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I am not oppressed, I am more than that

Updated: Nov 16, 2020

By Y. (EU International Relations and Diplomacy Studies - Manuel Marin promotion)

Photograph by Yumna Al-Arashi (London-based Photographer)

“Nature is woman's best friend. If you're having troubles, you just swim in the water, stretch out in a field, or look up at the stars. That's how a woman cures her fears”. Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, Fatema Mernissi (1940- 2015)

Firstly, I would like to make clear that in this article I will explain MY perception of reality. I would like to make clear that I do NOT want to generalize or speak on behalf of Muslim/ Arab Women. It is just a summary of my thoughts.

Sometimes, living in Europe is like swimming against the tide. Some people just take for granted the role of Muslim women in Arab societies. It is assumed women in Muslim countries are oppressed and invisible. Europeans tend to feel sympathy when they see any ordinary women with a hijab. But, has anyone ever asked Muslim woman how she really feels?

Sometimes, as well, in Muslim countries, Western women are seen as soulless and brainless. As Fatema Mernissi states, “the modern Western man reinforces Immanuel Kant's nineteenth-century theories: When a woman looks mature and self-assertive, or allows her hips to expand, she is condemned ugly. The walls of the European harem separate youthful beauty from ugly maturity.” So, which statement is more true than the other?

First, women are drivers for peace. With peace, I do not mean only war zones (because we tend to believe that in Muslim countries we kill each other). I mean stability and the absence of conflict. Women in Muslim families are essential pillars of resilience and strength. Sexism is not only peculiar to Islam, it is everywhere. In reality, culture has been even more prominent in perpetuating the oppression of women in Arab societies[1]. Colonial feminism refers to “the tendency among colonial officers to champion Muslim who opposes women’s rights in their own countries, mainly denigrating Islam and the culture of the region”. Is it possible to be Muslim and feminist in the same time? If yes, then how Europe should support the struggle for gender equality in Muslim countries? A good answer would be to really understand the power of Islam in some Arab societies and families, and not neglect it. Exporting European values does not mean bashing Arab values, but rather should infer building bridges and reinforcing common goals.

Female students at the Polytechnical University in Kabul in the mid-1970s (Hulton-Archive)

“Everywhere we went there were talks of democracy, transitional justice, human rights, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, women’s rights and so on. We were convinced of the sacredness of these values and were committed to work to promote them in our society. We started with fighting inside our homes, then our relatives, then the communities that we were living in and later with the society. Many saw our values as radical and westernized, but we were convinced these universal values should be institutionalized in the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan. That was the only way to truly bring peace in our country because peace is not the absence of war and rockets, it is a state where people feel safe and respected. We knew that Taliban were bad, their values were bad, and their approaches were bad.” [2]

Second, tradition sometimes reinforces matriarchy. As the famous photographer Yumna Al-Arashi has explained “Tattoos were a symbol of matriarchal power”. Amazigh tattoos are symbols of protection, beauty and ability to connect to the Earth. Young daughters admired their mothers’ tattoos and yearned to one day get their own[3]. The tattoos, administered by nomadic women called “adasiya” are often similar along village lines. Al-Arashi recalled a particularly affecting conversation with a cab driver, an Amazigh (Berber) man living in Morocco. When she asked how his people had survived after being conquered by the Romans, the Italians, the French and now the Arabs, he replied: “Because of women. When your world is run by women, it never dies.[4] In Morocco, indigenous Amazigh women are united against elites[5].

Photograph by Yumna Al-Arashi (London-based Photographer)

Third, veil does not imply backwards towards emancipation. In the last century, many women in Islamic countries have been returning to wear a veil. Moreover, most feminists try to explain that Islam has always given women the right of a public life[6]. Veil is intrinsically linked to the notion of identity and self-expression. As long as it is not the product of involuntary submission, and it is fruit of a rational understanding, women do not feel less free because they wear it. Veil is part of fashion.

“Shedding Skin” is especially poignant to Arab women, who are often stereotypes and misunderstood. The film beautifully informs the viewer that what western society has led us to believe about them is incorrect[7]

In a nutshell, this article is not a statement of how perfect life is in Muslim countries. Obviously, we still face inequality, domestic violence, poverty and illiteracy. Islam is in a cultural identity crisis and the misunderstanding between the two worlds gets bigger every day. As both Moroccan and Spanish, I always feel in the middle when I have to explain values and conceptions to Western women in Morocco and Moroccan women in Europe. Are the Europeans values compatible with non- Western values, or do they always prevail?

Nevertheless, what I wanted to show is my own reality. Our problems are not intrinsic to our culture, religion of lifestyle. Each region has its own challenges. Women are blooming and are stronger every day. I am proud to be the woman that I am because of my European and non- Western values. Denigrating a culture or our roots does not make us stronger.

Because in our way, we are free, like butterflies.



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