Among the common stereotypes about Middle Eastern countries are the labels about women; being perceived as oppressed, veiled, passive, close- minded, followers to men’s orders. No wonder I‘ve been asked many times while living and traveling to the west about the harrying life that women face in Middle East (as well in North Africa), for some of them it is surprising that a female from the region could travel, work and participate in all life spheres.
The question is where are all Middle Eastern women who fought for new changes in their countries; and who led social movements challenging their governments for concrete political, economic and social changes?
We often dismiss the reality by looking at foreign narratives to what is like to be a woman in the Middle East. Why?
The historical waves of feminism:
When it comes to women’s studies, the focal point is articulated on western ideologies and approaches, and since 1970 “Women in Middle East” trend has been studied as a second separated chapter; and particular focus is given to “Islam and women” that highlights the work and studies of many anthologists, mainly underlining the oppressing life of women in the region.
19th and 20th century marked the first feminism movements in Europe and USA, in 1903 the first foundation of women has been created “The Women’s Social and Political Union” led by Emelyn Pankhurst, women marched down the streets of London, the group organized social protests asking for political, economic and social equality between the two sexes, which resulted on the universal suffrage for both women and men for the first time in the UK.
In the sixties, the feminist movements began to influence academia level, and 1975 marked the achieving of the UN Year of Woman. While these events occurred in the West, many establishments on women have been established in the MENA region including: research centers and institutes in Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and other countries… In Egypt that has a long history of debating gender issues in the public sphere; the fight for women’s rights began long time ago before the first feminism movements in the West.
Soon the western literature on women in Islam and Middle East received a wage of criticism that underlined the neglect, lack of justification, stereotypic analysis and overall generalization of the reality in Middle East; one element is the controversy of western analysis on sexual matters; as sex was never a taboo subject in the Islamic Middle East, but this subject is already discussed in Quran as well through the work of many authors from the region like: Fatima Mernissi who wrote about the virginity operations that women endure before getting married and the negative effects of it on both men and women , and Nawal el Saadawi; her book on Women and Sex; which deals with sexuality in the Middle East, In 1992, Shahla Sherkat, an Iranian feminist activist and writer, who was part of revolution (1979) in Iran, published the first issue of a feminist magazine, “Zanan” which means “Woman”, the Magazine deals with different aspects related to women’s right in Iran, The magazine was banned by the end. In 1996, Mai Yamani Saudi author wrote a book on “Feminism and Islam. These authors, activists and other thinkers represent themselves as feminists who chose to embrace their culture, traditions and beliefs while advocating for new restructurings, reforms and interpretations that represent their stories and voices.
Basically the Arab literature has highlighted studies on sexuality in the Middle East and particularly on Islam, so excluding it from the western ideology leads to subjective analysis.
Another critical aspect is the subject of women and development, until the late 1960s, the West approached that development and modernization of the Middle East would resolve many problems in the region and mainly would liberate women from the conservative environments. But the modernization approach has only deteriorated the situation of women, because of unequal access of women to different fields like technology, industrialization, medicine…
In the early centuries of Islam, women played an important role in various areas: culture, politics, commerce, religion… One great example is ‘Hind bint Attabeh’ who fought at the battle of Yarmuk[i] and “Khadidja bint Khuwaylid” (the wife of the prophet Muhammed) who was a business woman by that time, who is considered as an inspiration model for all Muslim women.
During the social movements (what is called “Arab Spring”), in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, women protesters were in the front line of the movements, their participation was demographically inclusive, they led off and online mobilizations. In Tahrir Square (Egypt), women of different ages, some of them were accompanied by their children, worked steadily to support the protests: they planned, organized and reported daily the movement. This put aside the passiveness that some western approaches underline, but unfortunately the role of women in the Middle East has been under-analyzed, these women didn’t only join the protests, but led it. And, because feminism approach is a reasonable extension of democracy, it is impossible to stop these women from fighting for their freedom and rights.
Subsequently, women in the region are not totally passive, submissive, neither exotically silent, through the history they played an important role in politics, social and economic life. As results, this first chapter shows that the descriptive scopes of western feminism are lacking deep analysis when applied to non-western cultures. This could be explained when seeking universal rationality of their principles and models by normalizing other social realities to fit their agendas, which leads to exclusion theory.
The colonization in the Middle East had emphasized many models in order to achieve the phase of modernization (according to the west), colonial feminism is one of these models that became the dominant formula of feminism to follow; but it has always been viewed as non-representative form, especially with the decolonization times, as many saw it as foreign from their realities.
Many west authors continue describing the oppressing situations of women in the Middle East, blaming the Middle Eastern societies and culture for the miserable conditions women live in the region. Digging deep, the Middle East is still witnessing continuous Western imperialism across different countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Syria… The post-imperialism occupation has diluted the political and economic stability, which directly influenced the cultural and social cohesion, where are women in all this?
It is not possible to speak women’s rights in the Middle East by only looking at gender, neither by blaming only one side of the story. Imperialism, race, religion, culture, and social class all interconnect with gender to represent realities of women in the region. Interconnecting all these elements helps to avoid the mis-representation of women’s issues and boost forming coalitions and alliances that reclaim rights for all women.
Inclusion and intersecting theories:
Feminism is about various social and cultural elements such as gender, race, class, sexual orientation, religion, age… In order to study how systemic injustice and social inequality occur on different social realities basis, it is essential to intersect all these elements above, feminism cannot be only about patriarchy when it comes to specific societies, because that leads to exclusive analysis.
The exclusiveness of western theories soon led to critics that began to arise from women who felt that their experiences have been excluded by the narratives of the western feminists. Taking the example of the African American feminists who were the first to explained that mainstream feminism did not include their experiences, because their realities were different from the ones of white middle class women. For the African American feminists they had other issues related to race, education, economic opportunities, social inequality…, emphasizing one reality on whole feminist community and claiming universal feminism definitely lead to failure, because if it doesn’t represent, you cannot universalize it.
Soon Marxist, lesbian and post-colonial feminists groups joined the African American feminists in claiming more inclusive models that represent their realities, voices and challenges. This led to the theory of inclusiveness by taking into consideration at different layers of identities and realities that are usually relegated, and today the feminists in the Middle East have to ask for an inclusiveness representation.
In order to understand “feminism cause” it is necessary to establish profound historical and cultural review of aspects and realities of all women, grounding on tools that go with the features of different societies instead of relying on analytical methods of western feminism. Then we can talk less about the “Middle Eastern” oppression of women, and think about the universal oppression of women and how it reveals differently from place to place. Only then we can speak about “universal feminism project”.
[i] The Battle of Yarmouk is regarded as one of the most decisive battles in military history, where the Muslims were hugely outnumbered by the Romans, but with the help of the women and boys amongst them, defeated the Eastern Roman Empire. Source: Wikipedia