Forward-thinking on feminism discourse: Middle Eastern Narrative: Our story

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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.

Colonial feminism:

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

Sana Afouaiz

The Forgotten Frontline: Women at War Zone: Syria’s case

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The civil war has destroyed Syria and dominated the news; there is a noteworthy aspect of the conflict that endures to go mostly unreported: the dilemma of women and girls who take the flak of the war.

They are bearing the greatest burden, yet their voices and stories are often left unheard.

Syria is undergoing the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world of today. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis in March 2011, the human rights activists and organizations claimed that the situation has persistently worsened. The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria and the UN Human Rights Council have been reverberating the warnings of the grave violations committed by Syrian government and other parties of the conflict.

Violent and aggressive fighting have increased between Bashar al-Assad’s followers and armed rebellious groups; in July 2012, the fighting was qualified as internal armed conflict caused humanitarian damages on civilian citizens; including random arrests and detention, extra-judicial executions, rape, different forms of sexual violence, kidnapping, enforced disappearances and torture by Syrian authorities and pro-governmental militias called “shabbihas”.

As of June 2015, more than half of all Syrians have been enforced to leave their homes; 7.6 million people were exiled within Syria and 3.9 million people displaced as refugees in neighboring countries: Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey, according to UN refugee agency.

Women and girls are among the most vulnerable, about half million Syrian women, those in refugees and those who still in Syria, are sexually injured, pregnant and need maternal care services.

Countless UN bodies and representatives, international and national NGOs and journalists, have documented the crimes attacks and the sexual violence cases committed during the Syrian crisis. Still, it remains tremendously difficult to measure the extent of crimes of sexual violence and to draw conclusions on patterns; however, there have been several reports of crimes of sexual violence committed by anti-government armed groups. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, stated that “Civilians already caught in a vicious cycle of violence are also the target of sexual violence by all parties to the conflict”.

Most accusations of rape and the other forms of sexual violence reported were said to have been executed by government forces and shabbiha during house searches, at checkpoints and in imprisonment.

In some cases, women were assaulted and beaten in public in front of family members.

We caught up with Karam Yahya “Syrian Refugee in Germany and human right activist” who told us :“Women suffer differently according to the region they live in, suffering in Damascus is not the same in north of Syria, every region is controlled by regime and group, which makes women subjective to different suffering experiences”. He added: “There is a social disorder in all these regions, women struggle to feed their families as their husbands go to fight, and outside Syria the suffering is even enormous, the case of Zaatari Camp in Jordan where I worked, there is violence, discrimination, and the cultural conservative traditions enforce women to stay home”

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Thousands of Syrian women are objects of sexual violence, but their conservative cultural and religious environments, especially in rural and southern areas of Syria, prohibit women and girls from talking freely about their suffering from sexual violence and other forms of violence.

This is the reason that makes it very difficult to find rape cases because of the dominant culture and the refusal to talk publicly about these subjects.

Furthermore it is hardly anyone makes complaints about such crimes because nobody will marry a woman who has been raped. The social stigma and family pressure influence the psychology situation of these women, which in some cases can lead to suicide.

In other cases, families forcibly marry raped women, including to relatives and foreign, for the “sake of the honor”, which makes it hard to help these women who are in critical situations, as their parents block any assistance that could be provided to them.

Bashar al-Assad forces are not the only enemy to Syrian women, ISIS (criminal group) is disrobing them of their human rights, as well. “Marry me or be my slave”; this is how ISIS group threats innocent women; whether they accept or refuse they are subjected to various forms of deprivation, threats, solitary imprisonment, as well several forms of torture, rape and sexual harassment. Other women were forced to divorce their husbands and enforced to practice “jihad sex” with different rebels of ISIS.

The media has widespread the case of the young mothers who have been savagely maimed by ISIS for breastfeeding in public. The Members of ISIS’s enforce strict barbaric sharia laws concerning on how women should dress and act, breastfeeding in public is not accepted act according to their rules.

Distressingly, they use a spiked, metal device known as “The Biter” to wreak harsh punishments on women deemed to have shown too much skin and those who breastfeed in public. They take the “Biter”, which is a shrill object that has a lot of teeth, they hold the women, and place it on their chest and pressing it strongly, this could damage and destroy the femininity of these women. Thousands of Syrian women are slaughtered silently.

In other cases women are being stripped naked and forced to take “virginity tests,”  then they are taken to slave markets where the attractive virgins are sold off to the highest buyers, those who refuse to perform an extreme sex act are burned alive.

Outside Syria women face further challenges and depressed situations; some parents force to marry off their daughters as child brides and push them to work as prostitutes in the camps. Several reports stated that men from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries take the advantage of families’ desperation to seek young brides.

While many countries have strictly constrained border crossings and closed their borders completely in response to the fear that terrorists could enter to their lands.

According to Thomson Reuters Foundation poll on women’s rights; Syria is ranked 19th out of 22 Arab states to some extent better than Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Egypt, where women face gender violence, degrade reproductive rights, economic exclusion, lack of necessary health services, depraved treatment of women within the family and the society, in addition to elimination attitudes towards women in politics and society.

Five years into Syria’s civil war and with no end in eyesight, it is somehow hard to see what the future of Syria will look like, and what women’s place will be in it, the war has devastating impact on women’s rights, putting millions of women and girls at risk of trafficking, forced and child marriage and sexual violence.

 Sana AFOUAIZ

 

The Forgotten Frontline: Women at War Zone: Yemen’s case

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In situations of war, women and children suffer some of the utmost health and social inequities. The effects of war go far yonder than the conflicts itself. They are the victims of human rights violations, suffering and death acts. At the end, women and children are supposed to bear the consequences of the war.

United Nations reports have shown three months after conflict flared up in Yemen, the violence is still escalating across the country. Over 2,800 people have been killed; over a million people have been exiled, with many enforced decisions by armed clatters, bombing and airstrikes.

Women have been unduly affected by the conflict. Their access to indispensable services, livelihood and protection needs were limited and have been complicated by gender inequalities.

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According to Amnesty International report, that highlighted that at least 6 children under the age of 10 were killed in airstrikes on Sana’a on 26th March, in wealthy nations, death cases like these are rare to happen and when it does, it makes headlines. This is simply one of many episodes where the innocent women and children of Yemen have paid the heavy price of the western-backed airstrikes and internal conflict of the country.
Yemenis women carried stories of sadness because of what war caused of social and economic consequences on their lives; some of them were forced to marry and others were victims of continues violence incidents. And they are supposed to accept these conditions as they have no other choice.
Violence was always a significant issue facing women in Yemen. In the country’s 2013 demographic and health survey, 92% of women claimed that violence against women most happened at home.
This current internal conflict in Yemen has even degenerated conditions for women. Many of Yemenis women are struggling on how to support and finance their families, when their husbands have gone to fight. Others have been exiled, with little or no access to health services, education and work opportunities.

As women and children are regularly the most pretentious by war-conflict, it is hence vital that women play a fundamental role in peace discussions and post-conflict renewal.
In Yemen’s conflict case, women continue to be absent from formal peace negotiations in Middle East and especially in Yemen. There is little space open for women to engross in peaceful protests, and this is not because women lack the resolution to fight for peace. But, it is the male-controlled mentality of Saudi-inspired Salafism that has detached women from participation in building the peaceful Yemeni society.
Meanwhile Yemeni women peace activists have been calling outside the country for an end to the fighting and the obstruction of necessary needs that has shaped an unrelenting humanitarian crisis.

The effects of war remain for years after the conflict ends. Women become widowed and children orphaned. Women face struggles to bear with livelihoods needs of their families.
The crucial role of women in development, peace, security and human rights cannot be denied, It is thus of countless importance that women should play a noteworthy role in limiting the effects of violence. Women must be actively engaged in the peace discussions process at the regional, national, and local level.

While women remain a minority, everyone will be suffering.

Sana AFOUAIZ

Morocco between the African and the Arab Identity

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This short article is dedicated for all the Africans that said I’m not African and all the Arabs who said I’m not Arab.

The question of the Moroccan identity seems to be a debate that I always have to explain whenever I travel, especially when I meet some of my Africans and Arabs fellows, so Africans would ask me “where are you from?”, me” Morocco”, them: “Ah, you are an Arab who don’t admit the African origins”, then Arabs ask the same and then say “Oh you are the ones who don’t speak Arabic only French”. I’m not saying all the Africans and Arabs think the same way, but these answers and questions I’ve heard from many of them. Then I had to explain that Moroccan identity is mixed between the Arab, African and Amazighi culture, which make Morocco one of most diverse countries, with different languages, ethnics, cultures… But for some it seems not easy to understand.

This question is periphrastic, Morocco is situated at the peak of the African continent, and it stretches itself along the top of the Sahara all the way down to sub-Saharan Africa. It is linked to the Middle East as it shares the same mother tongue language and the same religions -Arabs are not only Muslims, There are Christian and Jews Arabs- and approximately the same political and social challenges.

Morocco is connected as well to Europe for the economic relations that gather not only Morocco to European Union, but as well Africa to Europe. Also, Morocco was colonized by France, so don’t get surprised when you hear a Moroccan speaking half French half Moroccan. To be honest, the French influence has dominant effects on the way Moroccans speak; you should expect that with some Moroccans you will have to speak French, otherwise you are underestimated. It is advantageous to master different languages, but it is bad when people are treated according to their level of French speaking.

Speaking of “Africanism”, which is far more imposing when studying Morocco’s history. Some of my African friends told me once “You guys aren’t Africans because you aren’t part of the African Union, you left the AU, so how come you consider yourselves Africans!”-i won’t answer this because it’s very political subject that will lead to another debate which is not the focus of this article- But anyway, Morocco is situated in the North of Africa, which means that geographically Morocco is an African country, if Morocco left the African Union, that’s because of a political reason, but Morocco still one of the most active African countries investing in Africa and it constitutes an open economic gate for sub-Saharan countries toward Europe.

From the other hand, I asked some Moroccans “Are you African?” and I got the most shocking answers -which is common between the North Africans though- they said:” Not really, Africans are black, but I’m not black” , and I was like “Should I be black do to be called African?”

Morocco politically and economically is focusing on Africa in the recent years, as many projects have been implemented so to foster the global economic of Africa. This shows how important Africa is for Morocco.

Now let’s talk about the Amazighi identity, the Amazighi people who constitute about 48 % of the population, which is the native identity of Morocco before the Arabs came to spread Islam religion, Arabs and Amazighi from then lived peacefully together and then founded the Moroccan identity, a mixture between the two identities, till 1930 when the Amazighi culture was denied and then divided the Arabs and the Amazighi, it was the easiest way for French colonizers to control the country, but even after the independence, Amazighi still didn’t feel conformable to speak Amazighi in public places or even to tell that they are Amazighi. From then on, there still stereotypes between the two groups which normally should constitute one group.

The situation has been improved now, as the language became official in the Morocco constitution, and the identity of Tamazight has been more and more integrated.

Arabs from the other hand criticize Morocco for not speaking pure Arabic in every daily life, but wait, there are no Arabs that speak exactly classical Arabic in their daily life, they speak Arabic accent like Egyptian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Jordanian… These are accent not classical Arabic language; though it is true that Moroccan dialect is different since it is a mixture between Arabic, Tamazight, French and Spanish, but just because the other Arabs can’t understand the Moroccan accent, it doesn’t means that Moroccans don’t master the classical Arabic, for those who don’t know Arabic is the first official language of Morocco.

I believe that diversity is richness. I have always felt fortunate for the diversity in my country. I admire the fact that everything is different and yet so much alike. What I don’t like are the divisions that are based on such differences that should not minimize who we are or anyone else.

In Morocco, we can never speak of a pure race or ethnicity, everything is bonded and intermixed.

I believe this categorization of people is preposterous, since it disturbs our wonders from the beauty of us as diverse; a fusion and combination. We spend so much time identifying differences and putting barriers between “us” and “them”; whoever “us” and “them” are.

Next time don’t ask me to choose whether I’m African or Arab, and don’t you dare to question if I’m Amazighi or Arab. I’m Moroccan, I’m mixture between them all, I’m African, I’m Arab, I’m Amazighi, I’m Andaloussi…

What difference would that make to you now? Would you treat me any different? Better or worse?

Getting driving license was a dream, now it is a danger!

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This article was published on “The Voice of Women Initiative”, check: http://vowinitiative.org/2013/10/21/when-getting-driving-license-was-a-dream-now-it-is-a-danger/

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I quote “Women who drive risk damaging their ovaries and producing children with clinical problems”,  according to a conservative Saudi cleric called Sheikh Saleh al-Lohaidan.

When I first read this, I said: what is the difference between  the driving seat and the other seats in the same car?  I was speechless, this discrimination has gone too far. After struggling for  many years, to have a minimum of rights which are universal rights that any woman in the earth should obtain; this person comes up with his strict idea that driving has a negative effect on women and their unborn children !!

Where are the rights of women to express their needs? To go to school by their own? To have natural rights? Why are Saudi women not allowed to live a normal life?

Many people in Saudi Arabia believe that only men are permitted to acquire driving licenses. Why is this so? It is simply, because the issue of being permissible to drive is key to attaining other rights of women, for this reason, they try to shut down all the surviving chances for women to be treated equal.

“If a woman drives a car, not out of pure necessity, that could have negative physiological impacts as functional and physiological medical studies show that it automatically affects the ovaries and pushes the pelvis upwards,” as Sheikh Lohaidan believes.

He added; “That is why we find those who regularly drive with  children who are suffering from clinical problems of varying degrees.”

In the other side, there are the opponents of allowing women the right to drive in Saudi Arabia have faith that women driving will only break the country’s traditional code. How come, there are against women driving by their own, but they employ a male driver who is not a family member, which means that women will be in a car with a stranger, what traditional code are they talking about?

This simple freedom to drive speaks volumes about the state of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia.

Conceivably not every Saudi woman wishes to drive, but by repudiating women the opportunity to partake, they refute all women’s full rights as equal citizens below the law. Yet; no government should be able to reject her opportunity to do so.

Anyway giving women the right to drive will not change the approach in which Saudi Arabia views its women. There is a crucial need and an opportunity to generate a dialogue of change in the country. As Manal al-Sharif herself stated when she chose the Arabic phrase that convoys her social media campaign: “Teach me how to drive so I can protect myself.”

Yes, for Saudi women to drive! Yes, for Saudi women to study what they want.

Yes, for Saudi women to have equal rights! Yes, for Saudi women to have a normal life!

And yes, for all this to change.

*** Manal Al-Sharif is a Saudi woman campaigning for the right to drive in her own country.

 

Sana AFOUAIZ

Moroccan women: Between the Western and the conservative Islamic Culture

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This article was published on “The Voice of Women Initiative”, check: http://vowinitiative.org/2013/08/26/moroccan-women-between-the-western-and-the-conservative-islamic-culture/

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The situation of Moroccan women seems to be different comparing to other Arab countries like for example Saudi Arabia and Yemen…; it’s quite different and similar at the same time.

I’m a young woman, student in college; I live in Rabat which is the capital city of Morocco, but originally from Agadir which is located in the south of Morocco.  I have observed that the situation of women in the two cities is different. In Rabat, Casablanca and other big cities, women seem to have more independence than other cities especially in rural areas where women are not allowed to do many things that empowers them.

Generally, the situation of Moroccan women is cut between that of women in the Western countries and those in conservative Islamic countries, as I said in big cities everything related to women seem to be fine on the surface starting with their clothing which vary from the perspective of each woman; there are women who wear Western outfits, and others who prefer the traditional conservative Moroccan dressing (Jellaba and Foulard…). The choice of clothing depends on the age and profession. Generally, teenagers wear casual Western outfits while working women wear Western-style business dress and older unemployed women wear traditional clothing.

Whenever you go into big Moroccan cities, you will find women workers in different domains in banks, shops, schools, holding important positions in government… You can find taxi drivers and women working in Souk … This seem a relief situation for women in Moroccan society to have a choice to get the job they want and to work as they want. I asked many working women about their salary and if it is similar to their male colleagues, I always get a YES answer; this is different comparing to the discrimination that used to be toward women’s salary 10 years ago.

I study in a college where more than half of the students are women, so it doesn’t seem to be any partiality against women working and going to school, in these listed cities. These annotations are limited to Rabat and Casablanca; the situation in rural areas is quite different and serious.

In rural areas women and girls do not have the right to go to school, because it is shame for her and her family, rural people believe that women should stay at home, do household work, raise their children and take care of their husbands.

In the whole of Morocco, there is a tremendously high illiteracy rate, especially in the rural areas, and expressly among women. According to the UNDP, more than 80% of women in rural Morocco are illiterate. Women face unfavorable and discriminatory attitudes of some communities towards their education. In fact, girls marry before reaching the legal age, even with the existence of the new Moudawana.

Exactly, grounded on what I said overhead about women going to work and school, Rabat, Casablanca and other big cities are not a representative sample of the situation of the Moroccan woman.

Note: this article is based on my own personal experiences and observations.

Sana AFOUAIZ