Reconciling My Feminism with My Arab Identity


Arab Feminism?

Feminism and Arab Identity shouldn't be mutually exclusive.

I recently read Bad Girls of the Arab world—a book which felt like it was written for me, especially when I stumbled upon it in a tiny shop in rural North Carolina. At the risk of sounding cliché, the book changed my life forever. Cliché? Check. True? Absolutely. This was one of those books in which every other line makes you go yes!! and you grab a pen to write them down because the lines are so good you’ve got to embrace them before continuing. There is one line in particular that perfectly captures everything I am as a feminist Arab woman (and no, that isn’t an oxymoron):


“while the [bad Arab] girl fights injustice tooth and nail...her narratives also operate as powerful reminders of the consequences of such bold looks like there are no positive possible outcomes to their quests.”


In reading the line, I wanted to be proud because I knew it was written for the likes of me. Such a feeling, however, didn’t last long before I felt sadness envelop me. It’s true, to be an Arab girl who lives beyond the norms, shatters stereotypes, and fights injustice, means that you will live a difficult life. Let me explain:

The trope of a bad Arab girl is not a new one in the Arab world—in fact it’s millennia old but that’s a different story. For me, the threat of being dubbed a bad girl penetrated my life with fear, weighing me down with shame when I made (what I thought were) mistakes. I grew up with severe warnings to stay away from this girl or that girl so that I wouldn’t end up like them. Those girls became scandalous enigmas with reputations they may not have even deserved. And although I had never spoken to them, I was in awe but more so afraid. I didn’t want to end up like the bad girls everyone in the Arab community disapproved of.

As a child, it never dawned on me that my brother and I would have different opportunities in the world, that I would be restricted from things he didn’t even have to ask about. I never knew what feminism was, and to be honest, even if someone had explained it to me I would’ve been confused as to why we needed it.

As a young Arab girl growing into herself and coming into the world, I’ve been harshly awoken to the extreme injustices that I am subjected to in the name of honor, religion, and tradition. I lost my trust in a world that would protect me. Suddenly, I grew into a woman who needed to protect herself from the world.

When I made my move to work and live in Palestine, I never imagined that I would have to choose between my nationalism and my feminism. As a woman who advocates for gender equality, I’m forced to choose between being a feminist and being a Palestinian in a state which allows domestic violence in the name of gender roles and murder in the name of honor.

I must say here that the Arab world is not synonymous with the oppression of women—but when we act unjustly towards women, oppress them, and deny them the right to opportunity, then we are confirming the stereotypes for the Arabs which the world has given us.

The more I embrace the beliefs which I stand by, and the values which I fight for, the more I distance myself from the possibility of being a good Arab girl. And for that I am called unrespectable, dishonorable, corrupt, and just plain lost.

Why do I have to choose between my feminism and my Arab identity? I should be able to love my body without the slut-shaming, to dismiss oppressive notions of honor because I believe in individual freedom, and to want equal opportunities for both men and women in Palestine.

And I used to feel badly when I didn’t fit the stereotype, when rumors within the Arab communities made their way back to me. But now I feel that I have become a member of a movement for social justice for women. I get messages from other young women on Instagram who want to connect to someone who finally understands them. I want to use my own struggles as a voice to pull women together in a really scary world and to build a family for the brave.

There is comfort and strength in the chorus of voices that ring with the survival of brutality, isolation, and incrimination.

I’m not going to feel guilty for advocating for women’s rights in the Arab world anymore. I will, however, keep asking questions because the answers are a reminder that the gender norms restricting women are still alive and thriving. Being yourself is never the offense, it’s that Arab culture is still pushing this conception of what a good Arab girl is. It’s a conception that I’m tired of trying to conform to and one that I’m ready to keep fighting.


Yasmeen MjalliComment