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. 


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.


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

“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.


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….” 

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.


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…


 July 21st –

Museums are almost never on the list of fun things to do. No one wants to see a museum unless you’re a tourist with nothing to do for the day. Who would want to spend their time staring at pictures of paint splatters, or reading about the history of some obscure inventor (unless you’re into those things, which the average person rarely is).

The major reason for this comes from the design of the museum itself. And no, I’m not going to get all architectural. Museums are usually extremely dull because walking around hallways with pictures hung up on either side is not stimulating for the mind.

This is why the newseum in DC is so incredible. It takes much of what we know to be boring about the typical museum and resolves it. The building is vast, with wide open spaces, a central glass elevator and most importantly, interactive displays.

But maybe the theme of the museum itself gives it an upper hand. The newseum focuses on the history of journalism, a topic vast enough to be appealing to a wide number of people. Some of the most interesting aspects of the museum:

Pulitzer Prize Photo Gallery:

Pictures may say a thousand words, but Pulitzer pictures define the entire human condition in that one snapshot.

The Five Freedoms:

This is something I would love to see in Libya, in the most public place possible; a written declaration of what our freedoms are. It’s good to be reminded. I’ll list them in order of importance to me.


Freedom of Press by Country:

Some pretty big shockers here. There are countries who had more free press that I had thought, and others less. For example, Russia has very little press freedom. I mean, okay, Russia isn’t exactly a flourishing democracy, but I had expected them to have some press freedom, especially after seeing the protests on Red Square during the elections this year. On the other hand, countries like Kuwait have a fair level of press freedom, despite the fact that they are “monarchies”.


But what really, really made my heart soar was seeing Libya’s ranking. Before the revolution we would have been deep in the red. We had no press in Libya, much less a free one. But there, in yellow, among the developing nations, was Libya. These maps are updated every year, so I’m positive that very soon we will be in the same league as the first world countries. And I’m not just saying that out of optimism. There is literally no restrictions on our press at the moment, and that’s something we won’t be changing.


Another significant thing I saw was, among the fallen hero journalist, was Mohammed Nabous, a young man from my hometown who broke media silence during the beginning of the revolution and who was killed. It’s good to know how far his voice reached.

The Berlin Wall:

They actually have part of the Berlin Wall in the museum! How insanely cool is that? A piece of history just sitting there. Can you imagine how many forlorn eyes have gazed on? How much misery those blocks of concrete caused? It also reminded me of another wall, built to separate and oppress, and which still stands, under the pretense of ‘self-defense’.

There was also the 4D theater, which showed videos about movers in journalistic history like Nellie Bly and Edward R. Murrow. At the top is a terrace with a spectacular view of DC.

July 18

I wrote previously about the tendency of others to speak on behalf on Muslim women. Today was a symposium where everyone basically said what they think women should or should not do.

It was really uncomfortable, for many reasons:

1) The main attendees were high school kids. I got this feeling that they have only a very basic understanding of the MENA region, which is why I felt that they couldn’t grasp the fact that…

2) …America and the Middle East are not the same things. A solution that works for America will not necessarily work for us. There is a profound differences between the two areas, and I feel like this isn’t said enough. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to social issues around the world.

3) I felt like we, the Arabs, didn’t do a decent job conveying an idea of what our region is like. People took extreme examples, a couple of tiffs broke out among us, and I felt like this reflected really badly on us as a group.

4) If you can’t talk about your religion in front of others with complete conviction of what it declares, leave it. Don’t change it to suit your own personal beliefs, don’t apologize for it, and above all DO NOT LIE ABOUT IT. A persistent act I see from Muslims in America is this apologist approach when explaining something in the context of our religion or culture. I’m not saying our culture is perfect, but neither is the American one, so maybe this whole inferiority complex needs to go.

5) Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and belief. If they don’t disrespect yours, don’t disrespect theirs. If someone says something you disagree with, speak with them about it, don’t go on a witch hunt trying to denigrate them as though it will give your argument more credibility.


Libyan women won 17% of the seats in our first parliamentary election. They achieved this after revoking the quota set up for them. No one had a symposium to discuss whether Libyan women should be allowed to be part of government. No one debated the right of Libyan women to vote. It all happened naturally, organically, part of our growth as a nation on the road to rebuilding.

This is what we need to highlight, what we need to point out. Yes, women’s rights is an issue in the MENA region, but it’s not a stagnant problem that can’t be resolved. We’re taking huge strides and succeeding. This in of itself is a testament that the Middle East can work out it’s own problems, just give us the time and space to do so.


July 17 –  I don’t think any other nation uses the word ‘patriotism’ or attaches as much meaning to the term as Americans do. It’s a concept that their country is firmly founded on. To really get a grasp of how much Americans love their country, you have to emerge yourself in their culture. To an outsider (like Arabs), this patriotism can come off as arrogant or unjustifiable. The American government commits countless heinous acts, why would their citizens feel proud?

But it’s not that cut and dry, and I think this is where a lot of East vs. West division takes place. The citizens’ love for their nation is so deeply rooted in the history and traditions of the United States, it seems illogical to expect them to decry and denounce their country because of certain unfavorable policies. Does it not happen in other countries? Are we not all guilty of backing our governments choice even if we don’t necessarily agree with it, but to defend it?

Today I attended the US Marine Corps Parade, an event that is held every year during the summer. It consisted of a marching band and silent drill exercise. This event has been going on for decades, and it’s done to show support for the Marine Corps.

It’s at these events that you really feel the patriotism Americans have. I think that maybe, as Arabs, we tend to see American soldiers as these bloodthirsty creatures bent on destroying our countries. I’m not saying they’re all innocent, but the majority are just regular men and women serving their country because they love it. It reminds me of the Tennyson poem;Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do or die.

The reason I bring this up is because, at the end of the parade, we were asked to stand in a moment of silence for those who passed away in service to the country. I did stand, but it felt really weird. Here I was, a girl with a headscarf standing in a sea of Americans, giving a moment of silence to American soldiers, some of whom were killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting us in the name of their country. Treacherous? Duplicitous? Maybe some people would call me that. I can’t deny I didn’t feel some of it myself. But when I go back and think on it, it doesn’t feel wrong.

Never Speak on Behalf of Muslim Women

Because it’s almost impossible to properly represent them and their beliefs. I believe that Muslim women are one of the most diverse groups out there, because there are so many people analyzing our situation, telling us what to do and how to behave and what to feel. Our issues are debated across the globe, people pity us as though we have no mind, the way we are treated can range from offensive to patronizing.

We have voices. Many of us know how to use them. Others are learning. Please don’t, as an individual, attempt to summarize the collective female Muslim mindset as though you have the authority or knowledge to do so.

Some of these speakers take a liberal view, claiming that Muslim women are being oppressed by wearing the headscarf or dominated by males. These types usually style themselves the saviors for the poor, unknowing Muslim women everywhere.

The other type, usually male, are conservative minded and preach about how many rights and privileges Islam has given to women, and so why would a woman feel oppressed by the religion, etc. These types are almost apologetic in their talks, and speak more about what they think as opposed to what the reality.

And of course, you have everything in between.

One definition, one analysis, just won’t cut it. Muslim women come from every culture and ethnic and racial background, some are oppressed because of cultural reasons and some are empowered also because of culture.

I am not against promoting unity amongst Muslim women, on the contrary. But you cannot stand atop the pedestal and claim that you are the legitimate voice for this entire group, because odds are you won’t even be representing a fraction.

The reason I bring this up is because I attended a seminar today about the law and Muslim women. It was actually Shariah Law, but it doesn’t matter what the seminar was about because it wasn’t what they discussed. It was basically an exercise in political correctness.  Be united, be tolerant, America is a great land where different beliefs should be accepts. Okay, beautiful words. What next? I don’t want to sound overly-critical and negative, but I sincerely did not feel that they made any significant conclusion or say anything profound that hasn’t been reiterated for years by rights groups.

What also irritated me was the subtle apologetic tone in the voice of the Muslim woman speaker. Her name is Azizah Hibri, a female Muslim lawyer. Listening to her talk reminded me of the several times I’ve heard Muslims trying to justify Islam.


If you believe in something, you don’t need confirmation from anyone else. You don’t need to apologize, otherwise you should seriously re-evaluate your beliefs. This is why we are weak as an Ummah (nation), we have no confidence in our faith. This needs to be remedied.

There was also a riveting class on minorities this afternoon, the teacher has this enchanting charisma from start to finish. It’s interesting to see to what extent race is such an issue in the United States. My personal belief is that, the more you concentrate on race, the more of a problem it will be. He also said something interesting; “People in authority use race for their own benefit”. He used Gadhafi’s recruitment of Africans during the revolution as an example. I still maintain that racism is not an issue in Libya, but it would be worth investigating any possible effects left behind after the war concerning this issue.