The current realities of targeted suppression of the ‘marginalized’ Arab peoples are tearing the fabric of traditional politics and conflicting identity politics are emerging. Traditional politics in the Arab world, whether it was concerning Feminism, Nationalism, Islamism, or Socialism have always had a utopian undertone to them. This almost always meant that there was a disconnect between realities on the ground and ideology. This disconnect meant in the case of ideological leadership that oppressive regimes, regardless of ideologies, end up looking the same (whether it was a nationalist socialist regime, a liberal capitalist, or an absolute monarchy). They all become a family business. As with marginalized political ideologies including feminism this leads to a massive gap between the masses it supposedly addresses and the theory it proposes.
It is rather interesting to point out that there is no single word in the Arabic language to denote ‘feminism’; rather feminists in the Arab World refer to themselves as ‘Women’s Rights activists’. No direct equivalent to the term was in coined for a variety of reasons:
1- Feminist movements hoped to tear down an unjust and hierarchical structure within the family and this was very problematic. In the late Ottoman period when feminism in the modern sense of the word surfaced, a movement of women fighting for their rights and identity as women was by far less attractive because it appeared more hegemonic; in contrast to an advocacy for decency that promoted the betterment of situation of women.
2- Most of the early feminists were of the Ottoman elite and were not revolutionary.
3- The Feminist movement was a direct offspring of classical liberal Western intellectual scholarship.
Feminist movements in the Arab world followed in the footsteps of 19th Century French feminism and seemed not to progress beyond that point. Its main failure was that it presented itself as the ‘Just’ social change but it was viewed by many as an elite intrusion. This was not entirely inaccurate. The zeal with which some prominent elite feminists approached bettering the ‘helpless, oppressed, and ignorant’ rural and urban poor women turned a good portion of modern Arab women against their activism.
In essence liberal Feminists and self-proclaimed Radical feminists such as Nawal al-Saadawi have fallen into the same trap that justified male chauvinism to begin with and entrapped them in a very ugly and snobbish image. For example, Nawal al-Saadawi once set up a campaign to educate rural women about contraception. In the point of view of a rural woman, here would be a bunch of women unaware of her typical day-to-day life attempting to correct it. Another manifestation of this unhealthy imposition of ideals, in Tunisia for example, was the myth of the ‘enlightened despot’ Habib Bourguiba, who freed the women from clutches of traditionalism.
In the political context, the cultural and semantic debates reserved the limelight. The cultural debate is of course shamelessly abused by those who want to materialize on the suffering of the Arab Peoples, in general (whether under direct colonialism, neo colonialism, and dictatorships), and Arab women in particular. In liberal circles this culture debate is known as ‘Islamists VS Women’ and in Islamist circles this debate is known as ‘the empowered Muslim woman VS the infiltrations of cultural western imperialism’. Sadly, women and our very real grievances get lost between this empty show of strength (this is not the only victim of elite politics at war in the Arab world). This action and reaction never ending ‘political merry-go-round’ transformed religion into the chauvinists of the Arab world’s leaning stick and a ground justifying the racists’ Islamophobia.
The Arabs revolted after they had completely lost faith in utopias, great leaders, and ideologies. Revolution was a question of survival not bravery. The ‘Cliché liberal feminist’ may have the loudest voice in condemning chauvinism but not much else. Arab men will never accept feminism in principle; no one relinquishes power willingly but they are made to accept it when the woman fights and asserts herself. No one being can free another; rather one is only freed when they free themselves. And that’s what the Revolution is about.
Views expressed in articles are the author’s and do not represent Comment Middle East
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