Feminist Activism in the Arab World


Nawal El Sadawi once said that, “the Arab Feminist movement will…rise from the soil of Arab lands, rather than become another copy of feminist movements in the West.” For this very reason it makes sense that activism in the Arab world would not necessarily be the same type of activism found in Western Liberal Feminism. Arab and Arab-American Feminist activism is a complex web of factors that interrelate with all of the other components that affect feminism in the lives of these women and in their communities. For individuals to understand how this movement can “rise from the soil of Arab lands,” they must first understand the strategies that are employed by Arab and Arab-American Feminists in their struggle for activism.


Strategies of Activism

Contrary to stereotypical western belief that feminist activism inherently involves bra burning and the refusal of women to participate in household activities, Arab feminist activism employs many different strategies for making changes—these strategies differing even amongst the various Arab countries. In many of these countries there is a great deal of non-violent activism taking place. Saudi Arabian women show a willingness to discuss their feelings concerning feminist matters in public forums. Women can also be seen arguing their points of view in the news media, even though it might not be in front of an objective audience. Morocco promotes feminist non-violent activism through educational workshops like the “Partners in Participation Regional Campaign School.” At this workshop more than 50 women from 14 Middle Eastern and North African countries generally attend in order to be provided with the necessary skills to achieve success for the rights of women in the political world. Morocco also focuses on making change through political and governmental means. Lawmaker Armina Ouchelh states that,our Arab world faces many challenges in this millennium. Democracy is one of those challenges. We cannot face this without the capabilities and participation of both men and women." In Lebanon and Syria there is a huge focus on activism through writing. From the Syrian perspective, many Syrian-Americans and Syrian-Canadians feel the need to write about their troubles so that others can learn about them. Women of Lebanese descent, both native and foreign, also feel this desire to make their feelings known through written language and art. Lebanon has also been a haven for feminist women seeking to have their works published—women such as Nawal El Sadawi, from Egypt, who was not allowed to be published within her own country. This desire to create change through non-violent means might possibly stem from the fact that in recent decades have been overcome by war and conflict.

Activism and Conflict

The activist perspective of the Arab feminist movement did not come into existence solely to be used to advance the feminist agenda in the political realm. Activism for women and children also developed as a necessity to address certain issues that have arisen due to the conflict that has plagued the Arab world for some time. For example, Lebanon has been struggling with war and conflict since 1920 when it was recognized as a state by the United Nations. Until 2001, it was constantly struggling with Syrian occupation, and Palestinian refugees fleeing the created state of Israel. Individuals like Souha Bechara became political activists to promote global awareness of injustices to neighboring peoples, to make her own neighbors aware about how the conflict affects their own fellow citizens, to eliminate the ignorance of her own peers, and to empower other women like herself to take action to make a difference. What is unfortunate is when war, in Bechara’s case the conflict between Lebanon and Israel, punishes these people by imprisoning them in detention camps for almost a decade. In Iraq, there has been a completely different influence of war on activism. It has been brought to the attention of those individuals wishing to listen that since the recent war between the United States and fundamentalist forces in Iraq has begun, the status of women has declined—generating a wave of activism through the forming of organizations to enable women to create change—this same tactic has also been employed by Palestine/Israel and Syria.
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Feminist Activist Organizations

The Arab world has just as many organizations promoting feminist values that will enrich the lives of women and children as the western world; it is just the misfortune of many people that they never hear about them. In Lebanon, organizations such as the Fifth Mother played a crucial role in ending the Israeli Occupation of Lebanon; or Women’s Court: The Permanent Arab Court to Resist Violence Against Women plays a huge role in fighting to end all forms of violence against women in Arab societies. In Iraq there are organizations like the Iraq Women’s League and the Women’s Will Association that focus on the negative affect that war has on women living in occupied territories. In Syria, there are organizations that actively work in opposition of the occupation of Lebanon, such as Women Against Occupation, that now focus on working to make the public aware of female prisoners in detainment camps—i.e. Souha Bechara. Morocco is also home to organizations advocating feminist activism such as the Middle East Partnership Initiative which sponsors the workshop mentioned in “Strategies of Activism.” For countries like Saudi Arabia, the organizations found in Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine/Israel such as the Women’s Court, Fifth Mother, Women Against Occupation, Women in Black, and even Amnesty International work to aid women there; even though it is a conservative state where many devout Muslim women see little problem with the current application of religious doctrine in their lives.
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Intersectionality of Feminist Activism

As was mentioned before, feminist activism has its roots in many aspects of Arab culture and existence. A popular means of activism has been through literature and the arts. Evelyn Accad, a reknowned Lebanese author and artist, focuses on various factors that promote feminist activism in her novel, Sitt Marie Rose. She shows how for some individuals activism stems from a desire to educate Arabs to be knowledgeable of, and appreciative of, their own culture and history—not to become infatuated with how the western world operates (Accad 49). She also reinforces the idea that education of women is important for change, even if other individuals do not like that concept in the context of this novel (Accad 49). Fatima Mernissi from Morocco also uses literature to further feminist concepts, debunk negative myths concerning Arab women and culture, and promote awareness that Morocco (like other Middle Eastern countries) rely heavily on the Arab countries with stronger feminist movments for their feminism. In Iraq, one can see the effects of colonization and orientalism on activism. This concept is conveyed through the images of western white feminists trying to “save their little veiled sister” from their big, bad oppression—a western farce. Organizations such as Gay Middle East provide an outlet for those Arab individuals that are members of the GLBT community to share their articles and information on activism.
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