Hala al-Dorsari is a Saudi writer and women rights activist and within this poem, she addresses the equal rights movement that has been blossoming in Saudi Arabia over the last few years. Progress has been made, but more is still to come. Within ‘The Women in Black’, she speaks on themes of equality, perseverance, women’s rights, and bravery. The little girl is a symbol for all the women of Saudi Arabia who watched, knew that change was needed, and then joined in to fight for their fellow women.
Explore The Women in Black
Summary of The Women in Black
The poem takes the reader through the streets of Saudi Arabia while explaining the way that women moved through the world. From the perspective of a little girl, the speaker marvels over the appearance of one woman who does not cover her face. This woman multiplies until it seems that the whole country has risen up in demand of equal treatment for men and women.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of The Women in Black
‘The Women in Black’ by Hala al-Dosari is a six stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. They range in length from five lines up to twenty-three lines. Al-Dorsari did not choose to structure this poem with a consistent rhyme scheme or metrical pattern. The lines are of different lengths and make use of different kinds of punctuation.
For example, in the first stanza, there are two instances in which a line ends with an ellipse. In the second stanza, which is full of question marks in general, the tenth line ends with four question marks in a row, an ungrammatical way of emphasizing the question and expressing outrage, passion, or confusion. In this case, it is a bit of all three.
Poetic Techniques in The Women in Black
Al-Dorsari makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Women in Black’. These include alliteration, enjambment, and anaphora. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “single” and “suddenly” in line nine of the first stanza and “afraid” and “accusations” in line four of the second stanza.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For instance, the transition between lines one and two of the first stanza and lines four and five of the third stanza.
Al-Dorsari also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For instance, “They no longer” which starts lines six and seven of stanza five.
Analysis of The Women in Black
Once upon a time, in a busy shop
In the land of tribes and ancient civilizations
A little girl sat watching…
Yet, she walked with determination
Not cautious, fearful, or covered-up
The woman moved as a distinct population
In the first stanza of ‘The Women in Black’ the speaker begins with the stereotypical beginning: “Once upon a time”. This sets the scene for a fairy tale, something out of a magical/romantic story, but this is not going to be the case. The story is much darker and very real.
A little girl comes into the poem. She’s quiet, sitting in “resignation,” debated and prepared for her fate. She’s watching the other girls, all grown up now, walking in “shrouds of black”. They wear full burkas, covered from head to tow, “Hidden and silent”. They are fulfilling the role that their society says is proper for them. The women are isolated from the world and from one another with a “‘no-trespassing’” look about them.
Suddenly things change. There is another woman. She’s wearing the “black alright” but she wears it differently. She walks with purpose and without caution.
She seemed to own the world
She was … such an inspiration…
Why would she be on her own? The little girl wondered?
Without a second thought or a hesitation?
Was she really confident and strong as she seemed?
Or is it the little girl’s wishful imagination????
The second stanza of ‘The Women in Black’ is shorter than the first and filled with the little girl’s questions about this woman and then more broadly about the world. She wonders where this woman came from and if she should be “on her own” as all the other women are accompanied. She was in that moment, “such an inspiration”. The girl wondered about what reprimands or accusations the woman might face as she defies the norms of their society.
It’s not just her walk, her solitude, or her clothes that catches the girl’s attention. It’s also the way that she spends her money. Money, a symbol for independence, is used by the woman freely and without concern. The woman is so surprising the little girl wonders if she’s made all this up in her head so that she might have a role model.
In that little girl’s life
Most women shared a specific combination
Emotions were not revealed, opinions were suppressed
Watching for proofs of condemnation
So the women in black kept their covers tight
Protecting their reputation
The third stanza of ‘The Women in Black’ gives more detail to the type of women that are normally in the little girl’s life. They do not reveal their emotions and their “opinions were suppressed”. Enjambment is used throughout this section of the poem, allowing the lines to feel more like a paragraph of text.
The black is at once a safety net and prison cell. It keeps them confined, but they also hold onto it “tightly / Least someone recognize their identifications”. Individuality is not something that anyone strives for. Everyone is afraid of what the “judging men” of the world might recognize in them.
Yet a single woman in black dared to show her face
Of that visible woman in black
The fourth stanza is the shortest of ‘The Woman in Black’ at only five lines. This quintain tells of how the “single woman in black dared to show her face”. She wears the same colours but is not confined by them. She uses the black as she chooses to.
One of the most shocking things about the sight of this woman on the street is how she is relaxed. She doesn’t show the fear that other women do who have their whole bodies covered.
Despite the isolation… despite the limitations
As time passes-by,
The little girl grows in fascination
Unlimited by gender-segregation,
No longer helpless or maintained
As prisoners of infinite duration…
Some time passes in the fifth stanza of ‘The Women in Black’. Things are changing. Now, it’s more than just thing single woman with her face uncovered. There are “More visible women…out there”. They raise their voices, push back against the traditions and laws of their country. As if all at once, the country of women decided they would no longer accept being “second place” to the men.
The protest movement that simmered fearfully under the surface grows and there are campaigns for municipal elections and gender equality. The women are the opposite of what they used to be and a reader should juxtapose the “loud and visible” with the “silent” and “resigned”.
The “virtual” world becomes important as well. As these women speak out their protests and advocacy spreads around the world. There is a “constant flow of information” that allows them to fight back against their previous helplessness.
Yes, we are in a constant fear of social backlash
But the power of words defeats organizations
The little girl recalls the single woman in black…
In search of liberation
We, too, the women in black
Can exceed our own expectations…
The word “we” is used at the start of the sixth stanza. A reader should recognize this and understand that the speaker is now a part of this movement as well. “We,” the women, are still afraid of “social backlash” but not so much to where they will settle for anything less than equality now. They will “not be deprived” or go back to the way things were. They are going to exceed their own expectations and flip the country over, “start anew”.