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5 Reasons Arab Women Struggle with Feminism

For us, it’s not a quote on a graphic T – it’s a life changing requirement

Thanks to global movements like #MeToo and the increased social awareness around issues like period poverty, feminism has become a trending topic. However, long before it was deemed as something ‘cool’ to talk about, feminism was an outlet for oppression and a particularly tricky subject to discuss in the Arab world.

Although there are innumerable creative women in the arts, literature and film industries that have touched on the ongoing plight of inequality via their work, no one has really outlined a specific brand of feminism for the Arab woman just yet that reached a consensus in the Arab world.

Not because we don’t need it, or aren’t aware of the implications of a lack of feminist ideals, but to put it simply – we struggle with feminism for several reasons. As a Western-born concept, feminism as we see it in the media is tailored to very different needs than our own.

We can’t relate in the same way. Not to the arguments, campaigns or even memes that circulate the topic at the moment. We need to reach our own definitive definition for the term, but first we’ve got some obstacles to overcome:

The unwavering Arab identity

Arabs are often too aware of the cultural and stereotypical implications of being a woman in an unapologetically patriarchal society. We’re scrutinized on what we wear, who we associate with, our career trajectory and pretty much anything concerning us. The Arab identity is a tough one to shirk, and many would argue that feminism and the Arab female archetype are mutually exclusive. The problem for the Arab female is that she is culturally predisposed to reject feminism in all it’s forms, our societies are generally curated for the Arab man and play out in his favour 9 times out of 10. There’s really not much room for our inner feminist to play.

Arab men avoid feminism

In theory and in practice. The Arab man knows that in our societies it’s always easier to go the sexist route than to argue or encourage feminist ideals. Not to mention that tip-toing around the elephant in the room is never easy. With a generation of women in the Middle East growing up with more opportunities, freedom and cultural reform than ever before, it leaves the Arab man in a state of confusion. The majority don’t mind backing a full-on feminist movement, but since we as Arab women have yet to set any guidelines or direction for what we want feminism in our region to look like, you find most men just sticking to the status quo, i.e. Rocking the misogynist guise like it’s their job.

We need more information

One of the biggest obstacles with feminism in the Arab region is that there is a distinct lack of information about it.  Feminist literature has yet to find an audience. Of course renowned feminist warriors paved the way, the Moroccan Fatema Mernissi, the Algerian Assia Djebar, the Tunisian Khadija Cherif, and the Saudi activist Wajeha Al Huweidar for example, but never benefited from a sufficient echo to form one cohesive and effective wave. In mainstream culture,  Arab artists such as Saffaa pioneering the I am my own guardianmovement in Saudi Arabia, filmmakers like Lebanese director Nadine Labaki (Caramel), and authors such as Rajaa Alsanea of Girls of Riyahdh have all created pieces of work that prove that feminism is slowly taking a shape and form in the Arab world. At the end of the day a film like Caramel may host themes and undertones of feminist ideals, but it could just as easily be categorised as a romantic drama or indie short.

Feminism is controversial, yes even in 2018

Who doesn’t love a little controversy? Arab societies! Feminism is a perplexing topic for elder generations – especially in the Arab world. Women being entirely independent, career oriented, opinionated, and well educated? How crazy is that? And what’s worse, we actively oppose the opinions of men in society and argue back with more information and backing than ever before. These are all very scary ideas; and cultures take some time to adjust to concepts seen as foreign or bizarre at prior points in time. It’s amusing to me and to most of my female Arab friends, watching society get used to a generation of women who are unequivocally aware of the fact that they are allowed to do what they want. Simply because we’re learning to have a voice, because times are changing, and because we can.

There are bigger issues to focus on

Feminism is, at the end of the day, a means to an end. It is a movement that acts as a catalyst for change, and an empowering state of mind for women globally. However, in a society where equality is still a pretty futuristic goal, at times it’s arguable to say that Arab women have bigger issues to focus on and don’t have the time or luxury to preach feminism, when we need much greater reforms to take place. We need travel authorisation reforms, better legal rights and a stronger voice that’s actually taken seriously in society. The danger with a topic becoming trendy is that it loses some of its potency, and for the Arab female the need for equality is not a trend, its not a quote on a graphic T, it’s not even a fad or headliner, it’s a very real and life altering requirement. It’s 2017 and women in Saudi Arabia are finally allowed to drive, these are the kinds of reforms that begin to see feminism take shape and make an impact in our region. But first there are a million futile speed bumps to tackle, like men always insisting to pay for us, like the belief that women in the Arab world don’t need to work or have a career, like the idea that I can’t come home later than my brother on a night out because it ‘looks bad’. We have a lot of work to do, before we can finally sit back, relax and maybe start defining what feminism really means to the Arab woman.

Illustrations by Anna Benarrosh @roshbena

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