Being a feminist in Arab Muslim society

Being a woman in the Arab Muslim world is not easy. Almost all Arab women of all backgrounds, classes, ages or even religions face some sort of sexism in their life – and I’m one of them. That is not to say that misogyny is special to the Arab world; every society in history has struggled with sexism. The problem with the Arab world, however, is that on top of sexual harassment, high rates of female genital mutilation, ongoing economic disempowerment, restrictive and discriminatory family laws, and more, women are often shamed, marginalised, and even blackmailed simply for addressing issues that are deemed culturally inappropriate.

As a result, liberal secular feminists like me are faced with one of two choices: abiding by the rules and keeping quiet while living the way we wish in secret, or deciding to break the code of silence and bear the punishing consequences. What’s more troubling is that the bullying doesn’t stop with men; ‘fellow’ women may be even harsher in their criticism than men. They will beat their ‘sisters’ for speaking out, and they will do so in the name of Islam, traditions, as well as culture.

Society tells us ‘if you are tested (by Allah) and fall into sin, do not show it off’

In 2004, I got pregnant without conducting an official marriage. This is a deed considered ‘sinful’ and ‘disgraceful’ in an Arab Muslim country like Egypt. Though faced with extensive public humiliation, I still chose to keep the baby and resort to legal means to obtain justice. In a country like Egypt, only a man can register a child’s birth. I filed a paternity suit against the father in order to assert my newly-born daughter’s right to carry his name. The public bias didn’t stop, even after I won all the court cases against the father. I would post a photo on my Facebook page and receive comments like ‘Look at how she dresses her daughter in shorts! Poor girl for having such a loose mother!’ I would write an update about my postgraduate studies and the replies would be ‘PhD, to do what? To teach us how to have babies in Haram (sin)!’ It didn’t end there: I was also threatened with prison if I didn’t ‘keep quiet’.

It is not easy to deal with the consequences of breaking taboos and bringing such topics into the public sphere, but I am not alone. Many other Arab women are also starting to speak out. In 2014, Ghadeer Ahmed sent her boyfriend a video of her dancing – without her hijab, and in a short dress. He did not merely post it online, but also accompanied it with a video montage he made out of private photographs. Instead of hiding from the shaming and bullying she received, Ghadeer decided to re-post the video herself. Because of this video, she faced hostility on social media. In 2017, Dalia El Faghal took to Facebook to tell the world that she was in a relationship with a woman. Soon after, her post went viral. Dalia began receiving messages of hate and disgust. She was attacked by the public; her father received death threats.

It is not just men who take advantage of feminism for their own personal gains, nor just ‘fellow’ women. It is when Arab feminists themselves oppose you for ‘adopting Western values that do not suit our culture and traditions.’ They ask you to ‘play it safe if you want to be heard.’ Many, whether they call themselves secular or Islamic feminists, treat topics like sex outside marriage, abortion and homosexuality as a taboos that should not be discussed. I understand and agree that discussions within Arab feminism must consider Islamic principles and must take into account cultural views so that it does not alienate women from their societies. However, when feminists try and put their ‘personal morals’ before the needs of others, they are restricting their activism to what they believe is comfortable and easy to achieve. Some would go as far as to claim that sexism and misogyny in the Arab world has ‘nothing to do with Islam,’ and that Islam has given equal rights to women and men.

Again, I am not trying to say that Islam is the only problem that is holding Arab women back from achieving equality. There is a mix of reasons, but one must admit that one of them is Islamic scripture. I am sick and tired of having to put up with the claims of some feminists that Islamic rules and practices for women represent a step up from those that came before. Even if this is so, this was almost 1500 years ago! Are we supposed to follow rules that have no relevance or significance to women’s lives today, when even laws that were set 50 years ago are considered outdated! At the end of the day, no one is asking anyone to give up their own personal morals, but individual beliefs should not skew our activism.

We need to rid ourselves of the internalised misogyny which we have been conditioned to carry since childhood. Currently, women’s organisations in the Middle East provide jobs rather than fight for a cause. It is only when we realise this that we will achieve a genuine feminist movement. The only way we can reinforce a real movement is if we work for the good of the collective, and not for our own egos and interests. I do realize that the path of strong-speaking women is not for everyone, but my hope is for women to have the freedom to choose to speak out without fear of persecution. At the end, and despite threats and harassment, I have been fighting for this cause for years, and through my work and the work of other strong-willed Middle Eastern women, things will slowly change.

We must liberate ourselves first before trying to help others. If we cannot do that, we better stop claiming heroism.

I am crowdsourcing the final year of her PhD. Find out more at GoFundMe

Original article: http://sister-hood.com/hind-elhinnawy/feminist-arab-muslim-society/

 

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Back off!!!

I think that I am, finally, ready to admit that my public story had immensely affected my wellbeing. I apologize to anybody who would see this as a shock because “Hind you are a strong girl, you can handle this”. I do realize that many people perceive me as an unbreakable strong woman. I am, indeed, unbreakable, but I am not always strong! Does that make sense? Is it ok to say that receiving an unexpectedly cruel message from a person I thought knows me inside out has completely and utterly ruined my day? Is it ok that I am not accepting being lectured as a prerequisite of support? Or is that very unexpected of a ‘strong’ woman like me? This personal message I received today might appear as a trivial event, but, the truth is that it acted as the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Just now, I am realizing how much I had to endure to stay the strong woman I am expected to be. Fourteen years ago, when I got pregnant out of wedlock and decided to seek my daughter’s rights from a father who refused to acknowledge her, my pride was what dictated my actions. My decision was to stay strong so I can continue to motivate and inspire the many women who depended on my strength and perseverance. My decision was to stay strong to, also, fulfill the expectations of my family and friends. But it didn’t stop at only being forced to appear strong regardless of what my actual feelings were. It reached a point where I am expected to accept to be lectured, to be told what and what not to do in my ‘private’ life, to be judged, shamed, blamed and humiliated.

It didn’t stop, even until now! And I do admit that it hurts! It has been hurting for 14 years, and I am sorry to say that I do not accept it anymore. I will not accept to be constantly shamed, blamed, and judged for a ‘mistake’ I’ve done 14 years ago. I will not accept my friends telling me “We don’t check on you because we know that you are strong enough to handle anything on your own”; “we know you are facing many hardships, but you always manage to overcome them, you don’t need support”; or “well, it was your choice, live with the consequences”.

Let me tell you something.,Yes, it was my choice, and it was not a mistake. I will say it out loud this time: I do not consider my pregnancy a mistake just because the father refused it; I do not consider my pregnancy a mistake just because I am a woman living in an Arab Muslim country that disregards men’s ‘mistakes’ but not ‘women’s’! My pregnancy was not a mistake. Being unplanned does not qualify it as a mistake! It was a choice, a very personal choice. And, to be blunt, I do not need to explain or justify it to anybody. I have rights and my baby has rights regardless of whether it was planned or not. Having a baby out of wedlock does not give anybody in the Arab Muslim world the right to lecture me, shame or judge me. Many of you cannot handle what I had to deal with, and what I am still dealing with.

Now, after 14 years, I am admitting that what I dealt with and still dealing with throughout my life did affect my wellbeing and still is. But finally, I have realized that it will continue to affect me until I refuse it. So here I am saying it clearly; I refuse your control over me; I refuse your lectures; I refuse your judging; I refuse your talking about me behind my back; I refuse the lies that you spread; I refuse your shaming. I am who I am and I will not accept or tolerate any interfering in my private life in the name of religion, culture, tradition, or whatever else. When I ask for help, I’d accept you to either offer help or stay away. I have not given you the right to interfere in my life just because I asked for help. Focus on your lives and let people live the lives they choose to live. Focus on your problems; we all have a lot in our lives to deal with, so stop pointing fingers.

Remember that, simply, I took full responsibility for my actions and didn’t hide like many do. And from now on, I will focus on my well-being. I will stop fulfilling what I am expected to be or do. I will pursue the path I chose for myself, and never again will I accept any shaming from anybody.

Stay out my life! This message is for both chauvinist women and men!

Is it the society or the law that needs to change first?

Original published in the independent on Sunday 17th of June, 2018

https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/egypt-law-islam-women-sexism-abortion-misogyny-a8403171.html

It was almost 15 years ago that I became pregnant, and instead of quietly getting it “taken care of”, I decided to keep the baby and challenge the social norms of my country of origin. Having a child from an unofficial urfi marriage, in a country like Egypt, meant a scandal for my family and I, as they have no official contract and are often kept secret.

Under Egyptian law, without an official marriage contract, only a man can register a child’s birth. As a result, tens of thousands of children are legally non-existent; they cannot be issued birth certificates, passports, receive vaccinations, register for school or even get married.

In Egypt, the standard three-step solution for any unmarried, upper class girl in my situation is an abortion, a hymen repairoperation, then marriage to the first unwitting suitor the family can snare. Poorer women without access to these options can face death – killed by a male member of the family to end the “shame” and cleanse the family’s “honour”. For me, play-acting my way through the virgin-marriage pageant was not an option. Instead, I did the unthinkable and chose to keep my baby.

The father of my child refused to acknowledge his paternity, and I chose to take my case public, scandalising the nation. And while a small group of feminists and educated elites strongly supported my case, the vast majority of the country was against it.

After losing, and appealing, the judge ruled in my favour, forcing the father to recognise both his relationship with me and his paternity of Leena, who was 19 months old. My case and my subsequent efforts to change the laws did, in fact, inspire thousands of Egyptian mothers to fight for the rights of their own children, and drove the Egyptian court to include DNA tests to paternity investigations.

I had hoped that this would lead to a real shift in what has always been a misogynistic and patriarchal society. In reality, little has changed. Egyptian tabloids, talk shows, newspapers and the general public remain vocally prejudiced against single mothers like me, looking down on us as “sinful”, and our children as “illegitimate”. Ultimately, laws proved to be easier to change than societies.

For a decade now, throughout my post-graduate studies, research and continuous activism, I’ve talked to hundreds of women, listened to their daily struggles, and realised that even though laws are gradually changing in favour of equality, women’s social, economic and political status has barely improved in most Arab countries.

Despite legal reform, Arab Muslim societies continue to treat women as second class citizens, as protectors of the “family’s honour”, as potential sources of disgrace rather than individuals who have rights.

In Saudi Arabia, women were only allowed to vote for the first time in 2015, yet only around 130,000 women registered to vote, compared to 1.35 million men. This year they were permitted to drive for the first time, but I would be surprised to see that become commonplace any time soon. Changing the law is all well and good, but when the oppression of women is so ingrained in the culture, it makes little real difference.

In Saudi Arabia and most Arab Muslim countries a single woman in her thirties is considered a spinster, sexual harassment of a woman is still considered her fault, premarital sex is ok for young men, but a family’s dignity is lost upon a girl’s engagement in any sexual activity. A girl should cook, clean and do the laundry for her brothers, while they watch a football match; a man has the right to divorce a woman with one phrase, “you are divorced”, while women have no such right. The list goes on.

Islam and feminism have been in a constant clash since the turn of the century, and we can no longer ignore this fact. Somewhere between the liberal secular positions like mine, and the attempts by fundamentalists to silence us, it is often the voices of Muslim women themselves that are left unheard.

Much of this sexist mentality exists across different religions due to culture and tradition, but the growing confrontation with fundamental Islam over the application of sharia law is making it more difficult for Muslim women to demand reform.

With such a negative perception of women’s rights, no progress can be made. Calls for greater women’s rights will not achieve anything on their own. What is necessary is a change of attitude; a radical change of public thinking.

Women need to speak out. Only when we understand the need to speak out, fight for our rights, and stop accepting the status quo, will we see real change.

In the meantime, as long as we accept and allow traditionalism and fundamentalism to dictate our destinies, the situation will continue to worsen for women like me, no matter what the laws say.

Sadly, I won’t be able to join the strike!

For the last few weeks, nothing has occupied my thoughts and fully absorbed my mind more than the upcoming strike and the assertions that “it isn’t just about universities, it’s about inequalities more broadly, and the imperative to resist.” The process of trying to decide whether I should take part or not was unnerving. On one hand, supporting my fellow colleagues -that I profoundly respect and admire- in their battle against injustice meets my rebellious nature and the old-time activist in me. On the other hand, my side of the story and the complex position I am in as an international mature student, part-time lecturer, as well as a single mother has not yet been heard.

I finished my master’s degree at an American University in Cairo in 2010, but the continuous unrest that has been taking place in Egypt since 2011 and the fact that I was raising a six-year-old girl on my own forced me to shelf my dreams of pursuing a Ph.D. for some more time. I never stopped dreaming, and for the following six years I invested in a property to save money, lived on a tight budget and continued writing proposals and applying for universities. In 2016, I was finally offered a “fully-funded” P.h.D. scholarship at the University of Kent. I was thrilled with the news until I realized that “fully-funded” is UK-based, which means that as an international student, I am supposed to pay a difference of about £9,000/year, a total of £27,000 in fees, let alone living expenses of myself and my daughter. I still accepted the offer.

I arrived in the UK, feeling thankful for the opportunity that’s been given to me. My first year was hard, I paid the university fees after selling the only property I own in my country for a sum that is hardly enough to cover my three-year fees. This year, which is my second, I had to start looking for a source of income and an additional fund to help with my next and hopefully final year fees. I ran around like a clown to ask module conveners and admin personnel to allow me to teach a few extra hours (8 hours are my limit as a Tier 4 student, however, my scholarship requires me to teach for 4 hours that are poorly paid, thus my limit is 4 hours). Thankfully, I got a few hours, that somehow helped to bring food to my table.

I am working seven days a week to stay on my P.hD timeline, prepare good seminars, mark, and take care of both my house and my daughter. Amidst all these pressures, I am still a happy and positive person, confident that I am able to finish my degree in time, working my fingers to the bone to survive until the end of this degree. I am counting my blessings, yet I can’t help seeing the inequalities I face in my everyday life as an international student and a single mother: 1- Having to pay loads of money to university despite my academic merits, because I am neither British nor European. 2- Being denied most of the available funds raised to help single mother students with living expenses because I am over 35 years old. 3- The fact that I am not allowed access to public funds such as housing, also because I am ‘international’, to name a few.

A week before the strike started, I decided I’d definitely join. I took the appropriate steps to join UCU. I started reading all information I come across about this upcoming strike to find that even though I have a legal right to strike yet, on UCU website, it is mentioned that:

“Members with Tier 4 status, typically students, have the same legal right to take industrial action as resident workers – e.g. do long as are eligible employees. The sponsor, is however required to report unauthorised absences of more than 10 consecutive working days to the Home Office. The Home Office considers industrial or strike action as an unauthorized absence. So if you take industrial action for more than 10 consecutive days, or if you miss 10 or more ‘expected contacts’ without permission, your sponsor must report this to the Home Office, and your sponsorship will be revoked. Your sponsor is required to keep a record of all unauthorised absences, so they will need to be notified once it is confirmed that you have undertaken strike action”

Despite my deep feelings for the rightful demands of my colleagues, and my strong desire to support them, my hands are tied, and I feel powerless and debilitated. The impact this strike might have on my studies and my legal status in the UK seem serious. Amongst all the pressures that I already endure as an international student and single mother with limited employability, I feel deeply disheartened by my inability to join a lawful call for equality. I passionately apologize for not being able to join this strike, however, the least I can do is insist on not covering any lecture material that should have been covered in canceled lectures, or accept students attending from seminars of striking colleagues. I am also open to further suggestions that can support my colleagues in this strike action.

A Fearless Moment!

Aside

Now that I’m cherishing a new side effect from the chaos I faced and contributed in in my life lately – fearlessness. Not exactly fearlessness, but I’m finding that I’m more drawn to crazy activities than I used to be. For over fifteen years, I have constantly been asked by my friends to take an intro dive with them, and I have constantly replied “I am claustrophobic, can’t do it”.

So I crammed my butt into a wet suit, stood there with an air tank on my back, way heavier than I expected, a weight belt, and an extremely binding vest with a zillion tubes hanging out of it. Overwhelmed, the meaning of the tubes started to escape me. Led to the sea in flippers with little peripheral vision because of the mask I was wearing. That was not cool.

My diving buddy, the very patient Tarek, showed me how to breathe under water through the air tank. I kept trying but the idea that I would not use my nose for the next hour freaked me out. I switched on my panic mantra (If something went wrong my diving buddy would pull me up, if something went wrong my diving buddy would pull me up) and in.

Tarek stayed right in my face. I was petrified, but I was determined (If something went wrong, my diving buddy would pull me up) fear would not win this time. I went down, equalizing my ear pressure whenever Tarek asks me to do so. At this critical point I realized that my main fear was that I was sinking when I normally would be floating. Being a control freak, this wasn’t sitting well with me at all. My brain was telling me that if I let go I would continue to descend slowly until I was stuck forever on the ocean floor. That is what my brain tells me in every other situation too. I had forgotten that I had fins, strong legs and a capable instructor. I let go.

And there I was in the sea. . I lost all my fears, my real fears, and felt as if I am only watching television. I forgot who I was, and felt like a newborn baby staring at everything around me in amusement.

I cared not about how many meters underwater were we, or how much time have we been there. All what I was focusing on is this new world I am seeing; a complete life that exists out there without our awareness of it. I was watching like a kid.

Tarek took my hand and led me to a fish hiding in the sand. Kneeling close by this strange and beautiful creature, my breathing noise transcended to a calming yoga-like hum. The fish, deciding it wanted nothing more to do with us, got up and “flew” away. I gave chase. I hadn’t even realized that my fear was gone. I was one with the ocean.

Experienced divers would no doubt be completely unimpressed by what this dive offered but I’ve heard before that you never forget your first dive and I would have to go along with this. This first dive gave me the opportunity to enjoy the richness, thrill and feelings of freedom and achievement that you get when exploring the undersea world. Since then I’ve read a few scuba diving articles and seen the amazing sights and experiences on offer throughout the world on reefs and wrecks. I don’t know where my next dive will be. What I can tell is that there will definitely be a next dive, and soon. Scuba diving is more than I expected it to be, and no matter what happens next I am sure I will never forget the thrill of that wonderful first dive.

As for my chaotic life I’m also striving to keep my panic mantra switched on “Let Go and Let God, Let Go and Let God.” And reminding myself of the most beautiful world I’ve ever seen when I decided to let go “The Underwater Life.”  If I rid my brain of everything that’s merely taking space, the trash I am clinging to, I will allow treasures to find me.

A Turning Point

For almost a year now, and for some reason, my life has not been the same as it used to be. I was the active, hard worker, loving, cheerful, optimistic woman. Gradually, I found myself taking a path I never thought I would ever take. I started meeting therapists and using antidepressants. I felt like my whole life is collapsing.

I did all what I can do to retrieve my life, yet I felt something lacking. Naturally, I am a restless person; I needed to always be doing something, writing, working, taking care of Leena or reading whatever I find to read. I tried to just sit quietly, watch television, but I couldn’t. My brain won’t stop. Those quiet moments gave me a feeling of complete emptiness, in which not a single bit of love existed. In times I thought I’m going mad.

What is it that I’m missing? Love? But love doesn’t bring happiness. It brings anxiety and sleepless nights. Peace? Nothing is ever at peace. The winter fights with the summer, the sun and the moon never meet. Money? Everyone who earns enough money starts to fear losing it. Poverty might bring unhappiness, but money won’t essentially bring happiness.

After almost a year of searching, I see that being restless was a way of avoiding those moments when nothing is happening, those pauses where all what I should do is relax and reflect. I have always taken a path of struggle, tears, and self-control. Lately, I realized I was going about in the wrong way. My dream does not require that of me. I just needed to surrender myself to it, and if I find I’m suffering, I relax, because the suffering will pass anyways. Now those empty spaces are being transformed into pauses, an encounter with me, myself and my higher power.

Now, I accept my life as it is, a constant process of destroying and rebuilding myself. Everything in my life has followed the same pattern: from lost to found; from divorce to new love; from working as an architect to being a women’s rights activist. Only one thing remained and will remain unchanged – my daughter.

From now on I’m independent; I see life through my own eyes not through other people’s. I’m not going to look for happiness anymore. I’m going in search of the adventure of being alive. I will live as intensely as possible. And I will love. And whatever happens would be equally gratifying. Knowing that I am capable of love is enough.

“Love fills everything. It cannot be desired because it is an end in itself. It cannot betray because it has nothing to do with possession. It cannot be held prisoner because it is a river and will overflow its banks. Anyone who tries to imprison love will cut off the spring that feeds it, and the trapped water will grow stagnant and rank.” Paolo Coelho

Now I realize that I should not be frightened when the powers of darkness appear, because now, I know that I’m here, and that everything is a miracle, life in itself is a miracle, a revelation that should be enjoyed with all what it offers.

Is it the TIME ?

I was very excited driving my car to Giza to pick up my gorgeous  and most loved Leena after the ten long days she spent at her father’s place. I was finishing some important phone calls while waiting for her downstairs, and as soon as I saw her going down the stairs I threw my phone away and ran to her. Surprisingly, she looked happy and healthy, the opposite of how she normally looks after a long stay there. It seems that her dad was the one taking care of her this time not the maid as usual.  I immediately called him “Ahmed, thank you for taking good care of her, she looks amazing” he replied “alhamd lelah alhamd lelah alhamd lelah”.

“Leena is almost seven now, a fantastic reader, and a great performer . . sometimes I don’t believe how she grew up that fast” I thought while driving and listening to her stories about the vacation at her father’s place. I remember the day she was born. It was a Friday, and it was Ramadan. Many of the expecting mothers waiting for delivery at the hospital came to my room to pray for me. I was overwhelmed, worried, anxious and restless. I was impatient waiting to see the baby I have been talking to for almost six months. I was dreaming how she would look like and I was sure she would be the most beautiful girl I will see in my entire life. Leena has already created debates and controversy among many Egyptians even before her arrival to this world. As a mother to be, thinking of how she will grow up and live in this country facing many gossips about who she was and whether Ahmad was her father or not was scaring me. As a woman, I had no doubt she will grow up to be a strong and inspiring woman. I loved her way before I saw her, and the minute I hugged her in the delivery room just as soon as she saw the world and even before they cleaned her, I promised her she will be the most important thing in my life. I promised her I would never think of having another. I promised her she would have the finest bringing and cherish for as long as I live. Now, my baby is almost seven, have I really fulfilled my promise? I don’t know, I can never be sure, nobody is perfect. But I know I will never love anybody more than I love her. I know I will never put anybody before her.  

Those ten days were one of the longest away from my beloved Louli, so I was over excited about the weekend Iwill spend with her by the beach, a weekend I have been planning for almost five days ahead. She grew up to be an intelligent, creative, funny, loving, and well behaved girl. I’m very proud of her, and whenever I think of all difficulties I faced before and after she was born to guarantee a respectable image for her, I never regret anything. It was all just meant to be. Leena has made a new Hind that I am also proud of.

We arrived to Mokattam, where we live. Leena saw someone who sells plants in the street and asked me if she could buy a plant. We stopped, chose a couple of plants then  took off cheerful and contended heading home to pack and wait for Nouni, my sister in law and the kids to pick us up. Leena was asking me how long are we staying in sokhna, and before I answer her question I sensed a huge crash, and in a second the surrounding started to become vivid as I lost control over the steering wheel. I reached for Leena, held her tight and closed my eyes as the car started spinning around.

I still remember the promise I gave her, the promise to take care of her. I remember the past six and half years. I remember every single moment we passed through. I remember how every moment with her was special, the good and the bad. Our life together has been a blessing, we grew up together and learnt a great deal together. Life has more to give us and we, too, have more to give to life. Has our time come God, have I picked her to see her for the last time! Could life end that suddenly? I live for her and I hoped to see her growing. End my life but don’t end hers please. She deserves to live, she’s still too young. Oh, but what if I died, who will take care of her.

The clouds of dust were now gone to the horizons on all directions and the noise created by the engine was not being heard anymore. Crowds of people were around the car trying to open the crashed doors of the car with no luck. I opened my eyes still hugging Leena who was wailing and horrified. The crowds outside the car were yelling “get out of the car, it might explode!” I started to realize that we are still in danger and I threw Leena out of the car right away. Thanks God, we were not injured.

I was not at all concerned that my car might probably be wrecked without repair. All what I was feeling then was love. Love to God and gratitude to every single detail in life I’ve never seen just because I never thought my life might end that sudden. Love to life that has given me immeasurably. Love to my daughter and to myself and to all people who have supported me throughout my path. Something is changing in me. I still don’t fully understand what exactly is going on inside me now, but I know I want to make the best of this life.

“Sometimes we encounter things in our path, but because our time has not yet come, they brush past us, without touching us, even if they were close enough for us to see them”  Paolo Coelho