One problem with global initiatives is the possibility that they eventually become a form of “colonial feminism” as coined by Leila Ahmad.27 This refers to the colonial fascination with Muslim symbols, such as the veil, as a representation of women oppression and subjugation to male-dominated structures. The Arab woman is depicted as one who is deprived of all agency. Less educated, disempowered, and marginalized, she—according to colonial imagination—becomes unfit to govern herself: “Colonial campaigns against veiling, sati, and other ‘uncivilised’ practices used a form of feminism to depict colonised societies as backward and oppressive, and colonised women as victims in need of Western salvation.”28
Thus according to colonial imagination, Arab (or Muslim or “oriental”) women need saving. The sorry state of Arab and Muslim societies, particularly as it impacts women, is brought forward as evidence29: “the empirical data demonstrates that, whether because of social status or their status under Islam, women in the Arab World face many barriers that marginalise and exclude them, leaving them vulnerable to oppression and abuse.”30 Arab women are seen to be living under oppressive institutional structures from which they are not equipped to escape. Those structures are often reinforced by tribal entities or extended family institutions where a woman’s voice is lost to the benefit of a larger collective interest.
The above argument fails to note that such institutional arrangements, when marginalizing individual voice, cut across demographic settings. Larger tribes dominate smaller tribes, older men dominate younger ones, and some ethnic groups dominate others. Attempting to save women, irrespective of other discrimination structures, may inadvertently lead to deformed equity. A better route is to work on parallel streams of tackling inequity, both for women and for other marginalized societal entities. In addition, an attempt at forcing a change from outside is likely to be perceived as Western intrusion which is easily delegitimized. Voice needs to be given to indigenous emancipation efforts that recognize that the Arab woman is not a powerless person void of all agency or as one who is in constant need for her Western sister for guidance. This is acutely important as Arab women have become more educated and open to various world experiences. They are better able to discern whether, when, and how to benefit from practices that exist beyond their borders. They are also better able to understand their own cultures and decide on the best way to cope with cultural practices that stand in their way.
Obsessively looking to the outside for inspiration runs the risk of importing Western-motivated agendas into Arab societies that fail to acknowledge the need for homegrown feminist action. This could prevent proper reflection on what is inside to properly understand what would work within a certain context and what would not. This makes people less sensitive to issues of cultural relativism and less able to understand the real priorities and needs of Arab women. Such insensitivity ends up failing Arab women, causing disappointments in enforcing meaningful change, and eventually obstructing women’s development and gender parity.