The Ideal Woman: How Can Women Embrace Their Womanhood While Being Under The Male Gaze?
Anne-Marie Eliancy interviewed Dr. Shahd Alshammari for Wordgathering.
Anne-Marie: My name is Anne-Marie Eliancy, and I currently attend Florida State University. I chose to interview Dr. Shahd Alshammari for my project in Cyborg Theory and Practice taught by Prof. Jillian Weise. Dr. Shahd is an assistant professor of literature at Gulf University for Science and Technology in Kuwait. She teaches literature, women’s studies, and disability. She is the author of Notes on the Flesh which is the book we’ll be using for this interview. She will be releasing her memoir, Head Above Water in 2022. Her works have been featured in the Emirates Literature Festival and Malta Book Festival. Dr. Shahd, thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with me.
Dr. Shahd: Thank you so much Anne-Marie. That was a great introduction. You did your research. I love it. Thank you. I hope I can help, and I’m really happy to be talking to you.
Anne-Marie: The title of this interview is the Ideal Woman: How Can Women Embrace Their Womanhood While Being Under The Male Gaze? To address this topic I would like us to discuss the male gaze in regards to the sacredness of the female body, the roles of women being viewed under the male gaze, and finally women finding their identity and overcoming the male gaze.
Starting with our first topic. In your book Notes On The Flesh, Mansoor and Noor begin a discussion about the needs of men and how women are supposed to be okay with satisfying those needs. This way of thinking is very common in an American society that is very hypersexual. When and where did this objectification of women begin? How and why has it lasted for decades? And how is the female body viewed in your society?
Dr. Shahd: I’ll start with the very basic premise, the idea of reproduction. Women were seen in most Arab and Bedouin societies as the ones who were going to reproduce. They were the ones who were going to be there as objects of male satisfaction, but more importantly reproduction. So it would be a problem if you weren’t reproducing babies and weren’t capable of having them. That would mean you were not an ideal woman because the idea is to procreate in order to strengthen the tribe or even more so to strengthen the nation. So there was always this idea of the more the merrier. I think it’s across different cultures, but specifically in this part of the world where there’s still this thinking that women’s bodies are meant to be giving birth. And it’s not seen as sacred, but rather their duty. This is obviously a very patriarchal way of thinking and it’s really limiting. I think that it’s changing. But I still see it in a lot of different societies, not just in Kuwait or the Arab world. I see it when women with disabilities are unable to become mothers, and the stigma that they face because of that. Partners also leave women all the time because of this. I think it’s everywhere and it’s just not talked about as much or as we hoped to be able to talk about them.
Anne-Marie: We see Noor struggle with this dichotomy of guilt and pleasure whenever Mansoor gives her gentle acts of affection. I was raised in a very conservative household, so I have firsthand experience of this struggle of guilt and pleasure. I remember the first time I was exploring my body. I was excited and nervous. When it happened, I was like woah so this is what pleasure feels like. And then I felt this shame because I was like oh my goodness am I going to hell? This isn’t something that is deemed appropriate. I want to know why some women feel guilty for being pleased whether it’s done themselves or by a partner? And why is pleasure not seen as a way for women to embrace the sacredness of their bodies?
Dr. Shahd: I think it has a lot to do with the male gaze and how we have to be seen as these angelic figures. It’s this dichotomy as you said. You’re either the angel or the whore; there is no in-between. This is actually across all cultures. I’m always looking at it, and I’m shocked. I hear the same thing from women in the states, Britain, India, and the Middle East. And I think it all bleeds back to the same idea: a woman’s body tends to be under the male gaze. There’s this idea that you aren’t there for yourself (not for pleasuring yourself, not to be a receiver of pleasure etc), but you’re there to procreate and be a mother. It’s all of these patriarchal ideas. Any other exploration of your identity, body, or yourself, is going to be seen as I am going to be labeled as a whore? And no one wants to be labeled as that. So what happens is a sense of internalized shame. Shame and guilt are tied together. The idea of being found out -oh god I gave him my body, or I gave them my body- means someone is going to know that this is the other side of me. The side that needs to be hidden, stay invisible, and so on. I think we’re always performing the ideal feminine role. Once you stop performing it, even just between you and yourself, there’s this sudden realization that oops am I in the wrong? We’ve really internalized all these horrible modes of thinking that limit us. And as you said, they keep us away from embracing our bodies.
Anne-Marie: It’s very interesting because I was probably fifteen or sixteen when this happened. The thought of feeling guilt and shame in such a small setting as a household reflects society’s perception of that as well.
Dr. Shahd: Yeah, absolutely. So, it’s us knowing what if someone sees me in a different light? It can start with brothers, a father figure at home, your first boyfriend and it goes on. It’s basically all the men around you. That’s our main concern, and also Noor’s. There’s all these ideas in her head that come from all these patriarchal ideologies that have been engraved within her since she was a kid. No matter what her partner tells her it’s still something that is a struggle to work through. So, I think guilt and shame are really connected for us.
Anne-Marie: I’m glad that you mentioned the patriarchal society because the next topic that I want to talk about are the roles of women being viewed under the male gaze. In this story I see Noor’s beauty as both a blessing and a curse. We don’t know who she is outside of her beauty. There is such an emphasis on her aesthetic while her education is less valued. The main concern is finding a suitable partner and getting married. With that being said, we can see a universal emphasis that a woman’s roles are to be a wife and mother. And although we encourage women to get an education and pursue careers-which a lot of women are doing these days-these are often minimized when compared to the roles of wife and mother. I look at celebrities who choose careers and don’t have kids, and how they’re looked down upon because they didn’t complete the role of motherhood. Why is that? And why are women constantly being forced to choose between the two -motherhood and profession- instead of having both?
Dr. Shahd: It’s such a universal idea as you said. I’m always surprised to hear that this is the same in the West too. It’s something so limiting. We’re still in the same cycle of it’s either or. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. You’re either a career woman, or a mother, or a wife. All of this goes back to the idea of the male gaze. We’re under these very specific roles and labels, and we can’t be both. We can’t try to be both the angel and the whore. We can’t be both the mother and the career woman. Men can be both, and they can shift back and forth. They can go from being the father to the career man. It’s much more fluid for them because they’re not under the same unrealistic expectations. I also think this is changing, but there is still a lot of internal resistance. So, it ties back to shame and guilt. I have a friend who says I have a great career, but I can’t find a husband and I feel bad about myself. Then you look at all her research and think you’re so great and beautiful. But she still needs that sense of affirmation that comes from society and not just one person (the male figure); It’s all internalized. There’s this sense of I’m still not good enough and it ties into all of these patriarchal ideas that we’ve grown up with (waiting for that moment, wearing that white dress, to have that baby etc). In my society it’s to have boys because it’s always way better. It’s something really hard to move away from. I think it’s the male gaze, but also a lot of internalized thoughts that women are still struggling to work through. So, even if they’re happy to be a career woman there’s also this sense of am I good enough? Have I checked all of the boxes? I think that just keeps us in this horrible cycle. And I think that’s why we can’t seem to break free from it because it’s not just the outside world, but it’s also all of these internal thoughts that we have.
Anne-Marie: I’m glad that you mention the fluidity that men have between their careers and being husbands, but what happens when the role is reversed? Let’s say there’s a household where the woman provides the main source of income. How does the dynamic of the household change since society pressures men to be providers?
Dr. Shahd: I think it depends on the culture and which cultural context. I see this in different societies as well. It also depends on the socioeconomic factor. If the woman is earning more money, or he’s at home, there’s this sense of he’s going to practice his authority in different ways. She may be able to financially take care of the family, but he will do all he can to maintain control. Yes, you’re making the money, but I get to organize how we spend it. Or I’m the logical one, so I’m the one who’s going to figure out what we need to do. From the outside looking in, you may think if she’s the bread earner then she’s the one ultimately “leading” or she has more authority. This is a very naive way of looking at it. There’s these internal politics happening at home. I know some people who actually don’t have access to their own salaries. They’re programmed to hand it over to either the father figure or the husband. It really surprises me because we think if you’re privileged enough to have this good financial status then it means that you’re not going to be oppressed but it’s not the case at all. There are other factors that come into play. It doesn’t mean that the other party isn’t controlling anything just because you’re earning more money. It’s really complicated. So, there’s a lot of factors playing into this, internally and externally.
Anne-Marie: In The Arab, you stated that this book is an attempt at a l’ecriture feminine (feminine writing). How can this book help women embrace their bodies under the male gaze especially in regards to the disabled body?
Dr. Shahd: I wrote the book because I had many disabled female students who identified as disabled but with a lot of shame. They were not able to say I’m disabled, I’m a woman, I have needs, this is what I want, and I want to lead a fulfilling life. And at the same time, realizing that I also live with a disability and that I’ve been kind of in the same head space of thinking I’m ashamed and not embracing my body. Then I realized that in order for us to start, we have to write about it. To write about it meant documenting all of these stories. Some of them are nonfictional and some are fictional. For me, just writing and knowing that other disabled women were going to read them whether they were in Kuwait, the Middle East, or abroad. All this just made me think at least we’re starting the conversation. We barely got to see representation of disabled women and people of color on screens, media, literature etc. There was no way for us to identify with anything. Recently, we’ve had disbaled barbies but for the longest time there weren’t any. My idea was to at least put it in writing following the idea of femine writing, and write about these women’s bodies and voices. Hoping it gets picked up by people who will also write about their own stories whether fiction or nonfiction. The entire point was to start the conversation. And when we start the conversation, we get to intimate conversations. We start thinking why am I feeling guilty? Why am I feeling ashamed? What is the male gaze? And then we start having these conversations to get emancipation.
Anne-Marie: I’m glad that you mention representation, and how these stories can start conversations. It reminds me of Taraji, a celebrity that I follow, who struggles with mental illness. I’ve dealt with depression especially since I moved for school. I was also battling other internal struggles at the time and still am. So, being able to see someone that’s my skin tone, successful, and who’s open with her struggles with mental illness definitely helped me.
Dr. Shahd: Of course. It makes things more intimate. It makes you feel less alone more than anything.
Anne-Marie: Exactly. And my last question for you is how can this book empower women to find their individuality and independence to combat the male gaze?
Dr. Shahd: Hmm. That’s a difficult one. So, how can the book actually do that? How can the book empower women to combat the male gaze? Did you want to elaborate?
Anne-Marie: In the story there’s this emphasis on Noor being a wife and that her education doesn’t matter. I’m at a point in my life where my career is my main focus. I’m not exactly pressured to get married, but I’m always asked if I have a boyfriend and when I will be getting married. I had someone tell me once that I’m approaching thirty, my eggs are getting old, and I need to get married. It offended me because I felt like it was coming from a place of ignorance. How do you find yourself in the midst of all this noise? How do you find your individuality? If Noor could sit down and talk to you, what would you tell her?
Dr. Shahd: The idea is that it’s a long process. We’re always on this path to making sense of our identities and trying to rewrite our lives. Move away from the male gaze as you said, but also move away from our own judgements towards ourselves and this really cruel lack of love. It’s like an anti-love. I will only love you Shahd if you do so and so. I will only love you Anne-Marie if you do so and so. I think it’s really more about how we get there. I think we have to start recognizing that there is a lack of appreciation from us to ourselves. We need to try to put in a bit more self love, and I think that’s where we start with self healing. Noor did not have self love or appreciation of herself because of her environment (her parents, how she was raised etc). But if there was a bit more awareness -reading women’s stories and representation- there probably would’ve been a sort of appreciation for herself. I think that’s where a lot of women are at. I think of my students, friends, sisters, myself, and it all comes from a lack of self-love more than anything. And I think that’s the disservice that the male gaze has done to us. We can say we are objectified, but it’s mainly a lack of self-love at this point. I hope the book can get the conversation started, and start making us think about what other ways we can love ourselves. Or what other ways can we accept ourselves? How do we create space for ourselves if we’re creating it in a difficult environment? For me, the idea is that I’m never done healing. I’m constantly on this path. I get abusive comments all the time. I have this shield to protect me so that it doesn’t continue to break my spirit or my soul. It also prevents me from thinking that I’m not good enough. So, my advice would be to shield yourself.
Anne-Marie: Thank you so much Dr. Shahd for this interview, it’s been an honor to speak with you. I absolutely loved Notes On The Flesh, so I was extremely happy that I could have this interview with you. Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share besides your memoir?
Dr. Shahd: It’s just the memoir. I hope you read it, and let me know your thoughts on it. The memoir Head Above Water is basically about women’s bodies, but more so disability in academia. It talks about mental illness, disability in academia, and how they’re shunned. It also talks about how students are expected to perform in certain ways that are abusive. I use my own disability and how I was able to navigate academic spaces. I really hope you read it. It’ll be out on world MS Day which is May 31, 2022.
Anne-Marie: Well, if you’ve enjoyed this interview, then I highly recommend you read Notes on the Flesh as well as her memoir. And with that said, stay empowered, resilient, and true to yourself. Good-bye.
Editor’s Note: Fiction and a book review written by Shahd Alshammari can be found in the Summer 2021 issue of Wordgathering. Prof. Alshammari’s 2022 memoir, Head Above Water: Reflections on Illness, will be reviewed in a forthcoming issue of Wordgathering.
About Anne-Marie C. Eliancy
Anne-Marie C. Eliancy is an alumnus of the illustrious Florida State University. She graduated with a BA in English Literature and a minor in chemistry. Anne-Marie has always had a love for writing, especially poetry and fiction. She aspires to be a renowned author and is working on her first book. She is currently a grant administrator for the FL Department of Education. Anne-Marie ultimately wants to own a consulting business where she can assist nonprofit organizations in obtaining grants. She loves to dance and travel in her free time.
About Shahd Alshammari
Shahd Alshammari is an assistant professor of literature at Gulf University for Science and Technology in Mishref, Kuwait. She is a renowned author who will be releasing her memoir, Head Above Water: Reflections on Illness, this May. Her website is www.shahdalshammari.com.