The Plight of the Arab Women’s Movement

In the not-so-distant past, I had a little argument with a good friend of mine over the use of the word “feminism”. Although there isn’t a clear-cut definition of what being a feminist entails, I openly define myself of such, much to the chagrin of my conservative family. It’s actually pretty funny; despite the lack of a definitive explanation of the term, the word “feminism” still has a negative connotation. But that wasn’t my friend’s disdain with the use of the word. Her argument, which I find very interesting, is that believing in equal rights for women shouldn’t be a separate and distinct concept or cause – women’s causes should be a concern for society as a whole. Thus, the term itself is superfluous and unnecessary. Although I must applaud her zeal and passion, I think that such a concept is a little far removed, especially within the Arab community.

Ironically, in a culture that presumably places women on a pedestal and claims women are the backbone of the family-unit, the Women’s Rights Movement still has a long way to go in the Arab world. There are still Arab countries that deny suffrage to women; certain countries impose a mandatory dress code for women alone, with extreme consequences for all those who break the rules; everyday tasks that most women in the US take for granted (such as driving or making errands unchaperoned) are still prohibited; honor killings are still prevalent in some Arab countries, accounting for an alarmingly large percentage of the annual murder rate; and women are still persecuted by the laws of certain Arab countries when they are victims of violent crimes (assault, domestic violence, rape, etc.), where self-defense can hold the same consequences as committing the original crime. Comparatively speaking, the Arab countries are still light years behind America and their European counterparts (and even they still have a ways to go).



The question then becomes: What can we do about it? A number of Arab women have taken the cause to heart and have been blazing trails, educating themselves and others about some of the injustices imposed on women in the Arab world. They blog, they write articles and books, give speeches and lectures, and run organizations that focus on women’s issues. They don the detested (by some) “feminist” cloak and lead the charge, hoping to exact change. And it’s worked – although in small, slow steps; change has come! But the tides of change haven’t swept as fiercely or swiftly as needed. Why is that?


The easiest answer is that women’s issues aren’t a top priority in Arab society or Arab culture. Time, focus and energy are seemingly placed on the political, social and economic problems that plague many Arab countries. Women’s suffrage becomes less important a topic to a group that must tackle the issues/problems with suffrage on a universal level. Despite reports and information that show otherwise (i.e. the UNDP’s 2005 Arab Human Development Report), women’s issues don’t receive the same level of importance as other topics that effect national interests.


But that’s exactly where the problem lies, and why I continue to disagree with my friend about use of the term feminism. Women’s issues aren’t a priority in Arab society. Women’s issues will always take a back seat to national conflict and poverty. For now, the Arab women’s movement is being led by a group of motivated, dedicated individuals – but their voices aren’t loud enough to drown out naysayers who poo-poo the relevance of their statements. Without the collective voices of all of Arab society – without the active participation of our men, as well as women - universal change cannot be complete.


For a culture that claims to cherish women, it doesn’t seem to put much importance in the plight of Arab women. There needs to be a complete shift in attitude and thought, where women’s issues are placed on the forefront of the Arab agenda. Until then, there remains a dire need for the term “feminism”, and those feminists (detested as they might be), will continue stirring the waters until change is absolute!

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About Eman Ahmed

Born and raised in New York, Eman Ahmed is an Egyptian-American attorney specializing in employment discrimination. She received her B.A. from St. John’s University, Suma Cum Laude, and her J.D. from New York Law School where she also served as an editor at the New York University Law Review. Eman is an active member of the Network of Arab-American Professionals and is a member of the NYSBA Committee on Women in the Law. She appeared in the 2003 edition of Who’s Who Among American Law Students and currently appears in the Madison Who’s Who.

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