File photo from a protest in Beirut for women's rights in January 2012.
A speaker delivers an impassioned message to a crowd of protestors, urging those in government to revise Lebanon's marital laws. © Nadim Kamel
File photo from a protest in Beirut for women's rights in January 2012.
Last updated: May 6, 2013
Mayar Kotb: The limits of the “feminist” discourse in the Middle East

“Can feminist advocacy in the region occasionally and unwillingly do more harm than good?”

With the uprisings being witnessed in several Arab countries, the issue of “women” has come to light in various ways. From The New York Times reporting on Bahraini women taking “pride in their vital protest role” to an International Women of Courage award handed over to Tripoli citizen Hana El Hebshi to a Muslim Brotherhood press conference titled “Woman: From the Revolution to the Prosperity.” While I whole-heartedly support the improvement of the status of women anywhere, by focusing on the Middle East I aim, however, to draw attention to the limits of such female oriented initiatives.

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Causes that aim to empower women tend to unintentionally perpetuate the very category they are trying to break out of. As the influential critic Wendy Brown argues, women studies are politically and theoretically “incoherent” because by definition they restrict “women” to an “object of study.” Indeed, while media outlets and academic conferences are constantly bombarding us with material on “the role of women” in the Arab uprisings, hardly ever is the case that one alternatively speaks of the “role of men.” This is because men are not made into a similar object of study. When commenting on last year’s Women’s International Day, Lara el Gibaly, a freelance Cairo based reporter tweeted the following:

“How can you take a group of people, stick a label on them, and then expect them to somehow break out of the stereotype that YOU just imposed on them?” Similar to ethnic and pro-homosexual groups, the more you talk about women as “women,” the more you perpetuate the idea that they are fundamentally different. 

Women based initiatives often neglect men. While it is true that women suffer under a patriarchal system, it is equally the case that men do as well. Patriarchy in fact refers to the rule of male elders – a political, social, cultural and economic system in which men and, particularly older men, are privileged, have more rights and more access to resources.  Hence, while all patriarchs are men, not all men are necessarily patriarchal. According to the anthropologist Sherine Hafez it was under Mubarak’s regime in Egypt that young men in particular, and males in general, became targets of random state violence, torture, and humiliation. In addition, the male head of the family was systematically disempowered through increased costs of living and unemployment. According to professor of politics, Salwa Ismail, this led young men to start using the public sphere in order to reassert their masculinity that was being marginalized by the repressive regime. Examples of this include the practice of female morality surveillance in certain urban quarters to open sexual harassment of women on the streets.

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Perceiving societal problems only in terms of gender can, therefore, serve to turn a blind eye to wider problems such as government corruption and economic hardship.  Indeed, one will find that the places where it is most hard to be a woman are more often than not the same places where it is most hard to be a human being in general.

Feminist rhetoric can backlash when exploited to legitimize foreign domination. As the scholar Paul Amar states, the discourse of “Middle Eastern maleness” is one of the primary tools that western newspapers and politicians operate when analyzing political and social conflict in the region. While this discourse is central to feminist advocacy, the rhetoric that it propagates can be a primary node of domination. For instance, the issue of women and their “liberation” was a central component in the rhetoric employed by the United States when invading Iraq and Afghanistan in 2001 and 2003. This leaves us with the following question: can feminist advocacy in the region occasionally and unwillingly do more harm than good? This is not to suggest that we should not address the indisputable problem of gender inequality and violence in the Middle East. But that we should at least be aware of the consequences that may arise when addressing this issue without understanding its deeper roots.

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We cannot deny the historical achievements of women’s struggles around the world. The limited number of women in parliaments, and the very fact that women are still struggling for the right to drive in Saudi Arabia, to give one example, suggests that a long path still lies ahead in the region. However, we need to expand our perception of societal problems and stop thinking about them in terms of gender. Indeed, women in the Middle East face certain oppressions, but what must, most importantly, be grasped are the socially produced conditions that cause such oppressions to begin with. When we see women in the Arab world protesting in the streets, it should not necessarily indicate anything specific about them being women, but people demanding their rights of freedom and social justice in their own countries. The day we no longer need exclusively female-directed initiatives is the day that humanity acquires a more rounded view on progress and development.

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