Arab women do not need “saving,” just solidarity

Last week in Cairo, an Egyptian organization held a conference entitled “Women’s Empowerment” tackling a variety of topics including corruption, trafficking, gender based violence, gender wage gaps, and sexual violence. The case studies and speakers focused mostly on Western countries and the problems women face there, highlighting Christianity as the impediment to gender equality. The surprising aspect of this conference is that none of the similar violations in the Middle East or Muslim countries were discussed. This shocked one of the attendees who said that these issues are not strictly “Western” they are found all over the globe.

Indeed they are.

Now, I ask you to look at the previous paragraph and substitute the word “Egyptian” with “International“, the word “Western” with “Arab or Muslim” and “Christianity” with “Islam“. Would you still be shocked by such a conference? Majority of people would not, because that kind of tone has become the norm today. [The first conference I mention above in Cairo did not really take place, I was just flipping the situation around to make a point].

I’m not against addressing religious or cultural barriers to gender equality, I think it is necessary, I merely find it counter-productive when the focus is mainly on these aspects because people become reactionary and do not engage honestly in such discussions.  It also voids the discussion from important political/economic/class dimensions of the struggle.

Since the start of the Yemeni uprising many activists have been invited to a number of conferences to discuss the revolution, women’s rights or the Arab spring. Many have taken this as an opportunity to highlight issues often neglected in main stream media, and to correct some of the misunderstandings. Lately however, some international conferences on women’s rights made these female activists feel uncomfortable during the discussions, as the focus was on “saving” women in Arab or Muslim majority countries, as if they are the only women suffering from gender inequality.

Activists are not denying that there are a number of obstacles facing women in many of the Arab countries, but that does not mean that women in other places do not have to struggle as well.

The way women’s situation is sometimes discussed today is reminiscent of colonial rhetoric about “saving” women from oppression and the need to “educate” these women (with the superiority it implies). While in the past it was based on religious superiority, today it’s from a secular perspective but with similar undertones.

In many international conferences, photographs of Muslim women are often the icon for oppression and the focus is on religious interpretations and cultural traditions only, without a look into the history of oppressive regimes that have long neglected gender equality.

Too often conferences only highlight cultural and religious reasons for women’s oppression forgetting to also indulge in discussion on history and political developments. As Professor Lila Abu-Lughod wrote “the question is why knowing about the “culture” of the region, and particularly its religious beliefs and treatment of women, was more urgent than exploring the history of the development of repressive regimes in the region.”

This unfortunately turns the discussion into a polarized East v. West, rather than a worldwide struggle for women. I am not someone who believes in the dichotomy between “East” and “West” because I believe in the human spirit, in the fact that we all share common beliefs, goals and aspirations clothed in different cultural traditions. I do not like when things are reduced to such measures, and I find it to be counterproductive as many people respond with reactionary views simply to hide their wounded pride.

When conducting such events, organizers should pay attention to the tone of the discussion and it is imperative for women leaders around the world to emphasize Solidarity – as some international groups already do –  through partnerships and exchange of ideas, stories of struggles and lessons learned from all over the globe.

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