Books By Women: Love in a Torn Land Joanna of Kurdistan

A little over a year ago now I studied abroad in Istanbul, Turkey and current Turkish politics is my historical niche. My last semester in college I completed independent research on Turkey’s pro-Kurdish political parties and Turkey’s cultural genocide of the country’s Kurdish populations. Briefly summarized, Kurds are a Muslim ethnic group with a majority of Kurds located in Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Kurds have been systematically discriminated against and outright killed based on their ethnicity, with Saddam Hussein bombarding Iraqi Kurdistan with chemical attacks in 1988 in the Anfal campaign. There is no separate state of Kurdistan. For extensive information on abuses against Kurds, please check out the Kurdish Human Rights Project.


My research into pro-Kurdish political parties and the knowledge I’ve sought to join the movement for Kurdish rights globally has led me to begin a historical fiction novel set in Turkish Kurdistan in the 1990s and my research for this novel led me to the book: Love in a Torn Land: Joanna of Kurdistan: The True Story of a Freedom Fighter’s Escape from Iraqi Vengeance. joanna of Kurdistan

I’m not sure how to describe this book. On the one hand, it’s a biography, written by Jean Sasson, who lived and worked in Saudi Arabia and has written multiple books through interviews with Middle Eastern women. But the book is narrated in first person from Joanna’s perspective. The writing reads as if it were a transcript compiled from the various interviews with Joanna, but to be honest I’m not sure how it was written. I’ve contacted Sasson to ask and hope to hear from her soon.

The writing didn’t have a lot of details which would have drawn me into Joanna’s story of growing up in Baghdad, marrying a Peshmerga Kurdish freedom fighter and surviving the Anfal Campaign. Hers is a story of survival, but I had difficulty investing myself because the writing didn’t put me into the scene. I can’t blame either Sasson or Joanna for this. Sasson explains in an interview on her website, that while speaking with Joanna, Joanna was often too traumatized to provide details, making the writing process far more difficult.

The book provided me with some of the cultural and historical information I need for my own project and it’s a great start for readers interested in modern Middle Eastern history who may not have a strong background.  As you read, you learn about Kurds, Iraq, Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iran-Iraq war, and many details people living in the west don’t have access to or wouldn’t think to ask about. And even if you know some of the facts already as I did, having a human perspective is far more compelling and real than all the statistics and academic research you could ever compile.

I’ll keep you updated if I hear back from Sasson! In the mean time, keep reading.

Up next: Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia.

International Peace Museum

Ohio is known as the birthplace of aviation. Starting from the Wright brothers onward, Ohio boasts an Air Force Base and the National Museum of the United States Air Force. Inside the museum, patrons can trace the history of the USAAF from World War I all the way through to the Office of Special Investigations (OSI) and the department’s work combating terrorism.

To be blunt, nothing makes me more cynical than military operations. To be even more blunt, every war is a mistake. Continue reading

That’s Problematic

I tend to move in left wing circles of friends. This is great because it means we very rarely need to tell one another to stop using homophobic language or to treat the female participants of the conversation as full individuals, it also means we tend agree on most issues. So, how is this a problem? Well, in order to become more knowledgeable about the issues we discuss (gender, sexuality, race, economics, government, politics, etc) having a cross flow of ideas is invaluable.

Think about cross ventilation in your home or apartment in the summer. Imagine how the room becomes unbearable with a lone fan sitting in the window blowing hot air into the hot room. What can initially seem as a joy in and of itself (at least you have a fan, or  a space for liberal discussion) that joy does not last.

I’ve noticed that when I’m in these groups, one of us will comment on how something is problematic. Disney’s Pocahontas, for example. I might say that I love that film, but I am well aware it is problematic. Another of my friends will agree with me and we move on. In short, we’ve identified a problem,  but failed to unpack what’s actually wrong. All it would take for us to have a discussion and not just throw around vague opinions we both agree on, is for my friend to ask me, “how do you see Pocahontas as problematic?”

Because maybe I’m thinking about the affront to Native American culture when the white men leave in peace at the end, denying hundreds of years of continued abuse, brutality and racism. Maybe my friend is thinking about the sexualization and exoticization of Pocahontas as a character. Maybe another friend jumps in and talks about two-spirit ideas of gender in Native American culture.



Suddenly “problematic” has branched off into many veins and sparked a conversation where a cross flow of ideas can take place.

Unpack your ideas and don’t be afraid to be challenged or to challenge others. Ask questions to better understand another’s views. There is no need to sit with that same one fan blowing hot air. Open up another window, turn on the AC and let the ideas circulate. The conversation will be far more fascinating and your opinions far more developed.

“So Beautiful It’s a Curse” Trope

My favorite historical figure is Hannibal Barca-the Carthaginian general who marched elephants into Rome during the Second Punic War.

File:Map of Rome and Carthage at the start of the Second Punic War.svg

Carthage is on the tip of modern Tunisia: look to the right of Numidia and up toward Sicily. Carthage (the city) is right at the star. 

Hannibal was a military genius and even though he lost the war against Rome, his battle strategies are still studied today. I could spend hours just writing about his brilliance and my adoration of this man, but author David Anthony Durham has done most of that work for me. His historical fiction novel Pride of Carthage (2005) is what drew me into Hannibal’s world and over all, this is a very good book. Durham cites a bibliography, crafts rich and compelling characters on both sides of the war, and animates historical figures who have been dead for 2,200 years.

Yet he is incapable of writing women. While he does a decent on the historical women of Hannibal’s wife and sisters, Durham also writes a love story as a side plot line set against the larger back drop of the Second Punic War. The love story is about a foot soldier, Imco Vaca, who Durham creates and this woman, Aradna, a Greek who follows Hannibal’s army as a camp follower.

While Imco is an interesting character, rising through the ranks of Hannibal’s army, surviving the war and even conversing one on one with the Carthaginian general, Aradna’s greatest attribute is her beauty. This wouldn’t be so bad, if she weren’t introduced as a woman so beautiful that her entire back story is being raped by various men, starting with her dead father’s friend. Throughout the novel, Aradna falls into the trope of So Beautiful It’s a Curse. And the writing does not feel as if Durham is portraying the mindset of 200 BC, but his own ideas that beauty is a reasonable excuse to rape someone. We’re supposed to feel terrible for her after we read her tragic back story, but during the novel we’re told to accept that her beauty will attract men because that is naturally the way things go for beautiful women. Durham takes the responsibility off the men and reminds his readers that it is the woman’s job to not get raped.

When she’s not fending off men by rubbing herself in excrement in the hopes the smell will keep them at bay, she’s being pursued by Imco. By this, I mean he saw her bathing we get an uncomfortable look into Imco’s mind about how he wants to have sex with her. From the start of their interactions, she is an object. Throughout the novel the two meet up periodically by chance and Imco is always lusting after her. He’s in love with her beauty and this is the relationship readers are supposed to root for.

What bothers me the most is that even though she’s not interested and feels he’s just another man trying to attack her throughout most of the novel she finds him trapped under the dead bodies after the Battle of Cannae and she rescues him. Then they fall in love because the man needs to win the woman in the end. She is, after all, his prize.

There are so many things wrong with how she is written and where her arc goes, but I think one of the most important things to point out is that her story is sexist against both men and women. Against women, the obvious is that it perpetuates rape culture and also denies the woman agency unless it’s to aid a man and be his love interest. Against men it portrays them as sex-driven animals who can’t control themselves if a beautiful woman is around. I don’t understand why a man would want to portray his own sex in such a negative light, but that’s what Durham does.

This trope vilifying beautiful women as tragic figures destined for unwanted attention and rape is one that I didn’t understand when I first read the novel in high school. All I understood was that I never wanted to be Aradna. Because she was sexually assaulted she was the literary example of my greatest fear. It is terrible when young girls cannot look up to female characters without feeling as if being a woman is wrong and sinful somehow. I thought that her Aradna’s beauty was the cause and I didn’t want to be beautiful. And because beauty was her defining feature, I didn’t want to be a woman. I wanted to be Hannibal: the respected general with an intricacy of thought I still marvel at, not Aradna the beautiful woman followed by tragedy

I love Hannibal Barca, but I can no longer love the novel Pride of Carthage because it represents all of my fears of rape culture and places fear into women readers. I will not read something that makes me afraid or ashamed of my sex and these are the real evils of sexism that feminism combats. Feminism is needed because of how flippantly women are hated and how often we are told to hate ourselves. I’m a feminist because I refuse to hate myself and I will fight so that others can also understand the love and respect women deserve.

The Founding Myths of the West

The Rape of Europa (and other founding myths that explain a lot)

As both the title and subtitle say this blog is created to give a possible explanation as to why sexism is ingrained in Western Culture. Although sexism stems back much farther than Ancient Greece and Rome, these two civilizations are the foundation of Western society and so they myths, beliefs, and opinions of the prominent figures in these two cultures have shaped our own right down to the social mores that explain the general conceptions of thought.

This is not meant to be all encompassing of the universal western experience. As I am American I am writing solely of the American experience as far as I can gauge it. This is a compilation of my knowledge of Ancient History, European History, and modern sexism in the hopes of finding evidence that sexism pervades our world today because it rooted in the framework on which we base our ideas. Sexism is not innate; it is taught.

I’m taking a European History class this semester, and the first assignments were to read ‘The Rape of Europa’ by Ovid, understand the myth of the Sabine Women, and read  ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ by Livy.

One of many paintings, although one of few where she is fully clothed.

To start with the myth of the founding of Europe, Europa was picking flowers with the nymphs when Zeus fell in love with her. He transformed himself into a bull and when she was comfortable that the bull would not attack her, he led her into the ocean on his back and swam to Crete. Once there revealed himself as a God and  raped her, or seduced her, or had intercourse with her, depending on which translation you read and what you can surmise from Greek culture and the Greek language. She became a Queen of Crete and had multiple sons. Europa’s side of the story is barely considered. She is only described as beautiful, virginal, and afraid.

On to the Sabine Women then and the myth of the founding of the city of Rome. Unlike the story of Romulus and Remus, this is a lesser known tale. Led by Romulus, the Romans established themselves as a city, but had no wives to marry. There was a neighboring tribe called the Sabines and the Romans asked that the men give up their daughters in marriage. The men refuse. To retaliate the Romans hold a festival and when the Sabines attend, kidnap the women. The Romans defend themselves to their distraught captives: you’ll be our wives, not our whores. think of your status. think of joining our families.  The women agree to be married. Their fathers do not.

A war is started over the kidnapped women and it is up to the women to bring peace. The women of the tale act as mediators between their fathers and their now-husbands. Peace is achieved where the women are the property of their Roman spouses. This myth also focuses on violence against women and the purity they possess to control men’s wicked desires.

In the Rape of Lucretia by the Roman Livy, the story is bit different than the previous ones, but ultimately holds the same messages. Rome is still a monarchy and the noblemen of the time are unhappy with the monarchic rule. There is a beautiful, chaste woman named Lucretia,  who is of the utmost in womanly virtues and is  married to a nobleman. Sextus Tarquinius, the son of the King, lusted after her and wanted to hurt her for her perfection and loyalty.

Tarquinius comes to Lucretia’s house as a guest when her husband is away. When everyone is asleep, Tarquinius comes to her bed chambers and with a knife to her throat tells her of his intentions and his lust. She rejects him. It is only when he threatens to disgrace her by killing her and killing a slave and laying the slave’s body next to hers, that she relents.

She immediately calls upon her father and her husband. She relates her rape and calls upon them as men to act in her defense. They swear to do so and then Lucretia kills herself. In an effort to be a role model for Roman woman to be chaste in all matters she stabs herself in the chest. Her male relatives carry her body through the streets-the male sphere of Roman society. The rape of Lucretia is an attack against the honor of all the men of the city and their families. As such, they rise up and form the Roman Republic. Again we see violence against women as the major theme, the significance of men to move society forward even if it is through a woman that it is achieved.

All three stories are foundation myths, showing what the Greeks and the Romans thought of themselves and their societies. Aside from being written or told by men, the androcentricism permeates further. The basis of Europe, because western society is founded on Rome and Rome is heavily influenced by Greece, is grounded in the suppression of women and the exploitation of women’s sexuality. The men are the actors in these myths, the women are acted upon. They are passive and so since the 8th Century BCE (approximately the first mention of the Rape of Europa) and more than likely long before that as well, women have been depicted as inferior.

Is it surprising then that sexism is so prominent in western society and America specifically?

But the point can be made that no one believes in these myths anymore. No one believes in Zeus, and no one can prove the Sabine tale or the tale of Lucretia. Yes, but when Poland was entering into the EU, they had a painting commissioned of the Rape of Europa to prove that Eastern Europe was just as European. These myths hold standing today even if they are not believed word for word. In this way, sexism is not innate. Women are not born inferior; we are taught that we are inferior because the foundations of male superiority and female oppression are the very foundations of western civilization.