Arab Woman: Potentials and Prospects

Potentials and Prospects

(Reprint of an original piece published by Arab Perspectives in its October, 1980 issue, Vol. 1, No. 7)

Women in the Arab World

Nouha al-Hegelan
Nouha al-Hegelan earned a law degree at the University of Damascus. Since her arival in the US in 1979, she has spoken extensively on the question of women in the Arab world. She has traveled widely and during her seven year residence in Spain, was decorated Lazo de Dama de Isabella la Catolica.

Erasing individuals or groups by stereotyping them is not a new phenomenon. It is difficult to imagine a society or a period of history completely devoid of this particularly cruel method of robbing people of their humanity; to imagine an individual who could live an entire life without being a victim or villain in the process of stereotyping. Can anyone honestly claim they have never said things like: "Arabs are devious," "Jews are stingy, " "Blondes are dumb (or have more fun)," "Redheads are hot tempered," or any of the countless words and phrases that pretend knowledge where there is only blind assumptions

Still, my own experience with stereotyping makes me hopeful. People usually have no real investment in wiping away the unique qualities of another person. When one becomes aware of an individual's special characteristics, and the full richness of the culture and environment that nurtures their growth, a stereotype begins to crumble like any facade. Unless one has a need to keep another in an inferior position, he realizes that prejudice imprisons the attacker as well as the victim,

As a result of Western misinformation and lack of awareness, Arab women are unfortunately, victims of the stereotyping process. There is little understanding of either our status as women or the total context of our lives. Like other maligned groups, we do our best to understand these misperceptions and, in our own way, to confront them. I know of no Arab woman who underestimates the difficulty of changing Western assumptions. The stereotypes of Arab women, "imprisoned behind a veil of powerlessness," will not be eradicated in our lifetime. While we are often shocked into numbness by the depth of the misunderstanding, we know that each epoch of awareness is a new beginning and a new opportunity for us and for our daughters.

Just such a shock lies in what I call the "born yesterday assumption". Westerners begin by comparing the Arab/ Moslem woman to her sisters in the West. Using Western women as a standard is only part of the insult. The injury is magnified by the added assumption that the Arab woman began her struggle yesterday-as if she was somehow born whole out of a newly tapped oil well-a veiled, uncivilized non-entity.

Like most stereotypes, this image is not merely wrong or insulting, it is ludicrous. Long before Western women even considered themselves as a group, let alone a group deprived of its rights, the Islamic woman had begun her emancipation. From the beginning of Islam, 1400 years ago, the Moslem woman was born with all the rights -cultural and spiritual - due a human being. When the Christian Church was still debating the existence of a woman's soul, women in the Islamic world knew they had one. They knew they were full entities and as free human beings, had choices.

This empty circle of misunderstanding is not generally a malicious act on the part of Westerners but, as every Western woman knows, unintentional assumptions can be just as dehumanizing as intentional ones. The "born yesterday" concept not only dehumanizes, it depreciates the efforts of Arab women and men trying to achieve the joy of equality over many centuries of struggle.

Emancipation did not and will not "just happen. " Before Islam, women in the Arabian Peninsula followed the cultural bonds of the tribe. Each tribe had its own laws regarding women. Some were emancipated even in comparison with many of today's standards; other lived in very chauvinistic societies. In some instances, women were chattels and men often buried their newly-born daughters alive.

Islam liberated these women from such cruel prejudice and gave them the dignity of humanity and the pride of being a woman. Islam projected a woman as being parallel to a man and embodied the philosophy of being both equal and different. Fourteen hundred years ago, Islamic women were given the right to run their own businesses, to keep their financial autonomy after marriage and, more importantly, the right to learn-the key to emancipation.

Many American women in the past several years have sought to keep their maiden names after marriage. This tradition has been enjoyed by Islamic women for centuries, and rightly so. After all, the wife is one of a pair, a couple - terms literally conveying equality. In fact, the Arabic word for wife, "Alzawja", literally means "one of a pair".

What happens to the "you've come a long way baby" scenario when you put today's Western woman in the 8th, 9th and 10th centuries and compare her to the Arab woman of that time? We find that women had little or no rights under Roman law. They were under perpetual tutelage from childhood on and deprived of the freedoms that the modern Western woman takes for granted. Prior to the year 1000, recognition of a woman as a human being was still in dispute.

Her counterpart in the Arab world fared much better. I can imagine the surprise among feminists when they learn that the Prophet's first wife, Khadijah, was an able business woman; that Sheika Nafissa was a theologian from whom the Imam Shaffei, one of the four scholars of Islam, was proud to say he had learned. How many Western women know that, even at this early date, Arab women fought in battles alongside the men in full equality or that the glamorous Queen Zubaidah built a canal to provide water for the pilgrims en route to Mecca? How many know that, since the 10th century, Arab women throughout the Islamic world have been doctors and nurses?

None of this is meant to demean the struggle of the Western woman. All women involved in this kind of difficult human endeavor understand the hardships only too well. All involved women know that the woman's struggle-in day-to-day low profile or high media terms-continually confronts the limits of social pressures. We are cognizant of the finite nature of the political environment of any given hope for change. Women's changing status is not different from other political, cultural or social processes.

This realization suggests another aspect of the "born yesterday" misperception. One doesn't have to be a trained sociologist to recognize the continuity-discontinuity of all social process. Each and every person working for change in the status quo is a part of the culture within which he or she struggles. It is not surprising that the end result at any point in time is a function of the twists and turns, advances and retreats, fortunes and misfortunes of a given epoch of war and peace, insurrection and stability, affluence and depression, colonialism and independence that by chance or direction, an individual calls "my life". All these forces shape what is considered "right", "proper" or "natural".

Arab people were no exception to this rule. In the long historyof rise and decline, despite and often because of her struggle, the position of Arab women rose and declined many times. The modern Arab woman has been emancipated in current times as early as the 1920's in some Arab countries like Egypt and as late as the 1960's in some others. Like all change it is uneven, uncomplemented and continually in a process of alteration.

Still, such comparisons darken more than they illuminate. Although there are similarities deriving from the core essence of being a human being coping with opportunities of sharing the same planet, there are also multi-layered galaxies of differences. Making a comparison that enlarges awareness of a group's special nature may provide early benchmarks seeker of real knowledge. When you move to the solution stage, the fruitlessness of applying a single map to every territory becomes starkly apparent, and the risk is more than misunderstanding. The risk of distorting or demeaning the hard-won uniqueness of an entire people increases with each and every easy stereotype.

In simple terms, Westerners will never achieve a human awareness of the Arab woman if they continue to peer through the frosted glass of a single image, a narrow definition of what every woman should be. If intelligent Westerners were asked, "What is a French woman?" or 'Are any German women actually housewives?" or "Does an English woman experience love?" or "Does a Spanish woman love her children?", most would find such questions irrelevant, nonsensical or even insulting. Ask these questions about Arab women and the same Westerners will look at you curiously awaiting their answer.

Ignorance of the Arab woman is the main problem. The sudden scarcity of oil has created a highly intense focus on Arab people in an atmosphere characterized by a near total absence of knowledge. It is revealing to see that the struggle over the ERA is largely a struggle between women. In the same way, it is also revealing that American women are the sole proprietors of defining and evaluating Arab women, leaving the task of estimating the ramifications of the oil scarcity largely to the man.

There is no shame in ignorance. That can be changed with information and a willingness to listen. There is, however, culpability in clinging to a view that promotes and protects such ignorance from the light of fact. Many start with the history of the Western women and evaluate the Arab woman in a distinctively Western mirror. To make matters worse, many Westerners are often only slightly aware of their own history to any level of usable sophistication.

Let's look at the Islamic image of the Arab woman. The Prophet said, "Women are men's sisters." The Koran confirms the equality of both sexes: "We have created you, men and women, tribes and nations so you would get to know each other and to realize that the best among you is the most righteous." Islam grants to the woman the responsibilities due to her as a human being; a woman must pray, must fast in the month of Ramadan, must go to the pilgrimage once in a lifetime if possible and she must give alms. Just as a man, if she fails her responsibilities, she will not go to heaven; she will go to hell. She must choose her own path; she must choose between right and wrong. The Koran says, "The believers, men and women, are responsible for each other, they command what is right and forbid what is wrong." Even in the capacity of exercising authority and power there is no difference between men and women.

Islam then proclaimed a woman capable of exercising all her rights with no exceptions; to pursue her social activity, to own, to sell, to buy and get married, all without limitation or without tutelage of any other human being. With Islam as a starting point, Moslem women flourished and bloomed as sisters within the society, a society which expanded from the Arabian Peninsula to the borders of China in the East and the borders of France in the West. The Arab people brought their knowledge with them. Amazingly few Westerners, even well educated ones, know how much Western culture owes to these early transactions with Arab culture. The Arabs were not only fierce warriors; they were poets, philosophers, astronomers, mathematicians, scientists, doctors, nurses, and theologians.

This great empire eventually declined but not before it had given hard-won knowledge like threads from the rich fabric of its culture, threads that are readily discernible in the tapestry of Western culture, politics and thought. Instead of one great empire, it was divided into countries and caliphates that became smaller and smaller as time went by. This fragmenting environment produced the right climate for the successful invasion of colonialism. For Arabs, sheer survival replaced creativity as a primary goal.

Later the cycle began to change again. There was a new Arab awakening. A new independence was in the air and with it a growing evolution toward emancipation, first of men and then of women. The stirrings of this new emancipation started by the end of the 19th century in most Arab countries.

Arab and Moslem women have been a viable entity for a long time, They have struggled, realized and enjoyed emancipation in their daily lives for centuries. As for the Moslem woman, no one can take the Word of God through his Messenger from her. Her evolution is her own and she knows she can accomplish her emancipation on her own.

The Arab woman appreciates the concern of her Western counterparts. She understands the excitement that Western women feel having so recently discovered their own freedom. The Arab woman knows however that she must go at her own pace, on her own terms and within the finite reality of her own culture in its particular historic moment.

The Arab woman has the benefit of wisdom accumulated over nearly 14 centuries. Most of all, she has the advantage of making her own choices in creating and experiencing an entirely new epoch of emancipation. She is experiencing the joy of new growth but she understands that impatient tugging at a plant just breaking soil will only retard or even kill. Although she appreciates the concern of others, she is too utterly involved in her own evolution to be envious of the struggle of other women, East or West. We are learning not to stereotype the Western woman and to respect her struggle without forcing her to fit our expectations. We simply expect the same consideration in return.