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Rumble in the desert

On May 17, 2009, four women were elected to the Kuwaiti parliament as MPs for the first time ever, spelling progress and change in the region. Indeed, the Middle East has been a black hole in the history of feminism, says Manjima Bhattacharjya, and we have only just begun to understand the unique issues and positions of women here

Many years ago, on a visit to meet my parents in Kuwait, I carried a contraband item with me on my flight. The controversial item was a protest letter from women’s groups in India (as part of an international campaign raging at the time) carefully crafted to protest the fact that women in Kuwait did not have the right to vote, and a demand that the civil and political rights of women in the region be met. I was uncomfortable throughout the flight, hot and bothered at customs, having heard harrowing tales of friends travelling to the Middle East whose copies of feminist books (especially Arabic translations of books like those by Moroccan author Fatima Mernissi) were confiscated at the doorpost of their closeted nations. When I reached my parents’ house without any diplomatic incident I heaved a sigh of relief.

Two days later, I opened my bags to take out the letters to send off to various groups in Kuwait (might as well do some activism too, whilst on holiday). But though I hunted high and low I couldn’t find the letter! Could my bags have been searched in transit? Could they have found the letter and confiscated it? I re-checked my bags, every nook and cranny, to see if the letter had slipped into a crevice. No luck.

My holiday drew to a close and even as I walked off the tarmac into the plane I couldn’t shake off the feeling that someone was watching me.

This May, as I returned to Kuwait for a brief visit, things were very different. On May 17, 2009, for the first time, four women were elected to Kuwait’s parliament as MPs. All four elected women hold doctorate degrees from American universities and currently serve in important professional capacities in academics and finance. Two of the women are declared ‘liberals’ (and are visually conspicuous in being without the hijab or headscarf worn by Muslim women) and two of them are Shiite. Another woman candidate -- who did not win -- was also acclaimed for having taken thousands of votes and managing to sway voters in her favour in a highly tribal constituency.

The election, apparently carried out in a transparent manner with votes being counted in public (instead of electoral boxes being ferried away to an unknown location and then counted), was notable for other trends too, like an increase in Shiite seats and a drop in Islamist seats. But none of these were given as much importance as the aspect of women entering parliament. News reports brimmed with pride and a sense of momentousness; cartoons showed women finally rid of their shackles. The general sense of progress was reflected throughout the media.

That this is progress is undeniable. Kuwaiti women won the right to vote only four years ago (without any help from my missing letter, I must add!). It’s been an extraordinarily quick learning curve -- from allowing women to vote to having four (out of a total of 50) women legislators. That’s 8% -- the same figure for women in higher levels of the Indian parliament!

This didn’t happen without external intervention or strategy. After the historic results, a press release from the Kuwait news agency (http://www.kuna.net.kw/NewsAgenciesPublicSite/ArticleDetails.aspx?id=2002154&Language=en)

noted the role of the UNDP and UNIFEM, along with the government that had worked hard over the past three years (54 women stood for elections in 2006 without a single one being elected, as compared to the 16 who stood this year of which four made it to the top) on a women’s political participation project. Acting UNDP-Kuwait Resident Representative Mohamed Naciri said: “Throughout the past three years, and in collaboration with the government, UNDP and UNIFEM have teamed up with civil society organisations and women’s activist groups to train women on voting procedures, and to change attitudes towards women’s political activity as a legal right that is in line with Islamic jurisprudence.” Dr Salwa Al-Jassar, one of the four newly-elected female parliamentarians, pointed out that women had not needed affirmative action or an electoral quota. She said: “We did it with persistence and systematic voter education and awareness… This is a very promising achievement… not only for Kuwaiti women but for all women in the Gulf and the entire Arab world.”

And it’s only the beginning. The first day of parliament following the elections was rife with tension. Among the many grouses expressed by MPs was the presence of women who did not wear the hijab; according to some, this was a ‘violation of election laws’. Such opposition is not new -- even in the run-up to the elections this was a serious issue; one Islamist MP exhorted voters not to vote for women as it was a ‘sin to vote for women’ (http://www.thenational.ae/article/20090601/FOREIGN/705319845/1011/rss).

Women in the Middle East, the Gulf, or the Arab world have always been a difficult proposition for women’s rights activists, human rights defenders, academics and liberals because they are at the centre of what has been called the ‘clash of civilisations’. Often used in other agendas -- by the West to target eastern country regimes as barbaric by giving the example of ‘how they treat their women’, or by Middle Eastern governments to defend their cultural and religious autonomy in the face of western domination -- women in this part of the world have rarely been given the space to express their own opinions of the situation, their struggles and their politics. The debate has rarely been allowed to go beyond the veil and some elements of Islamic law, and has been characterised by what can be called ‘the great divide’.

An article in a 2009 Newsweek magazine special issue by Dutch-Somalian writer and activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, titled ‘In the house of women’ (http://www.newsweek.com/id/177419), makes a striking allegory. Ali brings out the disparity between women in the East and West by drawing a vision of a ‘house of women’ being built, and the radically different stages and conditions that women in the East and West inhabit. She writes: “The house of women is vast and unfinished. The west wing is fairly complete. Most of us who live there enjoy privileges… Go east and you’ll find that the house is unfinished. Parts of it have been started, then abandoned, and are now falling into ruin. In others, every time a wall goes up someone bulldozes it down.”

She adds, in what is perhaps a particularly daunting picture: “In the middle of the east, most women are banished from the public rooms, and when they are glimpsed at all they are covered from head to toe in garments dark and ugly. Many never learn to read or write; they are forced into marriage and seem to live pregnant ever after. They have no reproductive rights. If they are raped, the burden of proof lies on them to show their innocence, and in some rooms, women and girls as young as 13 are publicly flogged and stoned to death for sexual disobedience. In the eastern side of the house, some people are so terrified by a woman’s sexuality that they cut the genitals of girl-children, mutilating and branding them with the mark of ownership.”

Hirsi Ali’s words typify the gaping distance between women in the West and East, not just necessarily in real terms but also in the way they are perceived, imagined and understood. Can the situation really be so stark? In some ways, yes (not unlike the situation of some sections of women in most countries) but in many ways, the answer is also no. Visitors to Kuwait, for example, are often surprised at how women are extremely visible in public and out on the streets driving cars from Hummers to Lamborghinis even late into the night, having a night out at the mall or hanging about on the seafront – yes, usually in hijab or in all-woman groups – but without the kind of threat or fear of violence and unsafety that many of us experience in our urban settings.

The Arab world has also changed in the last two decades. A report by UNIFEM ‘Progress of Arab Women 2004’, the first of its kind, notes that of the 49% of women in the Arab population, only 28% were in the active workforce. Compared with other countries (only 13% in India [http://infochangeindia.org/Women/Third-Wave/Marching-ahead.html]), these figures aren’t so shocking. Moreover, the report points to positive strides made in the region in the representation of women in national parliaments, the high number of successful professional women in executive positions in many Arab countries, the establishment of Arab women’s groups, and the rising role of NGOs. Yet the perception continues to be that women in the East, especially in the Arab world, are victims of a potent cocktail made up of patriarchy, tribalism, their nations, families and, of course, Islam. A perception compounded by the fact that there is really no independent dialogue with Arab women, and that we don’t know/hear/see enough about their lives and struggles.

There is another side to their story -- that of resistance -- that is not highlighted or recognised enough. Kuwaiti women’s struggle for a place in parliament is one example. There are others too. Spirited struggles have been going on in different parts of the region with women articulating their concerns and devising strategies to resist, which fit in with the cultural environment, existing norms and traditions or political system without alienating or endangering them. Most reflect their own struggles to define and defend their rights vis-à-vis what is sanctioned as cultural, traditional or religious in their society -- the eternal face-off between the universality of human rights and cultural relativism.

Various websites shed light on these. For example WLUML (Women Living Under Muslim Law, see http://www.wluml.org), a broad network of women across 70 countries working on women’s rights in countries with Islamic laws, highlights many important ongoing campaigns, some of them against Islamic fundamentalism. One of the key aims of WLUML is to break the isolation that many women living under Islam are in, or the isolation in which they wage their struggles. Online magazines like Bad Gens (http://www.badjens.com/) aim to connect voices of Iranian women (the ‘bad gender’) with the outside world. Act Together, a group of UK-based Iraqi and non-Iraqi women runs a campaign to address aggression in Iraq and support grassroots women organising in that country (www.acttogether.org). A strong women’s peace movement in Israel and Palestine has consistently, over the years, initiated moves towards reconciliation and brokering peace (http://www.peacewomen.org/resources/OPT/WomensLetterRice05.html).

On the issue of sexuality rights too there has been significant progress: see online spaces that show how these are emerging in spite of the extraordinarily difficult circumstances. Al-Fatiha (www.al-fatiha.org) is a group ‘dedicated to Muslims of all cultural and ethnic backgrounds who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, inter-sex, queer, and questioning or exploring their sexual orientation and/or gender identity (LGBTIQQ), and their families, friends and allies’. On their website they state that they ‘promote the progressive Islamic notions of peace, equality and justice’. “We envision a world that is free from prejudice, injustice and discrimination, where all people are fully embraced and accepted into their families, faith and communities.” Other queer Arab sites are www.bintelnas.org and www.well.com/user/queerjhd.

Over the last few months, a series of events have brought women in the Middle East out of the shadows. First, there has been a series of books (and films made out of these books) that have opened up new spaces for the voices of women from the region, the most famous of them of course being Marianne Satrapi’s graphic novel Persepolis and, to a lesser extent, ‘chick-lit’ fiction like the hugely popular Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea about upper-class girls living in Saudi Arabia and their inner worlds as told by an anonymous narrator using the Internet. Then there is Roxanne Saberi, the American-Iranian journalist who was mysteriously arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran for allegedly being an American spy. She was finally released following international outrage and pressure.

To build a strong and vibrant ‘house of women’, we have to hear each other out. For decades the voices of some women have been achingly silent. The Middle East has been one such black hole in the history of feminism. We have only begun understanding the unique issues and positions of women in this region. Today, Arab women’s voices have begun to emerge into the public domain. There is a need to start an independent dialogue with Arab women, not mediated by nationalist/fundamentalist/divisive agendas, to create spaces and forums for their voices, and their solutions to their problems, as they would know best how to strike the fine balance between religion, culture and human rights -- ironically, a tangle that all of us all over the world struggle with.

InfoChange News & Features, June 2009