I can’t stop thinking about an article I read a couple weeks ago. Why Do They Hate Us: The real war on women in the Middle East, by Egyptian-American journalist Mona Eltahawy, was published in Foreign Policy Magazine, and provoked a huge reaction.
The article focused on the war against women in the Arab world; she argues that even though there is an uprising taking over the Arab world demanding equity, democracy and an end to years of tyrannical rule, this movement has not only marginalized women, but has given men more room to abuse women.
It reminded me why I left Amman. Amongst other things, the daily verbal sexual harassment in all public places was unbearable. Most men participated in this behavior. Regardless of class, education, religion, or profession, men felt it was alright to pester women no matter what they were wearing or where they were.
Once I saw a man rubbing himself whilst walking behind a fully covered woman wearing a niqab. Was she somehow to blame for inciting this bad behavior? Is it really true that the only place she’s safe from harassment like this is at home, away from any public spaces?
But this is not why the article made me angry. It made me angry because it pointed out a consistent trend in activism that argues that we should liberate now, and discuss later.
For example, in Palestine the main form of oppression is the Israeli occupation. So, the argument goes, we should work at liberating Palestine first, then we can work on achieving rights for women, children, LGBTQ communities, and eradicating corruption and poverty.
Similarly, in the Occupy Movement in the US the main issue on the table is poverty; the 99% vs. 1%. The movement has focused on that, leaving people of color and women’s issues as secondary and tertiary issues that could be attended to later.
This attitude results in disaster and tragedy. There were multiple reports of rape on Occupy camp grounds that were not dealt with in ways that ensured women are protected and rapists punished, the issue was often not even brought up in the larger meetings. Similarly, people of color have been marginalized – their issues not considered a part of the larger conversation about economic equality.
What is the point of activism if not to address these very issues? Poverty, tyranny and occupation are not stand alone issues; they are results of systemic and institutional oppression of all except those in power.
Addressing singular issues at best trades one oppressor for another – a jump from the frying pan into the fire – but does not effect deeper social change.
In the Second World War, the world united to fight a racist and xenophobic movement that had to be defeated militarily. After the war the international community again united, this time around the idea that a Jewish state should be established to ensure the safety of the Jewish people (other victims of the Holocaust – Communists, Socialists, Roma, homosexuals, Slavic people and people with disabilities – were not a part of this consideration).
In the face of this single-mindedness, issues of displacement, colonization, violence and oppression were not allowed to enter the conversation. These issues threatened to hinder the single-minded goal of Zionism and so were systematically ignored. The resulting was the creation of a state that is ethnically cleansing Palestinians, subordinating women’s rights to Orthodox religious edicts, and treating non-European Jews as second-rate citizens
This single-minded activism is dangerous wherever we find it. If we ignore the current inequality of Palestinian society – felt by women, youth, homosexuals, the poor, the disabled and others – then we risk having traded the occupation for the oppression of the hyper-religious movements and governments Eltahaway describes rising in Egypt and other Arab Spring countries.
And things can change for the worse. These days it’s assumed that women in the Arab world should cover their arms, legs and chests in order to be culturally sensitive to Arab culture. But that has not always been the cultural norm. When my mother started teaching at the University of Jordan in the early 1970s she wore a mini-skirt and tank top to class. Now she worries how much of her forearm is showing. In the 1930s my grandmother and her sisters were the generation that rejected the head-cover that was used in Damascus.
Working toward social change that takes everyone into consideration is complicated. But humans are complicated. As are our issues, societies, and cultures. So why should the activism or solutions we present be superficial, one-issue centered, and unsustainable? Why can’t we think of multi-disciplinary activism as our solution? If we want equality, fairness, and a voice, shouldn’t we want it for everyone at the same time?
Alma Khasawnih was born in Amman to a Jordanian father and a Palestinian-Syrian mother. She immigrated to the US in 1996 and received a passport in 2002. The city she feels most affinity to in the US is Detroit, but she lives in Seattle now and wants to grow old in Barcelona. Alma is a regular columnist for the Globalist and works with CD Forum as the Marketing & Outreach Coordinator.