Last week I tweeted Nadine Moawad, a feminist activist and blogger living in Beirut, Lebanon, asking for an interview for Our Other Sisters. Nadine kindly replied but unfortunately declined my request:
Despite being desperate to interview Nadine, her response has encouraged me to reflect on the purpose and legitimacy of Our Other Sisters.
Is the colonialist legacy of the Western gaze at Arab women too large a stumbling block in the quest to strive towards a fluid, united and global feminist movement? Is attempting to break down ingrained stereotypes present in the ‘Western gaze’ via Our Other Sisters unattainable because its authors are of Western origin?
Even the grouping ‘Middle East’ is arguably a Western construct; is it naive to believe that women who do not live in America and Europe want the ‘freedom’ which we in the West supposedly have? What perceptions do Western women have about their own freedom?
In order to begin to answer some of these questions, it seems appropriate to reference an inspirational film which attempts to unpick the dichotomy between female struggle for equality in East and West on the one hand, and the perceptions surrounding their struggles on the other.
Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel and feature film Persepolis, tells the story of her childhood as an Iranian girl born in the period of the Shah, and subsequently the 1979 revolution.
Her parents fear for her safety and send her to live her teenage years in Vienna, where they believe she can live a free and normal life. However, Marjane is isolated in the ‘West’ and is made aware of the empty and fickle nature of perceived Western freedoms, especially when they aren’t properly appreciated.
After returning to Iran, Marjane eventually returns to the West, settling in Paris but remaining true to her Iranian roots, proud of her nationality and everything that comes with it.
The Western ‘ideal’ of a ‘free’ woman cannot be imposed universally: it doesn’t work. Especially when the ideal of female equality is not fully realised in the ‘West.’ Religion, culture and heritage cannot be ignored, as it forms part of every individual woman’s identity.
Just as the Iranian teenager Marjane is less than satisfied with ‘perceived’ Western freedoms and reverts to her own way of identifying herself, women around the world should prescribe their own individual way in which to feel emancipated.
There is an underlying assumption that the Western image of Arab women is more powerful and accurate than the reality.
The Western obsession with the burqa and niqab enacts precisely that oppression of women which in some nations becomes the justification for attempts to ban such dress.
An article in British magazine Grazia on 13th March 2012 profiled Shamsia Hassani. A street artist on the streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, the magazine dubbed Shamsia the ‘Burqa Banksy.’ Is it acceptable for the Western media to define a successful female street-artist from Afghanistan using the model of a white Western man? Why are Arab women objectified by this voyeuristic ‘Western gaze’ on a globalised scale?
Cultural and Religious Ignorance
When Westerners encounter women wearing burqas and niqabs, often it is thought that these women are ‘oppressed’ by religion, the patriarchal land in which they live, or a combination of both. Are the Muslim women in France and Belgium who are banned by law from wearing the face-and-body burqa and niqabs, therefore, not subjected to the same form of repression for being told what they can or cannot wear by a government?
The burqa and niqab have become blank canvases upon which the West impose certain stereotypes including ‘repression’ and after 9/11 a garment of violence, terrorism and disguise. Such stereotyping hampers the notion and the potential reality of a universal yet individual feminism.
Ultimately, Our Other Sisters do not want to prescribe ‘Arab feminism’ as an educational concept, or an entity for our own exploration. Discourse and engagment with our readers will hopefully enlighten us as to the best way of understanding and uniting with our sisters from all parts of the world.
This is a learning curve for us as well as a reciprical process and one in which we hope our readers will engage. Breaking down prejudices on both sides of the map is not an easy task. There are no simple answers.