The Idea of Arab Feminism
NEW DELHI: The feminist consciousness in the Arab world has developed hand in hand with national consciousness since the early 19th century. But those who oppose the emancipation of Arab women consider feminism irrelevant to the Arab cultural traditions. Interestingly consciousness with regards to unequal gender relations in the ‘Arab societies’ predates contacts with western feminism.
Somehow the dialectical relationship between the gender and emancipation of Arab women never fell into the emancipatory cognitive understanding. Or perhaps, it was deliberately ignored. Stereotypical and argumentative narratives defined ‘what meant to be an Arab woman, her rights and representation’ in hollow terms. Arab feminism was perceived to be limited, if at all existent, with no result oriented goals to achieve in the sphere of progressive dynamics. Blatant opposition was put across at every level of its development, often hindering its capacity because most these scholarships, in spite of not having day-to-day or deep rooted analysis of Arab women, took the leverage of defining their struggle and resistance as a weak and undemocratic phenomenon.
Kumari Jayawardena rightly sums up their opposition against Arab feminism, which they infer as:
‘a product of 'decadent' Western capitalism...it is the ideology of women of the local bourgeoisie, and.. .it either alienates women from their culture, religion and family responsibilities on the one hand, or from the revolutionary struggle for national liberation and Socialism on the other.’
On the other hand, the orientalist discourses find Arab feminism as a mere imitation of women’s rights movement in the West, thereby obliterating its original significance. It makes it difficult for Arab feminism to integrate with the international goal of emancipation of women, irrespective of where they come from. Who gave them the power to define Arab feminism in such deluding terms is hardly questioned but their opinions are easily accepted. Hyper-reality created by mass media, power relations between the first world and third world countries and finally the lack of academic literature on Arab women have helped in distorting the image of Arab world.
Even today, for most of the Westerners, the very phrase 'Arab woman' and their respective identity conjures up the image of a heavily veiled, secluded women, whose lives is limited within the confines of their homes, children and the other females in the 'harem' or immediate kinship circle.
It is interesting to note that during the time when U.S feminism started adopting a prominent foothold, especially during the 1970s and the 1980s, it coincided with the phase when Islam’s image got encapsulated as the ‘new enemy’. One can meticulously speculate the jeopardizing images manufactured regarding the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, Yasser Arafat and the PLO and Colonel Gaddafi in Libya; based on opinions and apprehensions rather than concrete facts.
Thus, the western orientalist discourse speculated these images of Islam and painted it with glimpses of what such proponents of Islam and their counterparts inflicted on the Arab women. It reduced the status of Arab women to ‘mere pawns’ and ‘mute shadows.’ Unfortunately, the focus never shifted to the impressive, layered and long history of feminism in West Asia.
To counter pose these superficial and fragmented narratives that distorted the Arab women’s identity, Annika Rabo and Dawn Chatty have opined that:
“Middle Eastern women’s groups are not…nearly as well documented as in the rest of the world.…There is…a great deal of antagonism between the Middle East and the West where the latter sees men from the Middle East as suppressing and secluding their women, and where the Middle Easterner underlines the immorality of women in the West. This conflict is one reason why women in the Middle East do not get international attention when organized in groups.”
Few West Asian female scholars attending the 10th annual symposium on ‘Next Arab Decade: Alternative Futures’, have taken a critical stand on feminists who focus on only women’s issues. To them, it seems like a luxury to pick out laws which are specifically against women when a majority of human rights violations in Arab countries is against both men and women. This kind of diversion of views just reveals how fragmented the support and mobilization for Arab feminism it. Thus, it makes it difficult to answer the question related to ‘Who is an Arab woman?’ But dismissing their definition on the basis of western scholarship or even fragmented Arab discourse would not do justice to their movements and struggles.
This is where protagonists of Arab feminism need to opine their own perception. One of them is Nawal El Saadawi, an Egyptian feminist, writer, activist and a doctor who has been able to link various threads of the international women's movements with Arab feminism. With her books and literature, she has carved out a new recognition for Arab women and what they stand for. Interestingly, she also introduces the dynamics that through medicine when women can claim over body, they can also interpret the female gender’s body in a more potential form.
Though, very often, she has also been criticized for presenting the presumed image of an Arab woman and her trepidations in which the Western audience actually wants to fit them into, thereby making her understandable and famous in literary circles.
In the Arab world, there is differentiation of public and private spheres through dichotomization of masculine and feminine spaces. This thereby divides them on the basis of phenomenology and thereby making women as victims of subordination. The so called egregious leap from the private realm of privacy and domesticity into the spheres of visibility and communication is an impediment.
Thus, the act of writing in itself equates with an encroachment into the forbidden masculine sphere/territory which should not have been transgressed. Thus, the dissidence of El Saadawi questions these local forms of dichotomies and phenomenology, by destroying the emptiness of silence that has been nabbing the Arab women in a marginalized posture when compared with men
Undoubtedly, it is necessary for women, be it Arab or non Arab, to find ways of liberating themselves from the patriarchal control. Over the period of time, Arab feminism has definitely been recognized as a potential force and Arab women are being integrated into the intellectual and literary circles for more discussion and truth seeking. But it still remains a fascinating study to struggle how the emergence of Arab spring and the change of governments effect on the position of women.
Since the Arab awakening as a phenomenon still continues to be galvanized and unravel itself in different ways, it is indeed difficult to make predictions regarding it. It is once again a matter of great importance of Arab women to come out of her cocoons and narrate how the new governments are trying to emancipate or limit them. The changes should not be mentioned only in ink but also should be followed for every strata of society. Therefore, the world needs protagonists like Nawal El Saadawi who can throw light on these issues. Her position, ideation of Arab feminism and her own personal experiences are definitely a great asset for the entire feminist movement.
The identity of Arab women and their position in gendered power relations would continue to transform and it is only through authors like El Saadawi that one can get the truth and not just get deluded by the hyper-reality created by the mass media. Arab feminism has the potential to make potential contributions in the fields of social, political and economic realities. But as El Saadawi always mentions, it is necessary that women need to mobilise politically and have a greater impact. The time has gone by when feminism was just limited to the urban politically active women who lacked grassroots organic linkage.