I grew up in the aftermath of 9/11 and the distant shadow of two wars with Muslim countries. In a white, feminist household, I became familiar with terms like burqa and Taliban, and learned to associate the Arab world with Islam and the all-too ubiquitous image of a faceless woman imprisoned under swaths of black fabric. As a college student, I somehow have ended up focusing my attention on women and their rights in the Middle East, and I want to work for organizations involved in women’s empowerment in the Middle East after graduation.
But the deeper I delve into this subject, the more I realize that the concern we Westerners have expressed towards Arab women has a deep and sinister history of conquest, empire, and subjugation, and the more I find myself questioning my own motives and justifications for being passionate about this kind of work in the first place. The kind of discourse I grew up around, that still pervades American discourse today, is that Arab culture is backwards and bad. It subjugates women, hiding them away in houses and behind veils, and Islam is more often than not to blame. The bottom line is that Arab women must be saved, and we are the only ones who can do it. This is the same othering discourse that has been in use for literally hundreds of years to justify aggression and colonization.
In the beginning of the nineteenth century, during the Barbary Wars against pirates off the coast of North Africa, the flames of war were fanned with accounts of poor, helpless Muslim women who were subjugated and brutalized by their barbaric men. One hundred years later, British colonizers in the Middle East employed what Leila Ahmed calls “colonial feminism,” appropriating the language of feminism and deploying it to support the idea of Arabs as culturally inferior. They focused on practices like veiling and segregation to expose the backwardness of Arab societies and justify domination over them. All the while, the same establishment that opposed the veil glorified the ideal of Victorian womanhood, stuffed into a corset and far too content with the pleasures of the domestic sphere to bother herself with politics.
A prime example is Lord Cromer, the British Consul-General in Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century, who argued that women’s low place in Islam was what prevented Egypt’s “attainment of that elevation of thought and character which should accompany the introduction of Western civilisation.” Meanwhile, his policies discouraged women’s education in Egypt, and he himself was a founding member of the Men’s League for Opposing Women’s Suffrage at home. His interest lay less in liberating Arab women than delivering them to the far-superior subjugation of English women.
This sort of discourse is disconcertingly familiar today, only a decade after at the outset of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq when we were inundated with images of oppressed Muslim women in need of saving from their culture. Laura Bush’s radio address in November, 2002, for example, enlisted these images to justify the invasion of Afghanistan, saying that because of it, “women are no longer imprisoned in their homes. They can listen to music and teach their daughters without fear of punishment. . . . The fight against terrorism is also a fight for the rights and dignity of women.”
The prevailing discourse of the helpless, veiled Arab woman completely wipes away Arab women’s agency, in their own lives and in promoting social change. In the media, we do not hear the voices of women who are organizing within their own communities to fight for their rights and improve their lives. This discourse also ignores women’s investment in their culture and participation in its perpetuation. It is difficult for Western feminists to come to terms with some women’s participation in female genital mutilation or honor killings, and the fact that even though the American media throws around the veil as a sign of oppression, Muslim Arab women who wear it usually have chosen to do so. The “saving” of Arab women through the exportation of American values and practices wouldn’t necessarily be a gift.
It is this unsettling parallel in discourse that now makes me feel the need to reexamine my motivations for studying Arab women, keeping in mind the power relations inherent in one group of people studying another. Can I learn about the struggles Arab women face, and assist them in those struggles, without carrying the baggage of paternalistic, “colonial” feminism? Can I do so in an authentic way that does not, in a Cromer-esque fashion, belie the struggles that American women are facing at home?
I think the answer must lie in examining what culture has come to stand for. All too often, talking about culture means talking about the culture of another, the underlying assumption being that we ourselves are in a neutral, enlightened position from which we can comment on others. It is an othering device. By focusing on the culture of those we vilify, we can forget the political and economic ties by which we are interlinked and and the serious consequences of our own actions. Talking about a monolithic Arab culture that oppresses women is a way of distancing. It allows us to be self-congratulatory, because we can point to the poor Arab women and be glad we’ve come so far. It is far more useful to look past “culture” as a unchanging explanation for an unbridgeable divide and think of it in terms of a system that reproduces and justifies power structures in a society. That way, we can see similarities instead of otherness.
For one example among many, violence against women may go by different names in the US and in Arab countries, but at its root it is the same phenomenon. In Arab countries, the term “honor killings” refers to the murder of women who have transgressed sexual mores. “Honor” places the value of a woman’s life on her chastity, rather than her skills, education, or accomplishments. In Jordan, about 15 “honor killings,” are reported per year, and the Jordanian legal code has loopholes that lighten sentences for murderers who killed women in the name of “honor.” The crimes essentially function as a way to control women’s actions. The flexibility of what constitutes dishonor allows an abuser or killer to invoke it to justify his actions, whether the trigger was his wife’s adultery or an unknown number in his daughter’s cell phone. Although the crimes affect a relatively small number of women, the corresponding cultural discourse that these women deserved what they got, that they were asking for it, harms women’s safety and autonomy much more broadly.
In the US, rape and violence against women are deeply entrenched in and tacitly condoned by our culture. In the US, one in six women can expect to be raped or sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and one in three women can expect to be physically or sexually abused. More than three women a day are murdered by their intimate partners. Rape is hugely underreported, and when it is, it is very unlikely that the crime will be prosecuted, not because of the legal code, but because of cultural norms. We don’t have a name to justify these things like “honor.” The cultural codes that condone these crimes are far more subtle and certainly not encoded in law, but we see their power every time we use blame-the-victim language that tells us that women who step out of line, by dressing too provocatively, or challenging their partners, deserve to be violently punished. It is our culture that prevents women from obtaining justice and raises new generations who will continue cycles of violence against women.
We have no basis on which to seek to change Arab culture or “save” Arab women. However, we do have a right to criticize if we do so in a context of solidarity, attempting to address the very same power relations that oppress women in our own culture. To do otherwise is to become the new Lord Cromers of the world, supporting the same power structure at home we condemn on the surface abroad. We cannot use the idea of an essential, immutable culture to declare a people backwards and take that to its inevitable, imperialist conclusion, but neither should injustice and oppressive power structures hide behind the justification of “culture” and escape all scrutiny. We must criticize the oppressive principles underneath the surface, where we find them in other cultures but most vitally where we find them in our own. The most important thing we can do as outsiders is find true solidarity, respecting Arab women as their own agents of change.