The Invisible Women of the Middle East

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Sana Afouaiz, an award-winning women’s rights advocate.

Invisible Women of the Middle East: True Stories is a 2018 book by Moroccan author Sana Afouaiz, exploring the deepest layers of women’s lives across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region under the shadow of patriarchal culture.

The book, which narrates true stories based on the life of several women in different MENA countries whom the author interviewed during her trips to these nations, illustrates how women grapple with misogyny and discrimination in various forms, and how gender realities are shaped across the region.

Afouaiz is a gender expert and public speaker on women issues in the Middle East and North Africa, who touches upon a number of themes in her book and depicts the life of women in the region while struggling with the impact of virginity, sex, hijab, prostitution, honor and emotional abuse on their lives.

The 83-page book tells the reader how radical and self-serving interpretations of Islam by oppressive men complicate the lives of defenseless women and undermines their independence and dignity. Ranging from women being forced to wear a hijab to those who submit to sexual slavery, Invisible Women of the Middle East puts the reader in a mentally challenging situation to relate to the bitter realities of the lives of women who fall victim to patriarchy and religious extremism.

In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Sana Afouaiz about her book, the impact of religion on the lives of women in the Middle East and the male-dominated values of the region.

Kourosh Ziabari: When did you decide to travel to a host of countries in the Middle East and North Africa and interview women with intriguing and thought-provoking stories? Had you thought of writing a book before starting these trips to the region, or did you come to the conclusion to write the book after collecting all the stories and doing the interviews?

Sana Afouaiz: I grew up in a traditional environment. I’ve always questioned the norms of my society. At the age of 5, I witnessed injustice inflicted on women in my immediate surrounding. I wondered if this situation was similar in other places or unique to my environment. This pushed me to travel and explore misogyny across the Middle East and North Africa.

It was then that I was exposed to the decadence and the extraordinary contradictions of the Arab and Muslim society: the dichotomy between what it preaches and how it behaves. Men would force their sisters and daughters to never engage with men outside the immediate family, yet these limits are never enforced on them or the male siblings. I also found that hymen reconstruction is the rage, as much as the virginity test. I discovered a hypocritical society.

I started my journey as a story collector with one objective: exploring the situation of women in this region. Five years later, I thought to myself: It’s time for the world to know about these real stories and start a revolution of ideas and beliefs upon which gender realities are constructed in this region.

This was not an easy book to write. Sometimes I would walk away from my laptop. Most of the stories it narrates reflect the brutal side of the long history of misogyny in the Arab world.

Ziabari: What are the main causes of the suffering of women whose stories you’ve retold in your book? Where does the unchallenged patriarchy and male domination culture in these countries come from? 

Afouaiz: We live in societies which dictate on us how to behave, how to feel and how to think. The ideas and behavior we grow up in as individuals influence the way in which we perceive the female gender. As a woman, your image and your destiny were already carved in the minds of others. What was handed down was all you knew. You had no say in it. Your self-image, your worth, your future were mapped out by your family and by the ideas, beliefs that governed the society you were a member of. Your hymen is the indication of your purity and worth.

Where do these ideas and beliefs come from? Religion. Mainly religion. The power religion has on the minds of the people is incredibly unimaginable. It has shaped a culture that dominates and treats with disrespect everything else that is not a man. It reinforces behaviors, conditions and attitudes that foster stereotypes of social roles based on sex. These ideas and belief systems are kept alive for no reason other than that “it is what it is” and that they are what “the sacred scriptures allegedly confirm.”

Of course, there are other factors — resource dependency, historic colonization, traditions, the class and urban, rural divide and repressive political conditions that may contribute to the discrimination against women, but they are not as potent as religion.

Ziabari: Women in the developed world easily and freely raise their voice in protest against whatever causes them discomfort and restricts their freedoms. There are feminist activists and advocacy organizations who champion the cause of women. Why do you think the women of the Middle East cannot act similarly and have their voice heard when they’re unhappy with their social status? 

Afouaiz: I do not agree with the mistaken belief that women in the MENA region cannot speak up. I also don’t look at the Western feminist movements exclusively championing the cause of women. It took women like Angelina Jolie, a human rights advocate and ambassador of gender equality, 20 years to report the sexual harassment she encountered with Harvey Weinstein.

Women of the MENA region led revolutionary movements during the Arab Spring, fought against laws that allowed rapists to marry their victims in Morocco and Jordan, called for women’s rights to vote in Kuwait and to drive in Saudi Arabia, although some were imprisoned, raped and assaulted.

The only difference between women in the West and the MENA region is the establishments and the spaces available for women to voice their concerns and be heard and respected as humans. At the region, possibilities, spaces or opportunities for women to speak up are censored at home, society and even internally.

I believe that a unifying start for women whether in the West or the East is to examine and question their role, impact and actions in their societies. Questioning their behaviors and thoughts — independence begins in our minds.

Ziabari: Many men in the Middle East and North Africa push for their superiority and dominance over women by citing the religious mantra that women are lacking in mental and spiritual capacities and are created to only serve, feed and breed. Does Islam actually say such a thing?

Afouaiz: The majority of monotheistic religions described Eve, allegedly the first woman on earth, as merely man’s spare rib. All religions, including Islam, told us imagined stories that women are inferior to men and they should be assigned less social status because God said so. Islam positions itself where to question it is like to question God. If we shrink down the religion of Islam, we will find that it is all about controlling women’s thinking, behavior, attitudes, sexuality and bodies.

According to Islam, women should be treated as commodities who must submit to the will of men. Women are given only half the share of property compared to men. Islam claims to treat women equally, but allows no mobility if not accompanied by a male guardian or mahram. Men are allowed to marry four wives, but only one husband to women. Even in heaven, Islam gives the devout woman a man, but 72 virgins to the man. This is just to name a few of Islam’s instructions on how women should be viewed in society.

Religion is the opium of equality, censuring any possibility of critiquing Islamic teachings and doctrine regarding women. But we should not shy away from dialogue and debate. This how we evolve. 

Ziabari: One of the pains many of the women whose stories you’ve narrated in your book suffer is emotional abuse and neglect. How do you think this can be tackled in practice while there’s understandably no government ruling or regulation on how men should treat their wives or how the damages caused by emotional abuse and neglect can be compensated?

Afouaiz: Emotional abuse and violence are an expression of patriarchal oppression against women that is socially sanctioned and normalized among men and women. Socially and culturally there is no recognition of “emotional abuse” as a crime. It is an intimate terrorism that is rooted in the patriarchal tradition of men controlling their women and treated as a “norm.” I believe the first step to tackle this issue is to further our knowledge on emotional abuse and its effects on human psychology and our societies.

Ziabari: Do the women whose stories you’ve recounted in your book represent a big majority in the Middle East and North Africa and the Arab world? Do you think the majority of women in the region are grappling with mistreatment and violation of their rights and liberties?

Afouaiz: Oppression is not the same for all women in this region. Women are individuals, not merely one homogenous group. They belong to society, but their experiences are unique to them. They experience life through their own lenses, thus they create their own realities. Their social class, education and access make their views on subjects like honor, hijab, religion, freedom and so on, sole and distinctive. 

Ziabari: It was interesting to me that you didn’t include the stories of Iranian women in your book. Iran is not an Arab country, but at the heart of the Middle East with women who have many important stories to retell. They are also fighting for their rights. Is there any reason you evaded or ignored Iran?

Afouaiz: The only reason I didn’t cover stories of women from Iran is because of the difficulty of entering Iranian soil. I’m an admirer of the Iranian furious feminists who have inspired my feminism. I remember reading about Taj Al Sultana, the Iranian historical feminist figure, when I was 10. I hope one day I will have the honor of visiting the country and hearing from its own women.

Ziabari: You have retold the story of several embattled and troubled women, but there are certainly women who have resisted the difficulties and made striking achievements in patriarchal societies. Will the MENA region change for better in favor of women? Are you optimistic about the future?

Afouaiz: Will MENA change for better? I believe that MENA’s better future depends on creating a peaceful revolution in the ideas and images we utilize to drive our actions and govern our behaviors. The salvation is in examining the root causes of our maladies and not only in trying to suppress the apparent symptoms. The ultimate solution lies in our minds that store our ideals and our images of the future. As far as women are concerned, our worth is not a couple of inches deep.

Am I optimistic about the future? I have to be optimistic.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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