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Arab Feminism: Left Out in the Cold

The Hijab

The Hijab is banned in France.
Image with thanks to En-Shanhadi

The Western feminism movement continues to struggle its way through the 21st century, chaffing against many realities of the modern day woman.  One of its central struggles is embracing the movement in the Middle East and more precisely sisters of Islam.

One reason is that many Western feminists are tied up in knots by multiculturalism because they find it very hard to pass judgment on non-Western cultures due to a lack of understanding.  So to exclude Arab women forthright from any discourse is the easiest option.

Talking to a close friend and feminist, she explained that “Middle Eastern women are portrayed by the Western media as oppressed and submissive.  This makes it hard for me to see them as feminists.”

Western Media

The approach of the Western media to the subject of “Middle Eastern women” plays a huge part in the misrepresentation of Arab women throughout the Western world.  Simply defining “Middle Eastern women” as a homogenous group creates problematic issues.

One of main reasons for this depiction is women who choose to wear the ‘hijab’.  In the West, we have a mystifying relationship with the ‘hijab’.   Banned in France, it remains a tantalising yet widely feared concept for both men and women of the West.  Shaheena Salahuddin, a British Muslim told Our Other Sisters:

“For twenty seven years of my life (I’m nearly 30), I walked around without my hijab, I wore pretty much what I wanted, I mixed freely with men and I totally enveloped myself in British culture. Whilst there was nothing wrong with this lifestyle, I never felt as secure and self assured as I have done since I chose to cover up and avoid male company. Prior to wearing headscarf, I was constantly ogled at, I had been groped on a number of occasions in public, I felt anxious about my self image, constantly dieting and spending a fortune on hair and makeup products. I cannot begin to tell you how liberated I felt the day I wore my headscarf and covered up, it was bliss!” (full interview here)

I think any woman can relate to feeling the pressures Shaheena indicates but a woman who chooses to wear the hijab is portrayed as submissive, oppressed and helpless.  In many ways it is a far more sophisticated way of dealing with the patriarchal world: we cannot stop the male gaze but we can limit what they have to look at.

Right to choose

Furthermore, truly embracing the global women’s struggle is to accept the right of every woman to bodily autonomy and her lifestyle and religious choices.  True feminism is about the right to choose.

Adding an “East-West” dimension reduces the ability to understand the women’s movement in its global framework by pitting cultural differences against each other.  Feminism in its rawest form is to go beyond the assumption of men and women in an “East-West” dichotomy.

There needs to be a realisation that there are dangers in conflating experiences and identities into neat categories within feminism.  Our Other Sisters understands the contentions in our own mission statement of defining “Arab Feminism” and the consequences that it may erase the experiences of those who fall into its category and those who do not.   (Please refer to our “choosing Arab” section)

Whilst no woman’s experience is universal, the exclusion of Arab Women from the sisterhood of global feminism echoes the exclusion of women from the male world, which is the essence of what feminism is fighting against.  Until the movement comes to terms with the reality that ‘feminism’ can manifest itself in a myriad of ways globally, the sisterhood will remain divided.

The Arab Spring has been a fantastic indicator of the nascent women’s movement that is alive within the Middle East.  It, naturally, looks different to the women’s movement of the West and there is a great belief that it is possible for Arab women to create a sustainable equality movement by gradually challenging the traditional patriarchal discourses on their terms, whilst still maintaining a connection to key societal norms and their roles within society.  All women and all feminists must be supportive of the gains that are being made by these women in the Middle East, our other sisters.


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