Understanding women’s movements historically

When studying the history of women’s movements in the Middle East and Africa, it is extremely important to start from the assumption that the linear, modernist conception of women’s rights that emerged from post-Enlightenment Europe cannot be applied universally (or even within Europe, really). Scholarship on women’s issues from the ME has challenged this idea, by showing that women’s rights and movements ebb and flow; they did not start at one point where there was severe oppression and continue either improving or deteriorating. Rather, we see that during different time periods and contexts, women’s issues changed and the fight for equal rights and representation either strengthened or weakened.

To give a quick example, in the late 1800s, Egyptian feminists (including men) began organizing and calling for gender reforms. Although modest in comparison to today, their demands were very progressive for the time. These demands were complicated, though, by the strengthening of the British colonial state, the fight for independence, and then the military coup of 1952. Since then, a variety of societal factors have led to increasing social conservatism, political repression, and a declining standard of living largely due to the introduction of neoliberal economic policies by Sadat in the 1980s. This has meant that the “women’s issue” has constantly been relegated to the backburner, as “more important” issues are dealt with at the national level. Therefore it is clear that the women’s movement made stronger gains in the early 1900s than in the early 2000s, due to specific barriers that are present today that were absent a century ago. This shows how crucial it is to take into consideration the context and the period, and not assume a linear progression of history.

This logic can be applied at the international level as well. The critique of many western feminists towards “Arab/Muslim” women is that they are lagging behind the “emancipation” happening in the west. How come western women have “developed” so much faster than Muslim women? Why do western women have “more rights” than women in the Muslim world? While it may be the case, according to certain indicators, that women in certain segments of western society are living a better life than women in certain segments of Muslim society, it is important to see this as a reality at a particular point in time, not as a generalizable fact. 800 years ago while women were being treated like slaves in Europe, they enjoyed significant rights and power in parts of the Islamic empire. This shows that we shouldn’t essentialize things like “Muslim women,” “Islamic masculinity” or “European culture” as historically consistent, as the status of women different greatly from period to period and from context to context. It is quite possible that in 100 years, it will be Muslim women, again, that will have a status higher than women in Europe.

Writing this, I realize yet again how difficult it is to speak of women’s issues at an international level. Who defines what freedom is, what equality is, what a woman’s status is? Are women in Europe better off than women in the Middle East (excluding economically)? Who decides that, how is it is measured? More importantly, why is it so important for Europeans and Americans to consistently construct themselves as advanced on gender issues, especially as compared to the backwards Muslim world? Why is the first complaint from Europeans/Americans usually about “the way Muslim women are treated”? Whose power interests do these Orientalist stereotypes serve?

At the same time, we cannot let this stop us from working on feminist activism within Muslim and Arab societies. Yes, our women have consistently been used by the west to show how “backwards” or societies are, and in extreme cases even been used to justify war (Afghanistan), but sometimes it is necessary to look past this and focus internally on how we can work from local, organic perspectives to better the situation of women in our countries. This does not mean importing western ideas of emancipation, gender equality, or feminism. It means working with what we have, which is a lot, and trying to solve problems from a local perspective. We have a long, rich history, of which gender struggles have been present at different points in time. We need to use this history, these discourses, these thinkers, and begin to seriously challenge both the strong patriarchal trends we have at home, as well as the strong Islamophobic, neo-colonial rhetoric we have coming from the west. This is what I see as the big struggle for me as a Middle Eastern feminist: fighting both western Orientalism, and the patriarchy in our societies.

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