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Understanding the Other Sister: The Case of Arab Feminism

Susan Muaddi Darraj is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University. Her essays on Arab feminism will appear in forthcoming anthologies from Seal Press and Northeastern University Press, and her other work has appeared in New York Stories, Mizna, Pages Magazine, Johns Hopkins Magazine, and elsewhere.

One evening, shortly after September 11, I was conducting a college English class when one of my students asked a question about the accumulating body of information on women and Islam. It was one of many questions about the Middle East asked of me in the days after the tragedies; this one was about the veil, and why women in the Middle East “had to wear it.” I explained that not all women in the Middle East were Muslim (I myself am a Palestinian Christian), but that even many Muslim women did not veil. However, many did, and for myriad reasons: mostly for personal and religious reasons and, for some, upon compulsion.

The student shook her head sadly, her long ponytail swinging in the air, and offered a comment that made it clear she hadn’t really digested what I’d said: “I feel so bad for them all. At least Christian women don’t have to walk three steps behind their husbands.” She added, “That’s so insulting.”

I understood—and not for the first time—the astounding disconnection between the lives of Arab women, and the lives of Arab women as represented by the American media and entertainment industries, thus as perceived by Americans themselves. Twenty-three years after the publication of Edward Said’s seminal book, Orientalism, which clarified the historical pattern of misrepresentation and demonization of the Middle East, many Americans continue to purchase wholesale the neatly packaged image of the veiled, meek Arab woman. This pitiful creature follows her husband like a dark shadow, is forced to remain silent and obey her husband at all times, is granted a body only to deliver more children, perhaps even in competition with her husband’s other wives.

At some point (like now), the stereotype spins out of control, becoming more wild and ludicrous, like Yeats’ ever-widening gyre. The portrayal that persists today, however, is not much of an improvement—if at all—over the portrayal of Arab women in the late 1700s to the early part of the twentieth century.

Black Hassan from the Haram flies,
Nor bends on woman’s form his eyes;
The unwonted chase each hour employs,
Yet shares he not the hunter’s joys.
Not thus was Hassan wont to fly
When Leila dwelt in his Serai.
Doth Leila there no longer dwell?
That tale can only Hassan tell

wrote Byron, in his 1812 poem, “The Giaour.” The Giaour is a warrior who avenges the murder of his beloved, Leila, a girl who dwells in the harem of “Black Hassan” and who is put to death by drowning when it is revealed that she has been unfaithful to the sultan with the Giaour. Pierre Loti’s 1879 Aziyadé and other poems and works of the time featured a similar theme, that of the Western hero breaking the impasse of the harem, to be rewarded with the passion of women who have been sexually isolated and imprisoned.

What this compilation of wildly exaggerated and self-indulgently fantastical images has resulted in is the creation of a stark contrast between modern American women and modern Arab women. The rise of U.S. feminism in the 1970s and 1980s coincided with the rise of Islam as the “new enemy” of the Western world. Images of the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran, the Mujahedin in Afghanistan, Qaddafi in Libya, and Yasser Arafat and the PLO concretized Islam’s new role as the author of fear and the enemy of Western democracy, human rights, and especially civil law. And those images of Islam were strategically—almost artistically—painted with glimpses of what Islam did to its own women: it turned them into mute shadows, thus flying in the face of the gender equality and democracy that American feminism claimed as its foundation.

The statements made by my ponytailed student smacked of an underlying assumption that I have heard many times before: we American women have finally succeeded in moving the feminist movement to the top of our nation’s list of priorities; now it’s time to help our less fortunate sisters. Of course, over the years, American feminism has opened its gates (after much pounding) to other versions of feminism, such as black feminism and other non-white, non-upper-middle-class feminisms. Therefore, the focus on Arab women’s issues illustrates the good intentions of American feminism; however, my concern is with the “big sister” manner in which those intentions are manifested. Often, Arab women’s voices are excluded from discussions concerning their own lives, and they are to be “informed” about feminism, as if it is an ideology exclusive to American women alone.

In fact, many American women would be surprised to learn that the history of Arab feminism (a term often considered oxymoronic) is long, layered, and impressive. That this is not well understood in the West is not surprising. As Dawn Chatty and Annika Rabo write in the introduction to their edited collection, Organizing Women: Formal and Informal Women’s Groups in the Middle East, “Middle Eastern women’s groups are not…nearly as well documented as in the rest of the world.…There is…a great deal of antagonism between the Middle East and the West where the latter sees men from the Middle East as suppressing and secluding their women, and where the Middle Easterner underlines the immorality of women in the West. This conflict is one reason why women in the Middle East do not get international attention when organized in groups.”

Not only do the struggles of Arab feminists have a long history, but over the 1980s and 1990s, as Val Moghadam observes in the same book, “women’s NGOs [in the Middle East and North Africa] have grown exponentially and are taking on increasingly important responsibilities in the context of state withdrawal from the provision of social services and in the context of a global trend in the expansion of civil society.” Organizations explicitly devoted to women are growing rapidly in Egypt, Tunisia, and Morocco, while more informal service-oriented organizations led by women play some of the same roles in many other Middle Eastern nations. Some of the leading organizations in Egypt include: the New Woman’s Group; Arab Women’s Publishing House; the Alliance of Arab Women; the Association for the Development and Enhancement of Women; Together; Progressive Women’s Union; the group of women who published The Legal Rights of the Egyptian Woman in Theory and Practice; and The Society for the Daughter of the Earth. (See the chapter by Nadje Sadig al-Ali in Organizing Women.) Taken as a whole, it is a movement that, if allied with U.S. and other feminisms, could improve the lives of women around the world.

The Beginnings

Shirley Guthrie, author of the recently published Arab Women in the Middle Ages, unearths facts about women in the medieval period that challenge the many stereotypes that persist today, such as one that modern Islam reverts to medieval days, thus proof that it is stagnant. However, while it is often thought that medieval Arab women were helplessly bartered off into undesirable marriages, Guthrie informs us that an affluent Arab woman negotiated the details of her marriage contract, and some even included a demand on their husbands to be monogamous, while others demanded the right to initiate divorce proceedings. While lower-class medieval women did not usually have such advantages, they appear to have lived a somewhat egalitarian lifestyle, working side-by-side with their husbands. Women’s issues were not at the fore of social concerns, but medieval Arab culture and the days of early Islam do not seem to have been as uniformly oppressive as they are depicted today.

There is a tradition in Islam of women’s equality, and the life of the Prophet Muhammad is often offered as proof of this; it is said that Muhammad washed his own clothes and darned his own socks, and often served meals to his youngest wife Ai’sha, who later led his army into battle and was regarded as an important and respected interpreter of Islamic laws. The Qur’an leveled the social balances for women: in Islam, women had the right to inherit property, own and operate businesses, and be educated. It banned several misogynist practices, such as the infanticide of newborn baby girls, who were often unwanted by parents who preferred male children.

The rise of modern Arab feminism, much like everything else in the Middle East, is steeped in controversy. In 1899, Qasim Amin, an Egyptian intellectual and a judge, published his groundbreaking book, The Liberation of Women, which caused not ripples, but tsunamis of dissent and discussion across the region. The book, which outlined Amin’s claims that the education and liberation of women was essential to strengthen and emancipate the Egyptian nation from British colonial rule, resulted from his travels to and studies in Europe, where he observed the role of women in Western society. He argued that men oppressed and silenced women, which caused society in general to suffer: “Our present situation resembles that of a very wealthy man who locks up his gold in a chest. This man unlocks his chest daily for the mere pleasure of seeing his treasure. If he knew better, he could invest his gold and double his wealth in a short period of time.” He is generally considered the “Father of Arab feminism” (which definitely is an oxymoron).

However, recent feminist scholars have effectively and persuasively argued that Amin is not the movement’s “founder” in any sense of the word. Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke, the editors of Opening the Gates: A Century of Arab Feminist Writing, argue that men’s feminism (like Amin’s), which developed due to contact with Europe, differs from women’s feminism, which arose out of women’s reflections on their own lives and problems. Leila Ahmed, an Islamic scholar and professor at the Harvard Divinity School, agrees that Amin bases his arguments on a comparison with the West, in which the West is refined, cultured, and advanced, and the East is not.

“Women’s feminism,” however, has a champion in Huda Sha’rawi, a contemporary of Qasim Amin’s who founded the Egyptian Feminist Union and two important women’s periodicals, l’Egyptienne and al-Misriyya. By the time she died in 1947, Arab feminism had a figurehead as charismatic and dynamic as American feminism’s Gloria Steinem. Sha’rawi advocated pan-Arab feminism, which presented a challenge to Arab nationalist ideologies that championed state identity over a general, unified Arab one. Rather, her model worked closely with the pan-Arabist movements, which was a response to colonialism (i.e., the British colonial presence in Egypt at the beginning of the century). She very much saw the success of the pan-Arabism movement as dependent 50 percent on women, whose rights would enable them to better serve their families and their nation. She also compared Egyptian women with European women, but more positively. She traveled to Europe and energetically networked with European women by attending international women’s conferences, trying to make Egyptian feminists part of the expanding global sisterhood.

Arab Feminism Today

One of the most powerful testimonies of Arab feminism today is the recent memoir by Fay Afaf Kanafani, entitled Nadia, Captive of Hope: Memoir of an Arab Woman. A Palestinian woman who was married off to her cousin, and then widowed during the Arab-Israeli war, Kanafani describes the gender inequality in Arab society during the 1940s and 1950s; she also highlights the possibility for a woman with determination to live according to feminist principles, as she sought to do. These principles—founded on an insistence of equality—were not learned from Western feminists, but found within Kanafani herself. Her story is a poignant one, and only one of many emerging testimonies of Arab women who develop their own feminist ideals.

However, it is often difficult to abide by those ideals. Today’s most noted Arab feminist, Nawal al-Saadawi, recently just managed to keep her marriage intact despite an Egyptian lawsuit designed to separate her from her husband. She had been accused of apostasy—the renunciation of Islam—because of comments she made during an interview; the lawsuit against her claimed that she had abandoned her faith and therefore could not be married to a Muslim. The Egyptian court eventually threw out the case, thus saving her thirty-seven-year marriage, but the case was not the first time that al-Saadawi, a doctor and the most recognized Arab feminist in the West, had been in the spotlight.

Al-Saadawi is the author of several novels, and volumes of her memoirs and autobiography, and the founder of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA). Her Memoirs of a Woman Doctor recount her difficulties in earning respect in the medical field and achieving her goals under familial and social pressures to conform to the feminine ideal: to marry at an early age, bear children, and be an obedient wife. Her most recent autobiography, A Daughter of Isis, details her earliest memories of recognizing gender discrimination in Egyptian society, such as the divorce and inheritance laws regarding women, and the preferential treatment of male children. Her medical experience led her to become an outspoken opponent of female genital mutilation (FGM), an extreme form of female circumcision practiced in some rural parts of Egypt and Africa. Her vocal opposition to this and other issues made her a target of Islamic fundamentalists, who put her name on a death list in 1993, prompting her to immigrate to the United States, where she has been ever since.

One indication of the viability of Arab feminism is that, much like the different branches and offshoots within American feminism, divisions of opinion do exist and thrive within its framework. In fact, some feminists have complained that al-Saadawi’s novels are not representative of the higher quality of literature by Arab women, but that her plots, characters, and stories fit neatly into the image the Western feminist movement already has about Arab women. In other words, they believe her work reinforces the stereotype of the universally battered and silenced Arab woman.

Other novelists and writers, such as Hanan al-Shaykh, Fatima Mernissi, Ahdaf Soueif, and Leila Sebbar, tackle this stereotype on different fronts, attempting to render it more accurate. For example, while the lives of some Arab women may fit this stereotype (just as “barefoot and pregnant” rings true for some American women), the experiences of so many cannot be perfectly labeled.

Rejecting the Odalisque

There are other key issues, beside the much-hyped issue of female genital mutilation, around which Arab feminists today organize, including the insurance of fair divorce laws, proper health care for women, family planning education and others. Two of the most prominent have also received some attention from Western feminists in their quest to encompass all women’s voices: recreating a historically accurate picture of Arab women and, of course, the veil.

Historical visions of Arab women have been dominated by the Western-generated frenzy over the odalisque, the favorite subject of many European artists, such as Matisse, Ingres, and Delacroix. In Arabic, oda means room; thus, the woman of the room, or a concubine of the sultan confined to an enclosed space. The odalisque was forbidden to be seen by any other man save the sultan, whose exclusive plaything she was. In Matisse’s Odalisque with Left Knee Bent, the woman sits in one of the rooms of the harem, lounging idly, forming part of the colorful background but not performing any action. The atmosphere created is one of sensual idleness, a woman keeping herself distracted, perhaps while waiting for the sultan to visit. An epitome of available sexuality, she is a figure who appears in many forms and guises in European artwork and literature (for examples of the latter, one need go no further than George Gordon, Lord Byron, who fancied himself an eastern hero of adventures, slipping into harems and battling despotic sultans and sheiks). Her image still pervades Western conceptions of the East as lazy, sensual, exotic, and willing to succumb—the same image that Arab women writers like Ahdaf Soueif and Leila Sebbar seek to reconstruct.

In Ahdaf Soueif’s first novel, In the Eye of the Sun, the main character, Asya, cheats on her husband and has a brief affair with an American student she meets in England, where she is pursuing her PhD. She is disturbed by the fact that her lover perceives her as “exotic,” because she sees nothing exotic about the simple fact that she is Egyptian. One evening, he dresses her in a necklace (which her husband purchased for her) and spews Orientalist-laden sentiments. She immediately recognizes the odalisque fantasy and refuses to be framed in a stereotype that has no relation to her real life and concerns.

The rejection of the odalisque is masterfully expressed in the fiction of Leila Sebbar, another Arab woman from the East but transplanted to the West (she is an Algerian living in France) and the author of the Shérazade trilogy. Shérazade is a young, Algerian runaway, roaming the underworld of Paris and trying to find herself. Is she French? Is she Algerian? She is often both (and sometimes neither) depending on the situation. Shérazade meets and befriends Julian, a Frenchman with a passion for Orientalist art, who quickly projects his Byronic fantasies onto her. However, Shérazade has been toughened by the Paris streets and the growing awareness of the silencing of Arab women due to a popular image that portrays them as vulnerable and powerless. She leaves Julian, but not before proclaiming, “I’m not an odalisque”—in essence, she has refused to be defined. At the end of the novel, she has hitched a ride to the south of France, from where she intends to find a way to Algeria to seek out her roots.

The examples of these two writers illustrate the effort of Arab women to reclaim their identities and correct a historically maligned portrait.

The Veil

In 1923, Huda Sha’rawi caused a scandal in Egypt when, upon stepping off a boat that had just returned from Europe (where she had been attending an international feminist conference), she seized the media moment and publicly removed her veil, symbolically denouncing its meaning by throwing it into the sea. However, its meaning has never been universally agreed upon in Arab societies, probably because each society and each historical moment has ascribed a different one to it. During a visit a few years ago to the Gaza Strip, I saw five-year-old girls sheathed in black; I also saw teenaged girls in the West Bank wearing hijabs that flowed to the waistline of their jeans; in fact, the hijab seemed to protect their heads from the hot sun as they played basketball on a full court. What does it all mean? Probably that the veil is not a simple, one-dimensional marker of gender oppression. In Women and the Middle East and North Africa, Judith E. Tucker has written of some of the complexity associated with women’s choice of dress, which cannot always be attributed directly to patriarchal admonitions:

“Veiling” has become, certainly in the Western view, a touchstone for women’s issues. In the 1980s and 1990s, many women in different parts of the Middle East, particularly in urban areas, have donned a new form of “Islamic” dress that includes a long dress or coat and a head scarf often worn without a turban. Although social pressure cannot always be ruled out, many young women appear to choose this form of dress over the alternatives of Western-style dress or various indigenous styles worn by older women. Several explanations have been offered for this trend. First, sociological reasons include the advantages such dress provides for women who study or work in mixed-sex environments. By wearing Islamic dress, women can proclaim their seriousness and avoid the tensions produced by the rapid erosion of sexual segregation while maintaining access to public space. Second, women, like men, have found that the post-independence promises of progress through Western versions of liberalism or socialism have not borne fruit; they signal a “return” to indigenous culture and authenticity as a guide to a better future. Third, there is a rising tide of religiosity in the region that translates, for women and men, into changing dress styles.

Leila Ahmed, author of Women and Gender in Islam, asserts that one of the only elements of Qasim Amin’s The Liberation of Women (1899) that was considered scandalous was his call for the abolition of the veil. Assim declared that the veil was un-Islamic. (It may surprise some Western feminists to know that they are not the first to criticize the veiling of Middle Eastern women, but rather that it has been a subject of intense debate for over a century.) Ahmed said that dialogue about the veil emerged in a heated political and economic context, one in which some Egyptians sought to advance the nation by adopting the Western ways of the British (who still colonized Egypt at this time) and some who believed the same could be realized only by ousting the British and reviving and preserving Islamic traditions. However, Ahmed illustrated clearly that the British “Victorian male establishment” used the idea that Muslim men oppressed Muslim women as a justifiable pretext for its colonization and “civilization” of Muslim countries. As one might expect, the veil, interpreted as a symbol of the silencing of women both by Europeans and by some Egyptians, served well as tangible proof of that oppression.

Many women in the Middle East today see the issue of the veil as an important locus of discussion; I personally know of marriages that have broken up because husbands want their new brides to be “more conservative” and wear the veil. Many other women see the veil as irrelevant to the central issue of women’s rights; arguing over it serves to distract from the real problems of women’s access to education and health care, and the increasing poverty in which Arab families find themselves.

After September 11

In the days after September 11, I telephoned friends of mine, women I had known for years to inquire if they were experiencing the backlash against Arab- and Muslim-Americans, and anyone else unfortunate enough to resemble them in the minds of people who don’t know better. Several of them—all of whom wore the veil—told me that they had been verbally targeted. “I hated stopping at red lights today,” said one of my friends, “because the people in the cars next to me would curse at me and give me the finger.” After I hung up with her, I turned on the news and learned about the Pakistani woman who was almost run over in the parking lot of a grocery store; her attacker then followed her into the store and threatened her life. I did not see a picture of the woman, but wondered whether or not she wore any sort of head scarf that would “mark” her as a target.

And then I thought of how Islam was terribly misunderstood. The few ritual concessions to tolerance uttered by national figureheads such as President Bush and New York Mayor Rudy Guiliani (scarcely consistent with their own actions) did not erase the fact that most Americans remain unaware of the basic facts about the Middle East and Islam, and women were suffering from that ignorance. For example, while Afghan women and their plight had been singled out by the American media as an example of how backwards the Taliban was (even though, to its credit, American feminism had been criticizing and attempting to educate people about the Taliban since 1996), these same women were also forced to herd their families into refugee camps and/or watch their houses be destroyed in the storm of bombing of Afghanistan that followed the September 11 attacks. The media’s popular portrayal of Muslim women as universally helpless and dominated by the patriarchy that continues to exist in Arab culture (as if any society is free of it) has reinforced American perceptions that Arabs and Muslims are degenerate and twisted, thus worthy of domination and bombing.

And yet, if Americans, especially American women, understood the long and enduring history of Arab feminism, then perhaps my students would be able to formulate comments on Arab and Muslim women that were more informed and sensitive. Such commentaries would recognize the complexity of historical struggles, rather than making those waging these struggles invisible under a pervasive stereotype. It is not up to Western women to diagnose inequality in Arab society—it has been diagnosed. Rather, American women should recognize that Arab women themselves—and even some Arab men—have grappled with gender inequality for over a century. This is the message that American feminists have largely not heard, although it must be heard and Arab women’s voices included in the discussion of building bridges and confronting women’s issues on a global scale.


In…[some] Islamic societies the repudiation of the veil was an important symbol. In Iran, the militant Qurratul Ayn defied convention by appearing in public unveiled as early as the 1840s. In Turkey, Kemal Ataturk’s wife set an example by wearing Western clothes. In 1923, the Egyptian feminist and nationalist Huda Sharawi added a dramatic touch to her rejection of the veil by flinging it into the sea. It is a sad commentary on Middle Eastern societies today that the veil should not only be revived and donned voluntarily by women who are part of Islamicist movements, but reimposed, as a legal requirement, in Iran.

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