By Ruwayda Mustafah Rabar
There are many myths perpetuated about feminism in the Middle East, which negatively impacts on the effectiveness of feminism as a movement because people are afraid to label themselves as a feminist. Both conservatives and liberals have attached many negative connotations to the term. Some argue that it is often misused and irrelevant to the Middle Eastern society because it is a Western conception, and not an Eastern one. Therefore, feminism does not correspond to the societal problems people face in the East.
Following are the five myths about feminism in the Middle East:
Myth I: Man-hating movement
A recent opinion-editorial published on the Arabian Gazette implied that feminism is a new Western movement which is based on the absolute hatred or dislike for men. This is obviously not true. Feminism strives to be successful with the help of men and women to create an egalitarian society where equality is established in all aspects. From feminism’s conception to its existence today, it has never been about hating men. This does not mean that men have not done things to be hated for, certainly they have, but it means that the movement does not derive its energy and drive from hating men. There are many men who are feminist and support equality for women. They are not followers of a man-hating cult but believers of a world where women are not discriminated against, or treated as inferiors by virtue of their gender.
It is important to move forward from the myth that feminists hate men. It deters men from calling themselves feminist, and women from joining the feminist movement because they don’t want to be associated with a movement that has been depicted this way. In certain instances, it can be argued that feminism is female-dominated and has done little to attract men to the movement, but this is because women have suffered under male-dominated governments, leadership and patriarchal societies. They have been forced by these sets of facts to work together in an attempt to challenge patriarchal systems.
Myth II: Feminism is the antithesis of religion
Many critics of feminism are conservative religious preachers in the Middle East who argue that feminism seeks to destroy religion, and the chastity of women. This is partially due to the fact that feminists have been vocal in challenging patriarchal interpretations of religion in conservative societies where honour-killings, domestic violence and female subjugation is rampant. There are Muslim women who identify themselves as feminists, and want to challenge the patriarchal understanding and interpretations of Islam, which has put them at a disadvantaged position. This is because during most of Islamic history, women have been unable to assert their understanding of Islam.
Across Middle East, religion is used as a pretext to control and hinder women from being economically active. This has resulted in financial dependency on men, which does not give women the ability to make autonomous choices in their life because the ultimate decision-making power is not in their hands. When they challenge these societal structures where men are given a superior status, the fear of women being independent has made many conservative clerics misuse religion as a means of stopping women from working towards financial independence.
This fear is based on male-insecurity that if they do not control the financial assets of women, then by default they would not have any influence or say in women’s lives. It is not just conservative Muslim clerics that have criticised feminism; criticism of feminism has been given a platform in many different sectors, and religious groups. Once this irrational fear is confronted, identifying as a feminist becomes easier and more acceptable.
Myth III: Feminism is a Western ideology
Many people argue that feminism is a Western ideology and therefore has no place in the Middle Eastern societies. The term feminist and feminism might have been coined in the West, but its goals are worldwide because patriarchy has no language or colour, and female subjugation is a global issue, not just a Western one. If people were to follow this logic, it is akin to saying that Islam belongs to Arab societies because it was created in the Arabian Peninsula. There are dozens of feminist organisations in the Middle East that aim to eradicate inequality within the society. They are not Western organisations but have been initiated by local people with an interest in protecting and promoting the rights of women.
Feminism in the Middle East has its own narratives and differs from the Western feminism in many regards. It is a category in its own right. There are differences between Black feminism, European feminism, Arab feminism and many other types of feminism. It is a unique movement because it encompasses different cultures, and countries, but has only one goal to create egalitarian societies where women are given equal rights and opportunities.
Myth IV: Feminists are ugly and scared from personal failure
This is one of the most sinister comments that I hear often, which associates women’s physique with their beliefs in the society. Beauty is held as a standard of whether someone can legitimately hold a valuable or valid view on society, and its treatment of women. What is even more spiteful is the inference drawn from personal failures with relationship to feminism as a male-hating movement. This myth is perpetuated to scare people from identifying themselves as feminists. Those who are sexists and subscribe to a patriarchal mindset want to perpetuate the mythical female figure of a feminine, dependent and fragile being in a society, which feminism inevitably challenges.
Myth V: You can’t be both religious and a feminist
Yes you can! That’s all you need to say to people who perpetuate this myth. Feminism is needed within religion because we need to destroy patriarchy, and religion is often misconstrued to be against equality. Many religious clerics base their antagonism towards feminism from biological differences between men and women, and use that as an argument, which is inherently flawed because our differences do not amount to being treated as inferior or superior. Equality does not mean that women and men have to be identical, and clerics that perpetuate this myth should be confronted for propagating falsehood.
Ruwayda Mustafah Rabar was born in Hawler, Kurdish region of Iraq, in 1989. She is a freelance British-Kurdish writer based in London and is currently completing her law degree at Kingston Law School. She has spoken at numerous conferences and academic institutions, including Imperial College, Westminster College and Kingston Law School on issues related to gender, feminism and Middle Eastern women. She is currently working as the Editor of ‘Kurdish Rights’, and a contributor to the ‘Middle East Youth’.