A Love Letter to Arab Feminists

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is not the Arab #MeToo and it's time to stop calling it that. 

If you had told my 14-year-old self that one day, as a young woman, she would be an avid feminist and women’s rights activist, I would probably have cried with joy. Well, in all realness, I probably would have asked what feminism is and then would have cried with joy.

My relationship with feminism—in which I actually understand and defend it—is a new one. Like, in-the-last-year type of new. Needless to say, my feminist awakening happened very late on in life. Growing up was so tumultuous and confusing for me because I was constantly fighting with my parents and a larger culture that I felt were violating my feminist beliefs, even if I couldn’t put it in words like that yet. In hindsight, my perpetually angry teenage self was troubled because of gender-based issues and discrimination. My life as an Arab woman was already defined for me from the moment I was born. The catch was that no one had ever sat me down and told me the things I was allowed to do and forbidden from. So, I would get in trouble only after I had unknowingly done something in violation of the unspoken societal norms for Muslim Arab women. And I felt very alone for it.

Fast-forward a few years and my 20 year-old self is living in Palestine in a cramped apartment and working an unpaid internship. I was happier than I’d ever been in my life because I was in the company of loving and unconditionally supportive women. For the first time, everything that I was suddenly became okay. Over time, I grew more confident to say the things I had always been ashamed to think and terrified to admit. My deviation from the trope of a good Arab girl wasn't only tolerated, but was accepted

That’s when I realized that my whole life has been filled with the hunger to be understood and supported by other women who struggle with what I struggle and were yet still full of light and love.

And here’s the difference: I could not feel this way in the presence of any feminists. I am flourishing in the presence of Arab feminists. When I advocate for gender equality in the Arab world and as an Arab woman, I am defending Arab feminism.

This is where I like to use the phrase “shades of feminism,” which speaks to the variety of feminisms which exist (and rightfully so!) all over the world. There is no one-size-fits-all for feminism. What works for Palestinian women is different for Palestinian-American women. There is white feminism, Arab feminism, Islamic feminism, Christian Arab feminism, etc. Every culture has—or should have—its own feminism in which, within that particular socio-cultural context, women are inherently free and gender equality is practiced and celebrated.

This is why I have a love-hate relationship with the #MeToo movement. The fact that it was catalyzed in Hollywood by white women (12 years after Tarana Burke founded #MeToo) finally paints sexual harassment and gender-based discrimination as an international issue rather than something inherently Arab. For the first time, the fight for gender equality isn’t in the history books of white culture, but is on the forefront of socio-cultural issues today. For the first time, women are rallying behind their respective movements (#MeToo, #NotYourHabibti, etc.) and uniting to illustrate that gender-based issues exist all over.

It’s okay to compare #MeToo and #NotYourHabibti for the sake of seeing what is similar and different. It is NOT okay to say #NotYourHabibti is the Arab #MeToo because the West needs to stop forcing itself into the center of every socio-cultural dialogue. The feminisms which evolved in the US, Europe, Christianity, and Judaism are seen as internal and indigenous. Yet somehow, the feminism evolving in the Arab and Muslim worlds are discredited as Western influenced.

The Not Your Habibti movement was started to empower Arab women. It is designed to unearth the labyrinth of gender-based issues affecting Arab women throughout the world from a place of compassion and unconditional fond regard, with the conviction that deviating from the norm is to be celebrated. 

I have this theory that everyone you have met and will meet later on in life is healing. We’re all healing, dealing with some sort of difficulty which has affected us more than we may want to admit. I believe that the mean-spirited never properly healed from something that happened to them. They were never given the safe space of unconditional fond regard to work through anything so that they could emerge stronger and yet still kind. With street harassment, sexual assault, and gender-based discrimination, I knew that I needed to deal with it properly so that I and every other Palestinian woman could go through life not having survived, but rather having thrived. I wanted to create a network of support, a family of women who would lift each other up in the midst of the issues we were all terrified to speak up about. 

This is a letter of love and thanks to every woman I have met who has stood with me on this journey to gender equality in the Arab world. Because of you (and all the women I have yet to meet), I stand with more love for myself and for others than I could have ever imagined. For the first time in my life, I don’t feel like the fuck-up. My hunger for my rights as an Arab woman doesn’t make me feel alone or lost. I move with confidence, speak with grace, and act with kindness because I am uplifted by other Arab women celebrating each other.

Scattered all over, we are coming out of the shadows and into the light as a family ready to take back our own.

Yasmeen MjalliComment