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Conflicting Feminisms

In the Arab world, there are many initiatives aiming to improve the situation of women, eradicate injustices imposed on them, and cultivate environments conducive to their empowerment and participation. The work of feminists for over a century in this region has met some successes, but those achievements pale compared to what needs to be done. Feminists have different starting points, and they adopt various approaches to sort out women’s issues. This often puts them at odds with each other. As they sometimes differ as to the real reasons behind women’s disempowerment and lack of participation, they disagree on how best to approach those roadblocks and problems.

Among many Islamic feminists, there is a sense of disenchantment with Western-style feminism and its counterparts in the Arab world. Western- style feminism tries to impose a specific form of universal feminism that transcends cultures and countries. There is an over-emphasis on the “external” role of women that marginalizes the “internal” role of women.57 The external role of women, her role in the public space is given primary, often sole, attention at the expense of the internal role within her family and the domestic sphere. It has become almost shameful to talk about a role for women in the private sphere, and the discourse about their role in the public sphere has dominated all feminist talk.

It could be argued back that such feminist discourse is just a reflection of where scarcity exists. Women do not exist at par with men in the public space, not even close. This necessitates an emphasis on the societal loss from such absence in economic and political participation. Yet, the overdominance of the external role of women undermines the whole private sphere as if such a role does not contribute to societal progress. Feminism becomes overly concerned with the role of women in economic produc- tion.58 This zealous emphasis on women’s economic contribution at the expense ofher contribution within the domestic sphere (which is not usually assessed in a quantifiable manner) raises a concern over what all of this means to common values, including social and family values.59

Moreover, working along a Western agenda, there is fear that Western- inspired feminism reflects the neo-colonial priorities rather than genuine indigenous areas of concern. Some scholars argue that feminism, nationalism, and colonialism are interconnected in the Arab world although an indigenous feminist movement has existed in this context for a long time.60 Some view the unveiling campaigns that have been conducted in some Arab countries as a conspiracy perpetrated by colonizers to erode Muslim society.61 In a balanced analysis of the role of Western-inspired feminism, Abu-Lughod notes that “condemning ‘feminism’ as an inauthentic Western import is just as inaccurate as celebrating it as a local or indigenous project. The first position assumes such a thing as cultural purity; the second underestimates the formative power of colonialism in the development of the region.”62

Western-inspired feminism is perceived as driving for the total independence ofwomen, not in terms ofthem being autonomous beings, but in terms of putting forward an agenda that is centered around the female. Abdel Wahab el-Messiri63 (1938-2008) provides a sharp criticism of such female-centered feminism.64 This brand of feminism centered around the female, el-Messiri contends, actually argues that a woman, as a self-sufficient being, needs to “discover” herself, and thus she should self-actualize outside any social framework. The underlying assumption is that she is in a state of timeless conflict with the self-centered male. There is a fear that a movement that sought to liberate the women, has turned into a movement that is concerned about the identity of the woman, which is separate of the man. Under this understanding, according to el-Messiri, Western-inspired feminism offers an alien understanding of the history of civilization, framing it as a history of male-female conflict. This flawed perspective assumes that because males became dominant over females at a certain point in history, the time has come for the latter to fight back and liberate themselves from this domination.

Both Ezzat and al-Messiri criticize such perspectives of Western-inspired feminism or “radical feminism.” This reflects a disappointment in Arab feminist organizations as they have departed from their nationalistic concerns and have continuously embraced “fundamental feminism” in terms of conceptualization and agendas. Western-inspired agendas have replaced other indigenous issues of prime importance.65 It becomes worrying that by adopting such extreme feminist agendas, some Arab feminists may be hurting the same women they are trying to help.

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