With allies like these: How 'pseudo-feminists' are foot soldiers of the patriarchy
As an average Arab young woman, I have undergone sexist indoctrination from a very early age. My childhood memories were filled with the widely common gender stereotypes; from given dolls as gifts, to being called a "doll" by adults, who complimented my parents about my looks.
While there were clear forms of gender discrimination, I was too busy living my childhood to the fullest, and it was not until I hit puberty that things began to change. Just like my body grew, my critical thinking skills developed, and I noticed a significant difference in treatment between genders. Adults who would advise girls to hide the "feminine areas", considered a source of seduction, were not the only ones who treated them differently.
As soon as they hit puberty, relationships between genders change drastically, mainly due to a lack of a proper sexual education in which boys, who inherit the menstrual stigma from male figures around them, tend to distance themselves from girls.
At the same time, there is an increasing weight of gender-related expectations on girls in how they should look and dress in feminine ways, mainly to look attractive for boys, who in turn should act mainly and emotionless. Most of all, the restricted dress freedom, and curfews only imposed on girls, alarmed me about my status as a teenager.
" I dug deeper, looking for feminists who have the same skin colour as I had, spoke the same language, and especially, tackled the challenges related to an Arab conservative society, where I grew up"
I observed everything that was happening around me, and intuitively denounced the unfairness of this established social order, which was reinforced by those who actively supported it and others who disapproved yet remained silent.
I took to the Internet and read books about gender and its dynamics, and found out that my inner revolt against inequality around me had a name: feminism. Being raised in a relatively Western-oriented family and going to a French school, I found myself attracted to Western feminism, and followed European and American women’s rights movements.
However, after some time, the issues Western feminists were advocating did not speak to me; their activists did not speak the same language as I did, and the reality of their countries were different from mine.
I dug deeper, looking for feminists who have the same skin colour as I had, spoke the same language, and especially, tackled the challenges related to an Arab conservative society, where I grew up. I did not have too much trouble finding feminist activists from the Middle East and North African region, and various organisations advocating for women’s rights.
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While women’s hard-won gains on different levels have been made in the Middle East and North Africa, thanks to the effort and sacrifices across different generations, the public's mentality has not moved at a similar pace. Although many women in the region acquired social and economic independence, they are still held hostage by society’s patriarchy and traditionalism.
In this way, an Arab man would be in favour of his wife working, motivated by financial reasons. Yet, if the latter does not properly fulfil her "housewife duties", then the husband would criticise her work as an issue since she is supposed first and foremost to take care of her family and home.
Hence, if the woman even temporarily focuses on her career at the expense of her house chores, husband, or children, problems will arise within the couple's relationship. Generally, and after her husband’s constant harassment, the wife would face a dilemma: the choice between work and family.
This common situation in which Arab women find themselves is due to the sexist education children get, particularly with boys raised to rely on their mothers and sisters when it comes to house chores. They internalise these values and grow up expecting their partners to fulfil the same role as their mothers.
Despite women occupying high positions requiring much responsibility and skill, men still perceive their primary role remains at home, handling cooking and taking care of the children.
The feminist movement has always been demonised by many Arab men for taking away women from their fundamental function as a "procreation machine", and removing them from their natural place: the home.
Meanwhile, men who try to embrace feminism in their culture generally tend to shape it according to the social conditioning they as men have received. During international and national days focusing on women and their rights, these men only praise women for being mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters, while at the same time they would also use this same narrative to denounce women’s abuse.
There persists this urgent need by men to control women and define their roles, and ultimately so-called feminist Arab men visibly do not know the difference between a woman and a mother. As a young feminist, I have had much trouble convincing male Arab friends that there is a mothers’ day and a women’s day, that these two ideas are separate.
"The feminist movement has always been demonised by many Arab men for taking away women from their fundamental function as a "procreation machine", and removing them from their natural place: the home"
However, it is even more surprising how the Arab feminist movement internalised the roles set by men for women, and show this adherence in their advocacy.
For example, a domestic abuse awareness campaign made by Abaad, a Lebanese NGO, in December 2020, went viral. In the video, the artist Remi Aal first referred to women as Baklawa (an Arab traditional pastry), which sweetens men’s lives, in an attempt of being poetic. Later in the video, Aal described women as men’s lunch, coffee, voice, Fairuz (a prominent Arab singer), morning, holiday, mother… Then, the artist calls for men to “see and feel” women.
Although the intentions behind the awareness campaign were well-meaning, the message behind the video was purely anti-feminist. The metaphors narrowly described women from a man’s gaze, showing their value as merely objects fulfilling his physical and emotional needs.
Unfortunately, this type of misogynistic advocacy is not the only in its kind, and many Arab feminists use this type of argument against the abuse of women by presenting women as mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters, as well as manifestations of the happiness and tranquillity they bring to a house.
This type of feminism is not inclusive of women who chose to not get married or not have children, and at worst, seems to normalise abuse towards them. Moreover, this argument is a supplication to men to not get abused by them on the basis that women are part of their family, rather than clearly and absolutely denouncing the very act of abuse or emphasising that feeling safe is a natural right. It is also a confession of women’s physical weakness and suggests a constant need for protection by males in their families.
Furthermore, shedding light mainly on women’s role at home is not recognition for women, who already proved their competency in various fields. Such arguments only reinforce the traditional perception of women, men’s misogyny, privileges, and widens the power imbalance between genders.
While women are not blamed for choosing to get married and have children, others who do not follow the same path are negatively looked at because of the glorification of these sexist stereotypes by everyone, including feminists.
A woman's professional and academic accomplishments are often trivialised because they are not acknowledged by men. As women and feminists, our main battle remains the absolute need to liberate ourselves from the shackles of men’s gaze on us, and how it creates and validates our self-image.
Tharwa Boulifi is a Tunisian freelancer who writes about feminism, human rights, and social justice. Her work has appeared in Teen Vogue, Newsweek, the New African, African Arguments.
You can follow her on Twitter: @TharwaBoulifi
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