Gulf ‘feminism’ hampered by conservative mindsets

There is an awareness vacuum about women’s rights and this has resulted in “blind” hostility to feminism.
Saturday 19/10/2019
Saudi women's rights activist Souad al-Shammary puts on a head scarf in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, May 7, 2016. (AP)
Saudi women's rights activist Souad al-Shammary puts on a head scarf in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, May 7, 2016. (AP)

The term “feminism” is becoming a frequent reference in the Gulf social movement. It is, however, a rather confused concept associated with women’s rights activists who are seeking to improve women’s conditions in society and provide them with dignity and empowerment.

Both concept and activists are met with resistance from the predominantly conservative Gulf societies and are dismissed as part of a cunning and evil stratagem aimed at shaking their stability and as an aggressive foreign attempt to strike at society’s identity and foundational values.

Campaigns calling for the improvement of women’s conditions in the Arab reality are justified. Arab women are experiencing one of their best eras in terms of prosperity, freedom from the shackles of the past and participation in economic and social development despite social constraints. Many Arab women are found in senior positions and are attaining global scientific achievements.

Despite the good intentions involved in building lobbying groups behind slogans such as feminism and others, the fact remains that the militant character of the activities tends to confuse serious reform plans by provoking sensibilities of deeply conservative societies, adding to the already heavy burden of changing and modernising society.

Feminism began as a political and social movement at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The first organised call for women’s rights in the United States, shortly before Britain, began with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848.

This was called the first era of feminism and it had a simple aim of enacting laws to give women their legitimate rights. In 1920, the movement’s struggle culminated in the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, which granted women the right to vote.

The second feminist era began in 1964 and it focused on broader issues, such as sexism, reproductive rights and domestic violence. It lasted until the early 1990s and achieved many legislative victories for women.

In the early 1990s, the third era arose under the influence of postmodernism by correcting feminist conditions. In this context, the third wave posed a challenge from the point of redefining the basic feminist concepts of the second wave.

The beginnings of the feminist movement in the Arabian Gulf began in the early 1940s in Kuwait, followed by Bahrain and spread to Saudi Arabia.

Speaking of feminism as an old global movement, Saudi scholar Waheed al-Ghamdi asserted that the movement was essentially a historical reaction to male domination that was prevalent at the time, in which men monopolised all privileges — whether legal or moral. It was natural that this male hegemony would produce some form of revolution and rebellion, which evolved into the feminist movement.

The feminist movements in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are not very different, in essence, from the global movement. In some areas where male privileges remained strong and immutable, a set of reformist ideas attracted a new generation of females who lived during the height of the male-dominated educational period, which gave even a very young male control over the fate of his elder sister or even his mother.

In the current situation, the biggest priority is to come up with a feasible conception of the future shape of the relationship between the sexes amid the complexities of conflicting interactions between two consciousness and cultures: the consciousness of the majority of the males who grew up within the realities of gender discrimination and the consciousness of a new and overwhelming generation of females possessing a significant amount of feminist awareness.

Sociologist Fawzia Abu Khaled said the term feminism is being subjected to demonisation, even from some of those who had benefited from it or from some of its known figures, which is very unfortunate. In any case, the social climate is impervious to human rights concepts and terminologies and that keeps feminist concepts vulnerable to doubt and questioning.

There is still an awareness vacuum about women’s rights and this has resulted in “blind” hostility to feminism. This situation is made much worse by the astonishing gap in the educational curriculum about the topic and by daily behaviour towards women, including the attitude of many women towards themselves and their attitude towards other women in which there is a lack of respect to the vision of women as reasonable and fully qualified adults.

Writer Raeda al-Sabe denied the existence of a real feminist movement in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, pointing out there are women who are opposed to lifting the discrimination against them by sheer force of habit.

“If there is a real feminist movement, it is certainly not doing a good job against the ‘objectification’ of women and against portraying them in artistic productions as frivolous and naive and totally devoted to males in a real brainwashing operation,” Sabe said.

“Where are feminist studies in the school curricula, curricula that consecrate social contempt for women, to be passed on from generation to generation? Let’s not even mention the issue of inheritance in the family code, unfair employment opportunities and other inequalities. What have the feminists done to fight rampant domestic violence, the victims of which are mostly women?”

Women in the Gulf are subjected to practices that limit their choices and waste many years of their lives, practically reducing them to sub-citizens. They are entitled to rights and laws to protect them from abuse, violence and repression and to have a balanced and responsible voice in all affairs.

Ghamdi said: “You can’t stop history. I’ve said it many times before that there will be a spike in divorce rates. The price in any society where human rights and cultural norms in the distribution of human status are biased and discriminatory will be paid by future generations and in the form of massive collapses of the family institution.”

There isn’t a conceivable solution to this dilemma but systems and laws can be modernised to introduce gender equity in legislation and regulate relationships between the sexes.

There must be an immediate correction of educational curricula to redefine society’s awareness of the status of women in accordance with a contemporary human rights understanding.

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