Perception of Women and Women’s Rights in the Middle East

I was rooting through some old documents the other day and found an essay I wrote for my civil society class at Georgetown University. I remember spending a few days at the library with Starry Gee researching the issue, and even as an Arab woman living in the region, there were a lot of new revelations, not just about how others perceive us but how we perceive ourselves. Not to toot my own horn, but it’s an interesting read. 

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American exposure to the Middle East increased exponentially after 9/11. There was a desire to learn about the other side. Perhaps because this exposure came with a wave of anti-Islamic sentiment, the perception leaned more negatively. Many saw the region as fostering primitive beliefs and backwards traditions, especially concerning women. One of the main problems was the inability of some to distinguish between the Islamic religion and Arab traditions, and the lack of knowledge of other religions and beliefs in the region.

Generally in the West, the idea of ‘male protection’ or the headscarf is viewed as signs of inequality, and the idea that women would embrace these ideals considered ludicrous. But, what is considered oppressive by some is not viewed the same by others, as is the case here. Cultural relativism plays a large role. The problem is that each side believes the other to be culturally conditioned.

In the book, “Women in Islam: The Western Experience”, the author makes mention to the in-group/out-group perception, where one observes the ‘practice’ of other groups but the ‘ideology’ within their own.

Clearly the missing aspect here is communication, or rather, the lack thereof. This can be seen from the introduction of universal women’s rights in the region. According to ‘Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights’ –

“The modern language of human rights is confrontational and insensitive to traditional resources…” (pg. 145)

What is perceived as westernization by the region is rejected and the people revert deeper into the old traditions. This furthers the impression of intolerance. The media also plays a momentous role in this issue. Again from ‘Islam and the Challenge of Human Rights’

“As soon as women in those societies appear covered in their headscarves…our cries of human rights violations becomes part of media and academic sensationalism.” (pg. 145)

However, Muslims families in America give an altogether different perspective. They tend to integrate themselves to American culture without losing their own, and this is helping to change perceptions and dismantle misconceptions.

With the advances of technology and communications, these gaps between cultures and regions is closing day by day, as people from each group begin to grasp the differences, but also the similarities, of West and East. This understanding will pave the way, hopefully, towards peace.

References:

1)      Women in Islam: The Western Experience. Anne Sofie Roald. Routledge. 2001

2)      Muslims in the United States. Ilyas Ba-Yunus & Kassim Kone. Greenwood Press. 2006

3)      Islam and The Challenge of Human Rights. AbdulAziz Sachedina. Oxford University Press. 2009

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“What Makes an Arab, Arab?” or, Arabs in America

Elections in the United States are just around the corner, and the event is on everyone’s lips, or Twitter feeds, for that matter.

There are these series of promos on Al-Jazeera Arabic, with young Arab-Americans speaking about the elections, the outcome, the future of the United States, etc. They wear professional business suits, with the United States Capitol in the background, and speak in accented Arabic.

One of the men in these recurring promos is a corpulent Lebanese-American by the name of Abed Ayoub. Abed looked very familiar to me, and I realized that he was one of the speakers on a panel that we attended at Georgetown University, during the early days of the MEPI program.

The reaction I had when I attended this panel is the same as when I watch these promos; why should Arabs care about what  ‘Arab-Americans’ think about America?

I remember the other speaker at the panel, a woman named Maya Berry. Ms. Berry spoke about her role in the Arab-American Institute, and about the challenges Arab-Americans faced. I remember her saying, “My mother is of Lebanese origin, so I can talk about this,” and then gave a nervous chuckle. Because, if you have some sort of Arab link, you have a licence to involve yourself in their affairs when you want, right? I’m being sincere here.

But I look at these people, and they make me wonder. When I hear them talk, it’s clear that they love the United States. So why do they work so hard to retain an ‘Arab’ identity? Is it pressure from a family that doesn’t want to forget their roots? Or a personal conflict within themselves?

Now, you’d probably say,(if you had lasted this long in my rambling)  Nada, why can’t a person be both Arab and American? It’s their identity, their right to define who they are.

I’ve struggled for years with this identity thing, denying I was an Arab because I was so ashamed, and then trying to throw away the Western behaviour because I wanted to fit in. I always hated when people labeled me. So I shouldn’t be doing it to these people, right?

But the honest truth is, I just don’t see them as Arabs. Everything about them screams ‘American’, and I don’t feel any particular connection or link with them. I may be going beyond my jurisdiction here, but I think other Arabs feel the same. I don’t believe you can juggle two differing personas, the ‘Arab’ and the ‘American’. One of them will dominate, and that’s the one people will identify you with.

Knowing Arabic does not make you an Arab. Being able to dance the dabkeh, or being able to pronounce it, for that matter, does not make you an Arab. So what does?

If I knew the answer to that, life would be much easier for me. The best answer I can give you is my friend Mary, (check her out on the A7kili (talk to me) blog.).

Mary is an Arab. Strongly Arab. You just get this vibe emanating from her. She sings Faryuz songs at the top of her lungs. She speaks Arabic at 50 words a minute. She is uncomfortable around American food. When she talks about the Middle East, her eyes are fire. She doesn’t apologize about it. She doesn’t make excuses, or try to put the blame on someone else. She doesn’t pretend to act like a Westerner.

I think this is what an Arab is.

I don’t resent Arab-Americans. I admire that they love the United States. I think it’s nice that they are so patriotic. But I cannot see why they identify as Arab.

Part of me has this dreadful idea that they have been bought, by a government that wants to give off the impression that they are multi-cultural and tolerant no matter how many wars abroad they are involved in.

I recall reading a short story by Stephen King called “Everything’s Eventual”, about people who have supernatural abilities, and have been hired by a company to assassinate people with these powers. What do they get? A house, a car, a weekly allowance. In short, a life of comfort and security. At some point in the story the main character reflects on how he killed over 200 people, and it only cost the company a small house, a Honda and 70 bucks a week.

It that it, then? Can you hire a person and nail them to the facade you wish to show the world, and it’ll only cost you a business suit and a couple of interviews on T.V.?

Back to Reality

I’ve been really neglecting this blog, but the past two weeks have been such a whirlwind of activity that I haven’t really had time to sit and gather my thoughts. The heartbreak of leaving Georgetown, the events of Wisconsin, the closing of the program and the journey home have all been extremely overwhelming.

After two days of almost continuous sleep I’m still a bit jet-lagged, but I feel lucid enough to type out a post.

It’s 5:30 a.m. in Benghazi, Libya. The electricity has been going on and off since I arrived, due to repairs. We’re rebuilding the nation, remember? I’ve resumed my pace of life here quickly, and it almost feels like the MEPI program was a dream. But I look around my country and see everything that still needs to be done, and the motivation that ran through my veins during our time in the USA comes rushing back.

It no longer seems as daunting a task that it used to be. I have support now, from across the world. Didn’t we learn from our leadership retreats that a group is always stronger that an individual?

I miss my friends greatly at this moment. The separation of our group was difficult. It feels like ripping up your heart into pieces. Every hour another group would go, another hour of hugs and tears as we said goodbye to each other.

I didn’t get to see Faten, Ammar or Haneen when they went in the morning. Imagine my surprise when I woke up (when did I even fall asleep?) and found the time to be 6:15 a.m. I ran downstairs to the hotel lobby and found no one. They already left.

The next group was worse. Ikram, Mancef, Redouane, Tahar, Shimy, Lea, Randa and Fadwa all at once. I just had to look at Redouane and the tears would start flowing all over again.

Then Ghada, Rahma and Ahnar. God.

We were next, Mary and I, leaving behind Farah and Anwar. By that time we were all cried out. Then I gave Mary the Libyan flag and the water works started all over again.

And our mentors. And Catie.

Heartbreaking.

But not over. Not yet at least. In the words of Robert Frost,

“…I have promises to keep,

and miles to go before I sleep….” 

Fast Food Politics

I’m sure that by now everyone’s heard of the recent fire storm over the comments made by the owner of the Chick-Fil-A fast food restaurant. The ever controversial issue he commented on; gay marriage.

So, would you support or boycott a restaurant based on the political views of the owner? Many Americans would, including politicians. The mayors of several cities have called for a ban on the restaurant being built in their cities, because they feel that the remarks of the owner go against American values, like tolerance.

But then, where is the tolerance for this man’s beliefs? He is certainly entitled to state his opinions.

What’s so interesting about this issue is how it has split the nation. People are either extremely supportive of the restaurant, going as far as standing in line for hours to purchase food, or extremely against, calling for a boycott. But it begs the question; why would you express your political views through something as petty as fast food?

I think part of the reason is that there is very little room now a days in America to speak against homosexuality. Because the idea of gay rights has become so important, and has been compared to other struggles like the African American civil rights movement, that holding contrary opinions makes one look intolerant and small-minded. Supporting the restaurant of a man who shares your views is one of the few ways to express your opinion on the subject.

I personally believe that likening an anti-gay marriage position to racism is false. Homosexuality is a much deeper issue, and the stance that people take against it is not based on a shallow concept like skin colour.

The issue surrounding the Chick-fil-A restaurant is, I believe, a reflection of a much deeper problem in the USA. Freedom of speech is only permissible if it’s speech that supports the latest advocacy fad. Debates have become more parroting what one side says than actual substantial arguments on personal beliefs, because people no longer want to think.

I’m going to leave it here because my thoughts are beginning to scatter, but I think that much can be inferred from this event.

July 25th

The following is the speech I gave during our Capitol Hill visit to speak with interns. The topic I was expected to speak about was Libya’s recent elections:

Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. Before I start I’d like to introduce myself, I’m Nada Elfeituri and I’m here representing Libya and the MEPI program.

       It is my honor and pleasure to be standing in your presence. As you might have heard, Libya has recently held its first ever national elections in over 40 years.  You can imagine the pride and joy I felt, feeling like a true Libyan for the first time. It was emotional, exhilarating, but most of all, it felt empowering.
      Words are not enough, sentences are inadequate, and paragraphs cannot do that moment justice, the moment I cast my ballot and felt the chapter of the old era close for good. We no longer need to look back, but forward, and this is truly the first step in rebuilding our country.
      Our situation is almost unique.   We had dismantled the entire government. So when it was announced that we would be holding elections, there was much speculation. Wasn’t it too early? Is the nation prepared to take on such a task? And what about the issue of security?
      But, Libya is unique. We had already achieved what some thought was impossible, and there was no way to go but forward. I am extremely impressed with the way our election turned out. The level of organization, transparency and security was incredible. Walking into the voting station and casting my vote felt completely natural, as though it’s something we’ve been doing for years.
      I believe these elections have proven to the world that Libya still continues to defy expectations. Despite the uncertainty, our outlook remains bright. Our goal is democracy, a free and fair society with equal opportunities for all. Women now make up 17% of the newly elected parliament, a testament to our determination in seeing this goal through.
       Libya has entered a new era, and my generation is fortunate enough to be on the forefront of this historic time. It was the previous generation who kept the torch of hope alive, and passed it on to us. The cost was great, but freedom never comes cheap. Now it our turn to preserve this hope and pass it on to future generations.
      What made the elections even more momentous to me was being with my fellow students and mentors, and brought to light an essential point; that unity between different people is not just possible, but necessary.
       In closing, I would just like to add that the region has entered a new era, and my generation has been fortunate enough to be at the forefront of this historic time.
      Thank you.

Feminism

July 24

I’ve been grappling with this topic since I was a teenager. People have asked me before if I was a feminist, or believed in feminism. I’ve never really had a definitive stance.

On the one hand, I do believe in a woman’s right not to be discriminated against on the basis of her gender, which is the root problem in society and especially in the work place. I also believe that men and women are not ‘equal’ in the sense that they are the same, because there are fundamental differences. And there’s the Islamic perception of women’s rights and a woman’s position in society.

There are aspects of my religion, when it comes to women, that I have a problem reconciling with. But that doesn’t mean I turn to feminism to fill in the void left by my uncertainty.

My main beef with feminism is the current wave and it’s proponents. The movement has become almost synonymous with anti-men, and I feel that contemporary feminists are going beyond fighting for equal rights to demanding more rights for women than men.

I read a fascinating article about the topic of quotas in The Economist. The premise of the article was that quotas in the workforce do more harm than good.

Quotas force firms either to pad their boards with token non-executive directors, or to allocate real power on the basis of sex rather than merit.

You can read the article here.

I think that these methods tend to create animosity between the two genders and widen the gap of understanding. Would a man sympathize to women’s causes if he sees her getting jobs and opportunity because of her gender?

Again, this is a complex topic that I have never been able to hold an affirmative stance on. I can tell you one thing, however. As a women, I appreciate when the men in my country allow me to cut ahead in the bakery line, or fill up my car with gas so I won’t have to get out. I think that this type of respect does more for the empowerment of women than expecting a woman to behave like a man.

Op-Ed: Burma’s Silent Genocide

You wouldn’t think, in this day and age, that the mass murder of  a large group of people would go unnoticed or unacknowledged. The Syrian crisis is always in the news, the Palestinian plight is widely known. But no one can hear the Rohingyas.

There is a genocide going on in Burma. Innocent people are being killed en masse in an act reminiscent of the Holocaust. Their crime? Being Muslim.

You’re probably wondering why you’ve never heard of this before. Many doubt the veracity of the story because no major news outlets are talking about it. But now that the issue has reached the UN and Human Rights Watch, it is beginning to receive attention. The ugly truth is that the media, whether deliberately or not, has failed.

Google it and the best you’ll get is a Wikipedia page an a handful of articles. It’s no wonder why people are doubtful. Wouldn’t an issue this big make the headlines?

Here are the facts:

Again I ask, how can a massacre of this magnitude be largely ignored? It boggles the mind and begs the question, would the media at large ignore these kinds of catastrophes if it does not serve their interests?

Burma is a relatively unknown country, and the Rohingya people are virtually unheard of. A similar incident occurred with the Uighur Muslims of China a few years back, and then also there was minimal media coverage.

Social media is playing a bigger role in this conflict than the mainstream media, with the story gaining momentum especially on Twitter. It’s a testament to how much social media has changed the world that, while the Rohingya people have been persecuted for decades, only now is there story beginning to emerge.

To be Continued…