If a woman can't lift a box, is it purely academic?

Gender inequality is generally recognised as one of the main obstacles to development in the Arab region. The empowerment of women is measured by efforts to ensure the educational, social, political and economic integration of women in society. Women have become a key indicator of modernisation, nationalisation, democratisation, globalisation, privatisation and industrialisation. Anyone care to add another -sation to the list?

The question is, how is empowerment or emancipation defined and measured? Calculating the number of women in the workforce might be misleading. A woman might join a factory assembly line, working long hours at minimum wage, and still be counted as a positive indicator. Her long hours might become the key to the nationalisation of a modern industrial sector that is attempting to privatise to face competition caused by globalisation. Or at least those in academia might like to think so.

Ever wondered why sometimes magazines and newspapers are flooded with pictures of women who are supposed to be "indicators" of something? Well, maybe they like to show off their women to neighbouring countries, or maybe to the "developed" world. Keep a watchful eye on those pages. It's quite interesting that women hold the keys to these development trends, but maybe someone should warn them before saddling them with such a heavy set of keys.

To understand gender emancipation, you might opt to attend a gender workshop, lecture or simply read an article. However, conventional definitions of emancipation might just leave us with "indicators" that indicate nothing. Back to the starting point. Are you confused? I know I am. After attending seminars here, there and everywhere, I have come to realise that nobody has a monopoly on ignorance. First, a gender workshop where Arab men and women concurred that man is superior to woman by nature. Their argument: a woman's "fragile" frame doesn't allow her to carry a heavy box; hence, not all jobs complement women's nature. And yes, it took three hours to resolve this point. I think I should have screamed: "No one is debating the rules of the World Box Lifting Competition."

Then came the time when I attended a talk by a "western" lecturer who discussed the significance of the Islamic Barbie "Fulla", in contrast to the Mattel Barbie, as a representation of Islamic culture. A young Saudi woman said to the lecturer: "But my young niece plays with both Fulla and Brats." (The lecturer missed the fact that children play with Brats, not Barbies, these days, but that's a minor point).

The lecturer did not know how to comprehend this groundbreaking piece of information, because her research showed those groups were mutually exclusive. She stuttered and then hesitantly said: "Maybe because Saudi women dress like Brats on the inside and dress like Fulla on the outside." But then, I guess it went unnoticed that Fulla, Barbie and Brats are all made in China. Maybe the Chinese are responsible for this clash of civilisations?

Still confused? I suggest you head to the nearest beauty salon and get lost in the intoxicating scent of hairspray or the entwining process of threading. In the process you would simultaneously shape your eyebrows and your understanding of women's emancipation. The eyebrows are important: you might as well get one shaped to give the illusion of a raised brow. With this illusion you will save yourself the hassle of looking amused and confused in every seminar.

In a beauty salon you might willingly shed a few layers of your dead skin while you suffocate in a sauna. But that is less harsh than being forced to shed layers of your identity while trying to argue "academically" that women's emancipation is subjective and one definition doesn't fit all. While being attended to by a Moroccan lady who promised I'd glow by the end of the treatment, she said: "There are no real men in this world anymore." During two years in a failed marriage, she had to work to support her husband and herself. I assumed her husband was unemployed, but it turns out he had a well-paying job, yet wanted to save money while she paid for everything. "A real man would not want his wife to work," she said. "She should sit at home, obey him and bear children while he supports her financially; that is her right. Why should I obey him if he doesn't support me?"

By conventional development theory, she was "emancipated" by being employed, but practically she was burdened. She wished for the "traditional" gender roles that assume subordination. She has been divorced for eight years and is still working to support herself. This is the story of many women who don't have the luxury to debate: "To work or not to work - ?" The Moroccan lady's story worried me, not only because I questioned the standard definition of emancipation. Gender equality and emancipation are interesting concepts, but what is far more interesting is examining those who examine gender equalities.

In fact, it appears as if empowering can give too much power. This reminds me of the Red Bull ad where the old man grows wings after being empowered and flies away. But those empowered seem to be the most oppressed. If I was in the Red Bull ad I would rather be the person watching that energised person flying than up in the air myself. I'd probably have a confused look on my face - after all, my right eyebrow is still stuck in raised position after sitting through all those seminars.

Hissa al Dhaheri is a sociologist and cultural researcher.

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