Trifecta of Arab Feminism

Ancient Bedroom, by Hanna Ali Khliefat

Since the recent assassination of Osama bin Laden, negative representations of the Arab-Islamic community have resurfaced in the mainstream and social media outlets despite the stamina and success of the Arab revolution. The Arab revolutions that have spread from Tunisia to Egypt, from Libya to Syria, from Bahrain to Yemen and beyond, defined the youth of the Arab global community as a courageous, rebellious, intelligent and modern one.  Even though the revolution of the post Islamist Arab Revolt has begun to change the perception of Arabs and Arab Muslims in the United States media, interest in the “justice” of bin Laden’s death and debates regarding the sentiments of those that celebrated in the streets at Ground Zero and Washington D.C. have exposed the normalized discrimination and inherently hateful language that has been engrained in U.S. society’s public discourse of Islam, Arab’s and existing wars in the region. This is the same hateful language and discrimination that has justified the support of Arab dictators that are now being toppled by their own people, and the same negative media attention that encouraged hate crimes against Arab’s in the United States, post-September 11.

The question is, have Arab’s made any improvements in the United States popular culture representation of Arab’s and Arab Muslims?

With this question in mind, and no answer in sight, I discovered what I call the “Trifecta of Arab Feminism”, based on concepts of the book “Opening the Gates; A Century of Arab Feminist Writing”, by Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke. This trifecta represents the three ways that “Opening the Gates” Arab Feminist writing was organized; Awareness, Rejection and Activism.  “These are not firm categories,” the author explains, “They are loose arenas that do not pin down the discourse but rather open it up for debate and allow its complexity to emerge… The texts show that feminist activism comes not only from conscious, organized, collective actions but may occur as everyday acts of life carved out with little or no clear feminist consciousness” (Badron, xxi).  In this sense, the “Trifecta of Arab Feminism” represents the era’s of Arab Feminist discourse and activism over the last century through the type of literature that was produced, as well as indicators of Arab female response to their role and constraints in society.

1860 – 1920’s –  Awareness – Era of Invisible Feminism

1920’s – 1960’sActivism – Rise of women’s public organized movements

1970’s – currentRejection- Resurgence of feminist expression in some countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, and the first wave of feminism for others as well as the Arab Revolution (Source: Badran, xviii)

So, I ask again – has the Arab image improved since the Arab Revolution, and/or digressed post – Osama assassination? This question is truly indicative of the fact that the plight of Arab feminism has not made significant strides in recent history because it remains on the back-burner to the overall desperation of human and political rights of Arab society as a whole. For example, after the January 25 Egyptian Revolution that toppled the dictator Hosni Mubarak from the country, Egyptian women demonstrated in Tahrir Square to commemorate International Women’s Day. Women were met by 200 attacking men that sexually harassed them and told them to go home. Many of us were shocked at what seemed to be a counter-revolutionary tactic by the thugs of Mubarak. The unfortunate fact is that even though Arab women were marching and demonstrating as part of the revolution, their plight for equality became a casualty to “the larger cause” of democracy. The status of Arab women has historically been compromised and undermined – despite their contributions to society, livelihood and in the political arena. The revolutions of the Arab world will have done nothing if not liberated women from the misogyny and fear of sexual abuse.

The End of the World, by Hanna Ali Khliefat, March 21, 2012 in Ain Mousa, Al `Aqabah, Jordan

The invisibility and denial of the Arab female liberation movement has only devalued the revolution and stunted the representation of Arab people in United States and western mainstream media. The fact that women’s rights is not part of the cultural shift in Egypt is a prime example of ways that the invisibility of the Arab feminist movement is reinforced.  It will not be possible to improve the U.S. popular culture representation  of Arabs and Arab Muslims until the status of our women are elevated and empowered. But this is not, in its entirety, the responsibility of the oppressor. The Arab feminist movement lacks a global unified voice. Arab feminism has simply found a different way to manifest the universal values also believed by the western feminist movement –  through writing. It has also encountered unique obstacles, in that it fights for distinction and place in society – through dictator rule and revolution, the voice for women’s rights has been silenced in unimaginably abusive and oppressive ways. But it has survived.

“Questioning the inherited ‘wisdom’ passed down by patriarchal authorities and surrogates, the women anthologized share a new ideology reflecting their changing everyday lives. Through their words they reject imposed patterns of thought, and they breach walls of silencing. By affixing their signatures to their words, they eradicate namelessness” (Badran, xix). One way to act, as an Arab feminist, is to keep these discussions on the forefront – to “destroy patriarchally produced female archetypes and replace them with [our] own prototypes: women who have their own aspirations, desires and needs”. The movements uniqueness should not be erroneously assumed as nonexistent, it suffers invisibility and denial, but it is swelling within Arab female circles and gradually staking its claim to the public arena – demonstration by demonstration, blog by blog.