The best-selling single of 2013 was “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, clocking sales of more than 1.47 million copies. It has a catchy tune and provocative lyrics. Arguably the most popular entertainment industry story of last year also involved the same song, and Miley Cyrus. Miley, a former child star, made headlines by twerking on Mr. Thicke’s groin while he sang the following lines from his best-selling single:
“OK now he was close, tried to domesticate you
But you're an animal, baby, it's in your nature
Just let me liberate you”
That day, it was almost as if all other news stopped and Syria and Iran didn’t matter. Every major American newspaper carried the story, Facebook and Twitter were abuzz, and with this, a deep social disunity was exposed about what liberation really means for women in this part of the world – the Western world. What happened in the end, as with most stories in the media, is that the debate degenerated to naught. All in all, it was good entertainment.
But what of women’s liberation? The question that is often missing from debates that follow such “headline” moments relating to women and their bodies is whether liberation translates into a universal truth for every individual. Further, the confusion of culturally specific norms with a misplaced belief in universal liberty results in meaningless debates that end up advancing liberty for no one. While the divide within Western liberal circles is significant – as exposed by Robin Thicke – even greater is the one between Western-educated, liberal women and conservative women in the Muslim world.
A prominent think-tank in Washington, DC recently hosted a conference on the future of women’s rights and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa. It was a worthy topic by all means. The tragedy is that this conference, without an exception, mostly lacked substance. In general, hollow activism, pomp, and chronic “cultural anachronism” (misattribution of a culture or cultural values) pervade all discussion of women’s rights in the context of democratization. This conference continued the trend. One panelist, a former UN official, bashed shari’ah-law, warning that women’s liberty was under threat from it. The bashing was not the issue, it was that the speaker gave no theological or legal context as to what “shari’ah law” is – shari’ah law is not a codified universally agreed upon set of laws – and the term was thrown around, with no explanation of what this would actually mean for women. Another panelist bashed the Muslim Brotherhood, saying that the Brotherhood is bent upon imposing this ominous “law” on “them” – the liberty loving women of the Middle East. While an attempt was made to present all women of MENA region as a singular “them”, the claims rattled hollow.
This leads to the second issue, which is again commonplace in feminist activism on Massachusetts Avenue i.e. the conservative section of the societies in question is almost always missing from attendance. The group of 21 women including minors, sentenced to 11 years in jail in Egypt for supporting Mohammed Morsi, is an example of the missing section in this debate. Are these women modern enough to be part of the debate? Perhaps yes, but the problem is that they are not “Western” enough – certainly not with those headscarves.
When it comes to women’s rights in Muslim majority states, the resultant feminist activism should provoke the question as to whether liberty is a singularly conceived universal truth. The fundamental issue at hand is the extremely problematic association of culture and religion with the idea of liberation. A chador-donning woman is thought of as nothing but a repressed being in a man’s world – her liberation may only occur if she throws off that black cloth. This seems to be the view from here – from the policy centers of United States. Our standards, or in other words, our metrics for assessing women’s empowerment, are in need of a thorough review.
The outcome of the current approach, which is highly subjective, is that the difference between modernization and westernization is lost on most of these conversations. The underlying assumption of this debate, as highlighted earlier, is the existence of a universally recognized conception of women’s liberty. But the reality is that no such thing exists in either the United States or in Egypt or any other society for that matter.
Edward Said, in his writing on Orientalism, exposed the problems with taking a West-centric view of the so-called Orient. Women’s rights are no exception. Said’s words are still as relevant as they were when he published the first edition of Orientalism.
As I sat for three hours listening to the panelists at this conference discuss the future of women’s rights, I could hear “Blurred lines” playing in my head, and I couldn’t help but think of what Said wrote. And I quote:
“[H]istory is made by men and women, just as it can also be unmade and re-written, so that "our" East, "our" Orient becomes "ours" to possess and direct. And I have a very high regard for the powers and gifts of the peoples of that region to struggle on for their vision of what they are and want to be. There’s been so massive and calculatedly aggressive an attack on the contemporary societies of the Arab and Muslim for their backwardness, lack of democracy, and abrogation of women’s rights that we simply forget that such notions as modernity, enlightenment, and democracy are by no means simple, and agreed-upon concepts that one either does or does not find like Easter eggs in the living-room. The breathtaking insouciance of jejune publicists who speak in the name of foreign policy and who have no knowledge at all of the language real people actually speak, has fabricated an arid landscape ready for American power to construct there an ersatz model of free market ‘democracy’. You don’t need Arabic or Persian or even French to pontificate about how the democracy domino effect is just what the Arab world needs… But there is a difference between knowledge of other peoples and other times that is the result of understanding, compassion, careful study and analysis for their own sakes, and on the other hand knowledge that is part of an overall campaign of self-affirmation.” (from the preface to Orientalism)
The problem explicated in this passage from Said was referred to earlier as cultural anachronism. This is perhaps the most damaging intellectual mistake which distorts reality and prevents us from developing a well-guided and effective policy. The question is, then, who gets to define liberation? Thicke’s take on “liberation” was strongly countered by a number of prominent feminist voices and popular video responses, which Cyrus’ dance helped to re-ignite. At the end of the day, liberal feminist activists, Robin Thicke and the Ukrainian group FEMEN, for example, all have varying visions of liberating women, but so do the female members of Muslim Brotherhood that were jailed recently for expressing their opinion. How does one judge, on the one hand, demeaning lyrics that promote rape culture, and on the other, FEMEN activists waging a “topless Jihad” outside mosques in Europe? This may be hard to answer, but for the sake of fairness, all of these visions must be sensitive to the multiplicity of cultural norms and values which is part of any social reality, including the Western one.
It is by all means essential that women gain a status equal to that of men in the societies that are experiencing change. Women are enduring great backlash as a result of the uprisings in Middle East and North Africa, and are by far more vulnerable than men in a time of transition. But the absolutist notions that come with such importations as free market democracy must be dealt with some sensitivity to history and cultural norms. This is forgotten time and again, in the form of invasions that are unjust, in suppositions that have proven wrong in the wake of disastrous wars, and in the reality that women of Iraq and Afghanistan are hardly better off today than they were a decade ago.
It is telling that social issues like bacha bazi have proliferated in Afghanistan after the American invasion – and this has meant that women are even further sidelined in the Afghan society as men increasingly turn to young boys for pleasure. On the other hand, in North Africa, female genital mutilation has reached devastating proportions, with 30 million girls at risk in the next decade. There are tangible indicators, which have nothing to do with either the illusive discussions over shari’ah law or democracy that are left unattended. These -- the more tangible measures of restoring women’s rightful status to them -- are the metrics that must be discussed in policy forums rather than bashing the backwardness of Muslims and the evils of shari’ah law. There is much work that needs to be done to promote freedom and equality for women, but that freedom cannot be achieved whilst being oblivious to the multiplicity of world views that emanate from within every society. The hallmark of liberty is that every woman may be the way she wants to see herself, bare or burqa-clad, rather than being forced to fit the profile envisioned by others, be they the Muslim Brotherhood or Robin Thicke.
Note: A version of this article appeared on the Aljazeera English website on March 18, 2014. It can be accessed at http://aje.me/1h7l1l8.