A response to 'A critique of levantine women rights movements'

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By Deena Dajani · 18 October 2012
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I read with much interest Zahra’s recent blog ‘A critique of the Levantine women rights movements’ on the Oecumene website. I found myself agreeing with her over some aspects of her analysis; for example, she states that ‘there has been a generalized policy amongst dictators to allow some, albeit restricted, space for women’s movements in order to propagate the notion among domestic and international audiences of their regimes’ ‘acceptance’ of certain aspects of human rights’. There is little to disagree with here. Arabic governments continue to use ‘women’s rights issues’ as pawns in a chess game: on the one hand reducing domestic reform efforts to ‘token’ gestures that work towards increasing female ‘visibility’ in institutions like parliaments (arguably powerless to begin with), and on the other using such token reforms as bargaining chips in view of attracting funding from foreign donors.  

I take issue, however, with how Zahra drew from Raghda’s earlier blog on the Oecumene website 'Women as People' to support its conclusions about the weaknesses of the ‘Levantine Women Rights Movements’. The feminist human chain that inspired Raghda’s blog included participation by several local campaigns (demonstrating the kind of collective action Zahra’s blog considered absent in the Levant), while the organization fell to the La Sharaf Fil Jareemah movement (Arabic for: no honour in crime) and several independent activists. I write today as a committed member of La Sharaf Fil Jareemah (LSFJ) since its inception nearly four years ago. I feel strongly that while Zahra’s blog promised to give an account of ‘the efforts on the ground, away from the more normative discussions on feminist movements’, the blog in fact achieved the very opposite of this declared intent. To me, it effectively produced an assessment of various campaigns and movements (all collapsed together) according to the author’s own normative framework of what a ‘successful’ feminist movement would ‘do’ (and indeed what it would ‘look’ like).

To begin with, the first part of the blog establishes a rigid dichotomy between what is ‘religious’ and what is ‘secular’, arguing that the ‘secularist’ women’s movements completely disregard and refuse to engage with religious leaders in the region to further their causes. Against this ‘secular’ tendency of women’s movements, and as if standing in complete opposition to it, are the rest of the Arabic populace, for whom ‘engagement with these religious figures would be tantamount to engaging with general public opinion’. This presentation of the issue is problematic on many fronts. In the first instance, and specifically in relation to the issue of nationality Zahra raises, this dichotomy ignores the support declared amongst religious leaders and members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan for legislation that allows mothers to pass on their nationality to their children. And, in the second instance, it equates ‘religion’ with its institutions only, espousing an especially dominant understanding of what constitutes the ‘religious’ amongst western views. To elaborate, in the feminist human chain under question several participants held placards consistent with Islamic values of piety; for example, one placard produced a verse from the Qur’an (The most honourable among you in the sight of God is the most pious of you) and immediately under it: Allah does not say/use the categories male and female. In another placard, and one that appears to be a direct response to the ‘Islamist’ claim that veiling will curb the problem of harassment, the participant referred to the Qur’anic injunction of ‘turning your sight away’ as a practice of humility encouraged for both males and females. While appearing to oppose declarations by religious leaders, the participant is not in any way distancing himself from Islamic practices of piety and humility.

Does the lack of engagement with religious institutions make LSFJ ‘secular’? Or does it bring into question the very rigidity of that dichotomy? I feel that this reduction of the ‘religious’ to religious institutions ignores and even dismisses the centrality of moral and ethical actions to practicing Muslims who view their religion not in relation to institutions only but principally as a practice of daily discipline that extends to their every act and their every word. Such dichotomies as ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ remain within dominant western understandings of religion as an institution and do not engage with the problems of applying such categories elsewhere.

Another issue is the ‘us and them’ dichotomy that the blog argues is advanced by women’s rights movements in the region. Zahra begins once again with reference to Raghda’s blog and the feminist human chain organised by LSFJ and then, in the same paragraph, anchors the example with reference to Mona al-Tahawi’s article in Foreign Policy. Why does she ignore the dozen or so thoughtful responses by Arabic feminist thinkers to al-Tahawi’s piece? Indeed, this is not the first time feminists in Arabic and Muslim states have felt compelled to respond to al-Tahawi; they did so last year too when al-Tahawi decided to speak in favour of French President Sarkozy’s decision to ban the burqa in France, therefore choosing to participate in the management of Muslim women’s bodies by inscribing what they should not wear and insisting that this is quite different to inscribing what they should wear.

A deeper engagement with the feminist human chain under question would have rebuked arguments about it advancing such dichotomies. Not only were there a significant number of male participants, but the placards they carried also challenged the idea that discrimination on the basis of gender affects females only. For example, in reference to the attitude that mothers are primary care-givers while a father’s duty is restricted to financial provision, a male participant held up a placard that read: ‘We just had a child, I should get paternal leave as well’. Ironically, while professing a rejection of the us versus them dichotomy, the author herself expresses exasperation that a prominent female figure in Lebanon stood against legislation that would allow Lebanese mothers to pass on their nationality to their children. Doesn’t questioning rigid dichotomies entail looking at gender discrimination, and how it affects people across categories, without reproducing the source of the problem as restrictive to one gender category only?

Finally, I feel that by reading Raghda’s blog alongside a normative framework of what ‘ought’ to happen, Zahra’s blog missed a key argument advanced by Raghda, and I quote, ‘[the initiative] transformed the discourse from one in prescriptive English in air-conditioned hotel meeting rooms to one in colloquial Arabic, on the streets where it belongs’. If I understood Raghda correctly, what she picks up on is not how ‘effective’ the initiative was at using the language of international human rights, but how significant the distinctive languages and discourses advanced were. The feminism she depicts is a ‘vernacular feminism’ that engages with multiple forms of critique against domination and the structures that, consciously or unconsciously, produce it - including the language of rights.

To use the example of LSFJ once again, the movement has but one core tenant that it pursues across various projects (including a legal campaign: Ayna Naqef?): to reclaim, rework and reinvent ‘honour’. It dislocates the naming of ‘honour crimes’ so fetishized by the western gaze to pre-marital sexual relationships and locates it instead in various acts of violence and transgression: from domestic abuse, to harassment, to control over women’s movement. The body that is static, gazed at and controlled becomes a body in motion. This has produced an outcry by quite a few observers who have strongly protested LSFJ’s ‘incoherent, unscientific and illogical’ use of the word ‘honour’. I suspect the reason the movement received such a response is that this act of dislocating ‘honour’ from within a single practice of violence posed a decapitating challenge to those who could previously ‘frame’ so-called ‘honour murders’ as an issue of ‘chastity’. This act of dislocation then goes on to uncover the manifestations of ‘honour’ beyond, thus exposing the various modulations of these crimes for what they really are: issues of domination.

I suspect LSFJ is anything but a ‘grassroots movement’. It does not organise itself in such a way as to respond to structures of inequality using their same language and ideology, nor does it measure its ‘success’ along this benchmark. I’d venture to propose that LSFJ is instead a ‘subversive movement’. It puts into question rigid dichotomies like western versus eastern, secular versus religious, modern versus traditional and instead invents a new political vocabulary all together. Perhaps this is just a possibility, but even if it were just a slim one, isn’t this what constitutes the very promise of politics?

Image: ‘What does honour mean to you?’, discussion sessions are part of LSFJ/Ayna Naqef?'s Spaces project, hosted here at Ruwwad Centre in Amman.

About the author

  • Deena Dajani

    Research Associate
    Deena Dajani
    The Open University
    My research project experiments with Arabic oral and dramatic traditions as forms of subjugated knowledges and sites of political disputation. This experimentation navigates beyond interest in Arabic... Read more

Oecumene: Citizenship after Orientalism is funded by an European Research Council (ERC) Advanced Grant (Institutions, values, beliefs and behaviour ERC-AG-SH2).

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