BY NOUR ALTOUKHI
Let me tell you the story of one of the most frustrating yet sadly enlightening moments of my life. Let me tell you the story of my first time…
My first time doing a unit on feminism in an Arab classroom.
It started off as I had anticipated. Presentations on the weakened status of women’s rights were given including controversial topics such as violence, objectification, and sexual harassment. Mostly, my peers responded in shock to the injustices women face, and it excited me that they were becoming more aware of such issues mostly because they didn’t believe me when I offered them the same information before. Some, however, remained silent, and some, no doubt, criticized the fact that we are only focusing on the injustices of women and not men. After all, this is a man’s world, and even if we are doing a unit on women’s rights, we mustn’t exclude men. Instead, let’s replace the term ‘feminism’ with ‘gender equality’. Let’s run far away from the feminine root that we’re so ashamed of to achieve “equality”. Let’s shed light on the patriarchy by erasing the struggles women had to endure to achieve “equality”. Hell, let’s just take a trip down to Orwell’s Airstrip One and use the word ‘ungood’ for ‘bad’. How are we going to achieve such “equality”? Well, we’re just going to call it “equality”, that’s how. Masked misogyny is clearly the key to equality. Notice the irony? And this is merely a portion of my frustration.
And so I ask: why run away from the feminine root? Why discredit a movement that aims to ameliorate the weakened status of women? Why are we so willing to alter the term ‘feminism’ but not the term ‘misogyny’? Are we that ashamed of the female gender that we are willing to accept the hatred of it over its rise to equality? Why on earth is it considered a dirty word?
The term’s unfortunate negative connotation comes from the popular concept of the angry, ranting female. No one in class was willing to say it, but I had a gut-feeling that that was the reason many weren’t feminists. The fact that they refused to consider themselves feminists saddened me, mostly because the term was defined to them multiple times and they either refused to hear it or were against the idea of equal fundamental human rights for everyone.
It deeply saddens me that people think of feminism as an attack on men to empower women. It saddens me that we hinder our progress towards equality by constantly discrediting the movement that advocates for the equality of the sexes. I became more familiar with the mindsets of my peers through this unit, and it made me wonder how we can move before validating the movement itself, as I was sure they saw it as unnecessary. I see inequality as a ladder with the male comfortably sitting at the top while the female eagerly tries to climb up to the same step. Amusingly, I also pictured Simba and Mufasa on top of a cliff establishing that anything the light touched was theirs, while a lioness scrambles to get a good view. I believe that the inequality of the sexes in our world starts with the undermined woman. We’re not victimizing ourselves. We’re just making the ladder visible.
Those who remained silent during the presentations led me into a deep well of personal curiosity. Were they okay with the fact that 99.3% of Egyptian women have been sexually harassed? Perhaps they were silenced in awe of the fact that a woman makes 77% of a man’s salary. Or maybe, they were already aware of the law in Egypt that excuses offenders for sexual harassment by paying a fine, or that they could receive the weak punitive response of 6 months in jail. One might debunk my curiosity by stating that those who remained silent were merely being respectful and listening to the presentations. I’d like to make it clear that those who remained silent during this portion of the unit did not remain silent for long.
It was when religion came into the mix that they broke their silence. Of course, I do not speak for everyone in the class, but I will share my general observations. This marks the point where my frustration grew to immeasurable proportions. A perspective was presented that Islam is not a feminist religion, and it was immediately attacked. I wish I could say that all arguments were properly presented with the use of concrete details from the Quran in a calm, orderly manner, but sadly, they were not. The arguments were neither respectful nor credible and held an immature air of mockery and judgment that do not equate to peace, which I believe is rather ironic considering that they were arguing that Islam is a religion of peace that would not undermine women in such a way.
We were then directed to read a passage taken directly from the Quran, and were told to explain how it was not sexist. After a long argument, it was agreed upon that it was sexist if you “read it but not if you understand it”. Some even went on to justify the sexism presented in the passage, proving that again, they did not understand the definition of feminism. Or maybe they were afraid to come to terms with it. If I’m being completely honest, this frightened me greatly. I was frightened because I couldn’t comprehend how or why someone could defend inequality.
Although culture is something I value greatly, it is also something that contributes to my aforementioned fear. Oftentimes, I find myself sitting at home wondering why all the laundry detergent advertisements are directly targeted towards women. Having lived in the United States, it became clear to me that the ads in the Middle East are far less subtle than the western ones in regards to forcing laundry duty onto a woman. What I can mentally summarize from these ads is disheartening, frightening, and amusing all at the same time. The whiter the galabeya, the better the wife. Although it is incredibly frightening that these advertisements have managed to brainwash a plethora of women (it’s a media outlet, it’s bound to do so), I did enjoy a good laugh. Why? Well, because, according to these ads, what determines my status as a woman isn’t my academic success, my higher level thinking, or simply the way I treat people. God forbid it be my independence, either. No, what determines my status as a woman is a piece of a white cloth that doesn’t even belong to me.
I don’t intend to call these ads less subtle as an attempt to commend western ads for not being as direct, but rather to comment on the fact that most people in Egypt happen to be okay with it. I mean, these advertisements do not show any signs of changing, therefore it’s obvious that it hasn’t been brought to their attention that it is quite ridiculous. This is where I weave in my fear of culture.
I once seized the opportunity to ask my aunt why these advertisements were targeted strictly towards women. She gave me an odd look and replied, “Well Nour, it’s part of our culture, it’s okay.” The odd look she gave me was reflected off my face and back to her, and at a point we were just sitting there, staring at each other, trying to comprehend our differing views. I could imagine what was going on in her head clearly. I knew that she probably thought I was being plagued with the westernized notion of feminism, and that I’ll get over the “phase” soon. On the other hand, I was mentally trying to place a moratorium on the wave of incoming concerns that came to me as I sat there with her response ringing in my ears. How can a culture that I valued and respected so deeply create this tipping scale of injustice? Isn’t culture a means of unity? Why are people okay with it doing the complete opposite?
That was when I realized that we add value to the culture we create. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie would say, “Culture does not make people. People make culture.” I believe that we are unaware of the fact that we are what determines a culture, not the inanimate objects that surround us, or our setting. It’s as though we all gathered around one side, unaware of the fact that we are all standing atop a scale labeled ‘male’ and ‘female’. The death of equilibrium comes as a result of our excuses for the sake of this flawed sense of culture that we have created. We must return to the roots of culture and realize that its intended purpose is to unite us as a people. I am incredibly disheartened with the fact that we utilize culture and religion to support a cause that places a dent in inequality and unity. Nothing about this is “okay” in my eyes. If we have the power to create inequality, which we unfortunately have subconsciously created, we have the power to achieve equality.
If I’m going to be completely honest, I always believed that inequality was inevitable. Although this unit in class was incredibly frustrating, and opened my eyes to more ignorance than I would have ever expected, it led me to the realization that we only believe it is inevitable due to the fact that we have seen nothing but inequality in our lifetime. It becomes a vicious cycle that we have come to obey. We see inequality, we reciprocate inequality. We must create a foundation for equality so that we may echo that, instead. In other words, I strongly believe that we must stop taking steps backwards in order to remain in the flawed comfort-zone of the inequality that we have created and are used to, and that we need to step forward into a new realm of possibilities. It may not be our comfort-zone for long, but I believe that if we hold on for long enough, it’s sure to be, not only for us, but for generations to come who won’t need to use their culture as an excuse to undermine a large group of people. It saddens me that people simply rely on culture as a loose explanation of what they do not understand rather than understanding its intended purpose: to unify.
I contacted a dear friend of mine after the heated discussion regarding feminism and Islam. I had kept my calm for too long, and I really needed someone to vent out my flaming frustration to. She was just the right person, being a strong advocate of women’s rights. She said something that I will never forget, and that is that “we can’t expect much liberalism” from our school. She then went on to say that she cannot believe that she is referring to basic human rights as “liberalism”, however for our sake we have to. That was when I came to the chilling realization that we are behind. We have been taking far too many steps backwards and not enough steps forward. Our fear of change, and our perception of culture and religion combined all contributed to this. I, myself, fear change, and in doing so I find it easier to move back into what I feel is comfortable. What I don’t realize is that I am obstructing my path of opportunity. My yellow-brick-road was shattered at the hands of fear. Progress and advancement in general comes with taking risks in life, and I had to learn that by seeing the fear and defense that I once held through the eyes of my peers, and how it led them into a deeper well of injustice.
All in all, this unit offered me a plate of mixed emotions with a side of insight into mindsets that I discovered I didn’t really know before. Yes, I am saddened, frustrated, shocked, frightened, and angry all at the same time as a result of this unit, however, I am also strangely enlightened. Seeing where we are now in terms of equality and what we think of it, I now realize that I can channel my strong emotions into feminism. And yes, I said it, because there is absolutely no reason for me, or anyone else for that matter, not to be a feminist. At some point during the debate, my teacher said that those defending Islam “may use this opportunity to strengthen their faith.” I took this into my own context, and used the opportunity to strengthen my faith in feminism. The ridiculousness of the things I heard during this unit (I will be kind enough not to include them here) that support injustice led me to believe in the strong necessity for feminism, especially here in Egypt. In class, I’ve only heard two people admit to being feminists, one being our teacher, the other being a male student. Let’s look at the bigger picture here: Out of about twenty people, only two believe in basic human rights and only one is a woman advocating for her own rights. To me, that was a desperate cry for help.
I can now confidently say:
I am a human being, therefore I am a feminist.