I have always had a hard time relating to a certain expression of Western feminists and feminism in the West to a large degree. I recall my first semester at a rigorous Women’s liberal arts college in western Massachusetts, where I was studying feminist literary criticism in Adrienne Rich’s, ‘When We Dead Awaken.’ I was the only student in the Poets, Race, and Identity class who thought that women writers should not have to write for a female audience nor where they better than male writers. I didn’t understand the necessity of segregating audiences or literary talent based on gender. I realized that this was just the start of my relationship with Feminism and especially, Western Feminism.
Placed in this extremely competitive environment, where women were meant to thrive and compete in a patriarchal society, I learnt a great deal on the power of being a woman. We were not called Freshmen, but Firsties, short for First Years. Prior, in my high school in Dubai, I was labeled as being aggressive and opinionated. Sensitive to this, I apologized to a fellow student for being perhaps too vocal during a heated debate. She explained to me that she thought I was being an assertive woman, and she respected that. I found this incredibly liberating. I became increasingly aware of such distinctions, and picked those that I felt gave me room to express myself fully.
The college, although incredibly empowering, because of it’s constant academic demands of best, was equally stifling and limiting. In every course I took, organization I joined, or new person met, I was asked if I ‘wear that black thing’. Although these intelligent women were coming from a place of community and support, they assumed that I, as an Arab Muslim woman, must be an oppressed victim. To a degree, this is understandable as there were no other identities offered to represent the Arab Muslim Women on the news, or on TV, except for the woman wearing that black thing.
However, I would find it alienating and hurtful. The overall assumption that all Muslim/Arab women were marginal, secluded and restricted was incredibly ill-informed. I did not feel that, as a perceived victim, I was on equal footing with my western counterpart. I was not there to be saved from my fellow Feminist American women, who wanted to care for me and help me fight against my Arab male oppressors. Nor was Western Feminism the answer for me if that was the case.
Western Feminism has seen three main waves, with various voices reacting to the social and political order of the day. Overall, however, Feminism sought to gain gender equality by competing in the work force, lobbying for further political and economic freedom, and an end to constrictive societal labels and taboos. The women’s liberation in the 1960’s and ‘70’s was followed by the sexual liberation that, with a mostly secular rhetoric, rebelled against oppressive social norms. In the Middle East however, feminism takes on a different approach. Muslim or Islamic Feminists reference the Quran and hadiths for further freedom and empowerment by challenging patriarchal interpretations of the Quran. Traditionally, Muslim women sought empowerment in society, the home, and within the family – which continues to be the strongest social structure in the Middle East. Islamic Feminists challenge patriarchy and Islamic extremists through their own interpretations of the Quran and the hadith. Moroccan Fatima Mernisi, is such an example of Muslim feminists. As a highly respected Muslim intellectual, whose knowledge on Islamic jurisprudence is on par with most Imams and ulemas (Islamic scholars), she questions patriarchal interpretations of the Quran.
Through a Muslim framework, deeply rooted in Islam, Islamic feminists unlike their Western counterparts do not seek to deconstruct religion and social structures, but to work within those spaces to create change. Just as Western Feminists have a spectrum of voices and beliefs, so do Muslim feminists, and debate contentious issues such as the hijab. Western understanding of the hijab is that it is an Islamic requisite for Muslim women, and to abandon the hijab is an act of relinquishing Islam, or that the act is based on more secular grounds and a sense of freedom found mostly in the West. However, while some Islamic Feminists are for the hijab, others are vehemently against the wearing of the hijab on the grounds that it is in fact unIslamic. These contradictory polemics allows feminism to constantly evolve.
However, to say that there is only one type of feminism in the West would be just as reductionist as my encounter with women in college who all assumed that by being Muslim I had to wear that black thing, and therefore must be oppressed. There is a myriad of voices both in the West and in Muslim countries and just as movements evolve so does feminist theory. Indian American Asra Nomani is a Muslim Feminist and activist in the United States calling for Gender Jihad. She wrote the ‘Islamic Bill of Rights for Women in the Mosque’ that allows women to share the same space as men and pray side by side as they did in Prophet Mohammed’s time. Likewise, within the Muslim world, there are both Islamic and secular feminists that inform each other while striving for further freedoms and gender equality.
Western feminism in various expressions and waves tends to be in direct competition with men, and strives to succeed in an acknowledged patriarchal world – with men as their benchmarks- to be equal to men. Within this structure, men tend to be the competitor – and in some cases, the oppressor and even the enemy rather than partner and co-creator in ending gender inequality. Women’s rights, issues, etc., whether advocated by Western or Muslim feminists, are pertinent but can overlook components that are equally important in creating a more egalitarian world. Rather than alienating and lay all the blame onto men, we need to recognize that they are our allies. That is not to say that I am aware of the daily injustices women in the Middle East and all parts of the world endure, mostly from men. Nor do I make light of the plight of women’s issues in patriarchal societies. However, rather than come from a space of ‘women’s rights’ I personally rather come from a place of women’s rights and human compassion that includes men as partners in ending gender discrimination. Therefore, there needs to be a bigger space for men to be engaged with in feminism and gender equality, especially in the Middle East.
I sat in a lecture once about the collective experience of boys in the 21st century, inheriting the collective responsibility of past (and future) wars, destruction, violence, and inequality. The question that was posed was: how did this determine their experience and identity as future fathers, men, and partners in this world? This really struck a chord with me as I thought of my father and my brother, both of whom I was very close to. Every time someone made a negative comment about Muslim men, I would think about them and wonder how such assumptions shaped their experiences. I then realized why I was so upset by my encounter with Western feminists that wanted to save Muslim women years ago: in doing so it made the assumption that Arab Muslim men were incapable of loving, caring, respecting, and supporting their families and women in a healthy way.
Working on a photography exhibition for an international humanitarian organization in New York, depicting decades of medical support in Afghanistan, I once more felt the need for a space to be created for the healthy Muslim man. We had to be very selective of the images that would best represent life in Afghanistan under the Taliban, the refugee camps, the warfare and the medical assistance we provided. I found myself incredibly drawn to one image: three Afghan fathers holding on to their daughters on their laps, waiting in a medical tent for them to be examined. It was incredibly moving, after having gone through hundreds of images of women in burqas, women with their malnourished children, and the only image of men were of the Taliban or resistant fractions with guns. The image of the three Afghan fathers was not going to make it into the exhibition because it did not say much to most people about our work. However, I pointed out how important it was to show these men being caring fathers to their daughters. In a post-September 11th world where the vilification and de humanization of Arab Muslim men was a norm on TV and the media, I felt that this image was just as important as having an image of a woman in a burqa.
Of course, men as much as women, have a responsibility to achieve gender equality, however, we need to do so as partners not competitors. In Kuwait, I would safely say that a good 30% of the protesters calling for women’s right to vote were men. As much as there were male MPs who did not want them women to have the vote, there were the same if not more men who were rallying for women’s right to vote. In 2004, this dream became a reality with the bill for women’s right to vote that passed in Kuwait. Furthermore, in Parliamentarian elections in 2009, four women were elected, representing various political camps, including one who wears the hijab. This is just a small start to equality in the Middle East.
By consistently denying mothers, sisters, and daughters, we are keeping our countries behind, economically, financially, culturally, and socially. By vilifying and laying sole blame on fathers, brothers, and sons, we deny them the space for positive partnership. We would be most effective if, as allies, we continue to affect the legal and judicial systems, including Islamic sharia’ laws. Through the abrogation of archaic and gender biased laws with new laws that ensures equity and acknowledges women as active partners in state and society, we can work towards a healthy and more equitable society.
Written by Sula Al-Naqueeb
Sula is a young Arab leader working on systemic changes in business and culture. An Ivy League graduate who also holds a Masters degree from the School of Oriental and African Studies, she is now the Chief Innovation Officer at Kout Food Group in Kuwait. In her capacity as a Second Generation Fellow at the Center for Human Emergence Middle East, Sula writes about emergence of new values in the Persian Gulf and offers a cautiously optimistic view of the future of the region.
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