The West's gleeful obsession with the 'oppressed Arab woman'

The stereotype of the oppressed Arab woman continues to dominate public discourse throughout Europe. Not only is this skewed image altering the perception of changing notions of family and roles within the Arab world, it is also an expression of our own cultural insecurity, writes Claudia Mende

Essay by Claudia Mende

I’m interviewing a woman in Southern Jordan. She could hardly be dressed more conservatively. Headscarf, long dress, no make-up. And yet, she is clear and uncompromising as she begins telling me about her work as a local councillor in Madaba province. "Women are not content to be held back anymore," she claims, once she has outlined how difficult it was to find her voice in male-dominated, rural Jordan and how she is fighting to have women’s interests taken into consideration on the provincial council. She uses all her influence to empower women and support their projects. She wants to go much further, she says.

Asma Rashahneh, 50, is just one of number of very active Arab women. An enormous wave of social change is underway from Lebanon to Yemen, Jordan to Morocco, from the Emirates to Sudan. Notions of the family and ideas about marriage are changing. Younger Arab women expect more from life than their mothers and are less easily satisfied.

What was the exception a generation ago is increasingly the everyday norm. Women are establishing businesses, feeding their families as single parents, working as sportswomen, artists, lawyers and politicians. In their free time, they are discovering new freedoms beyond the watchful eyes of their brothers or fathers. They are protesting for their rights or fighting for a new, feminist interpretation of the Koran.

A lopsided view

Nevertheless, these changes in women’s lives barely feature in public discourse in the West. Instead, the lives of women in the Islamic world are reduced to forced marriage, honour killings and male violence. The publishing industry produces an endless supply of books like "I choose freedom. How I survived forced marriage and oppression and found hope" (published in German by Adeo).

Most Arab women are more likely to have problems struggling to pay the rent, facilitating their children’s educations and their own personal development. Yet in the eyes of popular Western "enlightenment literature", Middle Eastern women are only able to lead independent lives when they cut all ties with their cultural and religious roots.

Headscarf-wearing Muslim women in Munich city centre (photo: Imago/Ralph Peters)
Symbol für Rückständigkeit und Klischee von der unterdrückten arabischen Frau: "Das Bild einer Frau mit Kopftuch löst einen kollektiven Film aus, in dem der orientalischen Frau die Rolle der ewig schwachen, hilflosen Anderen zugeteilt ist. Das verstellt den Blick auf die sich wandelnden Lebenswelten von Frauen in der Region", schreibt Mende.

The gleeful obsession with grisly individual cases blocks our understanding of the struggles, aspirations and contradictions in Arab women’s lives. Extreme examples have little to say about the reality of these women’s existence. The media’s ongoing debate about the headscarf only serves to strengthen preconceptions.

Thus, the notion of the "oppressed Arab woman" whose headscarf or hijab is the key symbol of her desolate existence has become an especially persistent stereotype. Today, it is stock fixture in the opinions of a broad middle class. The image of a woman in a headscarf triggers a slide show in the collective mind, which shows a Middle Eastern woman playing the role of the weak, helpless Other. This hides the reality of the changing lives of women in the region from view.

"We" are free and "you" are oppressed

There is no doubt that Arab women experience discrimination where their rights and their society are concerned. Discrimination and sexualised violence are grave problems. They are to be staunchly condemned. Like Christianity, Judaism and reputedly tolerant religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, Islam has reinforced and legitimised its patriarchal structures over centuries.

Yet the image of the ʺoppressed Arab woman" disregards crucial factors. For a start, it does not reflect the whole breadth of gender relations in the region. In the Arab world, as elsewhere, there are normal families in which parents lovingly encourage their daughters (and their sons) and support them in following their own paths. Alongside the macho pashas, there are fathers and husbands who are happy to compromise and live out their relationships as equals. More than anything, those who fight for greater women’s rights in their society deserve to have their commitments recognised.

This image has also become a stereotype because it is simplistic in its pitting supposedly free sisters in the West against wretched victims in Arab countries. Muslim societies are assumed to have sweeping patriarchal structures, while it is claimed that Western societies are pictures of progressive modernity, says Swiss social anthropologist Annemarie Sancar. Neither of these absolute views are correct.

Women in the West also face discrimination. The denigration of Muslim women is countered with an idealised view of our own situation. The #MeToo debate, the gender pay gap, domestic violence (according to Germany´s Federal Criminal Police Office, a man kills his partner or ex-partner every three days), to name just a few examples. We still have a long way to go to full equality.

Those who refuse to acknowledge the inadequacies of their own culture where women’s rights are concerned are unable to recognise the "complexity and inconsistencies" of women’s lives in other cultures. So said the psychologist and gender researcher Birgit Rommelspacher, who died in 2015, in her essay Feminism, Secularism and Islam, published in German in 2013. Rommelspacher, a shrewd analyst of the West’s dominant behaviour, felt that this was often registered in the fixation on the "backwardness" of other women, serving "as a counter-foil to their own progressiveness".

But not only does this stereotype distract us from real gender relations in Europe, it also conceals the fact that both women and men living in the Near East and North Africa are suffering from poverty, political repression and fears for the future. As a result, their scope for action on a personal level is severely limit. Questions of gender roles cannot be isolated from questions of political oppression and the West’s joint responsibility for these conditions, stresses the Egyptian social anthropologist Dina Makram-Ebeid, based at the American University in Cairo.

Psychologist and gender researcher Birgit Rommelspacher (photo: Heinrich Boll Stiftung)
"Komplexität und Widersprüchlichkeit" von Frauenleben in anderen Kulturen: Die Psychologin und Genderforscherin Birgit Rommelspacher meint, in der Fixierung auf die 'Rückschrittlichkeit' der anderen Frau werde diese oft geradezu in dieser Rolle festgehalten, um "als Kontrastfolie für die eigene Fortschrittlichkeit" zu dienen.

The West’s scope of responsibility includes direct political support for dictators as well as the fact that industrialised countries have drastically reduced other world regions’ opportunities for development with their own waste of resources. Climate change is hitting North Africa and the Middle East with much greater severity than Europe.

"We in the South are paying the highest price for climate change," says Makram-Ebeid. "Isn’t it obvious that Egypt is becoming hotter and increasingly inhospitable because the global North is using the most of our planet’s resources?"

A loss of cultural dominance

The stereotype of the "oppressed Arab woman" is a long-standing tradition in European history and has been used repeatedly to justify colonial action. But why is it continuing to grow in strength today, just as women in societies in the Middle East and North Africa are setting out for new lives? Their achievements are both fragile and continually threatened by setbacks and yet they are still there, in the face of Islamist threats and repression by dictators who claim to be secularists.

The more the West continues to lose its grip on cultural dominance worldwide, the more it openly craves the acknowledgment of supposed "Middle-Eastern barbarism". As Europe’s real power dwindles, the more its supposedly civilizing superiority is maligned in debates on migration. A deep-seated insecurity in Western societies between globalisation, refugee crises and fear of economic decline has led to a powerful need for cultural self-assurance.

Asma Rashahneh, the local councillor from Jordan, is presumably unaware of these debates in Europe. She is concerned with more practical matters, like facilitating lives lived with dignity, without violence or sexual harassment. Independent income, better education, and a place at the table in public debate. Women like her deserve greater recognition for their struggles for a better world.

Claudia Mende

© 2019

Translated from the German by Ayca Turkoglu