Stop pretending that sexism isn’t a global phenomenon

Western imagery of Arabs as innately barbaric often forgets that sexism is indeed a home-grown issue in all parts of Britain.

2017/03/05 Issue: 96 Page: 20

The Arab Weekly
Ritu Mahendru

The Western gaze constantly reiterates Arab women as the subordinate “other” suffering from cultural oppression. The orientalist view that Arab women need to be rescued, a stereotype full of overwhelming generalisa­tions, signifies a serious gap in our understanding of a world so vast that it occupies 22 countries, a world with wide social, cultural and geographical variances stretching from the Atlantic in the west to the Arabian Sea in the east and from the Mediterranean in the north to the Horn of Africa and the Indian Ocean in the south-east.

Nearly every society in history has struggled with gender inequality and sexism and they still are. However, we have remained woefully silent and have assumed these problems are unique to the Arab world. There are stark differences between women in the Arab world who assert themselves and those who are submissive. Characteristics all too easily found in Britain between different groups of women, whether they are white, Asian, African, Caribbean, Middle- Eastern, Arab, etc.

Western imagery of Arabs as innately barbaric often forgets that sexism is indeed a home-grown and pervasive issue in all parts of Britain.

Women are rebuked and dismissed in social media and often find themselves victims of an all-too-familiar laddish culture, which promotes a heteronormative mentality that labels women as “sluts”, “slags” and “whores” when they walk into a bar unaccompanied and reveals the double standards in our society. While women in Britain are sexually objectified and suffer from misogyny in private and public places, it is a well-established fact that women also suffer from a gender-pay gap and unequal treatment at home and work in contemporary Britain. There is sexism at an institutional and societal level.

Rashida Manjoo, charged by the UN Human Rights Council to monitor violence against women in Britain, reported that a boys’ club sexist culture exists in the country and that she had never seen such pervasive sexual bullying and harassment in schools elsewhere.

Although there is certainly a considerable difference between the positioning of women in Western society and that of the Arab world, many women’s rights organisations in the West are dealing with similar challenges to those we have in the East — domestic violence, marital rape, child sexual abuse, discrimination at work, sexual harassment on streets and public transport, treatment of women at home, etc.

Yet when we imagine Arab women, we fail to identify the common threads that produce and re-reproduce inequalities that are not always linked with a particular country and race but often with education, class and other intersectional factors. We fail to see how the “other” is positioned socially before producing mutually divisive perspectives.

This ethnocentric view exclusively lends itself to an assumed paradigm of progress as it sees the Muslim world as far removed from modernity. This opinion in the popular culture perpetuates negative and stereotypical interpretations of the gains the Arab world has made. Arab women end up fighting double oppression based on orientalist ideologies of racism and gender patriarchy in the West and the East.

Given that women’s issues in general are not seen as part of the Arab countries’ agenda, women have been engaged in leading protests and demonstrations against the authoritarian regimes during the “Arab spring”. They emerged as key players getting together, marching, demonstrating, blogging, striking as well as putting their lives at risk.

Arab women were active participants in the political, economic and social life during that period; however, this part of the history will be overlooked and disregarded as this does not fit into the Western narrative of Muslim and Arab women’s imagination.

While Arab women are on a rickety path to achieve gender equality, I urge everyone on March 8th — International Women’s Day — to see sexism and gender inequalities as global problems.

It is always good to look at yourself in the mirror and for an outsider to reflect on that image. It is time that we accept culture plurality in which women have the chance to define themselves without necessarily being judged and defined by the West. It must spring from the inside as a united force from their experiences and perspectives.

Ritu Mahendru is a journalist who writes about gender, race, migration, conflict and development issues.

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