Marriage for women with disability, therefore, becomes ‘problematic’. Their marriage chances are profoundly affected by their disability, particularly when there are doubts about the ‘genetic’ cause for a disease such as muscular atrophy. While, in general, most men with disability do not consider that their ability to become husbands is affected by their disability. Statistics in Jordan, for example, show that 62% of women with disability are single.
Furthermore, according to official statistics in Bahrain and Syria, the percentage of women with disability who completed higher education was only one-third of the equivalent rate of men with disability. In Lebanon, for example, a son with disability is treated differently from a daughter with disability within the same family; he is sent to school while she is not. Families also secure a wheelchair for their sons, considering such efforts unnecessary for their daughters.
Reflections on Disability
Aged 18, Shahd Alshammari woke to find her body completely numbed by Multiple Sclerosis (MS), her life was then transformed into that of a young person living with chronic pain. “Writing has been my antidote to pain,” says Alshammari in a recent interview. Alshammari’s Head Above Water is a reflection on disability and illness as well as the stories of other women whose lives have been similarly afflicted, highlighting how these women have not only had to fight against the illness, but also for acceptance by a society that rejects anything and anyone that is different. The text, de facto, departs from conventional narratives of disability. As Alshammari recounts her harrowing experience, the text also conveys subtle and rich discourses on the subjective experiences and on the normalisation of disability, which paradoxically triggers empowerment, while not being fully empowering. Alshammari’s writing style, which frequently oscillates between tenses and points of view, creates a flowing intimacy that fully immerses readers in both her low points and her triumphs.
While most scholars agree on the difficulty of defining disability 'as a coherent condition or category of identity,' 'the central tenet of disability studies [is] that disability is produced as much by environmental and social factors as it is by bodily conditions'. In Alshammari’s Head Above Water, it becomes evident that there is a pervasive and ingrained stereotype concerning disability within Arab society. This stereotype portrays disability as the antithesis of normalcy or perfection, resulting in individuals with disability being seen as incapable of fully participating in a society characterised by rigid gender expectations.
Critical disability studies aim to explore how disability functions in different cultures and within multiple disciplines. “Feminist disability studies,” argues Kim Q. Hall, “makes the body, bodily variety, and normalisation central to analyses of all forms of oppression.” Therefore, Head Above Water is a timely intervention to feminist disability studies, as it offers a space to an Arab woman with disability to speak against social discrimination. Similarly, Professor G.T. Couser calls Head Above Water “a welcome addition to the growing body of illness narratives.”
Furthermore, the text calls for destigmatisation of disability by positioning Alshammari’s reflection on her illness/disability against the framework of ‘social stigma’ as defined by Erving Goffman. If the narrative voice openly and unambiguously represents Alshammari as an Arab academic woman with disability, disability is not exclusively depicted as a personal disaster. Throughout the memoir, Alshammari reflects on familial and societal expectations. She demonstrates a deep understanding of the multifaceted roles she assumes in her daily life. Alshammari writes: