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Is ‘feminism’ really helping women’s rights in the Middle East?

A painting called 'Stop killing my dreams' [Zarqa Parvez]
A painting called 'Stop killing my dreams'

“Feminism” was perhaps one of the most commonly used terms in 2018. In the past two years, global awareness on women’s issues has grown as a result of the #MeToo movement, and more recently #HearMeToo, the UN campaign to end gender violence globally.

Until recently, I resolutely and almost rebelliously believed in the term “feminist”. My logic was that since feminism is about women’s rights, saying “no” to feminism is akin to saying women do not deserve their rights. A recent constructive discussion with an academic in the field of politics and religion led to a personal epiphany and consequent desire to problematise and contextualise feminism as a concept and ideology.

“We should all be feminists,” said novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie unambiguously; this phrase was subsequently adopted by many UN women’s campaigns. So should we really all be feminists?

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In order to clarify this question, I will begin by de-constructing parts of “feminism” itself. It is not just a theory, ideology or a belief system; it is many different things for different people. Feminism may mean any or all of the following:

  1. An idea as explained by Marie Shear — “the radical notion that women are people.”
  2. A political project, in the words of Bell Hooks, “a movement to end sexism and sexist exploitation and oppression.”
  3. An academic and intellectual framework, as Deborah Cameron states, “a mode of analysis… a way of asking questions and searching for answers.”

If feminism really was mainly about “gender equality” and promoting women’s rights as human beings equal to men, then, for this concept to manifest in an organised movement or an ideology, women would have to unite on the basis of being “women”. However, women are a large and inherently diverse group, so how can we unite them simply by the virtue of being “women”?

This notion of diversity – that “women” does not imply a homogenous group – is reflected in “intersectional feminism”. Kimberlé Crenshaw describes “intersectionality” as the acknowledgement that women’s experiences are shaped by context not only on the basis of gender, but also social class, race and ethnicity.

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Although intersectional feminism is relevant in the Middle East, class, ethnicity and social status are defined differently compared with the West. What does it mean to be an Arab, Persian, Turkish or Kurdish woman? Ethnicity and identities are complex and intertwined with other factors; thus, intersectionality cannot be imported to the region without contextualisation. Perhaps a bigger question in the Middle East is the role of religion, predominantly Islam, which is mixed with culture and used to justify patriarchal practices.

In the Middle Eastern context, despite the lack of official discourse on feminism, there has been a consistent rise in women’s consciousness, organisation and activism. Women in the Middle East have engaged actively in dialogue and with resistance movements on promoting gender equality, including many prominent scholars and activists such as Huda Al-Shaarawi, Deniz Kandiyoti, Sahar Khalifeh, Amira Sonbol and Ziba Mir Hosseni.

Egypt has historically been the leading Middle Eastern country for feminist movements, but recently Saudi Arabia has witnessed the birth of numerous movements regarding women’s right to drive, political participation and guardianship. Women’s activism in Saudi Arabia is targeted by the state, one which views women as tools for political and religious legitimacy. The arrest of activists like Lujain AlHathloul and others proves that the Saudi state’s recent legislation permitting women to drive was merely to glorify the patriarchal state’s image to the world.

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Shifting the focus to Gulf States, contemporary academics from the Gulf including Madawi Al-Rasheed, AlAnoud Al-Sharekh and Amal Al-Malki are producing new narratives on women’s rights, combining Western conceptions with localised modes of knowledge production. Through these scholars, we recognise the heterogeneity of feminisms in the region, including political and Islamic feminisms.

In order to engage in a constructive dialogue on women’s issues and roles in Gulf society, we also have to address men’s issues in these fairly traditional societies. Concepts such as “honour”, “guardianship” and “obedience” are still intact and require certain roles to be performed both by men and women. Moreover, society continues to normalise gender violence by promoting certain notions of masculinity, which are sometimes internalised by women as acceptable masculine traits. This normalisation is due to the lack of policies on the prevention of gender violence, which is linked to both politics and certain tribal and familial practices. Although men have a higher level of privilege, they too suffer from societal pressures to perform certain roles of what it means to be a “man”. For example, while women marrying non-citizens cannot pass citizenship to their children, men also have to seek permission from rigid state institutions before marrying non-citizens. The same culture that promotes women’s primary role in the domestic sphere as a nurturer, also promotes men’s primary role as the sole provider of the family, and thus both are, albeit to different extents, limited in their personal freedoms.

The recent debates in the Gulf on women’s rights issues are focused too narrowly on the term “feminism”, without complete contextualisation of the term. Can we really talk about women’s rights in a conservative society that seeks performance of the collective, ignoring the individual? By “individual” I mean each individual’s right to make their own life choices without systematised societal coercion. In the Middle East, women and men are seen as agents of the institution of family, where neither can debate nor change certain gendered expectations. So, family as an institution in the region needs to be revisited in a way that the values of the society do not infringe upon individual freedoms.

This is in no way a justification for the lack of women’s rights, but a pointer towards the bigger question: what are we really seeking here?

Egyptian women in Cairo protest against violence against women [EPA]

Egyptian women in Cairo protest against violence against women [EPA]

Before we get too fixated on “feminism”, we have to engage in the larger and more complicated discussions on the structure and belief systems of the local societies. It is not that women lack a voice or agency; it is how this agency is translated in the larger context of Gulf society, and it is this we need to study.

Many of those who call themselves “feminists” in the Gulf region are actually asking for women’s rights through political, social and societal frameworks. “Feminists” are seeking full autonomy of their lives and demanding that these should not be defined and controlled by the predominant discourse of “tradition” vs “modernity”. Hence, women are simply asking to be treated as human beings. However, the term “feminism” and “feminist” sparks such a negative, defensive reaction from conservative society that women lose their agency, and efforts to advance the cause of women’s rights tend to be counter-productive. Again, much is lost in defending the terminology rather than what it signifies. Perhaps societies in the Gulf do not agree to a general definition of “feminism”, if they agree with the concept at all, but they have to agree on the need for granting women their rights.

So, do we really need to be debating whether or not we should all be feminists? Does “feminism” really serve women, even in the Middle East, or is it in fact working against them?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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