Listen to Arab women: They know what they're doing

Listen to Arab women: They know what they're doing
Comment: The voices of women from ethnic minorities are not trusted as authorities in their own lives. Arab women can - and do - speak for themselves, writes Amal Awad.
5 min read
06 Apr, 2018
Arab women are often seen as objects of pity by condescending white feminists [Getty]
As I watch the events in Saudi Arabia unfold, I am amazed: primarily, by the sheer courage and boldness of the women who have for years agitated to end the male guardianship system. This is seen primarily through the movement for women to be given the right to drive. But #women2drive is just one component of a far larger issue - that Saudi women are treated as minors.

My amazement extends to something else: the world's interest and response to the events in Saudi Arabia. A month before women will be granted the right to drive, several female activists
were detained.

There is a scarcity of information and not much is clear. However, the arrests do seem to suggest that, despite the success of these women, the authorities in Saudi Arabia are demonstrating that the way forward is not more activism, but deeper compliance. Driving is allowed, but there is no room for more ideas on changing the way Saudi women run their lives.

And the west has responded: quick to dissect, criticise and tut-tut. And in all of this, I thought of how often Saudi women have been spoken of as voiceless, seen as nameless, treated by the western world in a similar fashion to how Saudi authorities treat them: as minors, incapable of making up their own minds about how they wish to live.

There is no denying that the guardianship is an unjust, crippling system. But the women who are telling us this are Saudi women themselves. They are hashtagging their dissent #IAmMyOwnGuardian and #women2drive; they have fought for their rights in the past and paid for it, being silenced, imprisoned and their reputations tarnished.

They have literally been working against the system for years.


Yet, how many western women have I seen become the most devout feminists when Saudi women are invoked? Their social media lights up in disgust, heroically speaking for women who can't speak for themselves.

These are often women who treat females from ethnic minorities in the west with pity and condescension. Women who have spoken down to ethnic minority women, who have long lectured them on how backwards their cultures are, how little agency they have, how troubled their lives must be.

How many times have I been told that a woman's disagreeable choice, such as wearing a headscarf, is because "she just doesn't know any better"?

And yet, now we have the #MeToo moment. Now we have the façade of the western woman cracking - they, too, have problems with patriarchal structures. They, too, don't truly have the liberty to dress, feel and exist as they wish to without fear of criticism, judgment and punishment.

How many times have I been told that a woman's disagreeable choice, such as wearing a headscarf, is because 'she just doesn't know any better'?

How many women have suffered shaming, have been blamed for a sexual assault because of what she was wearing, have felt the need to dress in a way that is antithetical to who they are in order to get a job and fit in?

It is something we have all long known, yet, still, we have seen women speak down to women like me; lectures from people who think they know what is best for us, and they have some authority on the matter.

This is what grates the most in the plethora of priv-lit books written by Anglo women who venture into the Middle East to seek out the truth of Arab women, like they are some contained, unthinking, odd sub-species of humanity and womanhood. Not only are many of these explorations condescending, they are filtered, blemished, told through the very personalised perspective of someone who views herself as superior. She is above the discrimination, sexism and social issues Arab women face. She is the prize pupil who has come out the other side.

And in this we are reminded that, ultimately, the voices of women from ethnic minorities are not trusted as authorities in their own lives.

Arab women are so often the subject of pity; and because women can be their own worst enemies, not only do we have to contend with other women telling us to maintain the status quo, we are judged and lectured by western feminists.

As I have written previously, women can be hugely oppressive. We are instrumental to our own progress. As my own research has uncovered, often Arab women - and women of ethnic minorities in general - are seen as guardians of their communities and cultures, so they will defend them and not speak the truth about problems. To an extent, this is true. And this is something that can be interrogated. But when there are women who want to instigate change, they are not trusted.

Ultimately, the voices of women from ethnic minorities are not trusted as authorities in their own lives

One woman I spoke to about early and forced marriages told me that authorities shut her organisation out from being an instrument of change - despite the organisation being run by Muslim women, the responsibility of dealing with Muslim teenagers under threat of early and forced marriages was assigned to organisations run by Anglos or Christian organisations.

Women from ethnic minorities have only recently been given the space to speak openly about their lives. In doing so, they risk being exoticised further, pitied or
commoditised. Our lives are neatly sectioned out and simplified into ones that lack complexity and shades of colour - we have specific problems, and they stem from culture and/or religion.

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.