Hysteria: Unveiling Tunisian Women’s Journey in Writing Chick-Lit

By Cyrine Kortas

Have you ever heard about a woman who would tell you that she made love because she wanted it? […] Almost half of Tunisian women were brought up in a complete denial of their bodies

(Hysteria, p.122-123)

Through these rhetorical questions posed by her fictional character Nadia, the Tunisian writer Faten Fazaa criticizes in her novel Hysteria the way the female body is confined to the notion of honor. Offering a glimpse into the lives of Tunisian young women, she addresses social and political issues while questioning cultural norms in a relatable and engaging manner.

In many Muslim societies, the female body has always been subject to oppression. The main reason behind the deprivation of women’s rights is the misconception that Islam is a backward religion. In the words of Fatemah Albader (2020), a Kuwaiti legal scholar, “the answer lies within the culture itself” (p. 1). While Islam as a religion does not inherently oppress women or restrict their freedoms, certain deeply entrenched societal norms, traditions, and patriarchal customs have long veiled women’s understanding of their bodies and exercised control over their desires. In line with Albader’s words, Fazaa creates a narrative world where various factors such as race, class, and education are utilized to subjugate Tunisian women.

Written in Tunisian dialect and focusing on the everyday struggles of an ordinary woman from the old Medina, the book is labeled as Tunisian chick lit, a new literary genre that has flourished and engaged readers of all ages and classes. Believing that the text rests on the overflow of female love and desire, my interest in the text, as a pioneer of chick lit in Tunisia, is to investigate the issue of female gender identity negotiation in a Muslim society on the eve of the Arab Spring era.

Chick literature in Tunisia has become an integral aspect of pop culture, reflecting the experiences and struggles of women in modern Tunisian society. These books often explore themes of love, relationships, family dynamics, and personal growth, resonating with readers who can read stories in their dialect, Tunisian Derja. Through a mix of fiction, memoir, and poetry, these women writers confront cultural and aesthetic forms of marginalization, offering a deeper understanding of the complexities and dynamics of power at the heart of contemporary Tunisian society marked by political and economic unrest.

Although some critics dismiss the genre as frivolous or shallow, accusing it of promoting past stereotypes of subordination and submission, Tunisian chick literature has gained widespread popularity, both domestically and internationally. Among a young readership, these novels provide solace, inspiration, and empowerment, as evidenced by the success of works like Faten Fazaa’s novel, which has brought Tunisian chick lit to the forefront.

Fazaa, Faten (2021).  Hysteria. Tunis: Sindibad.  
Hysteria: A Mosaic of Voices

Hysteria is a novel about romance and gender expression, spanning 17 chapters, each composed of shared monologues written in Tunisian Derja. These monologues resonate with a spontaneous rhythm and fluidity, characteristic of women’s writing. The novel’s linguistic mechanisms, style, and structure are deeply influenced by these elements.

Shifting back and forth between the old Medina and the modern city, the narrative explores the lives of three generations within a family: Sophia, the elder sister; Nadia, the artist; and her daughter Sabrina, the struggling youth. An inside look into these characters’ lives reveals a labyrinth of dreams, desires, worries, and struggles. In this typical Tunisian family, the female characters grapple with questions of self-worth, which the author illuminates through alternating narration, granting each character enough space to untangle their complexities.

The novel revolves around the love lives of these three women, each facing distinct dilemmas—some existential and others ethical—in their pursuit of love and happiness. Fazaa does not limit narration to either an external narrator or a single character; instead, she shares the narration among Nadia, Sabrina, and Sophia. Additionally, Fazaa gives minor characters like Saadia the space to tell their stories, such as her experiences with racial segregation and discrimination. This combination of diverse love stories demonstrates how the novel was composed and knitted through different angles, techniques, and styles, lending the work credibility and realism.

Marked by raw emotions, the text thus traces the journey of Tunisian women towards selfhood, continually challenged by social, cultural, and religious conventions and traditions. In an important passage, Saadia wonders: “Had people put themselves in our shoes, they would not have judged us as such. Don’t feel for me, just be silent” (p. 44). Against others’ critical words, these women strive to stand tall and voice their worries, dreams, and desires, hoping to bring light to their issues.

Unmasking Hysteria: Cultural and Societal Constraints

In their search for true love, Nadia, Sabrina, and Saadia struggle between following their hearts’ desires and adhering to societal expectations. Nadia falls for a married man who promises to end his marriage and settle down with her, leaving her to bear the stigma of shame and endure the judgmental looks of her neighbors. Similarly, Sabrina commits suicide when her affair with Kareem is revealed, leading both mother and daughter to be condemned as promiscuous and immoral.

Saadia faces her own share of social criticism when she falls in love with Ramses, a young white engineer. As a black woman from a deteriorated social background, whose father participated in Sufi dancing shows against demons known as Bou Saadia, Saadia was far from the ideal daughter-in-law Ramses’ mother envisioned. Mixing racist cultural norms with religious teachings about honoring one’s parents, Ramses’ mother separated her son from Saadia and pushed him to marry someone from their social class and skin color. Although Ramses remained unhappy in his marriage, his mother continually reminded him of his familial obligations. Alone in a hospital bed, Ramses decides to follow his heart and reconnect with his first love.

Contrary to classical chick lit, where the female voice dominates the narration, this text features a unique shared perspective, with male characters like Ramses contributing to the storytelling. By sharing his struggles to be with the woman he loved, Ramses allows the author to assert that cultural practices, rather than religious doctrine, are the primary drivers behind the suppression of individual freedoms and control over desires and dreams.

While Ramses was searching for her wide and far, Saadia was traveling the world from one show to another to ease the pain of a broken heart. The societal rejection she faced as a young woman in love makes her yearn for the past, when as a little girl, sge faced the world by throwing herself into her father’s arms.

In the imagery of her father’s Sufi dances, which were thought to defeat demons and extract evil, Nadia finds solace and comfort in the Sufi heritage of shrine visiting and dancing. Determined to stand up for herself and end a toxic relationship, she channels her sorrow through dance, moved by the Sufi chants that evoke the Karamate[1] of Om-Ezzeine-Jamali, a revered maternal figure in Tunisian culture, known for her wisdom and role as a traditional storyteller who protected the land and its people.

Feminine Struggles through Hysteria to Reach Self-Discovery

Faten Fazaa calls for developing “le sens critique” (p.159) that enables individuals to assess inherited social norms and cultural practices on their journey to self-discovery. Through retrospective diagnosis, Fazaa’s heroines—Saadia, Sophia, Nadia, and her daughter Sabrina—refuse to surrender to societal pressures, each taking turns to narrate their struggles, occasionally leaving the reader wondering about the speaker.

By blending Saadia’s voice with that of Ramses, Fazaa presents his family as an example of a well-to-do family that distinguishes people based on race and class rather than personal worth. This distinction outrages Ramses, who feels torn between his love for Saadia, a beautiful and talented black woman, and his family’s depiction of her as an unsuitable, low-class daughter-in-law.

Sabrina is also criticized and called names by Ilyes’ mother when her affair with Kareem is revealed. As Ilyes’ future wife, she is viewed as the family’s honor, a privilege she fails to uphold. Unlike other Arab countries marred by honor crimes, Tunisia has moved away from this tradition. Still, women in Tunisia are metaphorically killed through pejorative names, degrading looks, and devastating rumors, which Nadia, Sabrina, and Saadia fall victim to.

This social victimization manifests in Nadia’s hysterical dances when visiting the shrine of Om-Ezzeine-Jamalia, where her movements reveal the pain she has been confronting. Quoting Milan Kundera, the Czech-French author, “Lorsque une femme ne vit pas sufisamment son corps, le corps finit par lui paraitre comme un ennemi,” (p. 123), Fazaa reflects on the tension between the individual and society, acknowledging that Tunisian women are not yet able to fully embrace their physicality, with their bodies remaining estranged entities. This opposition between body and self culminates in hysteria.

Sophia is another victim whose journey is fraught with emotional turmoil. At sixty years old, she has crafted an act of self-denial that estranges her from her body’s needs for love, affection, and tenderness. She accepts her solitude, silencing her body’s call for love by caring for others and meeting their needs. She shares her belongings, gifts her savings to the new bride, and plays the role of the mother Sabrina longs for.

Another manifestation of this bodily denial is Nadia’s depression. Seeing her frail reflection in the mirror, Nadia succumbs to tears as she recalls her relationship with a man who promised to end his loveless marriage and marry her. As her self-image starts to shatter, Nadia awakens and decides to stand up for herself. After spending nights and days crying and lamenting her fate, she decides to hold on to the only thing that defines her: her art.

In an act of rebirth, Nadia decides to let go of the past and embrace herself. In an iconic scene that resonates with the Tunisian reader, spirituality and physicality meet as Nadia engages in a Sufi dance at the shrine of Om-Ezzine-Jamalia. The dichotomy of body and soul, body and spirit, is not only a social and cultural concern for Fazaa but also an artistic one. The novel celebrates bodily images that honor both the female and male body as the only natural and moral forces in the world. The only condition of happiness is the right relationship that grants women satisfaction.

The novel celebrates femininity as a natural and artistic force, a subjectivity full of dreams and expectations. Saadia’s body consciousness is neither erotic nor appalling; it is direct and poetic. This is evident in how her body comes alive in Ramses’ embrace. Moving from one corner to another, holding hands, and taking pictures, Ramses and Saadia exemplify the perfect union. Because the private becomes political in women’s writing, Saadia’s metamorphosis becomes a metaphor for Tunisia to confront its wounds and begin its healing process after many failures. The association between the personal and political is conveyed through the female body image, mirroring that of the country. Throughout the novel, Fazaa explains that the main reason for women’s agony is the social constraint imposed on their physical consciousness.

Female Sexuality and Desire: Unveiling the Hidden

Faten Fazaa’s novel raises confrontational questions about individual dreams and needs challenged by prevailing social and cultural norms in a conservative society. Composed of individual monologues stimulated by different encounters, reunions, and confrontations, the narrative pieces together the world of the book. These physical encounters generate internal conflicts that add to the growing tension, as suggested by the title, Hysteria. In the hysterical overflow of words and images, Fazaa criticizes her society’s discriminatory attitude towards the female body, cloaking it with a veneer of chastity and piety.

Her writing can be understood as an exploration of female sexuality and desire in post-revolution Tunisia. She builds her narrative around sentimental myths, iconic texts, and songs of love, sexuality, and romance. The text becomes an aesthetic devotion to sexual individualism and self-liberation from the shackles of tradition.

Fazaa’s interest in man-woman relationships is approached from the perspective of body and soul, not as a duality but as a complementary relationship. Her conception of the self, particularly sexuality, rests upon a reconciliation between body and soul, a unity rather than opposition. This implies that the women’s journey in the text is one of achieving unity with and acceptance of their bodies in a world governed by traditions and prejudices, often perpetuated through rumors. Nadia’s love life was the talk of the neighbors during her niece’s wedding, adding to her agony and causing her to leave the wedding in tears. Sabrina faced a similar predicament during Ilyes’ funeral, leading her to commit suicide in desperation.

Fazaa weaves a mosaic of voices, attitudes, and experiences, often supported by her reflections on iconic literature. By incorporating references to refined, canonical world literature, music, and philosophy, she elevates chick lit to a status as important as other literary genres. She positions her writing within the ongoing debate about high and low culture, mainstream, and pop culture. Tunisian chick literature has flourished in recent years, leveraging social media to connect with young readers. Authors, mostly part of the Tunisian diaspora, use social media to promote the genre and contribute to its growth. Many novels, like Hysteria, explore themes of self and identity, reflecting on social changes and addressing taboo topics like sexuality.

Despite its progress, Tunisian chick lit still faces challenges, such as stereotypical characters and lack of narrative structure. In Hysteria, Fazaa experiments with her female characters, hoping to highlight the dilemmas and hysteria they experience. After the Sufi dance, Nadia decides to focus on her work, Sophia experiences love at sixty, and Saadia reunites with Ramses. However, these experimentations often result in one-dimensional characters. The women, being essentially unlucky in love, become redundant and predictable, affecting the overall mood of the narrative, which becomes increasingly dull. This predictability, while comforting for some readers, leads to a monotony that even the author seeks to break free from.

The stereotypical characters and predictable storyline may hinder the genre’s appeal. This formulaic structure does not challenge the reader nor fully represent the complexities of the Tunisian woman’s experience in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, which brought a sweeping atmosphere of change and revolt against the old and archaic. While touching upon the Sufi heritage of songs, dances, and customs throughout the novel, Fazaa could further incorporate its mysticism and fantasy to break from the traditional structure of chick lit and add depth to the career-focused yet unlucky-in-love protagonist. She could also advance the political aspect of her female characters, writing in a post-revolution era.


References

[1] Karamate stands for the exceptional powers that are associated with Sufi saints. They are celebrated in the songs and dances performed during shrine visiting.

Albader, F. (2020). “Cultural Oppression Disguised as Religious Obligation: A Fatal Misrepresentation to the Advancement of Muslim Women’s Rights”. Asian Pacific American Law Journal.Vol.24, N.1. https://www.jstor.org/stable/48743216

Fazaa, F. (2021).  Hysteria. Tunis: Sindibad.  


About the Author

Cyrine Kortas holds a PhD in English Literature. She is a long term fellow at MECAM. Her research project at MECAM is a comparative study between English New Man literature and Maghrebi one, using Sufism as a theoretical framework. Her research was inspired by an article published in London Academic Publishing’ Brolly Journal for Social Sciences in 2020 entitled: “The Image of the New Man in Post-War Short Stories ‘The Man Who Loved Islands’ by D. H. Lawrence and ‘The White Rose’ by Hanna Mina”. She is an assistant professor at the Higher Institute of Languages, Gabes, Tunisia and a researcher at the LAD lab unit at the faculty of arts and humanities Sfax. She is also a non-permanent member of the London Centre for Interdisciplinary Research. Her research interests include: comparative literature, feminist and gender studies, as well as teaching literature in EFL classrooms.


Citation

Cyrine Kortas, Hysteria: Unveiling Tunisian Women’s Journey in Writing Chick-Lit, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 27.06.2024, https://doi.org/10.58079/11w92


OpenEdition schlägt Ihnen vor, diesen Beitrag wie folgt zu zitieren:
Forum Transregionale Studien (27. Juni 2024). Hysteria: Unveiling Tunisian Women’s Journey in Writing Chick-Lit. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 20. Juli 2024 von https://doi.org/10.58079/11w92


Forum Transregionale Studien

The Berlin-based Forum Transregionale Studien promotes the internationalization of research in the humanities and social sciences. It provides scope for collaboration among researchers with different regional and disciplinary perspectives and appoints researchers from all over the world as Fellows. More...

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