Friday, July 23, 2004

In Defense of the Arab WomanNasren
by Alissa,

 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.)


Michael said...

So the Prophet's first wife, Khadijah, was an able businesswoman. Great. And his last wife was a six year old with whom he had sex when she became nine, huh? In the West, we call those guys paedophiles. Not to mention the vast array of relationships he had with his maids.

I read a recent Amnesty International Report stated that 50% of women in Turkey, a so-called moderate Islamic country, are beaten by their husbands.

The ability of Arabs to delude themselves continues to baffle me. No sane western woman would want to change with an Islamic woman.

jimmmy said...

understanding and appreciating cultural differences is a valuable sentiment, but there is a point where that becomes irrelevent. i'll grant you that the whole of the middle east is not run like a taliban-esque theocracy. to me, that isn't saying much.
the title of your essay should have been, "in defense of the established system" ,or, "in defense of the arab men (who tell the arab women what to do)"
the points i took from your essay were: 1)westerners have a skewed impression of the woman's roll in arab society. 2) in the medievil ages, arabs were better to women than their western counterparts. 3) arab women make their own choices, and are happy with their station in society. please let me know if i've gotten any of that wrong.

first off, i do think that westerners see the women in "a narrow definition of what every woman should be". except, it isn't so narrow. we think that they should be free to do whatever they like- drive a car, wear whatever clothes they choose (not burn to death in a building if their are not fully dressed), go somewhere by themselves, not get the sh*t beaten out of them by religious policemen or their husbands, join the army, criticize their government, be in a social situation with a group of men they don't know, and on and on... it isn't that we think that they should be like western women in every way, but we do think that they should have the choices, as human beings, that western women do.

"Most of all, the Arab woman has the advantage of making her own choices in creating and experiencing an entirely new epoch of emancipation."

i want you to tell me what choices a woman in ksa in creating her emancipation? get a passport and leave? if you truly believe women are making their own choices in ksa, then why not give them all of the rights that men have? things will stay the same for the women, right, because they will still make all the same choices they did before they had all of these rights. that way you would be proved right- women in ksa don't want to do the things that men do. you could call up some princes and suggest that to them, but you'd probably be in a bloody heap in a couple of hours.
i'll say this- the middle east was the center of the scientific world when europeans were busy burning books and heretics when they weren't sending their kids off to the holy lands for war. you should be proud of the learned and progressive culture back then. my question is: what the hell happened to you?

Highlander said...

Good question Jimmy, except I am not from KSA I am Libyan and there things are different ...I do not approve of everything that is being done in KSA..This is not my essay as I have quoted its author. Also if you have read my earlier posts you would have learnt about women in Libya. However you brought up several interesting points and I look forward to talking about them in future posts if it would help you better understand my people.

jimmmy said...

hi highlander-

i realize that this woman was from the ksa, and i was really responding to her and her essay, not so much to you. i found the fact that she is from the ksa, and she has written this essay, absurd- especially, "the Arab woman has the advantage of making her own choices in creating and experiencing an entirely new epoch of emancipation". i've been reading your posts for a couple of months now, and i know that libyan women have a lot more freedom than ksa women. but certainly not all "arab" women have the choice she mentions. sorry, i should have made that clear.

bob said...

Hi Highlander,

Hope everthing is well in Lebanon. I posted some comments about this essay at my site.