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The Arab Woman - ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English
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Opinion

The Arab Woman

Having recently attended another conference on the subject, I would like to pause over the question of that unhappy creature, the Arab woman. Arab nations are in a fragile state; they want to hold on to their identity as world politics thrusts them forward towards a different set of values and so, the female becomes the symbol of stability in a world so rapidly changing. Arab women become the moral compass, they must behave as their mothers did, and they must remain obedient, chaste, and silent. I realize now that as a woman I was not asked my opinion about many of the fundamental issues that govern my life. Mostly people just assumed; assumed that I”d defer my input until after I hear what &#34the men&#34 have to say, that I would settle for what my mother did, want what my peers do, expect what was expected of me to be the final measure of my responsibility towards myself and others.

The female body has been a source of trepidation for the Arabs since their earliest recorded history. Essentially the means of propagating the line of warriors and poets, male heirs to carry on the proud heritage, has been bartered, fought over, and in general used as a bargaining chip for centuries. Arab women are still handled, even within the objective corridors of the law in terms of possession and ownership, because Arab men still see them as a commodity. Power mergers in our part of the world occur more out of a carefully orchestrated match than of a corporate takeover. Kinship policies dictate that the exchange of female relatives activates bonds of loyalty, blood relatives still being the most important support network, especially in the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Holding woman back can only handicap the community, but what then is the solution? Should they be free to run around and do whatever they want? Imagine the havoc that would create! So Arab men impose George Orwell”s big brother on women, they must always be watched, in case they stray, in case they act out of line. GCC men and by extension Arab men are still haunted by the specter of a female relative bringing dishonor to their family by having an illicit sexual relationship or even the mere suggestion of one, which leads to equal measures of control and resentment on their part towards women. Even though the Quran has admonished fathers saddened by the birth of female babies, one still wonders if deep down in their Bedouin souls, Arab men wish that Islam had not put an end to the practice of female infanticide. This act would allow them to bury their daughters in silence, in veils, in abbayas, and in customs that enforce the visual disappearance of women, thus finding invisible layers of sand to replace the literal ones.

In a constant re-enactment of the female infanticide of the pre-Islamic era, Arab men still find it hard to resist the urge to bury their women, under the twin influences of honor and shame. So invested is the female form with the precious pride of the male that a threat to its chastity is an unrecoverable blow, implying loss of face, social status and all the other unhealthy manifestations of traditional society. Yet, is it reasonable in this day and age to continue this symbolic female adulation, to expect men to be responsible for their own weakness towards temptations? If we really wanted to go to Islamic lore, we should not be selective and just enforce it on the behaviors and dress sense of women. Why not go the whole hog; back to riding horses and camels, using spears and arrows instead of bullets and Kalashnikovs, and replace modern medicine with supplication and prayer. In a world where the frightening face of the male ego has gone astray, where fundamentalism is giving birth to terrorist doctrines, is it not time we preached more tolerance and more love? Allah in his wisdom survived the prophet with only daughters; surely, there is a parable in that?

Uncomfortable questions arise from the intricate subject of the emancipated Arab female, and that is because of what she is being emancipated from, namely the Arab male, who uses her as a means of self-definition. Therefore, if she is divorced from him, his control of the system of establishment codes unravels, and the sweaty soul searching for contemporary Arab self-definition is instigated. How does the Western man do it? He has liberated himself from the gauge of his female counterpart, managing to find other avenues to assert his manhood besides exercising control over women. As long as the Arab woman wears a familiar face, the Arab man is sure of whom he is. Arab women are enforcers of this rule as much as men are. Instead of holding on to some outdated image of who we were, should we not concentrate, both men and women, on whom we are and who we can be?

Dr. Alanoud Al Sharekh

Alanoud Al Sharekh, a specialist in feminist literature in the Arab Middle East, has a PhD in Comparative Literature and Feminism from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, where she also completed a master’s degree in Applied Linguistics and Translation. Her first book, Challenging Limitations: the Changing Role of Women in the GCC was published by Saffron Press in April 2005.

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