When human rights are fiction, fiction must speak up, says author

Summary

Flemish-Moroccan author, playwright and lawyer Rachida Lamrabet, part of Bozar’s Afropolitan Festival, lays the links between literature, society and the law

I am not a muse

“For too long, feminism in Belgium has focused only on white, mostly middle-class women, ignoring all the rest. But the needs of working-class women, of women of colour and of trans women are not the same as the needs of white, middle-class women.”

Rachida Lamrabet (pictured) sits with a cherry crumble at Kaaitheater in Brussels, where she’s working on a new theatre piece. “And not so long ago in Flemish literature,” she continues, “you had no main characters of colour. There were supporting characters, but mostly they were stereotypes and clichés – victims or criminals.”

These tropes and the lack of intersectional thinking are why the author and playwright is taking part in this weekend’s Afro-feminism in Literature event, despite some discomfort with such labels. The event at Bozar, which is in English, aims to spotlight how pioneering women writers with an African heritage are moving the literary world forward with their vision.

“It’s an important platform to discuss what women of colour and working-class women need for a good life, with agency and autonomy over their lives in Belgium,” she says.

Intersections

Lamrabet, 48, moved from Morocco to Antwerp with her family when she was two years old. The protagonists in her own work are people of colour, negotiating between the southern and northern cultures with which they identify, as well as their faith.

“I like to tell the stories that not many Flemish writers are interested in telling,” she says. “In Flemish literature, we have this single, Eurocentric gaze on our world. I want to look at that world from a different angle.”

Her fiction has been winning awards since her first book, Vrouwland (Woman Country), was published in 2007. Among them are the Kif Kif Literature Prize, the Flemish Debut Prize and the BNG New Literature Prize.

I try to examine why we have legal constructions that pretend to be striving for equality but don’t achieve it in reality

- Rachida Lamrabet

Her latest novel, Vertel het iemand (Tell Someone), is made up of the stories of young soldiers from French colonies who were swept up in a war that was not theirs. Published last October, it was called “her best book so far” by former Belgian poet laureate Charles Ducal. And English-language publication is in the works.

For Lamrabet, who now lives in the far east of Flemish Brabant, fiction is the next best thing to meeting other people. “It’s a space where you get to travel beyond clichés and identify and empathise with a character who is totally different from you – who you wouldn’t meet because you’re busy with work, family and social commitments or you’re busy believing what mainstream media is telling you about them.”

Having practised law for over 16 years, Lamrabet’s fiction is also inextricably linked with her legal background; her motivation is rooted in injustice and inequality. “When I write fiction,” she says, “I try to examine why we have legal constructions that pretend to be striving for equality but don’t achieve it in reality.”

False presumptions

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is a case in particular, she notes. “This is a fiction because it describes a utopia – equal rights for everyone just because they are human. We aren’t there yet. In reality, you see there is no such thing as equal human rights. It depends on which skin colour you are born with, which part of the world you are born in, your gender and your wealth.”

She points to the law criminalising a face veil showing only the eyes. Since 2011, wearing one in public carries a seven-day prison sentence and a fine of more than €1,300. Lamrabet estimates it affects about 200 Muslim women in the whole of Belgium.

The law is based on false presumptions, claims Lamrabet. One is that the women are forced into wearing the veil and need to be liberated.

A law that targets 0.0018% of society tells the rest that they are right to fear, and there is a tangible danger

- Rachida Lamrabet

“Had the parliament done its work and conducted a proper legal consultation, they would have found that the case is more complex,” says Lamrabet. “The women say it’s their choice, and that their husbands, brothers, fathers did not even agree for fear that they would be super visible on the streets and subjected to violence.”

Another premise is that during identity checks, when travelling, for example, it’s crucial to see a person’s face. “When asked, women have never had a problem removing the veil in these situations,” says Lamrabet. “It’s common practice.”

Rather, she believes, the law was fuelled by fear of those who cannot be seen. “We cannot deal with people who want to hide themselves,” says Lamrabet. “And we also live in a society where the face veil has been associated with a very rigid form of Islam, which is constantly portrayed in dominant Belgian society with stereotypes of terrorism and oppression. These serve to feed the fear that a woman on the street with a face veil is connected with terror, with women who have no agency.”

What a law that targets “0.0018% of a society” does, she says, is to “tell the rest that they are right to fear, and there is a tangible danger.”

This law, too, seems dependent on wealth and status, she says. “Women wearing face veils collecting children from school in Molenbeek have been arrested, but no one has ever stopped an affluent veiled Saudi woman from stepping out of her luxury chauffeur-driven car onto Louizalaan and spending thousands in designer boutiques.” 

I Create: I am Not a Muse – Afrofeminism in Literature, 9 February 19.30, Bozar, Ravensteinstraat 23, Brussels (in English). The event is part of the Afropolitan Festival

Photo: JohanJacobs/Moussem Nomadic Arts Centre