I have always been resistant to working on “women’s issues”. This might seem odd, considering how much there is to do, but my resistance is well founded. Women, and their so-called “issues” keep being put into boxes. I do not like to be boxed and neither do most of the women I know. The “women as defenseless victims” discourse does not sit well with me. Neither do the “women as heroines”, “women as saints”, “women as honor bearers” or the “women are all the same” discourses. As a result I have tended to stay out of the “women’s movement” and opted instead, like many other Arab women, to walk my own path, as a person and as a citizen.
Recently, my ears have perked up. In Amman, Jordan last month, hundreds of women and men lined the streets of the city forming a human chain against harassment, certain discriminatory statutes in Jordanian law, and honor crimes. They held up banners that described, not in wordy and ineffective development speak, but in simple everyday words, what women and men often think, but tend to express only in closed circles. Women held up banners that said things like, “like you, I can also live on my own”, “I choose to wear the Hijab”, “a woman’s voice is revolution”, “I have all the strength in the world”. Men held up banners that said: “it’s not macho to stare and catcall”, “I do the dishes too!” and “honor crimes deprive me of my honor”. The campaign came within a broader emergence of citizen-led efforts on a number of social and political issues.
The campaign, named “Zayyi Zayyak”, which roughly translates to “we are the same”, was a turning point on many levels. First of all, it was organised by a group of grassroots initiatives organising on a number of crucial issues including advocating for Jordanian women to pass citizenship onto their children, pushing to end honor crimes, and fighting to change a law that allows rapists to escape persecution if they marry their victims. Secondly, it 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. Thirdly, it involved both men and women, and highlighted the fact that the issues presented are not women’s issues per se, but affect men and society as a whole. Male children of Jordanian women married to non-Jordanians are deprived of citizenship. Young men are made to carry the burden of family honor and are often pressured to commit “honor crimes” to cleanse the family name. Countering harassment also brings to the surface the matter of male exclusion from public and semi-public spaces, which has become common-practice in Amman, as a result. Additionally, it pushed the boundaries of what is “safe” or “acceptable”, which is a risk that is necessary to take when pushing for change. Similar campaigns have also recently taken place in Egypt and other countries in the region.
The campaign in Amman solicited a great deal of response, both positive and negative. On social media, as well as in traditional media, organisers and participants were hailed both heroes and villains, were applauded for their courage and creativity and bashed for their audacity in countering social norms and for their supposed ignorance of Islamic teachings. This is the absolute best response one could expect to such an effort. It creates a new kind of discourse, away from what should and shouldn’t be, and towards what is and isn’t, which is the kind of conversation we most need; a brutal discussion between citizens on who we are, where we want to go, and how we intend to get there. There is no doubt that it is a painful conversation, bringing us face to face with a lot of ugly truths that we may prefer to ignore, but also an enlightening one, making many of us realise that we are not alone in our desire to do things differently.
These are very exciting times. As individuals and citizens, women and men in the Arab world are beginning to take our rightful place at the heart of the change and development process in our countries and region, which is where we have always belonged. No longer the consuming beneficiaries of change according to the agendas of our non-representative governments, or of the governments of others, we are, instead, rightfully leading the process of transformation that we seek to bring about.
A great deal needs to be done to remedy laws and traditions that harm and hold back women, but this can only be achieved within a greater push for equality and full citizenship rights. Women do have a further distance to travel on this journey, and this will require a great deal of hard work, but the women (and men) on the streets of Arab cities don’t look to me like they’re afraid of hard work.
1 - What are you staring at?
2 - It's not clever to scare her
3 - I am queen of myself