05.07.2021

Smashing the Patriarchy & Co: How Arab Feminists are Re-politicizing their Movement

This essay explores the ways in which Arab feminists are re-politicizing their movement and offers an overview of the strategies that are currently being deployed to strengthen feminist activism across the region.

The de-politicization of feminist movements across the globe has been intensifying for decades. Globally, feminism was hijacked by capitalism and then even more so by neoliberalism, entangling a movement that revolves around social solidarity with the notion of a free-market society. In the global south, feminist activism became increasingly NGOized[1], too often focusing on project-based work rather than broad-based criticism and action against the patriarchy in all its manifestations. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), this was coupled with so-called “state feminism”, where women’s liberation was taken over by patriarchal, often totalitarian, regimes, limiting the potential for fundamental feminist reforms within countries in the region. Over the years, this tamed feminist discourses, demands and activism, resulting in the de-politicization of the Arab feminist movement.

Despite all this, and the countless other obstacles faced by Arab activists, the current feminist scene in the MENA region is booming. Feminists across countries, backgrounds and age groups are now organizing, mobilizing, and displaying solidarity in unprecedented ways. This essay aims to showcase how Arab feminists are reinstating their revolutionary and highly political position against the patriarchy and all the systems that uphold it. It offers an overview of some of the current strategies being deployed to re-politicize and strengthen the feminist movement across the region.

A Failing Economic System

In her famous article published in 2013 under the title “How feminism became capitalism's handmaiden - and how to reclaim it”, Nancy Fraser argues that feminism is supporting state-sanctioned capitalism through opting to advocate for neoliberal reforms and programs - whether deliberately or not - that are presumed to “empower” women. That article kicked-off a critical self-reflection process amongst feminists worldwide. Revisiting women’s empowerment programs and feminist demands that align with neoliberalism and assessing their implications on the actual liberation of women from cycles of exploitation and violence became central in discussions within feminist circles. This was especially critical in the global south where neoliberal programs and policies greatly increased the feminization of poverty[2]. For instance, micro-funding programs for impoverished and poor women swept the MENA region, offering micro-loans to help them invest in their own “entrepreneurial” projects. Often, these projects were home-based, with the intention of complying with traditional gender norms. Although there are reports and studies claiming that this tactic was successful in empowering women, feminists and women’s rights advocates in the MENA region soon realized the dangers associated with it. Not only did these programs fail to address structural issues impeding women from advancing economically, but they also undermined decades of activism that aimed to break women out of the private sphere, as well as activism that aimed to strengthen labor rights as a whole. In Jordan for instance, these programs failed miserably. Thousands of women were unable to repay their micro-loans, some of them were even imprisoned, and most of them never establishing entrepreneurial projects as planned.

Frustrations with the neoliberal economic structure in general have been rising for years. Privatization of services, increasing unemployment, shrinking public sectors, reduced labor costs, and austerity measures exacerbated economic inequalities like never before, with women and girls being the most severely affected. Employment under the neoliberal economic structure became more precarious and informal. Within the MENA region, which has the lowest female labor market participation rates in the world, women were faced with mounting economic challenges and Arab feminists tended to focus on one economic challenge at a time rather than critiquing the root causes of these challenges. But the first and second waves of the Arab Spring[3], which were sparked by stark and increasing economic inequalities, turned the tide. Millions took to the streets to demand economic reforms - among other things - with women taking prominent roles in the protests. An anti-neoliberal feminist discourse began maturing and slogans like “economic justice is a feminist issue” and “no feminism without economic justice” were held high on banners in many protests – most notably during the Lebanese revolution in 2019 - signaling the beginning of a new chapter in Arab feminism.

With the COVID-19 pandemic hitting the world, and the further deterioration of the economic situation for women across the region, feminist critique of neoliberalism increased. Feminist activism towards economic justice became central and was translated into campaigns, publications, articles, and online events that raise awareness about feminist economics and call for a feminist post-COVID recovery plan.

The Patriarchy is Never Pro-feminism

Throughout the past century, state feminism has been prominent in many countries in the MENA region. Under state feminism, male-dominated governments and states take it upon themselves to choose and implement reforms in favor of women. Despite the limited positive reforms that took place under this context, feminists across the region see state feminism as problematic in many different ways. To begin with, there is a clear contradiction between feminist theory and the nature of state feminism that perpetuates perceptions of women as passive victims waiting for the patriarchal authority to “save” them. Secondly, state feminism actively aims to reduce the role - or even eliminate the existence of - feminist movements, acting like the state is already taking care of its female citizens. Moreover, reforms under state feminism are almost always limited to the legislative level, neglecting the social and cultural factors that exacerbate discrimination against women. This means that holistic and effective reforms are rarely taking place.

This issue is best illustrated through the developments in Saudi Arabia today, where the Saudi crown prince, Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), has been attempting to improve the negative image of the country with regards to women’s rights to gain international popularity, attract investments and facilitate economic growth. For instance, MBS has lifted the driving ban on women in 2018 - a step that is long overdue – not to give Saudi women freedom of movement perse, but to polish the kingdom’s image and to enable women to commute to work without the need of a male driver, encouraging them to enter the labor market for a faster increase in GDP. In the meantime, feminist activists who called for the abolishment of the ban were imprisoned and tortured for defying it. But feminists from across the region have been campaigning against such hypocritical window-dressing reforms and have created enough international pressure on the Saudi government to push for the release of a number of activists, some of whom have been jailed for years under false or unreasonable accusations.

The legacy of state feminism in the region was carried on in a new form over the years as the UN encouraged countries to establish governmental or semi-governmental national institutions that aim to advance women’s rights and strengthen gender mainstreaming. Countries across the region began establishing those institutions, often appointing female family members of the ruling class to run them. National feminist movements in many countries formed alliances with these institutions and were able to advance the rights of women and girls in compliance with international conventions. However, many limitations and challenges hindered the effectiveness of these institutions. Without political will to achieve gender equality, these institutions are often deprived of the necessary resources, authorities, and support from states. Moreover, under authoritarian regimes, their demands could not defy and push boundaries, forcing them to work under glass ceilings that limit the potential for holistic and fundamental change.

During the past few years, feminists have deployed multiple strategies to overcome these barriers. First, they began actively opposing authoritarianism and distanced themselves from their oppressive states to regain the integrity of their movement. This was especially the case in countries like Egypt and Lebanon where uprisings were met with an iron fist. Feminists from such countries made it clear that not only do they prefer to distant themselves from their states, but they also refuse the seat that is offered to them on the authoritarian table. Other strategies were more diplomatic. To counter challenges faced by national institutions for instance, a project that aims to develop a set of principles that are similar in concept to the Paris Principles for human rights institutions aiming to establish an internationally recognized accreditation process is currently under way[4]. Through the adoption of these principles, political will would have less influence on the work of these national institutions whose mandates, processes, and resources would have to comply with internationally accepted guidelines.

The Instrumentalization of Self-determination

As the international donor community increased its focus on the rights and empowerment of women and girls, feminist movements across the global south began to change. Feminist organizations became increasingly dependent on foreign funding, and slowly, feminist action became less focused on broad-based activism against the patriarchy and shifted to project-based work, creating a gap between feminist theory and feminist activism. Over time, many feminist organizations in the region had no choice but to conform to the new NGOized and professionalized feminist landscape. This began threatening the integrity and agency of the Arab feminist movement, minimizing mobilization potential and alienating young women from the cause. But in the last couple of years, Arab feminists have been taking many steps in the right direction to reclaim their agency and strengthen a sense of comradery among women in the region.

As the region’s women are predominantly Arabic speaking, the online space has unleashed the potential for cross-border solidarity building, allowing feminist content creators and knowledge producers to reconnect feminist theory with activism. Using social media, young Arab feminists are taking the reins of developing radical feminist discourses and have scaled up their ability to organize and mobilize. In 2019 in instance, a horrific femicide that took place in Palestine rocked the region. The Tal’at movement was born in response. The movement reinstated that the personal is political[5] and that women’s liberation was interlinked with national liberation. The protests that were organized by Tal’at spread all over Palestine and reached Lebanon, Jordan and Berlin, making violence against women a hot topic of both online and offline discussions. This development inspired young feminist activists in various countries. Volunteer-based feminist collectives, such as the Takatoat, started increasing in number. Side by side with these collectives, feminist activists are currently developing highly political, revolutionary, unapologetic, and uncensored feminist narratives that are reaching millions of women across the region.

As per a publication titled “Political Feminism for a Better Future”, involving young women, especially university students, in feminist movements in the global south is vital to the re-politicization of feminism. In 2020, secular and independent clubs – with feminist leaders like Lara Sabra – won the majority of seats in three major universities in Lebanon. This was of special importance within the Lebanese political landscape because for decades, university student elections have been seen as a reflection of political sentiment in the country. And for decades, dominating sectarian politics have been a major setback in the development of Lebanon in general and the advancement of women’s rights in particular.

Arab feminists are now reimagining the funding ecosystem as well. For example, an Egypt based feminist fund called the Doria Feminist Fund was established in early 2021 to support feminist groups in the MENA region, especially those which are sidelined and under-resourced. The fund gives the full trust to established and emerging groups to navigate their work and set up their priorities, providing both financial and technical support that is necessary to sustain and develop their activism, and countering the pitfalls of donor funding that negatively affect feminist agendas and activism.

Justice Cannot be Dissected

Arab feminists today are raising the ceiling of their demands and are encompassing all social justice causes within their work. Their discourses are maturing into an anti-racist, anti-authoritarian, anti-homophobic, anti-transphobic, anti-colonial, and anti-neoliberal force that links feminism with all other social justice movements. The intersectional Arab feminism that is currently evolving goes beyond understanding how systems of oppression interact to shape the realities of women of different backgrounds. It recognizes how all systems of oppression are sustaining the patriarchy, and therefore, how all systems of oppression need to be eliminated to achieve true justice.

Arab women are being called on to join the struggle for freedom and justice and are reassured that none of them will be left behind. The regional feminist movement is rising up and preparing for a unified, revolutionary new chapter, one that fearlessly demands a fair and dignified future for all.

 

[1] “NGOization” is used to describe the institutionalization, demobilization, and professionalization of social movements.

[2] The feminization of poverty is a term that refers to the gender gap in living standards between women and men which results in a higher likelihood for women to live under impoverished conditions. The term was coined in 1978 by Dr. Diana Pearce.

[3] The first wave of the Arab spring began in the early 2010s and spread over Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, and Libya. While the second wave began in 2018 and included Sudan, Lebanon, and Iraq.

[4] Solidarity is Global Institute in Jordan (SIGI-Jo) is leading the “Amman Principles” project in collaboration with the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung’s regional Political Feminism program. More information on the project can be found here: https://mena.fes.de/events/e/advancing-national-mechanisms-for-womens-rights-and-gender-equality

[5] “The personal is political” is a term that became popular during the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. The term highlights the connection between the personal experiences of women and the larger political structure that determines power dynamics within the household and beyond. This greatly widened the scope of issues that feminist activism and analysis focused on.

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