ladies should behave and is he seen fondling his genitals, to the amusement of ther young women, many of whom have seen cultural videos. He had been saying Our noble Prophet had the best of intentions for women. He said: 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.

Meanwhile Lula goes abroad and meets a painter in the Louvre who has her naked body smothered in puréed tomatoes and is surprised that she is a virgin. (She is not. She has her virginity surgically restored).

Meanwhile Raqeem has found a husband for our heroine. She does not take to him and takes to him even less when she finds out that he is impotent. He decides to take her on a jihad, first in Sudan and then in Afghanistan, where she works as a nurse. She cannot, of course fight. He went on to remind me that the Prophet tells us a woman’s jihad is her obedience to her husband. It is not a pleasant experience, not helped by the fact that, when they are in Saudi Arabia, en route to Afghanistan, her husband acquires a second wife and later disappears in Afghanistan.

Back home she is recruited to report journalists who write articles that are not in concordance with strict sharia but, like most other things, that does not go well.

I spent most of my time – days and nights, asleep and awake – dreaming of a man, a man to hold me tight, to make love to me until I cried out in pleasure.

Unlike our Djibouti heroine, our heroine struggles to find any happiness and Al-Maqri puts this down, to a great extent, to the constraints she faces as a woman. She cannot choose her husband or find a normal job (unlike her sister). She has to obey her brother/father/husband who do not necessarily act in her interest.

Al-Maqri gives many examples of both male hypocrisy (such as the father turning a blind eye to Lula’s sharia transgressions) because or the money she brings in) and the sheer stupidity of sharia law, particularly as regards women. As with the Djibouti novel, it is certainly something of an eye-opener for those not too familiar with sharia law and how it affects the day-to-day lives of million of women

Publishing history

First published 2012 by Dār al-Sāqī, Beirut
First published in English in 2015 by Darf
Translated by T.M. Aplin