In Defense of the Arab WomanNasren
by Alissa, firstname.lastname@example.org
Westerners will never achieve human awareness of Arab women if they continue to peer through the frosted glass of a single image, a narrow definition of what every woman should be.
Westerners ignore and prejudge Arab women, making them victims in the process of stereotyping. Many people look at Arab women and think of them negatively or feel sorry for them. Some Westerners look at the Muslim women in Afghanistan and think that all Muslim women in other countries are treated the same way.
Erasing the essential individuality of individuals or groups and stereotyping them is not a new phenomenon. It is difficult to imagine a society or a period of history completely devoid of this particularly cruel method of robbing people of their humanity. It is also impossible to imagine an individual who could live an entire life without being a victim or villain in the process of stereotyping.
There is little understanding of either Arab women’s status or the total context of their lives. Like other maligned groups, Arabs do their best to understand these misperceptions and in their own way confront them. There is no Arab woman who underestimates the difficulty of changing Western assumptions.
The stereotype of the Arab woman, “imprisoned behind a veil of powerlessness,” will not be eradicated in our lifetime. Arabs are often shocked into numbness by the depth of that misunderstanding. They know that each epoch of awareness is a new beginning and a new opportunity for them and their families.
Like most stereotypes, this image is not merely wrong or insulting, it is ludicrous. Long before Western women even considered themselves as a group, let alone a group deprived of its rights, the Islamic woman had begun her emancipation. From the beginning of Islam, 1,400 years ago, every Muslim woman was born with an array of rights — cultural and spiritual — due to a human being.
When the Christian church was still debating the existence of a woman’s soul, women in the Islamic world knew they had one. They knew they were full entities and as free human beings, had choices. Islamic women were given the right to run their own businesses, to keep their financial autonomy after marriage and, more importantly, the right to learn, the key to emancipation.
Many Western women in the recent past have sought to keep their maiden names after marriage. Islamic women have enjoyed this tradition for centuries. After all, the wife is one of a pair, a term literally conveying equality. In fact, the Arabic word for wife, “alzawja,” literally means “one of a pair.”
Western women had few or no rights under Roman law. They were under perpetual tutelage from childhood on and deprived of the freedoms that the modern Western woman takes for granted. Prior to the year 1000, recognition of woman as a human being was still disputed.
The Arab world fared better. I can imagine the surprise among feminists when they learn that the Prophet’s first wife, Khadijah, was an able businesswoman. It is perhaps even more interesting that Sheikha Nafissa was a theologian from whom the Imam Shaffei, one of the four scholars of Islam, was proud to say he had learned.
How many Western women know that even in the early days of Islam, Arab women fought in battles alongside men in full equality or that the glamorous Queen Zubaidah built a canal to provide water for the pilgrims en route to Makkah? How many know that, since the 10th century, Arab women throughout the Islamic world have been doctors and nurses?
None of this is meant to demean the struggle of the Western woman. All women involved in this kind of difficult human endeavor understand the hardships only too well. All involved women know that the woman’s struggle — in day-to-day low profile or high media terms — continually confronts the limits of social pressures. We are cognizant of the finite nature of the political environment. Women’s changing status is not different from other political, cultural or social processes.
To understand what Islam has established for woman, there is no need to deplore her plight in the pre-Islamic era. Islam has given woman rights and privileges that she has never enjoyed under other religious or constitutional systems. This can be understood when the matter is studied holistically rather than partially. The rights and responsibilities of a woman are equal to those of man but they are not necessarily identical with them.
Equality and sameness are two quite different things. This difference is understandable because man and woman are not identical — but they are created equals. With this distinction in mind, there is no problem. It is almost impossible to find even two identical men or women.
Arab and Muslim women have been a viable entity for a long time. They have struggled, realized and enjoyed emancipation in their daily lives for centuries. As for the Muslim woman, no one can take away from her the Word of God through his Messenger. Her evolution is her own and she knows she can accomplish her emancipation on her own.
The Arab woman appreciates the concern of her Western counterparts. She understands the excitement that Western women feel having so recently discovered their own terms within the reality of their own culture in this particular historic moment. But Arab women have the benefit of wisdom accumulated over nearly 14 centuries.
Most of all, the Arab woman has the advantage of making her own choices in creating and experiencing an entirely new epoch of emancipation. The Arab woman is experiencing the joy of new growth but she appreciates the concern of others. She is too utterly involved to stereotype the Western woman and she respects her struggle — without forcing her to fit our expectations. We simply expect the same consideration in return.
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(Nasren Alissa is a Saudi writer. She is based in Riyadh.)