Conversation with Sana Afouaiz, author of ‘Invisible Women of the Middle East’

“We need a revolution of ideas and thoughts," Afouaiz told The Arab Weekly in an interview.

Sunday 28/10/2018
Founder of Womenpreneur Sana Afouaiz. (Courtesy of Sana Afouaiz)
Regional influencer. Founder of Womenpreneur Sana Afouaiz. (Courtesy of Sana Afouaiz)

Sana Afouaiz was born in Agadir, Morocco, in 1993 and she was just 5 years old when she first wondered about women’s lot. Women seemed to suffer a lot more, the little girl thought.

In 2016 Afouaiz founded Womenpreneur, a network for female entrepreneurs. The next year, she co-founded Womequake, which re-examines myths and beliefs about gender in different cultures. She recently published “Invisible Women of the Middle East: True Stories.”

The World Bank this year nominated Afouaiz as a regional influencer.

In a conversation via Skype with The Arab Weekly (TAW), she discussed the contradictions in Arab and Muslim society with respect to women.

TAW: “Do you think it’s rather different to be a woman in the Arab world than anywhere else?”

Afouaiz: “Historically speaking, being female in the Arab world is not much different than being a woman in any other part of the world. Different complex forces, imagined or otherwise, influence the way in which the female gender is perceived by different societies and indeed by different cultures.

“Being a woman in our part of the world simply means that our image and our destiny are already carved in the minds of others. What was handed down was all you knew. You had no say in it. Your self-image, your worth, your future were mapped out by your family and by the ideas and beliefs that governed the society of which you were a member.

“The mirror image that you are led to believe in as a young woman is seemingly a simple choice — between being ‘a good girl’ or being ‘a bad girl.’ As you grow into adulthood, being a ‘good girl’ means acceptance and inclusion, whereas being labelled a ‘bad girl’ means rejection and exclusion. The choice is a no-brainer: be what is expected of you to be.

“For me, being a woman in this region has led me into my daily struggle of questioning and rebelling against the false and questionable ideas and beliefs that define the female gender in general and women in particular. Those ideas and belief systems are kept alive for no reason other than that ‘it is what it is’ and that they are what ‘the sacred scriptures allegedly confirm.’

“I strongly believe that our societies’ better future depends on creating a peaceful revolution in the ideas and images we utilise to drive our actions and govern our behaviours. The salvation is in examining the root causes of our maladies and not only in trying to suppress the apparent symptoms.”

TAW: “How crucial is it for women to be independent?”

 Afouaiz: “I firmly believe that the first step to positive societal change would be to start thinking about and questioning freely our role, impact and actions in our societies: Why do I do what I do, think what I think, feel what I feel?

“Thus, to me at least, ‘independence’ begins in our minds, in the images that are created by our minds, in the mindsets that drive our individual and societal actions and behaviours.

“The mental and psychological ideal any healthy society should aim for is that the apparent physical gender differences cannot provide the basis for conceptions of power and subjections. These human constructed conceptions of dominations have served us badly throughout history.

“The best and healthiest conceptions that translate the relations between the male-female gender is that of equal interdependence. It cannot be otherwise. It is like a coin with two sides. Each side different in certain features but are equal in defining the coin.

“Finally, it is worth remembering that the world is witnessing an unprecedented exponential technological transformation and it is so important for the future of our region that we do not repeat the same costly mistakes of exclusion and discrimination based on sex, gender or colour.

TAW: “How does the social class of a woman in the Arab world influence the course of her life?”

 Afouaiz: “Oppression is not the same for all women in the MENA region. Women do not represent a homogenous group. They experience and interpret life. Thus, they create their own realities. Their social class, education and access make their views on subjects like honour, hijab, religion, freedom and so on, individual.

“In 2012, I met Aicha, a rural woman. She told me that girls in her village are forbidden to talk to boys. Aicha knew that ‘honour’ was one of several prescriptive norms of her culture. She grew up hearing other words like ‘shame,’ ‘purity,’ ‘modesty,’ ‘chastity’ and above all ‘obedience.’

“In 2014, I met Maysoon, an educated woman, who came from a liberal and well-to-do family. She lived in Cairo and had a boyfriend. Her ‘Western’ lifestyle was accepted by her peers, although it would be disdained by societal norms. She was fully aware of this paradox.”

TAW: “How do gender beliefs perpetuate the exclusion of women in the region?”

Afouaiz: “History does not occur in a vacuum, neither does the idea of the exclusion of women. The agricultural revolution was the period in which people translated so-called physical strength into political power. This belief in muscle power translated into discriminatory beliefs, which converted into unequal laws that limited access to education and created a culture of prejudices. These prejudices were carried on for centuries through sacred scriptures and traditions.

“In Saudi Arabia, it was considered outrageous and against God if women were allowed to drive. One cleric said: ‘Women who drive give birth to unhealthy kids.’ Yet women drive in almost all countries across the globe and give birth to healthy children.

TAW: “Beyond the awareness campaigns, global conferences, women’s funds and initiatives, what is it that really should be done that hasn’t been done?”

 Afouaiz: “We need to examine the roots of our thoughts, behaviours, ideas and actions upon which our gender realities are constructed. We need a revolution of ideas and thoughts.”