A problematic discourse: who speaks for Arab women?

Placed between the First Lady and the Diplomat at the recent Trust Women conference on the 'Arab spring', Ala'a Shehabi argues that in order to foster constructive engagement with the global south, the media, international donors and policy makers should recognise the radical social shifts towards unorganised local groupings and informal collectives

Is the Arab Spring good or bad for Arab women? Who speaks for Arab women? Sweeping questions are being asked by observers across the world underlying the broader question, " Is the Arab spring worth it ?"

Over the past year, I’ve travelled to speak on panels held in a wide range of places on the topic of the so-called 'Arab spring' -  from think tanks to art centres, filling an almost insatiable appetite for discussing the uprisings that spread across the Middle East and North Africa almost two years ago now. This understandable interest in such historic transformations taking place is welcome if such forums foster an engagement that corrects much of the commonly misunderstood cultural and social assumptions and stereotypes, and corrects or challenges much of the long-held cultural relativism loaded in such questions.

This particular speaking invitation was different. I’d spoken on women in the Arab uprisings before, but never at a Gucci-sponsored affair, organised by Thomson Reuters Foundation and the International Herald Tribune, featuring an all-star speakers list, with big names including supermodel Christy Turlington, and former first ladies Cherie Blair and Queen Noor of Jordan. It was an opportunity to try to challenge the historical narrative around “Arab women”, particularly one that is propagated by the mainstream media, and to understand better the particular community that has taken an interest and shows signs of a moral panic over Arab women.

Well there was trouble from the start. The opening slideshow of the conference, presenting it’s main themes - hint: “oppressed brown ladies that need saving”, filled the screen. From the slides, one could assume that Caucasian women have now successfully eliminated the problem of domestic violence, the sex trafficking industry and gender-based discrimination and these are now brown-only afflictions. International is now code for non-white. It didn’t stop with the images. A short clip from a documentary about sex-crazed Egyptian men, and the sexual harassment faced by women in Egypt, which left me and my co-panellist from Egypt unimpressed, and would have made Edward Said turn in his grave. At one point during the discussions, a moderator pointed to an audience member and called her “Indian” to identify her (even though the woman was, in fact, Iranian), ‘these brown women all look the same’ was clearly the perception here. I could feel a bout of “muslim rage” coming on, but when I looked around for Ayaan Hirsi Ali to consult with, but she was busy mingling with friends and getting applauded every time she bashed shar'ia law.

I knew it was going to be a long day.

Perpetuating myths and assumptions

I was on a panel asking the million-dollar question, first asked by the likes of Fareed Zakaria: “is the Arab Spring a window of opportunity or disaster for women?” Which is code for, “should we change our stereotypes of the Arab world, or not?”

It’s a disrespectful question: it seeks to delegitimize the revolutions and Arab women in the same breath. It both makes the subject monolithic whilst seeking to dismiss the sacrifices of women who have been detained, tortured, sacked or sexually abused for their beliefs. Revolutions are a process, not a sporting match, but it felt like we were in a room of neatly-pressed ladies looking to support the right team.

Given the events in Egypt at the moment, Dina Wehba, challenged this by saying how frustrated she feels about the Morsi’s constitutional referendum, she has never asked herself whether the revolution was worth it, or felt regret as a woman, in taking part. Meanwhile, Alaa Murabit, from Libya, defended the need for religious considerations in the writings of constitutions.

I pointed out that we must begin by debunking the assumptions underlying this distorted debate on gender and the revolutions that I had heard resonate during the course of the conference; firstly, that democracy is a process not an event, (even if the "Arab Spring show" needs a happy ending), immediate gender parity in a new political system hasn't yet been achieved in the west, and will not be achieved overnight in post-revolutionary states;  secondly, that the legitimacy of a revolution can be judged by how it treats “their women”, and thirdly, that Islamists (and only Islamists) are a danger to women's rights, ignoring decades of gender discrimination and violence against women under secular rule. And finally, that Arabs were not only never speaking about the crisis of women's rights prior to the Arab Spring, but hadn’t been speaking about politics in general.  This was mentioned in a rhetorical comment dropped by the panel convenor, NYT reporter, Roger Cohen, that the Arab world “had returned to politics after a long deep freeze". This is simply not true, as any reader of Middle Eastern history would tell you, and certainly for Bahrain, where there have been cyclical uprisings for the past 80 years at least.

These are highly subjective and politicised assumptions which are not echoed by the findings of a recent Gallup report "After the Arab Uprisings: Women on Rights, Religion, and Rebuilding" which found that firstly, men's support for women's equal legal status and employment options was linked to their own occupational and life satisfaction... and not based on religious attitudes. Secondly, the majority of Arab men -- almost as many as women -- agreed that women should be guaranteed the same legal rights as men.

The refrain I heard at the conference was reminiscent of the same liberal brutality that mirrors the not-so-sisterly colonial narrative that has come out of some feminism paradigm brilliantly identified by Gayatri Spivak and explored by, among others, Saba Mahmood and Lila Abu Lughod. What I mean by this is that such assumptions seek to produce a moral panic over “Arab women” as an insecure object and an inevitable ‘victim’ of a new social order that needs ‘rescuing’, which is a pretext for the use of force.

First Lady Syndrome

The opening remarks on my panel were given by none other than Queen Noor of Jordan, a country that recently has seen its own unrest and suppressed protests. Her presence frustrated me, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether or not the conference organizers could not see the irony of asking a monarch to speak about revolutions, and what they mean for women.

We still seem to be dazzled by the glossy sheen of first ladies from the Arab world, even though we were forced to shun Suzanne Mubarak and Asma al-Assad who have gone down along with their embattled husbands, we aren’t really learning the lesson here are we?

Before the revolutions it was very unpopular, to question the cynical use of 'women's rights' by authoritarian regimes that were thus branded 'reformers' by their western allies. The state's women were actually being paternalistic to the very women they were supposed to be advancing the rights of, and the revolutions have shown that far from needing such paternal protection which actually disempowered women, Arab women, given the opportunity, are able to fight for their rights and are not only capable of interacting with society but now powerful enough to take down formidable dictatorships.

Bahrain and beyond

During the course of the conference, I noticed a diplomat from the Bahraini embassy who regularly stalks my activities lingering around. He had come all the way to express the feelings of the disgruntled Bahraini ambassador herself, another ‘state feminist’,  who is not only a woman, but is also Christian, and not happy at not being invited to speak at the Arab Spring panel.  The King’s ‘state feminists’ are particularly useful for PR purposes, championing women’s rights and minority rights at the same time, whilst defending the subjugation of the majority of the people. Where revolution is talk of the town these days, even those defending minority-rule, the subjugation of the majority of the people, corruption, privilege, classism  want to get a say. The diplomat was subsequently published on the Trust Law site expressing exactly these ‘achievements’. I would be surprised if it was not one of the many  PR companies working for the regime, that my own organisation Bahrain Watch has been monitoring closely, had not written for him. I am grateful that he re-affirms the very point that I had been trying to make, that corrupt regimes use the fig leaf of women’s rights to claim they are ‘reformers’ and by destructively conflating the women’s rights issue with a corrupt state have de-legitimised it. He champions the First Lady in Bahrain, Sheikha Sabeeka, as a promoter of women’s rights and derives this status through an outfit called the Supreme Council for Women.  I can’t really say I’ve ever wanted to join her army of elite women (without the designer bags required, I’m sure I wouldn’t qualify). Just two weeks ago, on December 1, Kim Kardashian paid a visit to the country on Bahraini Women’s Day to give an impression that it is ‘business as usual’, while a laundry list of abuse takes place.

The tone of the diplomat's article reflects the spirit of gratitude and subservience expected of a good subject towards the ‘benevolent’ King. He could not resist, like the state, turning matters into a personal affair by pointing to my own situation. My own experience has proved that  this state operates as an anti-thesis to a meritocracy, where qualifications and skills fly out of the window when you express any form of dissent, as happened to several thousand men and women who were summarily sacked during the uprising. Bahraini women are indeed highly educated, and have a relatively high labour force participation rate. But as a woman, she faces the same sectarian discrimination as her male counter-part – both are equally oppressed in an authoritarian system where there is severe inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, relative poverty is high and political marginalisation is the norm. For all the cosmetic reforms that the diplomat cites, an absolute monarch remains head of a medieval authoritarian regime. In regard to a major women’s rights issue, the codified family or Personal Status law was proposed in 2005, in a stark example of how women’s rights can be used by an authoritarian state as bargaining chips for compromises from conservative movements.

As in most Arab countries, there is a strong Islamist movement in Bahrain, represented by al-Wefaq Islamic Society which was formed 10 years ago. In 2005 this party, via its spiritual leader, Sheikh Isa Qassim, rescinded its support of the codified family law. The last remaining realm of authority and jurisdiction that the religious establishment still had, it is believed amongst many, including Dr Abdulhadi Khalaf, that a political bargain was entered into with the government, whereby the law would be rescinded, if al-Wefaq ended its boycott of parliamentary elections that the government was desperate for it to join. The religious establishment therefore would retain some direct control of its constituency at least, and not submit to further sectarian marginalisation in the political sphere. In the public discourse however, the state claimed the law was rejected by religious extremists, whilst the opposition, claimed that it was rejected to stop further sectarian marginalisation, thereby putting the religious identity issue before the gender issue. The issue of women’s rights, rather than being seen as empowering women, was seen to be another tool to marginalise the entire Shia community. Since then, al-Wefaq has vowed to represent women in the future, and interestingly, there has been an admission on behalf of Isa Qassim that the codified family law could be reconsidered. More needs to be done to get firmer pledges on these issues, and some other attitudes towards segregation and statements made about the participation of females in protests need to be questioned within these circles by women activists in the country.

Since the current uprising in Bahrain began, new local political movements beyond the traditional formal groupings like al-Wefaq, and more subversive towards state sovereignty, are being configured in a very short space of time largely by women and youth (the two main agents of revolutionary change), who have had little or no experience of organised politics or of exercising power. Street protest leaders like Zainab Al-khawaja, political leaders like Farida Ghulam who has stepped up to takeover the role of her imprisoned husband, unionists like Jaleela Alsalman, journalists like Nazeeha Saeed who was tortured severely for reporting on police killing of a protester, lawyers like Jaleela Alsayed, working tirelessly to defend political detainees, but most importantly the ‘heroine’ is the un-gendered 'revolutionary' in all her glory, resorting to subversive new forms of counter-hegemonic practises, local actions and resistance.

In his article on the Trust law website the Bahraini diplomat moves on from making the proclamations of progress and reform, to address my own personal situation, as if having had a decent job, I am an example of this progress and reform. He does not mention the way that mass sectarian persecution has reached all echelons of society and I am no exception when it comes to being denied both freedom and fortune as punishment. He can add to his markers of progress and reform the black lists, the travel bans, the forced resignation from my job, single motherhood as a result of the jailing and torture of my husband, and arbitrary arrest last April. I have to be humble and not to mention this, given that others have faced much worse experiences. If all this, and the probability that my nationality may be revoked at any moment, like my father’s was, does not make me persona non grata then I’m not sure what does.

The emergence of women as political leaders and activists, particularly in a conservative Gulf society like Bahrain, may only have been a surprise to the few liberal Western feminists who hailed glamorous First Lady's like Suzanne Mubarak in the past, and continue to champion First Lady’s like Queen Noor and Sheikha  Sabeeka as 'reformist' symbols of women's rights, progress and modernity today.  This conference may have been the best display of what is problematic with the feminist discourse around Arab women in the starkest of ways, in particular, the images and representations that shape the West’s understanding of the eastern “other”. The implications have been destructive and alienating to Arab women in the past as they promoted and legitimised state representatives that have been rejected and subverted in new ways, and lead to top-down laws that have been socially rejected.

In order to foster constructive engagement with the Global South, forums like this, the media, and international donors and policymakers who have tended to represent or to work with formal associations,  official national bodies, with their distinct class and gender markings, should recognise the radical social shifts towards unorganised local groupings and informal collectives. Genuine concern is welcome, but a feigned moral panic over the fate of Arab women will only help restore those gender and class markings. Having found myself pitched between the First Lady and the Diplomat, I hope that through this article I have expressed the contradictions in the situation and the problems that raises in the terms of engagement.

Read more articles by participants, speakers and openDemocracy authors from the Trust Women conference held in London December 4-5, 2012

 To watch the plenary session of the conference click here

 

About the author

Dr Ala'a Shehabi is a Bahraini writer, researcher and pro-democracy activist, and currently a fellow for the Arab Council of Social Sciences.  She is one of the founders of Bahrain Watch, an ngo working on transparency and accountability. She has a PhD in Economics from Imperial College London, and previously worked as a policy analyst at RAND Europe, and as a lecturer in economics at the Bahrain Institute for Banking & Finance. You can follow her on twitter @alaashehabi