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Why is the Arab feminist movement so racist?

Saudi women [file photo]
[file photo]

A self-proclaimed “humanitarian” and women’s rights activist from Jordan was caught recently taunting domestic workers at a recruitment agency on Snapchat. Ola Al-Fares, an award-winning journalist, lined up six workers for a photo, only to laugh at them in front of her followers. She then ruthlessly mocked the way that they dressed, saying that she has to work on their “fashion sense”, and did so with thousands watching.

Only when the condemnations of her went viral did she decide to apologise. She claimed that she did not intend to offend anyone, though was met with further criticism for her disingenuous “regret”.

Another case of racism against workers earlier this week also went viral. A woman in Kuwait was filming a domestic worker as she was hanging onto the railing of a balcony and refused to help her just before she fell from the seventh floor of an apartment block.

Watch: Kuwaiti woman arrested for failing to help suicidal maid

Thousands of people reacted furiously in defence of the victims in both cases. While many called for justice for the victims, there were few calls for an end to the structurally racist systems in place in such countries which ensure that foreign workers have to endure such situations.

It is undeniable that, more often than not, the Arab feminist movement shows an immense lack of intersectionality. In a similar way to which “White feminism” is criticised by a range of postcolonial feminist scholars for addressing women’s issues from a Eurocentric perspective, feminism in the Arab world places disproportionate emphasis on Arab women. As a result, the rights of working class non-Arab women in the Arab world are often overlooked when, in fact, they are crucial to the Arab women’s liberation project.

Months ago, I wrote about why it is dangerous for white saviours to speak over Arab women. The article was based on a video that went viral earlier this year, which opposed male guardianship in Saudi Arabia. The video was hailed as a feminist revelation in the Arab world, yet it only focused on the plight of Saudi women in Saudi Arabia. The fact that the video went viral, without it being widely criticised for focusing exclusively on the plight of middle class Saudi women further insinuates the racist flaws within the movement.

Many have claimed this argument to be a complete generalisation. However, it does not erase the fact that there are many Arab women who believe race and class must be core components of the feminist movement in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region, rather than it assessing the shortcomings of the growing movement. To dismiss the wide gap in intersectionality in the movement by regurgitating that “not all Arab feminists lack intersectionality” can no longer be an option, and the persisting crimes against foreign working women that occur under systems of structural racism, classism and misogyny prove this.

At this stage, to be offended by addressing flaws in the Arab feminist movement when it is rapidly growing is a blatant whitewash and denial of the systematic racism that exists in the Arab world.

Translation: we are all with Ola Al-Fares Photo: Ola Al-Fares being hugged by a worker

When race and class issues are not embedded into the Arab feminist movement, it leaves room for people like Ola Al-Fares to proclaim themselves to uphold women’s rights and to feel as though they can be publicly racist and classist. By continuing in the way it is, mainstream feminism in the Arab world is doing nothing to hold governments to account regarding the systematic abuse of poorer and non-Arab working women, and therefore risks losing its credibility as a feminist movement.

Arab female politicians also fall prey to perpetuating such double standards. Kuwaiti MP Safaa Al-Hashem feels that she is fighting sexist comments in parliament; just this week, a male colleague refused to sit next to her because she was wearing perfume. She is the subject of praise both in Kuwait and the Western world purely on the basis that she is the only female MP in the Gulf State.

However, Al-Hashem is also known for her leniency towards racist comments and anti-immigration stance. At one point, she said that expats should have to pay a tax to walk on the roads in Kuwait. She also believes that they should be banned from obtaining free medicine in hospital, regardless of how poor they are.

By holding her up as a positive role model solely because of her gender, her racism is completely whitewashed, and the victims of her racism, which include working class expat women, are quickly erased from the discussion.

While it is to be applauded that the feminist movement in the Arab world is gaining rapid momentum, it must be done with the right intentions. Working class non-Arab women must no longer be viewed as subjects of sympathy, or outsiders within the movement, but as the foci for change. If their plight is not treated as one with the plight of Arab women, the movement will continue to fall into the trap of racism, and little will be done to achieve genuine change in the Arab world.

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AfricaArticleJordanKuwaitMiddle EastOpinion
  • Mark Simons

    What if she is single and without children?