9 Parts of Desire: Raffo’s Representation of Iraqi Women
In almost every US history class I have taken, history stops right after the Civil Rights Movement. According to the high school curriculum, the Vietnam War, The Gulf Wars, and the continued military presence of the US in the Middle East does not exist. Even in my University class, when asked who knows about the Gulf Wars only one student among 30 raised their hand. Amidst a national rhetoric oriented against the Middle East, this knowledge gap within the US perpetuates a one-dimensional view of Middle Eastern women, whom the US misrepresents as oppressed with no hope of resistance. Post-9/11, and amid the growing violence in US attitudes toward the Middle East, Heather Raffo’s play 9 Parts of Desire operates as its own form of resistance to this narrative. Raffo situates her play within the lives and voices of 9 Iraqi women, all of whom offer a unique perspective on their ties to Iraq and the influence of the US in their lives.
Before her play even begins she has captured my attention with her epigraph taken from Ali ibn Abu Taleb: “God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.” Already we are oriented toward the feminine. This epigraph frames the play through the validation of feminine desire not only within the personal lives of the women but within Islam. Even when describing the epigraph’s origins, Raffo advocates for the Muslim woman by identifying Ali ibn Abu Taleb through his connection to the feminine: Fatima, Mohammed’s favorite daughter. The very first words of her play pull us into a reconceptualization of Iraqi womanhood and holds the tension between perception and reality.
Raffo’s play deeply explores the lived experience of the Iraqi woman where even the form of her play speaks to the symbolic nature of the body. She writes this play as a one woman show. Layal the artist, Mullaya the lamenter, the American Girl watching her homeland at war, Huda the revolutionary and others—all nine women held within the body of a single performer. The Iraqi woman is at once one with her Iraqi sisters and separate in her own individuality of experience, which Layal demonstrates through her art. She offers her own body as a space of safety saying, “I paint my body but her body, herself inside me. So it is not me alone it is all of us” (Raffo 13). Within the body of Layal and the body of the actress playing her, they hold the experiences of others within themselves—the one that contains the many.
In this space of safety, where women hold each other within themselves, there emerges a reckoning with what it means to be an Iraqi woman post 9/11, what it means to be free. The women wrestle with this question of freedom in their own unique ways, drawing attention again to the diversity of experience and creating three-dimensional women. Layal scathingly asks the audience “You tell me about freedom, about choice and possibilities and then you look at me like a whore for choosing to paint myself naked […] But what are you creating with your freedom? I am more free than you” (Raffo 49). Raffo offers a continual disruption of the white savior complex that was militarized against the Middle East. She points out the flaw in this militant “Feminism” in the continued existence of double standards—something that doesn’t stop at the borders of Iraq but continues across oceans and land into every Western country.
Raffo’s play not only highlights the experience of women living in Iraq, but the trans-national experiences of Iraqi women in the UK and the US. Within these perspectives Raffo tackles the isolation that these women feel and attempts to fill the knowledge gap within the US. Huda, an Iraqi woman living in the UK is characterized by the protests she attended in the past; protests that demanded peace. She has lived through many wars and revolutions and weighs in about the war in Iraq—a war the US does not acknowledge—saying “The mistake is not the war, no America had to do it the mistake was supporting Saddam all his life” (Raffo 40). . The part that the US plays in the beginning of tensions in the Middle East with the initial support of Saddam is being brought to the forefront. She points to the history that created the US rhetoric of “need” for saving to begin with. Through this character, the play offers an introduction into the dialogue that will deconstruct the US’ myth of the white savior.
It is the other woman living outside Iraq, The American Girl, whose experience engages yet another facet of Iraqi womanhood: apathy. The apathy within the US toward Iraq is felt as an apathy toward identity through the American Girl who is Iraqi-American and whose family lives in Iraq. Her experience not only speaks to the multiplicity of the Iraqi woman’s experience but forces a recognition of the way that experience differs within the US. Her distance from Iraq causes internal fracturing as she lives within the country attacking her family. A woman turns to her and says, “‘The war it’s all so heartbreaking.’ She was getting a pedicure. I was getting a fucking pedicure…Why don’t we count the number of Iraqi dead?” (Raffo 48). With the American Girl, Raffo demonstrates the interconnectedness of experience and identity. Her own physical removal from Iraq places her in a position of helplessness within a society that does not seem to care about her identity. The number of Iraqi people killed in the war is not even mentioned. By excluding the number, there is an exclusion of identity as she watches the country in which she lives attack the country where her family lives. It is this portrayal of experience, these dialogues, that demonstrate the brilliance of Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire as a way to begin to nuance the one-dimensional representation of the Muslim woman in US discourse.
While these examples display some of the important themes in Raffo’s 9 Parts of Desire, the play itself engages so much more. The discussions of freedom, feminism, war, grief, and resistance are pervasive in Raffo’s play. Each of these women are at once fully their own and fully a part of each other in this brilliant portrayal of solidarity and individuality. Through all of this, Raffo calls for an acknowledgment of a history that has been omitted and places the responsibility for change in the hands of her audience.
About the author: Holly Lackey is an undergraduate student at Seattle Pacific University studying English literature and social justice and cultural studies. When she is not in class, she enjoys new experiences and finding new places to put on her travel bucket list.
Photo credit: Poster of MET's production of 9 Parts of Desire, designed by Fishelson (2004).