Define Yourself: Discussions of Women, Feminism, and the Arab World

Define Yourself: Discussions of Women, Feminism, and the Arab World January 28, 2010

A recent Gulf News article entitled “Feminism in the Arab World” aims to give a picture of, well, feminism in the Arab world.  It interviews professors and students about their experiences of feminism, female leadership, and the status of women in Arab countries.

While the analysis and interviews are interesting (you can go read that for yourself), the piece seems to rest on some rather fuzzy definitions of the very terms that the writer wants to discuss.

Image via Gulf News.
Image via Gulf News.

For example, the “Arab world.”  Spanning a wide geographical area with a couple dozen countries and a population of over 300 million, the “Arab world” contains within it a range of diverse histories, religions, and cultures, even despite whatever similarities lead to it being lumped together under one label.  I’m not saying that the label is totally useless, but to talk about “Arab feminism” or whether there is a “place for Westernized feminism in the Arab world” is a conversation that might have very different responses throughout the region.  When every person interviewed for the article is based in the United Arab Emirates, the potential for such diverse responses is severely limited.  (The focus on the U.A.E. makes sense, of course, in that the news source that published the article is based in Dubai; however, if the writer wanted to focus on local encounters with feminism, she would probably have been better off talking about Emirati feminism instead of attempting to speak for Arabs as a whole.)

Moreover, the “Arab world” is repeatedly assumed to be a Muslim world as well; while it it is true that the vast majority of Arabs are Muslim, non-Muslim Arabs are excluded from the discussion.  This, as well as the assumed homogeneity of both the “Arab world” and the “Western” feminism being (potentially) introduced, can end up reinforcing the idea of the “West” and the “Arab world” (and/or “Islam”) as categorically different from one another, and overlooking the diversity that exists within them.

The concept of “feminism” is also not very clearly defined.  This is perhaps not all that surprising, considering that even many self-identified feminists have a hard time explaining it, and that the whole point of the article is to discuss the varying opinions on the nature and role of feminism within Arab societies, so the lack of a clear definition here actually serves to prove the point of the article, and isn’t really a weakness.  That said, I was struck by the question in the subtitle of the article about whether “the region” is “ready to embrace” feminism, implying that feminism is an inevitability that the region must get “ready” for.  Moreover, “Western” feminism is talked about as if it refers to one clear set of beliefs, and as if all Western women face the same struggles.

In fact, the article fails, in many ways, to define the term “women” as well.  By that, I’m not referring to a biological or even social definition of women (although those discussions wouldn’t be irrelevant either), but rather a definition that specifies which women the writer is discussing.  Early in the article, a professor is quoted to say that some women are attempting to gain greater rights by acting like a “superwoman,” juggling “home duties” as well as a career.  One student interviewed for the article apparently feels that, of all of the Arab countries she has lived in, the U.A.E. is “the most respectful of women’s rights to education and work.”  While these may certainly represent major struggles for a lot of women (in the “Arab world” and elsewhere), they also convey a certain level of class privilege; after all, many working-class women have always had to work outside their own homes (including, often, domestic work in someone else’s home.)

For that matter, does the category of “women in the Arab world” also encompass the foreign women living and working in Arab countries, many as domestic workers?  The assumptions about the race and class of the “women” described in this article need to be questioned, and the answers to these questions can have important implications for how the “Arab world” is understood, and whose interests this “feminism” is meant to serve.  Ironically, the exclusion of certain women from the category of “women” whose interests are considered within discussions of feminist movements is actually a pretty significant point of similarity between the “Arab” and “Western” versions of feminism discussed in this article.

The role of feminism (or of women’s movements, if the word “feminism” is too loaded) within Arab countries is an interesting topic, and one that appears to be generating discussion in various Arab countries.  The conversations will be improved, however, if those who write about them can strive for a clearer picture of what – and who – they are talking about.

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