The Way Forward
Oppression as a habit of life blocks the oppressor’s own advancement and freedom
The 1913 Suffrage Parade was a milestone in the efforts of Western women to gain their emancipation. Organized by activist Alice Paul, the parade welcomed scores of white women who demonstrated asking for the right to vote. Behind those women towards the back was a group of black women who were asking for the same right, equality for women. The participation of black women in such an event in 1913 was not a normal occurrence, and it did not take place without much controversy. In the end, the 22 founders of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority participated1: one big parade, many common issues, but two separate groups. Women participating in the parade were asking for legitimate rights, the right to participate, the right to voice their opinions, and the right to make a difference. Yet some were perhaps oblivious to the rights of other minorities to live equally. Some within the white women’s movement perhaps were not forgetful of this, but thought that for change to happen it had to be gradual. others were frustrated that voting rights were given to former slaves but not to women.2 Women’s rights, it would have been contended, when given, would open the door for other rights. Recent American history is evidence that this could happen. A few decades after
© The Author(s) 2018
Y.M. Sidani, Muslim Women at Work,
women were given their rights, the civil rights movement realized its primary objectives.
But there is another way to look at those events in history. Perhaps if the organizing women looked at the rights of black women from the start, the rights of the blacks, together with those of women, would have come along much sooner. Perhaps a lot of suffering could have been avoided, or perhaps not.
A twenty-first-century suffrage parade for Arab women would look similar. Arab women would demonstrate asking for their rights. Yet one would immediately sense the rifts and divisions that engulf this group tearing it into splintering factions. On one side, you would find secular feminists, who would chant for women’s rise and empowerment. They would call for abolishment of patriarchal structures and other institutional mechanisms that stand in the way of their freedoms. You would find those who would take a pick at Islam or at patriarchal interpretations of Islam. Some of them would be bitter at male-dominated institutions that have— for so long—monopolized a certain understanding of how women should behave, thus determining the extent to which they can participate in public affairs. On the other side, you would find a different group of feminists. Like their secular sisters, they would chant against patriarchy, though they have different explanations for its persistence. They would blame colonialism, imperialism, and Western attempts at domination. Instead of looking at their religion as a source of their problems, they lament faulty interpretations of the religious texts. Irrespective of the extent to which the two sides agree or disagree, they have a common understanding of the urgent need to change the status of Arab women. Both sides feel that women are marginalized, and both look forward for ways to alleviate their problems. Both sides strive to assert their individuality, autonomy, spirituality, and identity.
This twenty-first-century Arab parade has already happened in various forms. Those women did participate and they weren’t demonstrating at the back. Theywere there in Tahrir Square in Cairo on the 25th of January 2011. They were in the first few months of the Syrian Spring roaming the streets of Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo. They were there in Yemen when everybody thought their voices would never be heard. Veiled, unveiled, Muslim, Christian, and secular, women and men aspired to live as autonomous human beings with independent minds free from dictatorships. Although women were an integral part of the protest movements, their demands were not particular to women's issues. Perhaps if everybody had the right to voice their opinions, elect their representatives, and govern themselves in a free manner, the door would open to all women, all faiths, and all expressions.
But this was not to be. The promising Arab Spring has mostly been aborted. Hopes of freedom have all but vanished in many quarters of the Arab world. Egypt has been regressed to a Mubarak-like regime. Yemen has essentially become a battle-ground between two regional powers. Syria has been suffering at the interplay of regional and global powers. Similar to how the demands for women’s rights have been continuously sidelined, demands for political freedoms for Arab masses met the same fate.
To many, what was a promising and innocent Arab Spring at its start, has turned into a nightmare. With the demise of the Arab Spring, hopes for women’s real emancipation have also dwindled. The link between patriarchy and dictatorship is peculiar, though—to many—not surprising. What happens in the private sphere is just a reflection of what happens in the public sphere. Deeply held institutional control over women is just one example of structural mechanisms that subjugate silent majorities in the Arab world:
The patriarchal family [is] a central tool of political oppression in a variety of social situations... Circumcision, rape, terror, and other forms of physical and psychological abuse are the hallmarks of woman’s condition and are at the same time emblematic of Barre’s [late Somali dictator] political regime.3 (p. 205; 218)
While the Arab women Spring has never seen the day oflight, there have been—over the years—some gains for women on many fronts: impressive accomplishments in education, in social freedoms, and in the right to be part of the social scene (although the story is not uniform across all Arab countries). Their accomplishments have, however, been meager in terms of political or economic participation. Some would argue that more participation should have resulted based on better education, increased social freedoms, dynamic feminist activism, and increased integration in an interconnected and increasingly egalitarian world. Yet those factors of change were not impactful in producing gender parity. Why haven’t those factors been able to significantly contribute to a narrowing of the gender participation gap? Who is responsible, and what is the way forward?