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Drafting a New Story: Women's Rights in the Middle East

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By Iman Kurdi

September 3, 2010

THE French feminist movement — Mouvement de Liberation des Femmes (MLF) — celebrated its 40th anniversary last week.

I was surprised at its youth. After all Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal book, “ The Second Sex”, was published in 1949. I was also a little surprised at the gesture that marked its inception. In 1970, a group of women laid a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris to remember “the wife of the unknown soldier” and the MLF was born.

Back in 1923, Houda Shaarawi famously threw off her veil at a Cairo train station. This event is often stated to mark the beginning of the Arab feminist movement. What strikes me with both gestures is that they define feminism in a way that contradicts my own views of what women’s liberation should be about.

Laying a wreath for the wife of the Unknown Soldier is great. It reminds us that the casualties of war are not just the soldiers killed in battle but also the women and children who are left behind. My problem with it is that it continues to define women as “wife of” or “daughter of” and not as individuals in their own rights.

Similarly Houda Shaarawi’s famous gesture would have been one I would have gladly taken with her had I been alive in 1923 but I find I have misgivings about it in 2010.  Though shedding the veil was a great symbolic action and illustrates vividly the idea that women will no longer be hidden but want to be taken into account as the equals of men, it unfortunately also overly restricts the debate over women’s liberation to the superficial question of whether or not a woman wears a piece of cloth on her head or over her face, an argument that still rages today. It also pits feminism against religious tradition.

When I consider feminism in the Arab world, my first thought is that it is often defensive. Though there are many women who are fighting on a daily basis to achieve positive and concrete changes in the lives of women, from access to education to divorce rights, much of the theoretical debate has focused on fighting Western conceptions of feminism. Part of this has been a discourse to fight the charge that Islam as a religion denigrates women and treats them as second-class citizens. What happens then is that women organize themselves to fight this erroneous view and to show that Islam was revolutionary for its time and gave rights to women that their counterparts in Europe and elsewhere waited centuries to obtain, but it also sets up the idea that feminism is a Western concept and is incompatible with Muslim and Arab traditions.

So what exactly is feminism? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines is thus:

1. The theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.

2. Organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests

When I read that definition I find it hard to believe that any woman could say she is not a feminist. I also find it hard to classify the definition as Western or Eastern or secular or Muslim. Equality is a value judgment. It does not say that the two genders have the same role, but that their roles have equal value.

Similarly, whatever your social, political or economic circumstances, it is natural and normal to want to better them and to fight for your own rights and interests. Rather than defend the status quo or engage in futile comparisons between East and West, what is needed is a gradual and practical approach by women for women where they fight for change that will better their lives. That fight can only be successful if it is done within socially, culturally and religiously acceptable parameters and when you look at women’s movements in the Arab world that is exactly what they are trying to do.

Labels are not always useful. I avoid labeling myself a feminist because it politicizes something that is part of my nature. However, I can pinpoint the exact moment when I became aware of gender issues.

I was a small child and we were visiting my grandparents in Madinah. One afternoon, from behind the ornate shutters on the balcony, I saw children playing in the street. I rushed out to join them only to be chased away. They hurled dirt at me and shouted “Kafra! Kafra!”. I ran home crying. Back then we lived in Switzerland and in my schools playground boys and girls played together. I had not even noticed that the children playing on the street were all boys.

The experience marked a lifelong yearning to have the same access to the world as people who happen to have been born male. My own personal definition of feminism is rooted in personal choice. It is not about whether a woman pursues a career or whether she stays at home and brings up children. It is not about whether she wears a short dress or covers her face with a niqab. It is not whether she drives a car or takes the bus, or whether she works as a bank clerk or a supermarket checkout girl. It is not about whether she is married or remains single, it is not about whether she travels alone or accompanied, it is about having the choice to do so or not and choice demands rights. That’s where the personal becomes political, the choice to be mistresses of our own destiny cannot be won by wishful thinking or by leading by example but by rights enshrined in law.

But if today I must look for an example that differentiates between feminism in the West and that in the Arab world, I wonder whether it could be summed up by this reality: In one place women fight to be paid the same wage for doing the same job as a man, in another women fight for the opportunity to do the same job as a man.

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