“All together now, one, two, three…penis!”
I am a teacher at the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani. The city, Sulaimania, is a study in contrasts: The phallic, shiny blue Grand Millennium Hotel is a beacon of modernity in a place where the average citizen has electricity for only a few hours a day. Last September, I walked into an undergraduate critical reading and writing class armed with The Handmaid’s Tale and The World’s Wife, and a determination to expand the way students think.
The Handmaid’s Tale is Margaret Atwood’s dystopian, feminist novel that takes on patriarchy, totalitarianism and theocracy. Iran is just a stone’s throw away.
The World’s Wife, Carol Ann Duffy’s poetry collection, takes well-known, male-centered stories, histories and myths and re-envisions them from a female perspective. In Duffy’s world, girls rule. Here, women are marginalized.
I took over the class from feminist poet Dr. Choman Hardi after she was promoted to Head of English. Dr. Hardi is a literary/political activist rock star. The students size me up. I need to win their trust and confidence if they’re going to learn anything from me.
The students are a few weeks into The Handmaid’s Tale at the time of my first lecture. I don’t even know their names as I explain Ceremony Night from the novel. During Ceremony Night, The Handmaid, Offred, has sex with the Commander while she lies in a cradle of Serena Joy’s legs. Serena Joy is the Commander’s Wife.
Above me, towards the head of the bed, Serena Joy is arranged, outspread. Her legs are apart, I lie between them, my head on her stomach, her pubic bone under the base of my skull, her thighs on either side of me. She too is fully clothed.
My arms are raised; she holds my hands, each of mine in each of hers…
My red skirt is hitched up to my waist, though no higher. Below it the Commander is fucking. What he is fucking is the lower part of my body…
I remember Queen Victoria’s advice to her daughter. Close your eyes and think of England! But this is not England. I wish he would hurry up.
Serena Joy grips my hands as if it is she, not I, who’s being fucked.
I draw a name from an envelope. “Hana?”
Hana is small, fragile girl wearing a hijab.
“Can you describe the Ceremony Night?”
“Who’s in the room?” I prompt.
“Serena Joy, Offred and The Commander.” She is so soft-spoken, I have to stand right next to her to hear her. I hope by semester’s end, she will have found her voice.
“How are they arranged?”
Hana looks at me with abject terror.
“Who is Offred lying on?”
“Serena Joy.” The two words are a whisper.
“Where is Offred’s head?”
“Do I need to draw this on the board?”
A stick figure threesome. My cheeks rust.
“What makes the act bearable? Sawen?” Sawen is a baby feminist and voracious reader.
“The Commander and Offred don’t kiss. And she keeps her eyes closed.”
“In the novel, there are several references to women keeping their eyes closed during sex. Why?”
No one gives me eye contact.
“You know,” I stall to mentally weigh options. Given where I am, how much cultural context should I explain in order for the students to appreciate the nuances of this book? There’s a tiny garden gnome jumping up and down on my shoulder, warning me to stop.
“Before second wave feminism, in Western cultural stereotypes, women, especially ‘nice girls,’ weren’t supposed to enjoy sex. The purpose of sex was procreation, just like in The Gilead Republic of Atwood’s novel. That’s what the ‘Close your eyes and think of England’ line refers to.” Heat rises from behind my ears. I am so glad I chose a cotton blend dress to hide the hamburger stains forming under my armpits. “But second wave feminism said, wait, no, women can have sex for pleasure, just like men do. That sex isn’t just about having children, and women deserved to be satisfied by the sexual experience, and they are not bad or shameful for wanting so.”
I am in a full face blush and Hana won’t look in my direction. However, I have woken up the male engineers in the back row who take this class because Lit 102 is required.
I sit on the front corner of my desk to be closer to the students. “Look, I know I’m blushing. Can we all agree we might talk about some things that will make us uncomfortable? I’m embarrassed. You’re embarrassed. Let’s get over ourselves and accept we’re going to be embarrassed sometimes.”
In the months to come, every lesson will have moments of awkwardness as we discuss gender, sexuality and patriarchy. In service of the novel, I will explain the Madonna-whore complex, especially as it relates to the empowerment of female sexuality, Playboy bunnies, menstruation, masturbation, orgasms, faking orgasms and pornography.
“So the line about keeping her eyes closed is mocking the pre-feminist notion that women should ‘do their duty’ and let men have them in order to make babies. Even my language is patriarchal, although not as colorful as Atwood’s. Men have women. Why don’t women have men?”
“Because men have all the power,” offers Hamza, a teddy bear of a young man.
“How can you change that? How many of your mothers are university educated?” A few hands go up. “Look at you guys. You’re here, taking this class, reading this book, in this city. You can change it. It’s just like the theme of ignoring versus ignorance that runs throughout the novel. Ignoring is complicity. You can choose to ignore or you can choose to see, bear witness and change what you don’t like.”
The next lesson I show a TED Talk clip with Sarah Jones performing part of her one woman show, Sell/Buy/Date. “What are male sluts called?” one of the characters asks. “Right. Male sluts are called men.” We discuss the sexual double standards that exist in their lives.
I relate everything I can from the novel to the world around them: patriarchy, gender violence, totalitarianism, environmental degradation, media bias/media manufactured news. I tell them they don’t have to share my opinions but they do have to defend their own. The students debate Iran’s meddling in Iraq, the US occupation, ISIS, ISIS and Yazidis women, and women’s rights. And then on Friday, October 2, 2015, a father shoots his daughter in a local park for some perceived shame she had brought upon the family.
Women’s control over their own bodies is the next lecture’s theme. The students don’t want to discuss the honor killing, but the event reverberates in their debates about arranged marriages, child brides, restrictions on unescorted female movement in their city, childbearing as it relates to female worth, and prostitution. They leave the classroom seeing their world a bit differently.
Daughter, wife, mother — prescribing roles for women keeps them from finding out who they are. The poems in The World’s Wife pluck women out of the supporting roles and thrust them center stage. These women tell different sides to well-known stories, illuminating different truths. It’s better to marry a beast than a prince, (“Mrs. Beast”), women don’t pine away waiting for men (“Penelope”) and women don’t always want to be saved (“Eurydice”).
Some boys in the class hate the collection; they dismiss the poems because Ms. Duffy is a lesbian, which prompts a spirited discussion about author and reader bias through a filter of homophobia. The boys in class look a bit scared: Women in this collection seduce, kill, manipulate, consolidate power, find artistic fulfillment — in other words, they act like men. On campus I hear students complain, “Dr. Choman hates my penis,” or, “Miss Alex, what are you having the students read?” I reply with a Mona Lisa smile.
Male classroom discomfort reaches an all-time high when I unpack “Mrs. Aesop.” Drawing on John and Lorena Bobbit, Carol Ann Duffy re-envisions Aesop’s Fables from the perspective of Mrs. Aesop, who wants less clichéd stories and more passion in her marriage. She threatens to castrate her husband by cutting off his tail, his metaphorical manhood, to bring an end to his tales. To explain the poem, I need to explain the infamy of the Bobbits. Every time I say “penis” (nine counts by the end of the class), someone snickers. My face is a tomato. Explaining “cut off his tail to stop his tale” elicits boy groans and girl giggles. “Ok, let’s own it,” I’m giggling a bit too. “Come on. All together now, one, two three…penis!”
I taught these students for ten of their thirteen week semester. Hana never did find her voice, but Mohammed, a quiet student who became “the man of his house” upon his parents’ divorce told me, “Now, when I hear peoples’ stories, I wonder what their experiences are. I want to know their perspectives.” That’s what I want too.
More from BUST