By: Girgis Kalzi -Al Thara
"Here the oppression of women is very subtle. If we take female circumcision, the excision of the clitoris, it is done physically in Egypt. But here it is done psychologically and by education. So even if women have the clitoris, the clitoris was banned; it was removed by Freudian theory and by the mainstream culture. "
As Nawal al Saadawi, respected woman’s rights activist, writer, novelist and psychiatrist once said, a woman’s role in society dictates the development in it. Why then, when we look at Arab society, are most of its female counterparts from abroad, or have had to go abroad to fulfil their potential, most of the time fleeing violence and subjugation? Is the difference between East and West so significant, that our essential partners in life, our life bringers, and the essence of existence are being muzzled while in the West they are free?
Caroline Kennedy with New Frontier Award Recipient Iraqi-American writer and activist Zainab Salbi, the founder of Women for Women International. An example of the exemplary achievement Arab women has had in furthering women’s rights in the world.
Just one of many successful women, working in the West to further the cause of Arab women, and women all over the world.
While there have been schemes and there are various efforts to change this, the trend remains hard to buck. While Asma al Assad, the wife of Syrian President Bashar, has started many schemes to better the position of women and highlight the difficulties they face in modern Syria, and Queen Rania of Jordan has likewise tried to reform and better women’s lives, the overall picture is still pretty bleak. The results of Syria’s and Jordan’s efforts bode well, in the short and the longer-term, but is enough being done in the rest of the Arab world? Conservatism and Patriarchy have crept into Arab society much in the same way as they have in the West, through fear and lulled expectations. The reaction to 911 in the West had its counter reaction in the Middle East with religious authorities tightening their grip, or asserting their power over many countries, while threatening those who are striving to reform.
I believe this is fundamental in understanding the lack of development and social strength, perhaps even cohesion in the Arab world; An Arab world that, in our parents and grandparents generations, saw freer, more liberal expressions of feminity, in television, cinema, and the broader society. While Women make up a half of any population, and the more empowered both sides are, the more likely we are to see diversity, and creativity, as well as contentment in society. From the prospective of Saadawi, life for a woman can always be better, because the fundamental paving of civilization, religion, economy, agriculture, anything linked to ‘civilization’ has had the destructive power of patriarchy imprinted in its innermost functions. Take for instance the police, and the religious authorities, who, at the drop of a hat, can force a woman to divorce her husband if she is seen as a ‘blasphemer’. Apostasy in many Arabic countries is still enough reason to divorce, or even kill ones partner. Apostasy is generally met with violence and death in most countries in the Arab world, depending on family collusion and police intervention. This, along with the cultural stigmatisation of the ‘working woman’ in most Arabic countries, pushes intellectual thought into the abyss of neglect and malnutrition. Are we as Arab men, afraid of women in power, or simply too proud to let go of the steering wheel? It is more profound than this, Arab men are not in control of the circumstances and social panic which has enveloped us since 1979 and onwards. The onset of ‘radical’ forces has put a halt to many social views on progressive society, male and female interactions, and platonic relationships. On the whole, it has taken a while to revive the more open minded view of women in the Arab world than anywhere else in the world.
We must bear in mind the progress to fully view the regression; in Kuwait, women are allowed to vote and stand for office, though the idea and practise are harder to amalgamate than write about. Similarly, in Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, various efforts have sprung up like flowers in a conservative desert, which has me wondering how long can progress last, or are we witnessing the thaw of icy conservatism towards women? After all, Sheikh Mohamed Tantawi, dean of al-Azhar university recently was quoted criticising the ‘Niqab’ and calling it “nothing to do with the Islamic faith” The banning of the Niqab is a measure to tackle Islamic extremism, which has seen a huge rise over the last 20 years in the Arab world, but at the same time, it completely ignores the will of those who wish to wear it.
Islam isn’t the oppressor of women; no idea on its own has lead to suffering, without the misinterpretation of those who do not understand its message. In its inception it gave women more rights than were readily available anywhere else. It is the overzealous who translate every word from their original complex beauty to absurd simplicity, as is evident in every religion, imprinting the words with their own vision of the world. It is true that women and religion are not two things that go together, because the words of God seem to have only come from the mouths of men, yet, surely, as we progress as human beings, we see that as men, maintaining our position over women keeps us in constant regression. At a time where mental tax weighs heavily on our world, we should not add to the load, we should ease it.
Saadawi’s fight against conservatism won children in Egypt legal legitimacy, the 2008 court decision made sure that children born out of wedlock carried their mothers name. A simple doctrine here affected children who, through no fault of their own, found themselves at the opposite end of the law. Saadawi also stood up for art, her play ‘God Resigns at the Summit Meeting’ was banned for blasphemy, and she was charged for apostasy, not for the first time, a charge that was eventually dropped on the 13th of May 2008. It just goes to show that even though the times are changing, those opposed to women’s rights seem to side with the forces of stagnation every time; the charge of apostasy, against a woman who was almost forced to divorce her husband because of her writings, is the most shocking out of all the crimes of conservatism. A woman like Saadawi deserves more than awards and plaques for her bravery, she deserves to see the seeds of progress grow, and her hopes eventually realised, of a better role for women in a beleaguered region, with obstacles that boggle the mind. When we look around, we see brave women like her everywhere, the Arab woman is alive and well, but the only people who will listen to her are those outside the Arab world, myself included. Why is this?
As a result of a thought which grew into fascination, which has now become an article, I wondered what fundamental features help nurture and develop independence in Arab women. The trend seems to state that those women in the Northern Hemisphere, specifically the West, tend to have more of a pragmatic outlook on life, as well as a healthy passion for aspects of life distinct from domesticity. This is not to say that women are naturally domesticated, it is my firm belief that while men and women are not equal, simply because we are different, as much as one woman is different to another, they are capable of changing the world, and influencing change, as much as, if not more than men. Equality is not an issue of semantics, it is an issue of actual ability, when a man is kept in chains, he is not able to act on his best ability, and neither then is a woman. I wondered, as a man who has spent most of his life in the West, what an Arab woman in a similar situation would say to answering some questions that their Middle-Eastern counterparts don’t seem to have a say on, such as pre-marital relationships, Non-Arab partners, Children’s welfare and growing environment. Drugs and drug use was discussed, and I asked what was essential in helping a flourishing society and developing women’s rights which they would prescribe to their Middle Eastern counterparts? Essentially what would they change about their homeland? The feedback was clear and uncensored, and very poignant in some areas I realised I personally had not thought about.
I wondered if all the feedback would be as one-sided as I first imagined, because the West is not a ‘perfect’ environment itself, it has its own problems for women. Yet in contrast with the Middle East, women are given their share of autonomy, and respect, although the rise of pornography and general objectification of women, especially in the media tells me otherwise. Perhaps a woman would feel patronised, if not offended that a mans’ first thought usually is a sexual one? Would the honesty or crudeness of Western society be a negative? What about rapes and violence towards women, these still largely exist in the West as well as the Middle East, would they be considered as areas of dialogue for the questioned women?
One quote struck me while reading the answers, an interview with Nawal Saadawi:
"Interviewer: What would you say to a woman in this country who assumes she is no longer oppressed; who believes women's liberation has been achieved?
El Saadawi: Well I would think she is blind. Like many people who are blind to gender problems, to class problems, to international problems. She's blind to what's happening to her. "
Has commodity fetishism blinded us from our rights, the fact that we are so readily able to attain basic commodity, and change it into currency, has this distracted us from the essence of our struggle as human beings? For women, I wondered, a question which I alone could never answer, and in half thinking ‘I am not being thankful of the opportunities granted to me’ I also wandered, where is the line drawn between opportunity, and oppression?
The first aspect of the questionnaire was first impressions, and most responses seemed similar, about the clash of cultures, and the search of identity. Someone brought up in a culture alien to their own, at some stage will question their identity, what they do with this line of questioning is a matter altogether. The second question gave me something to think about :
What experiences have you had that reflect positively on western culture? Bearing in mind that, culturally, these woman have experienced a dual cultural experience, between more traditional Arab culture and Western, often liberal culture:
“I have been exposed to a great deal of freedom, something that I otherwise wouldn’t have experienced as a woman if I had grown up in Iraq. I have had close friendships with males which were purely platonic. I say this is a positive experience as I have female friends living in the Arab world and they are unable to sustain friendships with males as this is frowned upon and often discouraged.” Lena
Plutonic relationships are never appreciated for their true worth. When a man progresses to relationships beyond sexual attraction, this shows maturity, and comfort with the opposite sex. Social pressure on sex usually makes objectifying women for things you are not allowed to have easier, and in a liberal society, it is feasible that plutonic relationships are more successful. I do however question the maturity of men in the West as much as I would those in the Middle East; stories of ‘break glass in case of emergency’ relationships exist everywhere. There is also a large amount of pressure in the West over sex, but in a comical opposite; there is a stigma of being a ‘virgin’ for both boys and girls, and a culture of petulant mockery should you choose not to abide by the codes of your peers. The truth of the matter remains that whilst these attitudes remain as a weapon in a man’s arsenal in the West, they are also in a woman’s arsenal, should she choose to use it. There are also people who do not think in this way, generalising ‘promiscuity’ is easier than describing inter-gender relations. The West encapsulates both liberal and conservative values, and is not so easy to generalise. One positive is that, on the whole, marriage is much more of a free-hand game; people can more freely choose to marry who they wish. Religion is similarly freer, interfaith marriage is legal, and the amount of honour killings in the West are rare in contrast with the Arab world. This is not to say that it is easy, but social class, and race are becoming less and less hurdles to love and more variations and added nuances to marriage.
“Western culture I believe encourages a women to learn and more importantly aim to have a career rather then simply having a family.” Martha
In terms of education, women have been out performing men for decades in schools all across Europe and America, and when it comes to higher education, they are more than equipped for direct competition with their male counterparts. Yet at the same time, the decision making jobs are still hard to reach, despite the emergence of many new business leading women, politicians and media heads. With all the progress, Europe and America still suffer from disproportionate pay directed towards men. While the Middle East shows signs of development in this regard, countries like Saudi Arabia skew the statistics. In Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Iraq (Pre 2003) women were able to attain high power jobs, and Lebanon proudly has the highest number of female graduates in the Middle East. Education however requires stability, and if we return back to Iraq, the post 2003 picture does not look promising for anyone. If the proud tradition of education is to return to Iraqi’s, it must first be preceded by peaceful co-existence, and a chance for learning and creativity. The violence that has erupted, and that continues to mar Iraqi existence, is also burning away the pages of literature, history, and deep thought which preceded the illegitimate war.
The next question probed at the underbelly of the West, asking what experiences have been negative about living here. At first it seemed to me revisiting the question that it was quite leading, yet the answers spoke for themselves:
“I have not really experienced any negative things; however like other countries I think safety is an issue. It is very difficult to simply walk around in the dark or specific areas.” Martha
Safety was raised as an issue, but our interviewee said she had not had any negative experiences. On the other hand, another response hit closer to home for me:
“I was once called a ‘Paki’ by a white kid when I was in high school. He just assumed that because I was slightly darker than everyone else that I must be Asian. I was upset and offended that he called me that rather than what I actually was. Many in non-Arab countries lack understanding of Arab people and their culture. Things have slightly improved since 9/11 but the image now associated with Arabs isn’t favourable. Also being a Christian Iraqi, I feel that people in the West always assume that all Arabs are Muslim and I don’t feel represented and so many times people have said when they meet me that they didn’t even know Christian Arabs existed and I was the first one they had met.” Lena
Racism is a problem in the West, lack of understanding and general ignorance about our culture has lead to violence, in America and Europe, and generally all over the world since September 11th, but the overall picture is also that Islamaphobia reared its ugly head for the world to see. A ‘Muslim’ in the eyes of many in the West is a woman in a Hijab who cannot do anything she wants, and while there are many female-Muslim academics, the image is lodged in the psyche of someone who does not know about the place where we are from. It is not surprising, because of media coverage, nor is it surprising that very few know that an Arab can be a Christian, or that within the Arab world there is a great deal of diversity. At the same time, a myth will always carry an element of truth, and the image of Arab women in the West is confounded by the reality in more conservative Arab countries, or even non-Arab conservative regimes. As for the matter of safety, I think the idea that a woman can walk around in the dark in the west is a much more normal occurrence than it is in the Middle East, yet there is always the risk of violence or rape. This in mind, we should also bear in mind that walking around at night in dangerous areas are seriously not advised wherever you are, and no matter what your gender.
Whilst both these issues are very serious in nature, the reality is that CCTV culture in the West makes it more difficult to be attacked without being filmed, while at the same time, it does not ensure safety from attack. The knowledge of a camera watching you does not make you feel secure, it makes you feel nervous, as a tool for social cohesion, and I personally feel it is divisive. It is a new phenomenon that has now become accepted, especially in the United Kingdom, as a silent witness to crimes. Whilst not a saviour, much can be said of its preventative role, at the same time, much less has been said about its voyeuristic nature. For a woman, this should be considered more thoroughly as a drawback. A society which cannot trust itself should certainly not trust anyone behind a camera, let alone without knowledge of the guidelines which they follow, or how regularly they are maintained. A stronger criticism of the West came in the form of a moral critique, which I partly agree with myself, but at the same time equally disagree with.
“I would say some people do not have enough self control. I have a strong belief in priorities in life and I wish that some non-Arab countries would take this into consideration.” Merna
I found this comment marvellously frank, but also quite generalising. I cannot simply say that the West ‘indulges’ in its tastes, nor can I stick adamantly to cultural relativism and say ‘they may be bad, but they may be good’. Ultimately, there is more freedom to do what one wishes to do, and more people choose to make decisions on a more spontaneous basis. This ‘generalisation’ has become quite a reputation the West has developed, a proud one and from where I stand, I can’t help but agree. Similarly, it needs to be known that to realise ones priorities you need to first have the freedom to choose, and the freedom to make mistakes. The best value I can muster is this, and I believe it to be an important one, otherwise, you will be making decisions without knowledge of what it is you are deciding. Drugs are pivotal to this, whether or not drug use is acceptable reflects the attitude the women I asked, and when questioned, the response was similar across the board, ‘individuals’ choice’ with these exceptions:
“I disagree and would never consider it myself, but I believe in freedom also, the way the universe works is trial and error, people only ever learn from mistakes. Also everything in moderation is another code to live by.” Merna
These two accounts, along with the general relativist view, sum up the argument for me, and show a broad and quite mature understanding of the dangers of drugs, drug use, and prolonged drug use.
“It saddens me when lives are ruined by drugs and people lose touch of reality and the dangers of drugs. They are extremely overrated, they are seen as cool and fun but to me they have always been stupid. In the circles I mix with, drugs are readily available and sometimes encouraged but they have never appealed to me and I have seen the damage they do. They are just not worth it.” Lena
The danger of drugs in my view is not in the substance alone, but is in the mind of its consumer. I will not defend drugs as a ‘saviour’ nor will I attack them as ‘demons’ because a substance is devoid of such descriptions. At the same time, there is a great deal of value in all these arguments, and if a person is using drugs because of a weakness, a failing, to remove themselves from reality, this is an existence alien to our own. Clearly those questioned here were thoughtful, and it’s interesting also how readily available drugs are.
I wanted to find out the restrictions they felt they encountered, or what forces they felt held them back from doing what they needed to do. This included issues of pre-marital sex, race, partners and marriage and the role of their parents in their lives:
“My parents can sometimes be restrictive but that is only in regard to potential boyfriends/fiancés. They are very conservative and religious and they do not agree nor encourage boyfriends etc. So sometimes it is difficult getting to know males. But in every other aspect of my life they are encouraging and open and liberal. A lot of my female Arab friends also feel the same, they feel their families restrict them in meeting potential husbands as they fear they will just be played with and dumped.” Lena
A parents concern for their daughter is a very ‘Arab’ thing, but also something which grows a sense of responsibility and sensibility in a young girl, who will eventually be a woman. The freedom to see men is one which should be balanced with a responsibility to teach your daughter about the risks of pre-marital sex, and being fooled into a relationship for sex. The conservative nature of some parents can often push their children into things they otherwise wouldn’t do, while being too liberal could have the effect of not passing the right information to them when they need it. Parenthood is by no means an easy job, raising a human being could never be.
“If you mean what forces in the world, I would say the Arab society is very claustrophobic, controlling and suffocating. But I would also say the West world is a bit too liberal, I like to think of myself in the middle. At the moment nothing really restricts me, I am able to move freely and make my own choices but family i.e. parents can restrict me sometimes!” Martha
What would they change about their land of origin, and where would they raise their children? This question was pivotal, because if indeed the changes they envisaged materialised, would they see a viable home for themselves and their family with these changes in mind?
“I would love to have equality between religion. Religion should be a choice not a compulsory act. When I go to church in Egypt I don’t want people spitting outside on my feet. I would also like to change the way women are treated. I heard recently that full on Burkahs are being considered for banning. I respect religion to a maximum limit. And I believe faith should be praised but excessive rules and inequality between genders is sad. Unfortunately this is the way the world is, but I hope one day everyone will be equal, a bit too idealistic? I think so.”
Where would you bring up your children?
“Definitely the west. At least then they have a choice.”
“A Lot!! It is does not respect or encourage a women to be anything more then a wife/mother, however it is improving slightly but I think much more is needed because even if a girl does get a full education she still ends up not working and becoming a housewife.”
Where would you bring up your children?
“The United Kingdom” Martha
“I would want to see greater respect and better treatment of women. They are not always treated equally with men. I would also want the Christians of Iraq to be able to live freely without fear of being killed and threatened. I want equality for all Iraqi’s regardless of sex, religion, class etc.”
Where would you bring up your children?
“I do not want to raise my children in London, but on the other hand life in the West does have its positives, education, better treatment of females, wider life experiences as opposed to life in an Arab country. I am yet to decide where to raise my children, but I hope to know by the time I have them.” Lena
So what can we say overall about the benefits of culture and tradition? This is not to suppose of-course that the West or the Arab world are opulent in one or lacking in another, but rather that the Arab one is the traditional culture as opposed to the Western one.
“I love my tradition and culture; it teaches me discipline and sentiment, love and incomparable joy. It gives me an identity that I agree with. Tradition is priceless.” Merna
“I was raised in a home where my father always treated my sister and I with the most respect a man could treat a woman with. So from an early age I had high standards in what to expect from a man. I am also a Christian and I try to live as closely by the rules of my religion as I can. I have a high level of morals and respect for myself and throughout my 24 yrs I have rarely allowed myself to get swayed and this is pretty difficult living in the West where this is temptation everywhere all the time. Like most decent Arab girls I know, we do not want to bring shame to our families as this can tarnish both our image and our families’ image. I personally will never allow that to happen so I try to live a good honest life and leave the rest to God. But being an Arab female in the West is extremely difficult as I always feel I am living a double life, between two conflicting cultures where I am constantly trying to find a balance that works for me. I am still trying to find it.” Lena
In the same way, what are the benefits of a more liberal culture, or ethos? This again is not to say that Western culture is liberal in itself, but as a comparison to Arab society.
“I can see both sides of the argument now, people in Arab countries can never understand or have the liberty the West does (unless extremely rich). I feel as though their brainwashed although they’re happy. People only in the west are also deluded a bit lacking in gratitude and generally unhappy. But it’s the case of the happy pig vs. knowledgeable yet never satisfied human. Again, each to their own.” Merna
“I definitely feel free and independent in the west. I feel respected and I can say pretty much what I want. I know how lucky I am living in the West as I could have so easily been living a very different life in Iraq. I’m grateful.” Lena
“I feel free to an extent in the West because I can make my own choices and am independent enough to carry out my individual life, at no point in my life was I told not to go somewhere especially regarding work/education/meeting friends.”Martha
The views expressed here may not reflect the majority view, and were never intended to. They do however reflect the views of women who are of an age where they have thought about their lives, and their culture, and their social situation. They come not from women who are looking for an excuse to write something, nor curious about it, but responded out of favor and kindness to a request for opinions. I on the other hand, was looking for an answer, and the results, and even the manner of which they came, surprised me. Not in their content, but in the lack of criticism of the West, perhaps somewhere in me I wanted to find flaw, to say ‘this is bad, but so is this’ and, while this may still be true, in the process I underestimated the scale of the problem in the minds of Arabs in the West, or I overestimated the problems of Western liberal culture. In either case, it was humbling to read such informed opinions. Similarly, I feel I underestimated the resolve, dignity, and intelligence of my fellow writers, who’s opinions gave me a new prospective on the issue.
As such, while this is no scientific analysis, socially, their points were not simply relevant, or useful, but underline the benign cancer that has been choking the ideas and extroverts in the Arab world. The lack of basic amenities and the frustrations in efforts to modernize reflect the great amount of Arabs in the Diaspora who left. Why would such a great amount leave if the mental as well as the physical resources were readily available, as well as the rights and respect which any human being comes to expect in life? The violence, and xenophobia, as well as the conservative and often fundamentalist trends in other countries have forced people out of their homes. In a situation like this, education, free thinking, positive attitudes and good social cohesion becomes difficult to say the least. This has driven our people, let alone our women, into the arms of a land which gives its own people rights, it’s own people at least the illusion of, and at most the utmost limits of freedom and prosperity. Whilst no experience is completely good, or bad, we as part of a race, cannot go blind sighted, expecting the world to live up to our negative expectations. In the same way, we should never underestimate the power of change, a woman’s role has changed enormously since the days of yonder year, but also since the days of our recent family. As peculiar as this trend is, we must aim for it to return to, and exceed the days of our fathers and mothers. What other generation can say ‘our grandmother was freer than our sisters’?
Change, like life is eternal, and we should never stop in its way, nor should we turn our heads at its passing. What is oppressed today must be tolerated tomorrow; what is tolerated tomorrow will be culture the next day. What remains, will be a reminder of what we saw, and what we did, for it to be this way.
I want to thank the Ladies who took part in this article / endeavor, because not only and obviously would it not have been in existence without them, but because their intelligence has opened a part of my mind to see, and think about issues I would not have been able to comprehend had it not been for them. Likewise, I want to thank them for their time, patience, and their willingness to help. The Arab world may be suffering from several simultaneous problems, but the women of our lands have in their hands the solution as much as the men, and we should never forget this. As for the Diaspora of Arabs, searching for their identity, or assimilating into their adopted homes, I hope like me you have seen the history from which you came, and wherever it is, know where it is you are going.
Thara magazine – Issue 205, 31/10/2009 – its fifth year of publication.
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