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Feminists of the West, Women Are Hurting in the Middle East

Instead of worrying about “manspreading” or subtle displays of sexism, feminists in the West need to focus on major problems affecting women in the world, like being shot going to school or female genital mutilation.

Like many of you, I grew up reading about historical heroines of the suffragette movement. These were women who faced imprisonment, risked their lives, or even willingly gave their lives to bring attention to their plight. These were women who were on the outskirts of society. They were disrupting the status quo. They were a threat to order. Not only did men find them threatening, as their cause was in direct resistance to the male-dominated society, but women were threatened by them as well.

Many of these suffragettes had to lead double-lives, fighting in secret, as their fellow women preferred the safety and security of allowing society to putter along quietly. Demanding progress meant upheaval. It meant strife and potential hardships. They just wanted these suffragettes to leave well enough alone.

Well, thank goodness they didn’t. These women broke new ground and started to pave new roads for women. They are the people I have to thank for the world I was born into—a world where second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem were larger than life. A world where even though I was not afforded the exact same opportunities as my male counterparts, much of the way had already been paved. Throughout my life, I have watched things improve for women almost daily. It was not a drastic change born through bra-burning or other protests; it was a slow change, as we all shifted and maneuvered ourselves to the idea that women are equal members of society…so now let’s act that way.

As a young woman from an Arab family living in Canada, I watched significant changes happen in media—as movies, commercials, and music became much more aware of avoiding sexist stereotypes and much more conscious of allowing women depth and breadth in roles as opposed to just being the star’s wife who had maybe a cliché line or two. I watched Sheryl Sandberg rise to prominence with her book Lean In. I learned from her and from Oprah Winfrey and from Michelle Obama and from Beyoncé and from countless other women in popular culture that were examples for young women growing up in North America. As Geena Davis asserts in her documentary Miss Representation, “You cannot be what you cannot see.” But I could see. I could see a lot of women whom I regarded as heroes.

I think a lot of young girls, the generation after me, saw these heroes as well. And, like me, they wanted to join the fight. They, too, wanted to be an example, an inspiration, and to continue to pave the road that had been laid by the brave women before us. But, unlike the women before us who had to tear down old growth, thousand-year-old trees and build new roads one stone at a time, these young girls were born into a world where there were bulldozers at the ready, willing to support them in their endeavor. 

The work was happening; the fight had essentially been won. We didn’t need to convince anyone that there needed to be roads to equality. Everyone was already on board. But these young women wanted to build roads too. However, since all the good ones were taken, these young women were so full of energy and exerted their efforts in different directions. They began to discuss whether we should start calling ourselves “womxn,” if air conditioning is sexist, and how to counter the social evil phenomenon known as “manspreading.”  With no legitimate problems to overcome, they invented problems so that they could fulfill that desire to solve them.

If only those women knew that there was a way to travel back in time, to link hands with the history-making heroines who risked their lives to fight for freedom. There was a way that they could channel their energy into supporting women who just wanted to be regarded as equal human beings to the men in their societies. There was a way they could support girls who just wanted to go to school without fear that they might be shot in the head. There was a way that they could help girls who didn’t want to be married off as children. All of these issues, and so many more, are right under their nose.

Instead, unfortunately, they are largely ignored because feminists in the West are afraid that by supporting their fellow sisters, someone might misconstrue that as ethnocentrism or racism.

And we don’t need to go centuries back in time to find these women. They exist today. Women who get arrested and disappear because they dare to take a scarf off their head in Iran. Women who are arrested and disappear because they drive a car in Saudi Arabia. Women who are arrested or killed for showing their face and hair on social media in Pakistan or Iraq. Those brave women exist all around us, and they want nothing more than to be supported by feminists in the West.

Instead, unfortunately, they are largely ignored because feminists in the West are afraid that by supporting their fellow sisters, someone might misconstrue that as ethnocentrism or racism. And, even worse than just ignoring them, the West is actively supporting the very thing that these brave women fight against. Barbie, once a beacon of femininity and feminism, now dons a hijab so that she does not entice men who might rape her. Marks and Spencer, one of the UK’s largest department stores, sells hijabs for three-year-old girls.

The free West, where these girls used to look to as beacons of light and hope, is supporting their oppressors and ultimately fighting against their progress. In Saudi Arabia, women are burning their niqabs. In Iran, women tie their hijabs on sticks and sway them silently, defiantly in the streets as they are arrested in droves. In the West, we put a Nike swoosh on it. We accept and willingly support the subjugation of our sisters to the East that we would never accept for ourselves or our sisters in the West.

It is mothers that take their daughters to have their clitoris cut off by another woman. All of that is done because men prefer to have a cut wife. We hold down our screaming five-year-old daughters and allow a woman to take a razor to her genitals because a man will prefer her that way.

It is devastating to see this disconnect. Young women here in the West are looking for a fight, and young women there desperately need fighters to stand with them. It should be a match made in sisterhood heaven. If only women were willing to link hands together across borders, patriarchy would not stand a chance. Patriarchy cannot exist without the active participation of women.

It is mothers that take their daughters to have their clitoris cut off by another woman. All of that is done because men prefer to have a cut wife. We hold down our screaming five-year-old daughters and allow a woman to take a razor to her genitals because a man will prefer her that way. We must stand up and say no. Mothers must stand up for their daughters. Sisters must stand up for their sisters. And neighbors must stand up for their neighbors.

We will only succeed if we work together. Women in the East must work together. And women in the West, please reach back your hand and pull them up the road to equality with you.

Yasmine Mohammed, author of the upcoming memoir The Girl Who Would Not Submit,  is an Arab-Canadian college educator by day and a passionate human rights advocate by night. Her main focus is on women, especially women living in the Islamic world, who are subjected to Sharia law. Find Yasmine on Twitter or Facebook.

12 thoughts on “Feminists of the West, Women Are Hurting in the Middle East

  1. Amen and amen. Identity politics has destroyed feminism. Feminists have become so focused on their “interconnected matrix of oppression” that they have forgotten their original purpose.

    Time to tear it all down and start again.

  2. You know, it would have been really nice if the author also pointed out the exact reason why those Western feminists fear that someone might “misconstrue their support of their sisters as ethnocentrism or racism”. Because the reason is usually either Muslim men (which is to be expected) or post-colonial feminists themselves.

    1. The third wave has turned ‘White Feminist’ into a slur and gave us ‘hijab is empowerment’ and ‘critisizing the veil is Islamophobia’. And yes, I know that is not all of you, but the thing is, it is Middle Eastern men and women such as you who are pushing this rhetoric. It is not a problem that the author herself has created, but it is a problem that people like her have created. Why not challenge Muslims who scream ‘racism’ each time someone criticizes the behavior of Muslim men? Instead you, once again, are putting all the blame on Western feminists, pretending that the only reason they don’t help women in the Middle East is just because they’re all so decadent and have nothing better to do and should get some real problems.

      I always see Western feminists reblog news about violence against women in Africa, Middle East, Latin America, India and China, but I’ve yet to see a Muslim feminist reblog something about violence inflicted by Muslim men on Western women (tourists or ‘autochtone’ women in Western countries). The only women I’ve seen do this are former-Muslims-turned-alt-right, which is frankly disheartening.

      I’m Russian, so I don’t consider myself really Western (I’m white and not a Muslim, though). And I believe that Russia is a freaking evil country to women as well as men. But you will never see me demanding that Western feminists help us, because I know how vile and disgusting Russia and USSR were and are towards the West. I don’t expect people to be kind to the country that has not been kind to them.

      1. Dear Alex, please develop this topic a bit more:
        “Why not challenge Muslims who scream ‘racism’ each time someone criticizes the behavior of Muslim men?”

        Alex, how would you do it? How would you challenge the ones screaming “racism”?
        I have been thinking about the same thing for a long time. “Say no to racism” and all these campaigns tend to forget equally important topics like problems affecting women.

  3. At most in any society, ten percent will speak truth to power. The more pressure asserted by a government the more that number gets squeezed. Tipping points are reached via internal and external influences, often in concert or at least in the same time frame. How to speed it along? How to shame the status quo? Connections, the more the better. The internet where it is not censored and manipulated by a government will work a tonic. If controlled by the state then buyer beware.

    Thanks for this thoughtful article Yasmine. Your book will make many new connections!

  4. This…

    “With no legitimate problems to overcome, they invented problems so that they could fulfill that desire to solve them.”

    …Is some bullshit.

    Women in North America are still fighting an uphill battle for reproductive freedom, for fair trials of sexual assault in the criminal justice system, and for equal recognition in virtually all professional and political spheres.

    Yasmine, you are Canadian. You must have heard then, about the Globe investigation that revealed police departments across the country routinely dismiss one in five sexual assault charges as ‘baseless’. Or that safe and legal abortions are not accessible for women in Prince Edward Island. Or that close to 1,000 female RCMP officers have filed sexual harassment against their colleagues and superiors — including Krista Carle, whose very public fight caused her death by suicide earlier this year.

    Obviously, we enjoy far more freedom and security that women in other parts of the world. But these are real, life-and-death issues for Canadian women. Starting your argument from this point doesn’t do much for the “sisterhood.”

    1. You reminded us of some of the very real challenges still faced by women in North America such as abortion rights, sexual assault & the treatment of victims by the legal system, etc. Perhaps Yasmine’s comments could have been seen as minimizing to North American women’s struggle. But I didn’t see it that way. The struggle, pain, unfairness experienced by Western women are also shared by women in Iran, in Saudi, in Pakistan & other Muslim majority countries. However, women there also deal with realities no woman in North America does including getting beaten, stoned & hauled off by police for not adhering to modesty laws, being afraid for their lives because male relatives are hunting them down to hurt or kill them as “honor culture” requires & the courts support. And then there is the truly horrific reality of FGM… I think it is hard for those of us in the West to truly grasp the absence of basic rights & freedom that women experience there on a daily basis. Their situation is multiple orders of magnitude much graver. This is not about comparing suffering. Rather it is about taking off our false equivalence glasses, and finally start welcoming & listening to the voices of women who are ex-muslims who have been asking Western feminists for their support, help & solidarity for years.
      Instead of telling Yasmine her plea for help is “bullshit” we can & need to do better for the millions of women who don’t have a voice..

  5. yes! this! I’m an Iranian woman who escaped to America because of Islam & I’m tired of seeing my fellow American women praising my past religion. anybody can be of any religion, but it is of these women who don’t have a clue & they will either tell me I asked for it or they were being honest by saying they didn’t do that kind of research. I would love to hear neither, but the West is clueless. I was so happy to finally be able to take my head scarf off yet the women around me are happy to put theirs on. domestic abuse is not trendy. relying on your examples, it shouldn’t be trendy to have a Nike swoosh over your hijab. it shouldn’t be trendy to have a Barbie who wears a hijab. but it is. it’s a trend to the West. the West is so liberal & they actually think values like Sharia law will be liberal too. & it’s not just for women that it affects. whether they are supported or not, those who are gay in the Middle East are affected to the point where they are killed. the West loves to wave their LGBT community flags & call for equal rights for LGBT…while also defending Islam & Sharia law in general. & I’m the one who ends up being told I’m a liar when I speak out to the West about their love for Sharia law values. then there’s celebrities who are suddenly becoming a part of Islam, like the iconic Lindsay Lohan. she became a Muslim…yet she was posting exposing photos of herself. not all Arab countries who are Islamic force women to fully cover themselves, but it’s important to not show skin & here she is. Muslims were pissed about this & I don’t blame them. little American girl finds Islam so attractive & does little to no research. another figure is this girl who is my age (19) when she was on television on a show called 90 Day Fiance, her name is Avery. she became a Muslim & then married a Syrian Muslim man. she told her own mother she will move to Syria & her mother broke down. little American girl has no idea. I spent years to try to be her, to be American, wishing that I was made in America like her…& come to find out she wants to be me. huh??? those little refugee children we see on television in Syria…she wants to go there? those kids are dying to leave their country to be in a better place, even if it’s not America. I’m greatful for the 1st Amendment that allows anyone to be of any religion, but do your research because it will be people like Lindsay & Avery who will be the first to cry when their men hit them & nothing happens about it.

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