Arab Feminism: A War On Two Fronts

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I like to refer to identity as a kaleidoscope—turning it over even slightly reveals an entirely new and ever-changing aspect of who a person is. For better or for worse, one of the aspects of my identity includes Western-Influenced perceptions of women’s rights. As an american born daughter of immigrant muslim Arabs, my identity was always teetering between what felt like two extreme ends of the spectrum. In my (96% white, southern) middle and high schools, I was shaping myself to fit into a group of students with a pretty lost idea of what Arab culture was. When I got home from school, I was trying to fit into the mold of what my parents deemed a good muslim and Arab girl. My life was spent going back between two extremes before ultimately feeling lost and without an identity of my own. 

Having just claimed feminism in the last year, I dove into it without any understanding of how complicated it really is. It wasn’t until much later on that I started playing with the idea that there are varieties of feminisms—what I call “shades of feminism”—and that there really is no one-size-fits-all feminism. Since this realization, I’ve been fostering conversations about Islamic and Arab feminisms. Then I had to ask myself: how much is my American upbringing affecting my perception of women’s rights in the Middle East? Is it possible or even right to argue for Arab and Islamic feminisms when feminism itself could possibly be a Western concept?

It dawned on me that the world has even divided feminism into a binary understanding: postcolonial western feminism and everything else (which is deemed inherently inferior)—both of which have demonized the other. And somehow we’re supposed to just choose one. When I behave, speak, and dress in a certain way it’s difficult not to feel conscious that I’m acting within the norms of one side or the other. Everything seems as if it’s an explicit act of advocacy or treason, resulting either way in feelings of guilt.

Arab identity comes in a variety of forms but over time people within the community have come to associate certain dress and behavior with certain values. To be demure and modestly dressed is seen as chaste and respectable. The opposite is seen as Western influenced and therefore corrupt and loose. To be an Arab within a Western community comes in extremes of either “it’s okay, she’s like one of us” or “she needs to be saved from oppression.” 

One of my most constant internal conversations revolve around the question: can non-western feminisms ever just be feminism? Not in the sense that they all become uniform, but rather in the sense that other feminisms (1) could be considered on their own without needing to be compared to white feminism and (2) aren't seen as variations of what the West claims is indigenous only to itself. 

Maybe. But for now, I’m all too aware that to do so now would be to turn a blind eye to contemporary power structures between the West and East. The power structures draw attention to whose been writing history and delineating the values the rest of the world gets to react to. When your behavior, dress, and opinions are inseparable from certain values, it feels as if everything is a political statement, whether or not you’re choosing to consciously say it.

For a time now, my internal battle has been trying to live outside of the extreme ends of the spectrum and rather reside in the space in-between. It’s a constant war on two fronts: acting to resist Western concepts of feminism and women’s rights and acting to resist traditional Arab concepts of feminism and women’s rights. 

In an article about Black hair and politics, writer Antonia Opiah puts it perfectly when she writes:

 

“The Civil Rights Movement (a call for equality and thus a call for a power shift) is largely responsible for “militarizing” the afro, hence today’s associations with natural hair as militant.” 

 

This is exactly true for this generation of Palestinians, many of which are donning long curly hair and afros as a war on two fronts: to defy the Western norms of presentation and to defy the Arab culture which has internalized Western beauty and thus demonizes its own members for breaking those norms.

As an Arab feminist, your war on the Arab front is to want to separate the beauty of Arab culture from the mutilating colonial and post-colonial identity construction. In other words, dismantling the Arab patriarchy while trying to convince society that our identity will still be unique to us. The battle lies in doing so without being seen as a traitor or corrupted by the West. The other front is with the West, whom you have to convince that you’re not saving Arabs (or Muslims) from themselves but rather trying to dismantle the patriarchy—just as every other society is doing.

For a time, I was consumed by the idea that feminism is a Western imposition on the rest of the world. But to assume this is to uphold a power dynamic in which concepts of feminism are indigenous to to Christianity, Judaism, America, and Europe and then somehow discredited as Western-influenced when they appear in the East. It’s used against us as a tool of delegitimizing Arabs as a people. 

So, I’ve come to my own conclusion that Arab feminism is most definitely a thing, if not in practice, then at least as something to foster and fight for. We get so caught up in the extreme ends of the spectrum that we forget about the vast space in between: a space without identity and therefore, full of possibility. As a self-proclaimed Arab feminist, part of my journey has been to occupy that liminal space and construct something that exists without, well, structure. It’s the space without ostracizing norms and identity politics, one in which we’re normalizing non-western beauty and non-western feminisms. And most especially, normalizing the idea that no shade of feminism is better than the other. 

For the time-being, however, that's a work in-progress so we need to take advantage of the statement you’re (consciously or un-consciously) making. I often say that when you can't change a situation, you should change the way you think about it. So, if our personal characteristics and choices are going to carry a cultural message, you might as well use them as a strength. Amplify and carry them with confidence, because while the world may be divided in halves, you're at least in the middle where you can forge your own path. Might as well do it with love for yourself. 

Yasmeen MjalliComment