The Womanhood Issue

Strangeness, Male Gaze and Revisiting Folktales: On Embodying Um al-Duwais

By Maitha Alsuwaidi

My friends tell me it was characteristic of me to dress up as Um al-Duwais for Halloween. Previously, I’d gone as Eleven from Stranger Things (plaid shirt, bloody nose and, of course, the 011 tattoo). On another year, I wore a long-beaked plague mask above my reusable cloth mask (unsurprisingly, it was Halloween 2020, and it was a quiet, pandemic non-celebration). Nevertheless, an Um al-Duwais costume was the ‘most-Maitha-thing’ I could’ve done for Halloween.

I spoke endlessly of Um al-Duwais. She was a liminal being of inexplicable beauty and of both a satiation and distaste towards men. Born and reborn across various Khaleeji (Arab Gulf) cultures (including the Emirati folktale culture), it is told that she roams neighbourhoods late at night in a beautiful red dress, her long hair cascading down her back in a braid. Her beauty is meant to attract men who do not stay in their homes at night; thus, she lures them in to punish, kill and eventually devour their flesh.

There are several iterations to the depiction of Um al-Duwais in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Some believe she has the feet of a donkey and machetes for hands, as the word Duwais is derived from daas, which is the Emirati dialectical word for machete (in other words, Um al-Duwais directly translates to ‘the mother of machete’). Some say she has one donkey leg and one machete leg. Most believe that the main aspect of her otherworldly beauty is her feline eyes. In some stories, her hometown is al-Madam in the emirate of Sharjah in the UAE, whereas other stories situate her on al-Hamra Island in the emirate of Ras al-Khaimah in the UAE. Despite all the variations of her description, all folktales agree that her purpose is to be the evil that keeps men from roaming the streets at night and from committing irreversible sins out of wedlock.

Across South West Asia and North Africa (SWANA), various cultures tell folktales that have women as their protagonists, and many of those stories align with Um al-Duwais’s. Al-Naddaha (‘the caller,’ or ‘the woman who calls’) is another example. From Egyptian folklore, she is a woman of extreme beauty who roams farmers’ fields late at night and calls out individuals’ names, luring them in with a spell to turn them insane and kill them. Some say that she takes the men she falls in love with to the liminal world of ghosts to marry them, only to return them dead to their families. Another story, originating in Morocco, is that of Aisha Qindeesha (or ‘Contessa Aisha’), who is seen from afar as beautiful but is actually an ugly ageing lady up close. She, too, lures men in to undergo sexual activities, eventually killing them and feasting on their blood and flesh.

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