In the Middle East, women don’t have organized feminist movements to address the daily injustices that affect their lives. They struggle alone, relying on their inner strength, self-confidence, and most importantly, by staying true to their feminine identity where they find courage and resilience.
I come from Lebanon, where being a feminist simply means you’re demanding equal rights with men from a discriminating government and society. More recently, it literally means you’re fighting for your life! But coming to America at the age of 24, I discovered a modern — ironically — radical feminism I couldn’t relate to. I felt that American feminists didn’t represent my gender fairly and weakened women by constantly turning us into victims in the name of empowerment.
Another cultural shock I had was meeting the clown father and husband in movies, TV shows, and commercials. Why is it a thing? Does it save us from the violent men out there? And why would any emotionally stable woman feel empowered by such a distorted image of men?
I realize that we live in the age of social media and hashtags, but I honestly can’t see how hashtag activism serves us women in America or anywhere in the world, especially in places like the Middle East where true feminism is needed, and developing societies look up to America as a leading superpower.
I honestly can’t see how hashtag activism serves us women in America or anywhere in the world.
Women’s Rights in the Middle East: It’s Complicated, but Don’t Feel Overwhelmed!
Let me start by saying that discussing anything Middle East related, let alone women’s rights or feminism, can be complex, lengthy, and confusing, to me too! But don’t feel overwhelmed! To understand women’s challenges in that region, let’s first check the premises: This is a vast mosaic of ancient nations from different ethnic, cultural, and religious backgrounds, all living together under unsecular rule of law. Their views on women’s rights and freedom vary between the Gulf, North Africa, and the Levant regions, making women’s issues as diverse as these countries are. However, religion is the one language that is common to all, besides Arabic, of course.
Actually, there’s an exception: Lebanon’s religious diversity is unique in the Middle East, which is good and bad at the same time, for both the country and its women.
In Amal Clooney’s Country, No Justice Served for Women
Despite Mrs. Clooney’s inspiring words on the Lebanese 2019 revolution where women were on the front lines, things aren’t well for women in the land of the cedars, and that’s not only because the pandemic ended the revolution. Lebanese authorities have failed to stop discrimination against women or reform their laws by creating a unified civil personal penal code that allows all citizens of Lebanon to be treated equally.
Ok, in English now: Married to non-Lebanese men, women can’t pass on their citizenship to their children or husbands on an equal basis with men. Moreover, marrying and divorcing is entirely done under religious law, leaving each woman to her own religious court to decide on crucial issues such as raising their children after divorce, property rights, and other basic privileges. In the absence of civil law enforcement and justice over personal matters, crimes like marital rape or child marriage aren’t even recognized. A husband could ban his wife from traveling with his children without his written consent, but he won’t be jailed for not paying his alimony. Domestic violence is on the rise in Lebanon, leaving tens of women killed by their husbands, and sexual harassment, as well as gender bias, to keep growing in the workplace.
Numbers and Representation
In Lebanon today, the people elected just six women — out of 128 Deputies — to be their local representatives in the Lebanese Parliament. As for the Members of the Cabinet, six women out of 20 are presently appointed by the President. As per the Lebanese Constitution, quotas for both men and women in the Parliament and the Cabinet (think of them as House and Senate) are distributed according to religious sects and not based on experience. Just like male representatives, these women have political affiliations or are married or related to a man of power. This is why I’m not surprised that most of them are inexperienced, especially in public service and international affairs. The rest of the government is a majority of men, most of whom are affiliated to war lords, many uneducated, and all unprofessional.
Every effort is blocked by outdated laws, corruption, and men who don’t acknowledge the value of women in society.
This formula makes it impossible for the international community and NGOs to pass any legislation and help advance women’s rights in Lebanon through the government. Every effort is blocked by outdated laws, corruption, and a majority of men who don’t understand, acknowledge, or appreciate the value of women in society.
Feminism in the Middle East Is Being Raised by My Single Mom during the War
To me, feminism in the Middle East is being raised by my single mom during the war. She lost her husband — my father — to the civil war when she was barely 30 and gave up her youth and dreams by never remarrying, so she could raise me and my two brothers. Feminism, to me, is every time she stood up for herself in such a corrupt and biased society. It’s her fight against men’s discrimination at a time of war without kneeling down to them or abandoning her values, without hashtag activism and a media circus. But, sadly enough, without constitutional rights to protect her. It was just her under the bombs, trying to escape stray bullets.
In the Middle East where true feminism is needed, I see women like my mother struggle alone every day against different types of wars, and I see them win! Just like she has, and just as I have. I have been approached by men with inappropriate offers, but I turned them down and kept walking, without letting them scar me. I feel that every woman in the Middle East has been exposed to this kind of behavior, which is not okay, but neither is not taking responsibility for our actions and blindly attacking all men in general.
Feminism in the Middle East Is Winning Different Types of Wars, without Hashtag Activism
It’s every wife, mother, daughter, and sister struggling to be there for her family through war and peace, armed with her laughter, intelligence, and femininity.
Every time a woman saves her dignity and doesn’t turn into a victim, she wins.
Women in the Middle East fight poverty, famine, unemployment, and injustice in every aspect of life. No matter what the outcome is, they’re winners of the first and most important battle: their self-worth. Every time a woman saves her dignity and doesn’t turn into a victim, she wins. Every time she relies on herself in conflict, without getting distracted by social media trends and waves of protests, she wins. For that you need force, courage and poise, self-confidence, and a high standard of moral values — all of which you can find inside you. Once you do, you’re the most powerful woman in the world, and nothing and no one can break you.
There are mothers in Lebanon who can’t find milk for their babies as the country drowns deeper in the worst economic crisis the world has witnessed in the last 150 years (as per the World Bank). I think of them and of modern feminism in America, and I’m out of words.
Can you see how lucky we are to be in America? Think of all those women in the Middle East and everything they endure, yet they manage to stay true to their feminine identity. I’m not saying they don’t need more assistance, because they do.
Born and raised in Lebanon, I know that working with the private sector is the only way to move forward and get anything done. This is where both the international community and NGOs can step in to support areas that need reform like education, healthcare, law, and policy.
Feminism in the Middle East is a long road with much hard work, but one country at a time, we can learn a lot about one another as women, and with that, help each other.
Feminism is about saving lives, rights, and dreams. But you have to do it right. Just like that old song — some of you may not know, but it’s worth checking out — “First, be a woman!”
Help make Evie even better! Take the official Evie reader survey.