Western Feminism in the Context of the Middle East

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Western feminism is the most dominant and well-known form of feminism that exists in the world today. However, when applied to the Middle East, Western feminism is just an extension of cultural imperialism. Western feminism follows an exclusive, hegemony-based approach to women's rights wherein ‘modern’ white women are the standard and all other women worldwide should follow their approach to feminism in order to be considered as liberated and free. This essay will discuss the ways in which Western feminism is a culturally imperialistic approach when applied to the Middle East, exploring two key themes: Western feminists do not take into account the historical, religious, socio-cultural and political systems that influence and shape Middle Eastern women and they Westernise/generalise the concept of feminism, highlighting the apparent notion that Middle Eastern need saving; in turn, western feminism is infact a form of cultural imperialism.

Western feminism is a broad expression which can be applied to US feminism, European feminism, French feminism etc. They each have their own agendas according to their social and historical contexts, however, Western feminism as a whole reflects Western white middle-class privilege, generalises all women’s conditions and overlooks the different contexts in which Middle Eastern women are subject to, their core values and beliefs. In particular, Western feminism has played a major role in spreading misinformation regarding the oppression of Middle Eastern women.

Feminism approached from a western lens disregards the historical, socio-cultural, religious and political systems in the Middle East that influence, shape and align with the values of Middle Eastern women. The Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA) is a non-governmental, not-for-profit organisation which aims to provide support, declare their cultural identity, and define/defend women’s rights in the Middle East. AWSA identifies that a common misconception believed by Western feminists is that Muslim women and Arab women are interchangeable terms, thus disregarding the diversity in the Middle East which includes Muslims (Sunni and Shi’a), Christians, Jews, Sufis, Baha’is, non-Arabs with different languages and many more. Further, western feminists utilise a gender-based approach towards feminism , which segregates gender from historical, sociocultural and political context, therein, disregarding the distinct values in each socio-cultural context and the different experiences that women go through in the Middle East vs. the West. Women do not need to have the same wants in regards to feminism as they are raised in different cultures, social, political and historical contexts and have different beliefs, desires and expectations. Western feminism tends to universalise women’s experiences and historical, sociocultural and religious identity, to align with their own, thus their form of feminism is essentially another version of cultural imperialism, in which they are trying to dominate Middle Eastern women with their feminist practices which are not in sync with one another due to varying contexts. An instance of this is clearly seen through white feminists’ perspective that Middle Eastern Muslim women who wear the hijab are oppressed, and that taking it off will liberate them, meanwhile in Islam wearing the hijab cannot be forced and is a personal choice.

Soueif denotes that in “every country, social, cultural and political changes manifest themselves in dress” which is commonly seen in both Middle Eastern nations via modesty and covering, and Western nations via nudity. Western feminism highlights sexuality and nudity as a form of women’s liberation. Western feminists also believe that wearing the hijab as a religious practice in the Middle East or even the West, is a form of oppression. A german human rights poser identified women who wear the veil as “mute trash bags by the side of the road”. In addition, Western feminists believe that Islam in its entirety oppresses women. Unfortunately, they ignore the fact that some cultural practices in some Islamic nations are different from the fundamental teachings of Islam. For instance, not allowing women to pursue education by the Taliban in Pakistan (apart of the Greater Middle East) is not an Islamic practice or belief, rather, Islam encourages women to pursue education.

Western countries view the hijab as a foreign cultural threat to western modernisation. The bush administration for instance justified the war in Afghanistan, to liberate Afghan women. However, after the Taliban were removed from power in 2001, these women did not remove their hijabs, as veiling existed in this region before the Taliban. In contrast to the beliefs of Western feminists, wearing the hijab is a part of a “new Islamic modernity” states Sendi.

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In Western countries like Belgium and France, the Muslim Presence movement has been challenging the French bans on the hijab, affirming that it is indeed a personal choice and not a religious obligation. Whilst it is true that some Muslim women may wear the hijab against their wishes, it is not mentioned in the Quran, their holy book, that they must wear it, nor can it be forced upon them. The absence of women’s rights in Middle Eastern or majority-Islamic countries is not due to their Islamic nature, but due to their patriarchal nature.

Francois stated that her PhD research in Morocco with religious Moroccan women highlighted that feminism as a western ideology did not align to their actual needs as Muslim Morrocan women, whereby one female participant stated that western feminism is “another form of cultural imperalism designed to alienate native women from their real source of their power” which is their own cultural identity.

Hence, as western feminism overlooks the important contexts of sociocultural, religious, historical and political dynamics in the Middle East, they are perpetuating cultural imperialism via dominating feminist movements around the world, which evidentally takes away the actual needs of women in the Middle east and erases their voices in regards to women rights causes they fight for.

Western Feminists have an agenda to force their beliefs and values of feminism when referring to the Middle East, thereby oppressing and marginalising women in this region through cultural imperialism. Different types of feminism, such as White feminism, Feminism in different regions ask for the rights of women to be established according to their sociocultural, religious, political and historical context, therefore feminism cannot have one single agenda or be universally westernised. What may be preached as liberation in countries like Australia or the United States can be considered as disgraceful in other countries, and vice versa as seen with Western feminists views on Islamic veiling. Similarly, views on what is ‘modern’ differs in the Middle East.

White, western feminists most often play the role of the saviour, believing that they are giving women in the Middle East a voice, whilst simultaneously forgetting the impact of Western imperialism. Western feminism tends to shed light on all of the negative conditions in Middle Eastern countries and overstates these issues, portraying Middle Eastern women as oppressed and believing their feminist activism will help them. Very often, journalists and political figures portray a white saviour complex, utilising current issues in the Middle East, not to give Middle Eastern women a voice, but to push their own agenda, as seen in the Bush’ administration case of ‘saving’ Afghan women.

Alghoul highlights that these self-declared Islamophobic figures ‘sensationalise’ these women’s struggle through the notion of ‘identity politics’. Essentially, they believe that Saudi Women who are protesting for legal and social reform are doing so to adhere to the Westernised lifestyle, not to actually demand their rights. Thus, Arab and Muslim women who take part in such feminist movements in the Middle East are not infact given a voice, but are “erased of their identity and are portrayed to be working against their religious and cultural identity, rather than the system in which they live”. Western feminism and the white saviour complex go hand in hand in relation to the Middle East and other third world countries, whom essentially silence women in the Middle East and Muslim comunities.

Baig sheds light on the white guilt, known as “the white man's burden”, which leads to the white saviour complex. The occupation of Middle Eastern and Asian nations, the bombings and war are justified through means of whites ‘saving’ women, an instance which is seen in the Malala Yousafzai case, a young girl shot by the taliban in Pakistan for standing up for women’s education. Baig highlights that Malala has been utilised as a ‘tool’ by the West, so that western countries can cover their guilt in the unnecessary wars they caused in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. An important fact to address is that the Taliban in Pakistan was essentially created by the United States, therefore, Malala’s situation itself was a result of western imperialism. In saying so, western feminism is quick to point out the harsh conditions women face in the Middle East, Greater Middle East and surrounding countries, ignoring the impacts of western imperialism. For instance, the effects of western occupation in Iraq, such as the rape of a 14 year old girl named Abeer and the murder of her entire family by US soldiers which is not a story heard in Western media as it portrays the West in a negative light, whereas the Malala case was publicised extensively. Evidently, “the West has denied more girls an education” through their wars and occupation, and western feminism is just another form of cultural imperialism when applied to the Middle East as western feminists do not comprehend or notice how Western-led wars have impacted these nations via colonialism and Western imperialism, and then try to play the role of the white saviour in order to feel like they are doing something right, when in fact they are further silencing Middle Eastern women and trying to universalise their identity to appease the Western lifestyle. Before the US war on Iraq, women had access to the highest level of education, were actively involved in the workforce and “even politically involved in the Arab world”.

In essence, western feminism is just another extension of cultural imperialism when applied to the Middle East, as western feminists disregard the contexts in which women in the Middle East are subject to, such as their historical, religious, sociocultural and political systems. In particular, western feminists perpetuate western propaganda in regards to the ‘oppression’ of Middle Eastern Muslim women who wear the veil, not understanding that western imperialism has led to patriarchal conditions that have forced some of these women to wear it, and that wearing the veil is ultimately a personal choice which cannot be forced upon anyone. Thereby, stating it is oppression and/or that Islam oppresses these women is ignorant, as it completely disregards the values held by the women who choose to wear the veil. Further, the universalisation of Western values is another culturally imperialistic approach by western feminists which silences the voices of Middle Eastern women, their needs and struggles and generalises all women’s conditions over the world. White feminists believe that they speak for all women, generalise all women’s conditions and do not look at context, therefore they essentially perpetuate cultural imperialism when referring to the Middle East.  

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