Women’s Chronic Disease in The Arab World: The Hypochondriac, The Bewitched, and The Deranged

Thursday 2 December 202104:09 pm

My son was asked on a school assignment to draw his favorite superhero character. Instead of portraying Superman or Ironman, he drew his fatigued half-asleep mother laying on a floating bed while shooting laser bolts at otherworldly creatures. This seemingly innocent sketch struck a chord with me, as it depicted metaphorically, and quite accurately, how it feels to live with multiple chronic diseases when you have a full-time career and a child to raise. This episode made me want to share my story with other Arab women and break the spiral of silence and stigma around these invisible conditions.

In the Middle East, the topic of female chronic illnesses like Fibromyalgia, Lupus, Hashimoto, Lime Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, or Alopecia Areata remains taboo, as millions of women suffer in silence out of fear of societal prejudice. Society sees nothing heroic in confronting an army of pill containers reminding you how incapacitated you are every day, nothing brave about rustling mighty monsters like depression, brain fog, chronic fatigue, slow metabolism, mood swings, diffuse pain, or your immune system smashing down your organs.

In the Middle East, the topic of female chronic illnesses like Fibromyalgia, Lupus, Hashimoto, Lime Disease, MS, Rheumatoid Arthritis, or Alopecia Areata remains taboo, as millions of women suffer in silence out of fear of societal prejudice

You are not hypochondriac

You are not hypochondriac, grumpy, lazy, or seeking attention. You are a warrior battling an invisible enemy who lives within you. It might be particularly hurtful to hear these words from close friends and family members who can’t comprehend your extreme distress and permanent fatigue. They may think your condition doesn’t exist if they cannot see it. Most of these illnesses go undiagnosed for years and are mistaken for other disorders because of peer pressure and incompetent doctors.

I am no doctor and can only speak from my own experience. Yet, medical research shows that women are 80% more likely to contract autoimmune diseases than men, and between 5 and 10% of the female population is affected by this family of mysterious ailments. Science is still speculating about their cause, but nothing conclusive has been identified, mainly because it is in the interest of big pharma to continue selling pills to appease the symptoms rather than funding studies that address the root causes of chronic illness.

As an Arab female, you are required by society to repress your pain, work like a horse all day, look like an idyllic Stepford wife indoors, and roll stuffed grape leaves between two cooking pots while a baby is crawling at your feet. A sick woman, a cranky woman, an aging woman is the worst nightmare for men and the subject of misogynistic memes on social media that tighten the suffocating spiral of silence.

You are not bewitched

Often misunderstood, chronic illnesses are commonly associated in popular beliefs with magical spells and demoniac curses. “Some jealous being must have bewitched you” or “an anthropomorphic Jinn has possessed your body,” elderly aunties and neighbors would retort if you mentioned your symptoms. Your condition has nothing to do with sorcery or witchcraft. You are just genuinely ill and exhausted, and social pressure does not help you embrace your truth and embark on an acceptance and healing path.

Women like me find it challenging to carry out minor daily tasks like cooking, cleaning, and shopping. When flare-ups hit, we are unlikely to leave our bed for hours or days as the body is combating its white cells resulting in flu-like symptoms and agonizing soreness. Not being in a wheelchair doesn’t mean you are not physically and emotionally disabled. Chronic diseases also prevent women from being productive and dynamic at work. Brain fog reduces concentration and makes it hard to focus on complex tasks. Employers are equally dismissive and insensitive to female staff members in constant pain. In the US and Europe, these conditions may qualify for disability benefits, while the Arab World does not even recognize most of them.

You are not deranged

You are not hysterical or deranged. In his two masterpieces, History of Sexuality and Madness and Civilization, Michael Foucault demonstrated that hysteria has nothing to do with science and everything to do with a propagated discourse on madness aiming at dominating deviant women. This process manifests itself in the form of Biopower -meaning having power over bodies-, which uses “numerous and diverse techniques for achieving the subjugation of female bodies and the control of populations.”

This becomes particularly relevant when we learn how chronic illnesses are often comorbid with psychological problems like anxiety and depression. Your gloominess and moodiness are likely associated with your metabolic problems, according to several scientific papers. Mental illness remains a big taboo in the Middle East, together with many stages of a typical female life cycle like menstruation, childbirth, infertility, or menopause.

You are not alone in facing your invisible monsters. The discourse about female chronic illness in the Middle East will only change if you and I challenge the current narrative and normalize talking about pain

I tried everything. You name it; I have done it: Hormone substitution, immunosuppressive drugs, functional medicine, acupuncture, diets, kundalini yoga, ayahuasca sessions, cupping, infrared sauna, sipping Ormus, and even more reticently traditional exorcism. I cannot recall how many times I sat crying in my car in a parking lot, unable to walk five meters to a supermarket or drive back home. How often did I have to cancel plans with friends and come up with excuses because my condition is too intricate to describe in a text message. How many times have I had to quit professional projects as my vibrant brain is imprisoned in a handicapped body. I obsessively ask myself: Is that it for me?

Lastly, you are not alone in facing your invisible monsters. The discourse about female chronic illness in the Middle East will only change if you and I challenge the current narrative and normalize talking about pain. Luckily, several groups on social media and a growing new generation of doctors are offering support for people like us. I may be a chronically ill woman trapped in a bed, but at least in my child’s imagination, I am also the superhero fighting invisible beasts.

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