“The transition in Syria should also include full participation for women,” said William Hague, the UK’s former foreign secretary at a Syria peace conference. “I welcome the Secretary General’s and Mr. Brahimi’s strong support for the inclusion of women in both delegations.”
Perhaps Mr. Hague didn’t realize how offensive his statement was to most of us. Before Syria attended the Geneva II talks in January 2014, a Syrian delegation headed by Presidential Advisor Bouthaina Shaaban, a woman, was missioned to Russia to discuss the preparations for those peace talks. The message she received from President Putin was that the talks were less likely to be serious due to the lack of an international will for peace in Syria. Therefore, our delegation to Switzerland was headed by Walid Muallem, our foreign minister, an old fat man famous for his quote, “we will drown them in the details, so they’d better learn how to swim.” The presidential advisor confidently sat behind him at the conference. She had already taken the lead in Moscow and now it was up to him to give a slow long boring speech, punishing everyone in the room for isolating Syria for years.
Arab women are falsely presumed to be second-class citizens who are submissive and oppressed in a male-dominated society. There is no doubt that Arab women are deprived of many rights across the Arab speaking world, but so are Arab men. However, the assumption that Arab women are seen as inferior or weaker is just wrong.
The simple fact is that as the relationship between Ms. Shaaban and Mr. Muallem is a complex one, as are most relationships between Arab men and women in general.
As the Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Middle East in 2010 and 2011, we watched ordinary people challenging some of the world’s most brutal authorities, paying with their blood for a change that often failed to happen. Women played an essential role in those protests, yet they never started a movement of their own, even though they had better chances to achieve their goal.
Most Arab governments would tolerate a women’s movement as long as it does not involve regime change. Yet, the only movement of that kind was the women driving activists in Saudi Arabia, the strictest of all Arab countries. Even though a lot of effort has been put to empower that movement, and despite the government’s somewhat soft reaction, it failed to attract significant number of support amongst women and never became popular.
Arab women, even in Saudi Arabia, are not as oppressed as the stereotype would have us believe.
The way the Arabic language is structured gives us a glimpse of the relationship between Arab men and women. The distribution of feminine and masculine nouns, in my opinion, makes Arabic a heavily female-dominated language as the few examples below will demonstrate.
For instance, the words ‘homeland’, which usually refers to the 22 member-states of the Arab League combined, and ‘country’, which refers to each of these countries, are masculine. Both words describe pure territorial geography. On the other hand, words that give a country its characteristics are feminine, for example: ‘nation’, ‘state’, ‘identity’, ‘civilization’, ‘culture’, ‘city’, ‘town’ and ‘village’. The same goes for architecture. ‘House’ and ‘building’ are masculine, while ‘room’ and ‘apartment’ are feminine.
The feminine rules on the inside, while the masculine guards the outside.
As I grew up, I watched my mother treating my father like a king in front of his friends, neighbors and even his family. She never said no, and immediately did whatever he asked for. She would never undermine him, or make any outsider feel that he wasn’t the man of the house – the patriarch.
When we were in private though, it was the other way round. Father was the one who sought mother’s advice and approval. He was the one who had to listen to what she had to say. When he wanted anything, he had to persuade her. Whenever she said no, it was final.
The same goes for my grandmothers, my aunts and cousins. There are of course many exceptions but those are still just the exceptions.
Arabic masculine nouns always serve as agents for feminine ones. Phone is masculine but a phone call is feminine. The same goes for engine and machine, pen and writing, book and paper, science and knowledge, closet and door, and safe and lock.
In transportation, vehicles with independent engines and steering, such as automobiles, buses, trucks, aircrafts and even tanks are all feminine. ‘Train’, on the other hand, is masculine while ‘carriage’ is not. A train is usually tied to the railway, which is feminine. The railway is what determines the destination after all. The train serves as an engine to the carriage.
A chair is masculine, but a table is feminine. ‘Desk’, on the other hand, is masculine, but ‘stationery’ is feminine.
‘Brain’, ‘intelligence’, ‘taste’, ‘stupidity’ are all masculine that serve the feminine nouns of ‘idea’, ‘wisdom’, ‘elegance’, and even ‘idiocy’. It’s the thought that counts.
Women are expected to be wise, rational, disciplined and in control of themselves and of men, who are not pardoned as much as expected to frequently err. A woman, in Arab culture, is always an educator, whether she’s a mother, a wife, a sister, or even a daughter. She is a ‘university’ and a ‘library’.
“A mother is a school once prepared, a nation of good people is created,” wrote Hafez Ibrahim, one of the most notable Arab 19th century poets.
This dynamic was evident in our cultural heritage long before al-Nahda, the Arab renaissance.
One Thousand and One Nights were perhaps some of our most important cultural contributions to the world. Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and the Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor are all stories that have taught morality to many generations. The Nights followed the story-within-a-story technique, and the narrator who controlled the frame was a woman, Scheherazade.
One day the king Shahryar finds out that his first wife is unfaithful. He loses faith in all women and he resolves to marry a virgin each day only to behead her the next morning to prevent future infidelities. After killing a thousand women, Scheherazade, the daughter of the king’s chief minister, decides to volunteer to go to the king. But she has a plan. She uses her skills as a narrator to tell a story before the first night ends. However the story stops just short of the end and the King Shahryar, excited and curious, decides to allow her another day to live because he wants to know what will happen in her story. This is repeated the second night and then carries on until Scheherazade has borne him many children and the King is taught to trust again and view the world differently.
She saves hundreds of young women, herself and the kingdom. Scheherazade is perhaps a fictional character but can be viewed as a feminist icon, who leads in secret.
Arabic is a Semitic language in which the masculine is viewed as giant, violent, unstable, and dangerous, as in ‘sea’, ‘river’, and ‘waterfall’, whereas the feminine is all about fertility, nutrition, bravery, and peacefulness as in ‘lake’ and ‘flame’.
We cannot understand Arab women or their condition without taking account of the context in which they live: their language being the most important since after all being an Arab is a tongue, not an ethnicity. That is not to say that Arab women are doing so well and no change is needed. What I am saying is that in order to push for the changes they need, understanding their language will give us an idea of a good starting point on how to advocate healthy Arab feminism.