As a teenager I used to squabble with my sister over things we both wanted to possess. Sometimes, it would be as trivial as a small basket made up of palm tree leaves to keep dates, at others, it would be as loveable as a small plastic ‘camera’ through which you could see pictures of the Ka’aba, the black stone, the green dome and the mosque of the Prophet. Our self-indulgent quarrels always ended up with the intervention of my grandmother who would tell me: ‘leave it to her my beloved son! You are a man dear! She is woman! She is a crooked rib and deficient in mind and in religion!’ These words, though powerful enough to let me give up my case for the camera, the basket or any other worth or worthless object, recurrently struck at the core of my limited vision of womanhood.
The notion that women emerged from Adam’s rib is deeply rooted in a traditional society like Mauritania where I grew up. It is iconised in the title of the novel From A Crooked Rib by the celebrated Somali writer Nuruddin Farah. It tells the story of a nomad girl who manages to escape an arranged marriage to a much older man. The view is justified on the basis of numerous alleged sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, hadith, and stories that originate from the Jewish and Christian traditions known as Israiliyyat. Both these hadith and Israiliyyat are heavily quoted in the classical Muslim commentaries on the Qur’an that my grandmother read judiciously. Not surprisingly, she had internalised that misogynistic representation herself.