You Dare Call This Arab Feminism
By: Amany Al-Sayyed
Published Thursday, May 17, 2012
Some Arab “feminist” writers out there are telling us that for the ‘real’ revolution to begin all Arab women, and the Muslim ones in particular, must realize that the real war is on them.
I speak of propagandist journalists or cultural producers who write in the name of feminism. By presenting themselves as human rights activists, as women who are Arab, sometimes Muslim ( sometimes previously veiled but then seen as “closer to the truth” about women’s lives), they have played a large role in legitimizing wars in the region. I speak of the new face of this age-old propaganda in the name of “liberating oppressed women” which now justifies and poisonously legitimizes a cultural and ideological war on the revolution.
From this colonial-feminist-journalism viewpoint, if the revolutions take place at the same time as ongoing practices that disallow women to travel alone, or drive a vehicle, and even force them to undergo virginity tests, then they are useless. They go so far as to say that such revolutions need intervention and upgrade by cultures which contain liberated women in them.
Some might argue - with ferocity or self-doubt - that there is truth in the analysis that says Arab women in the region as oppressed by legal, social, cultural and patriarchal rules. A quick overview of the Arab world shows a high rate of child-marriages, genital mutilation, veiling, and virginity tests in many countries in the region. Therefore, to disagree with such feminists who reveal to us our stark archaic ways – while we naively waste our lives away contributing to social change – is to refuse the rational democratic solution. To deny the apparent debunking of orientalist, misogynistic and inhumane acts on women by patriarchal systems of power in the Arab World is to become reactionary and angry.
Meanwhile, we have The Guardian which published a piece that defends such ‘feminist’ writers on their empirical exactness. We also have other female writers at the Egyptian Brotherhood website asking men to “be good” and start treating women right. As if the Islamism-secularism trajectory is not skewed enough, we have these narratives that dangerously polarize the conversation while riding the ambivalence-tide that fogs the region.
Our local media is no less in need of introspection either. Lebanon's Al-Akhbar recently published narratives of Arab women who hide from their families in the village and then take off their veils as they ride towards the democratic modern city. These are women victimized by their own communities and as such they have found “freedom” anywhere but home. Al-Akhbar also features the age-old rhetoric of escapist - as opposed to chosen - homosexuality in the form of Arab lesbian-love (not just sex) silenced by oppressive Syrian cinemas. The former boasts a caption- image of a little girl not older than ten years old – veiled. The latter is showcased with hot fire in the background image of liberated women celebrating their bodies through lesbian love.
And if by any chance Muslim veiled women do in fact come to 'modernity' and take to the streets to protest in this part of the region, they resort to “tribal customs” and burn their veils in rage.
It is a narrow-minded Bush-administration-style war between Islamism and secularism, modernity and backwardness, democracy and self-imposed hate. Let us no longer fall into the trap of accepting the ‘culturalisation’, ‘regionalisation’ or ‘islamisation’ of socio-economic problems.
When powerful counter-perspectives write against such polemic discourses, there is always much said about things such as respect for religious beliefs or the over-applied critique of appropriation of voice. This is a respectable counter-punch, of course. However, what the counter-narratives do not strongly highlight is the raw nerve that such skewed feminist writings touch.
I am referring to the fact that little is said about the biography of the love for the covered woman in and by her community. I speak about her image - amongst many others - in a Muslim historicity and imaginary in which she represents care, strength, beauty, nobility, and positive spirituality. In non-secular religious imagery such as that in most parts of Egypt, for instance, she is not a memory of defeatist hate, unlike her representation in propagandist journalism.
What skewed feminist narratives manage to do is obscure this socio-religious imagery by switching it around with images of a broken woman isolated from her community. This results in a production and reproduction of an obscured image of the covered woman that no-one would wish upon themselves.
This remains an unsung issue that needs more visibility in gender discourses.
Essentially, can our youth –girls, women, boys and men - start talking back at the false representations of Arab women without feeling the subaltern (angry, frustrated voice of “dissent”) corner they have been pushed into (not that being angry is a problem)? More disturbing is the underlying assumption that people in this part of the world have not been speaking about the crisis of womens rights. What about the women who fed the revolution? What about the women hunger strikers?
I recall wanting to discuss the production of propagandist columns in the media with my female Arab activist-friends: then I realized they are too busy starting the next graffiti project or writing songs for the people. The point is, while they bravely immerse themselves in the affect-imagery of the street and attempt to make art for the future, skewed “feminist voices” allow themselves into the privacy of our homes and demand we shift our attention to the inequalities in our societies - as if a compartmentalized life as opposed to a holistic one is the only way we can live, or have been living.
So the revolution, accordingly, is supposed to really begin with mass rage education in the hearts of women - as opposed to an education towards a fundamental right to the pursuit of happiness? How oppressive.
Amany Al-Sayyed is a freelance writer and cultural activist based in Beirut, Lebanon.
The views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect Al-Akhbar's editorial policy.