By Karima H’mimsa
Back from my holidays with my family, I was chatting with my friend Gulhan about my time at Riad Kheirredine in Marrakech where I had an amazing stay. Showing her the pictures on the web we got distracted by an advert about a documentary on Vimeo by Feriel Ben Mahmoud. The film had a very strong title, Feminism Inshallah – the history of Arab Feminism. Created by Feriel, a filmmaker and author, it tracks the progress of Arab women in their long march to assert their full rights and achieve empowerment. After seeing it, it triggered a discussion between the two of us. What meaning does feminism have to those of us with Arab or Turkish heritage, and indeed what impact has it had (or does have) on our lives?
In my opinion feminism has an image problem. I have, for example, noticed that the younger generation of girls have a big problem with feminism. They no longer seem to know what it stands for and more importantly even, have no idea what impact it has had on the freedoms they now enjoy in their lives. Indeed, they actually often respond negatively to the word itself! Why is this? Well, all we need to do is look at how feminism is commonly portrayed now. Words used include ‘men haters’, ‘ball breakers’. There seems to be an image of primordial feminists who have an aversion to femininity itself (i.e. pretty clothes and high heels). Instead all feminists are bra -burning lesbians in dungarees. Indeed these images and ideas are now so prevalent that they in itself represent are form of cultural heritage. As such, it is not difficult to understand why the idea of feminism is so unattractive to a younger generation. So, let’s get back to basics. What is feminism? Wikipedia describes it as:
A range of movements and ideologies that share a common goal: to define, establish, and achieve equal political, economic, cultural, personal, and social rights for women. This includes seeking to establish equal opportunities for women in education and employment. A feminist advocates or supports the rights and equality of women.
Feminist movements have campaigned and continue to campaign for women’s rights, including the right to vote, to hold public office, to work, to fair wages or equal pay, to own property, to education, to enter contracts, to have equal rights within marriage, and to have maternity. Feminists have also worked to promote bodily autonomy and integrity, and to protect women and girls from rape, sexual harassment, and domestic violence.
By redefining the word ‘feminism’ so negatively, we have made it OK again for those with celebrity status, or indeed even those seeking presidential office, such as Donald Trump, to put women down – purely by being able to poke fun at the idea of strong female identity as being somehow comical. Since announcing his presidential campaign in June, Donald Trump has consistently made headlines with a series of controversial quotes, very often directed at women. But it is not just since announcing his presidential campaign in June, Donald Trump has made headlines with a series of provocative quotes and comments: he was always known for his head scratching quotes. In 1988, when Trump installed his first wife Ivana, as president of the Plaza Hotel in NY, he announced he’d pay her a dollar a year plus’ all the dresses she can buy.’ The remark was panned at the time as sexist and reportedly drove her to tears, and provoked outspoken anger in the feminist communities.
The history of Middle Eastern feminism is fascinating, with its modern history emerging between 1900 and 1940 through various women’s movements. Actors include the reformer Qasim Amin who pleaded for the liberation of women in 1899 and pioneer Huda Shaarawi who took off her headscarf in 1923. Discussing all the different types of movements and approaches in different countries here as a ‘monolithic’ block is impossible as – although different movements in different countries certainly influence each other – there is too much diversity and the internal contradictions are too great. However, we can speak of an overall unity and solidarity of purpose between the women’s movements in the Middle East, bound by more than mere geographical proximity. For example, we women from the Middle East share a common cultural and even political identity, regardless of nationality, language and religion. Like everywhere, women’s movements in the Middle East are also shaped by the specific political situation and the reaction of men to a woman’s role within social and political environs. If I were to strongly generalise, I would say that that the reaction of men in the Middle East is and has been more or less positive; as long as women are within segregated organizations that are engaged in charity and / or support activism in favour of the nationalist struggles. Situations have tended to flare up when women demanded more public participation in mainstream politics. In Iraq for example, although there are various quotas for women, in terms of standing as Members of Parliament but, in reality, most are puppet appointments with very few women having real political power (Ed Comment: See Nina-iraq interviews with Maysoon al-Damluji and Parwen Babaker for further insight). In the Western world the First Feminist Wave was the period from 1880 to 1920 in which the women’s emancipation movement was focused primarily on gaining women’s right to vote. Another objective was the admission to university education. In the Middle East it has been ongoing. This has led to some legislative progress – such as the 2011 Family Violence Bill, approved by the Kurdiish parliament. This bill was aimed at reducing the incidents of violence against women, in particular FGM (female genital mutilation). However, overall culturally, there has been significant retrogression in the Middle East over recent years. I believe this is because the ‘feminist cause’ has been hijacked by a belief that feminism is misused to preach Western superiority. So, although many Middle Eastern feminists attempt to explain the link between poverty and the oppression of women, these important points are often lost in anti-Western dialogue.
There have been great strides made though. For example, there have been many discussions recently about Raheel Raza, who led a mixed Friday prayers last June in Oxford. The positive action of a Muslim women leading the Friday prayers of the men, reminds the Muslims that half of their community consists of women. Finding a way to make religion work with women’s empowerment is of course critical. A relatively small group of women from the Middle East have taken up this challenge, looking closely at the male interpretations of the Koran and preaching an alternative interpretation of the sacred sources. However, it should be noted that they usually do this from the relative safety of western exile. SOAS has a large body of work around this https://library.soas.ac.uk/Record/104073 . This new kind of thinking is slowly seeping into a wider perception in terms of the relationship between women’s rights and Islam, influence dress, work and travel. However, in my opinion there has also been a backlash, with Islamic governments reacting defensively. I personally believe that by using a scholar’s approach to promote a more positive stance towards women in Islam feminist goals can be achieved almost imperceptibly. It is certainly far more effective than open feminism, which is often used as a way of illustrating corrupt Western ideology.
Young girls today face a many conflicting messages. Idealism and human rights are set against liberalism, individualism and selfishness. I believe that stories of experience strength and hope, based on women and men sharing stories of achievement help young people negotiate a way through. This of course includes understanding that real feminism needs action from both men and women – as equal opportunities, regardless of race, gender or religion are what will create a world that is better for all of us. Watch the Trailer for Feminism Inshallah at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/feminists/120379039