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Two years ago, Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation set an inferno across parts of the Middle East and North Africa, changing the course of the region’s assumed history. We know what happened and we know what has been happening since. Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, despite having removed the bodies of dictators, continue to struggle to maintain control over the next phase of revolution. Yemenis and Bahrainis, albeit generally absent from headlines, are still fighting against authoritarian and oppressive governance and state violence. Syria, in perhaps the most precarious position, has descended into a bloody war with many local, national, regional and global fronts. As those of us with a privileged positionality of sitting spectatorship celebrate and commemorate – with some misplaced sense of entitlement – the two-year anniversary of the Arab revolutions, it is worth considering how we also have “celebrated” and “commemorated” the women of these revolutions and of these countries, who have received considerable attention. And it is further worth considering how we pick and choose which “brand” of Muslim women’s bodies, in particular, we’re interested in covering and how.
In a previous post, I quoted Lila Abu-Lughod on representations of Muslim women in political and advocacy rhetoric as well as, by extension, media when discussing certain regions and conflicts:
“Plastering neat cultural icons like “the Muslim woman” over messier historical and political narratives doesn’t get you anywhere. What does this substitution accomplish? Why, one has to ask, didn’t people rush to ask about Guatemalan women, Vietnamese women (or Buddhist women), Palestinian women, or Bosnian women when trying to understand those conflicts? The problem gets framed as one about another culture or religion, and the blame for the problems in the world placed on Muslim men, now neatly branded as patriarchal.”
It’s worth noting that while we will often find issues of “Muslim women” plastered all over our newsfeeds and television screens, these are almost always, with few exceptions, cavorted in narrow frames and with negative undertones. In these narratives, “Muslim women” face oppressions, and Islam and regional cultures play key roles in these oppressions. But when “Muslim women” are fighting against their oppressions, their religion and culture become irrelevant to their actions. The problem here isn’t the absence of religion and culture as positive tools – the problem is how religion and culture are selected for only one part of the story and ignored for the rest. The problem is how Muslim women’s bodies are swept into one shadow and made to single-handedly characterize an entire conflict and history.
Since the start of the Arab revolutions, women have received coverage in which they have been imagined as both purveyors and victims of the political tectonic shifts. When they’re not on hunger strikes, their freedom to express themselves is (maybe, kinda, not entirely) under threat. When they’re not asserting their freedom to mobility, or winning Nobel Peace prizes or posting videos that helped start one of the biggest revolutionary movements in recent history, they’re busy being hated on by anything with a phallic inclination (sigh). These are Bahraini, Syrian, Egyptian, Yemeni and Tunisian women – they are never just “Muslim women,” a noteworthy departure from usual Western engagement with female Muslim bodies which are usually merged into a single amorphous image. While there has been a specific branding of Muslim and Arab women’s bodies into their individual regional parts and a separation of their fights and struggles, there has also been an acknowledgment of a particular unity in the context of events. Strikingly, this interest in the women of revolution highlights the interest in the individual parts of The Muslim Woman insofar as feel-good headlines, articles and tweets are published and no feathers are ruffled.
Muslim and Arab women’s resistance against oppression, gendered state violence and authoritarianism did not start with Bouazizi’s flames. Contrary to the way the “women of the Arab Spring” have been depicted and imagined, women of the South have been integral to longer-term resistance against colonialism, authoritarian governance and socio-economic violences and oppressions. Amongst the most persistent of these women have been Palestinian women who have yet to receive the nod of acknowledgement of their daily resistance against occupation and apartheid by our (general) Western sentiments. Perhaps unsurprising as we still have yet to offer a nod of acknowledgement towards the effect of Israeli occupation and apartheid on the health, rights and bodies of Palestinian women, specifically refugees and those internally displaced.
A recent example points to the disparity of representation and reporting even in the age of the “revolutionary Arab/Muslim woman.” On November 14th of this past year, the Israeli government launched Operation Pillar of Defense in the Gaza Strip. In what quickly felt like repeat of January 2009, the offensive, tucked under the rhetoric of self-defense, lasted eight days and claimed the lives of 160 Palestinians, of whom 105 were civilians, including 34 children and 13 women, and left a staggering one thousand wounded. Buildings were flattened, media centers and journalists were targeted and the hospitals were overwhelmed. While headlines roared of social media war tactics, noticeably ignored were a group of Palestinian women trying to break into an IDF military post outside the settlement of Beit El in the West Bank. The protest was a day after the Israeli “surgical” offensive had begun and in tandem with ongoing protests against the “symbol of the presence of Israeli occupation and military rule inside the [West Bank].” The women were arrested and save for some tweets and a mention on AJE’s The Stream (previously linked), the situation was ignored.
Arab women are fighting against tyranny of their own shade are the exemplars of a two-fold revolution: one against state tyranny and the other against patriarchy. But when Arab women are fighting against imperialist and neo-colonialist state narratives and tanks, such as Palestinian women against Israeli occupation and apartheid, they just so happen to miss the mark of grazing a headline or an article topic.
Beyond the Arab World, there lies a greater and far more problematically represented (when represented) Muslim world; its diverse women are equally reduced to a narrow range of representations. We are quick to latch onto the brave Malalas and subversive, even if cliché, Aliaas (image in that link contains nudity) in order to appropriate them and fit their struggles into our set lenses of good and evil. But we rarely mention the names, let alone acknowledge the existence, of all the women resisting occupation, rape as a weapon, foreign attacks and poverty on a daily basis. FEMEN parades its White Woman’s Burden feminism under naked skin as though its 1960s-esque fleshly protests are not only attention-grabbing but revolutionary. Yet in 2004, mothers in the Indian state of Manipur (albeit not Muslim), stripped themselves naked (ditto on nudity in the image) to protest against the sexual violence perpetrated against them by Indian military forces. They were protesting rape and security sexual violence (yes—protests in India against rape have been happening for time now against sexual violence in Manipur, Assam, Kashmir, Gujarat). These protests, shocking in India at the time, made little to no international headlines. Maybe it is because there was no Facebook, no Twitter. No clogging internet information sharing to make us all momentarily and selectively care about other things in the world. And it was 2004, which was truly a whole other time. But there was Mukhtaran Bibi (Mukhtar Mai) in 2004, who seemed to have made more than just a few headlines, going viral on the social opinion circuits after becoming the face of “resistance” against Pakistani tribal patriarchy. What was the difference between the Manipur protests and Mukhtar Mai? Why do the actions of citizens ignite flames of condemnation within us in a way that we don’t always necessarily seem to find when the same horrendous actions, perhaps at an even grander scale, are carried out by state actors or are state-sanctioned? And why does this seem to be especially the case when the states in question are our allies in ideology and strategic regional interest? There was much condemnation from the West of the targeting of Malala Yousafzai whilst ignoring the deaths, widowing and orphaning of Pakistani women and girls at the hands of U.S. drones, “our” economic and political policies.
Something is a bit uneasy here.
Those bundled up in the perspective of the dominant colonialist-imperial glory of power and race like Muslim and brown women best when they are resisting against their own societies and their own colored patriarchies, but when they are the victims – directly or indirectly – of our misdeeds, or the misdeeds of our ideological and military allies in the form of state apparatuses, then we lose interest in their struggles. We may hold empathy, but we lack the zeal a single face of a “revolution,” sold to us, can bring.
Not all women of the global South, Muslim and not, have one single face we can propagate onto our headlines and our screens. They also do not have “one” struggle nor a single cause for their differing plights. They are not all separate from their regional histories and the billowing struggles of their fellow countrymen. Our opportunistic representations fall short of giving them any semblance of justice. We forget that they, much like many women all over the world, exist through resistance. Small or big. Daily and hourly.
Seen and unseen; heard and unheard.