International Women’s Day 2022: what does feminism mean in the Middle East?

Female empowerment and well-being experts explain how they identify with the term today

Fareeda Nazer. A young university student, Fareeda is a perfect example of the youth and the pride they feel for the new  chapter in their country’s history. An aspiring homegrown entrepreneur, Fareeda proudly wears her  nationalism on her sleeve. Photo by Alaa Saigh
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Feminism. For some in the Middle East, it’s a dirty word, one of the negative imports of western colonialism. For others, it underlines a fundamental quest for liberty.

From injustices such as the gender pay gap to tragedies including honour killings, many societies, both in the East and West, grapple daily with anti-feminist attitudes and practices.

On International Women’s Day, protests and campaigns are activated across the globe to shine the light on women’s rights, making it a timely occasion to explore the nuances of feminism and how women in the Middle East identify with it.

Demystifying feminism

“At the heart of feminism is the pursuit of dignity, equal rights and freedom from oppression from pervasive patriarchal models and systems,” Palestinian female embodiment coach Lana Nahawi tells The National.

Yet, feminism remains deeply misunderstood, with many sceptics assuming it’s some sort of inflamed, anti-men movement.

Egyptian-American Emaan Abbass, founder of feminine wellness brand Ketish, clears up some of these misconceptions. “It isn’t about women being better than men or making them inferior,” she says. “Feminism is about honouring the unique experiences we women face, and the belief that all women, regardless of race and socio-economic status, deserve to actualise their full potential and rights as human beings.”

Emaan Abbass, founder of Ketish. Photo: Ketish

While the movement’s ideals may seem sound straightforward, feminists are unfortunately often perceived to be “hateful” and “angry", points out Abbass.

“It does make us angry — we do want these things to change, but the core of feminism is a desperation to just be seen as human and as worthy as our male counterparts.” She says feminism can look different for different people, and that part of being a true feminist is respecting these differences.

Western feminism

In Eastern communities, much of the confusion surrounding feminism stems from the way in which it has been marketed in the West.

In her book, Against White Feminism, author Rafia Zakaria describes it as a particular brand of feminism — the kind that is promoted in magazines such as Cosmopolitan, celebrating phrases like “sexy”, “self-made” and “girl-boss”. This, she claims, is often without political or intellectual overtones, and caters to upper-middle-class white women seeking independence through their careers. It values the self over the collective, and while it may benefit women of a certain class and colour, it is by no means relatable to every culture. In fact, it often “demonises culture as the source of women’s backwardness and hardship”, writes Zakaria.

“There is no universal woman’s experience,” says Nahawi, “Cultural, familial, religious, socio-economic and political diversity shape identities and perceived freedom in ways that are not typically congruent with prevalent white, privileged, middle-class and Western feminist positions.”

Nahawi promotes empowerment through unique programmes that centre on self-care and mindfulness, and believes that the answer to female empowerment is not necessarily in so-called “white feminism".

“Looking to Western feminism as a standard of universal measurement of women’s freedom perpetuates separation among women and creates yet another hierarchy within the very same movement that seeks to connect us,” she says.

“I find it not only condescending, but also very anti-feminist when other women try to tell me how I should be liberated,” Marriam Mossalli, the Saudi luxury communications expert and founder of Under the Abaya, tells The National.

'Under the Abaya: Street Style from Saudi Arabia'. Photo: Marriam Mossalli

Mossalli recalls when she was younger and her teenage step-brother ushered her out of a room before his friends entered. “With my cultural background, I took it as a compliment: he didn’t want his friends seeing me,” she explains. “He was protecting me; valuing me enough to keep me hidden. I can see how another culture wouldn’t see it that way, but this is why I say feminism is relative depending on context.”

Under the Abaya is a street style book showcasing how Saudi women merge creativity with traditional silhouettes through sartorial expression, with proceeds from the non-profit project promoting female empowerment through academic scholarships. Fashion, after all, is another point of contention when it comes to feminism. While modest fashion enthusiasts emphasise that covering up can be a statement, as it rejects notions of “sexiness” that are influenced by “the male gaze”, Western feminist narratives often treat modesty — and by extension, headscarves — as something that women need to be liberated of.

Palestinian female embodiment coach, Lana Nahawi. Photo: Lana Nahawi

“There is a misconception the veil is an imposed dress code that limits women’s freedom of choice, expression and control over their bodies," says Nahawi. "While this may be the case for some, it is far from the truth for women who consider their choice an expression of religious freedom."

Intersectional feminism

Recognising how women’s overlapping identities — such as race, gender, class and ethnicity — can affect their experiences of oppression and discrimination, has come to be known as intersectional feminism, and through their writing, many women of colour are helping to dispel misconceptions, particularly when it comes to marriage and motherhood.

Author Jaspreet Kaur, who recently released her book Brown Girl Like Me, debunks societal expectations of marriage, pointing out that women can propose to men, and that child-rearing and domestic duties should be split equally. She writes that brown women can find empowerment alongside their cultures, rather than in spite of them.

Elsewhere, in (M)otherhood by Pragya Aggarwal, the author explores the different cultural factors that influence women to become mothers, and how patriarchal systems often restrict our understanding of womanhood.

Marriam Mossalli, founder of Niche Arabia.  Photo: Marriam Mossalli

“Traditional ‘western’ perceptions of feminism often challenge religious or cultural beliefs and traditions that uphold gender roles that were established far before our time,” explains Abbass. But, while many “white” feminist narratives seek to dismantle traditional attitudes about women’s bodies, working from within communities to achieve progress in ways that are wanted and welcomed by women is far more effective.

Following the footsteps of veteran Moroccan feminist Fatema Mernissi, Muslim academics and activists such as Amina Wadud and Ayesha Chaudhry advocate for feminism from a religious framework. In fact, an entire movement termed “Islamic feminism” is gaining popularity, centred on women’s inherent rights granted by the egalitarian principles of the faith, which have been clouded by cultural customs and practices.

The future is feminist

Mossalli is marking International Women’s Day this year by hosting Saudi Arabia’s largest female empowerment event to celebrate five years of Under the Abaya. “While we may have been the trendsetter, I’m grateful that female empowerment remains a trend within the kingdom, and that both men and women are accepting it as a cause worth discussing and championing,” she says.

For while feminism may be trending, it cannot flourish long-term without male allies and a wider understanding and acceptance of its fundamental ideals. There is still much work to be done, both in the Middle East and globally.

“We need to continue to bring awareness to social issues that are at the core of the feminist movement — whether it’s body autonomy, the gender pay gap, sexual and reproductive rights, welfare policies, educational opportunities, stereotyping, protective rights — the list goes on and on,” says Abbass.

“It is important for both men and women to know why these issues exist at the core, and how we can work to create change through awareness, acceptance, conversation and legislation.”

Updated: March 08, 2022, 7:26 AM