Being a feminist in the Arab world

Isra Tawelbeh is Jordan’s first female forensic pathologist.
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Jordanian women are continuing a long, rich history of feminism in the Arab world. Vincent Dwyer and Amy Collins report.  

Feminism is not new to the Middle East. Women’s rights were championed in the early twentieth century by the likes of Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi who promoted writing as a means of liberation, and the Egyptian academic Malak Hifni who sought reform of marriage and education.

Some men were sympathetic too. Egyptian jurist Qasim Amin believed equality of the sexes was the hallmark of a modern society.

And various movements have long stressed that Arab women should be proud of their culture. This tradition continues across the region. In Jordan it is inspired by women like Asma Khader.

Khader is the founder of the Sisterhood is Global Institute in Jordan and believes feminism in 2016 is about recognising the identity of women.

“It means that I am a full person,” she says.  “I am not less than any other person in the community and the world. My body, my feelings, my needs, my thoughts, my abilities and my talents are equally valuable as others.”

She formed the institute in 1998 so that professional women could mentor other women. She was one of Jordan’s first female attorneys and has spent the last 40 years working to improve human rights in the Middle East. “I faced a lot of discrimination, as does any girl in this society and in this world,” she says. Khader believes traditional understandings of Arab women are being shaken by progressive ideals.

“Islam is being interpreted by the new generation to rebuild culture and women’s rights,” she says. “Some feminist groups are calling this ‘Islamic feminism’.”

Progress in gender equality has allowed women to rise to prominent roles traditionally held by men. However, entrenched cultural behaviour still prevents some women from working in the public sphere.

Dr Isra Tawalbeh is familiar with this. As Jordan’s first female forensic pathologist it is Tawalbeh’s job to examine dead bodies after legal execution by hanging. She says the culture of male protection made it difficult for her to win respect from fellow scientists. “At my first execution, all the men were looking at me but not at the man who was about to be executed,” she says. “They all expected me to faint.”

Rula Quawas teaches feminist theory at the University of Jordan

Khader says men wanting to protect women is restricting female progress in society. “Our community is highly respectful of women,” says Tawalbeh. “(But) in terms of protecting, they think women are really weak.”

She says she noticed this when one of her male coworkers said she wouldn’t last two months in the job. Tawalbeh – who has now been a forensic pathologist for 13 years – says unfair cultural norms inspired her to begin seeking “justice through science”.

Her “mission” is to study subjects who have been the victims of violence and assault. Tawalbeh says Jordan always needed a female forensic pathologist, particularly for victims of abuse who “prefer to be examined by a woman.”

Education has been important for introducing women’s rights to Jordanian society. Rula Quawas has been teaching feminist theory at the University of Jordan for 21 years. She says it was initially “hellish” trying to convince her peers of the role feminism plays in education. “In my culture the woman’s voice is awra (to be kept hidden or secret),” Quawas says. “Our voice is vice and this is what they teach us.”

Despite opposition inside and outside her classroom, Quawas says she now has 50 undergraduates who want to learn about their place in the world. She found students were more receptive to teaching in Arabic. “My students enjoy stories written by Arab women more than stories written by white American people because they can relate to them,” she says.

Quawas recently published her own novel, The Voice of Being Enough: Young Jordanian Women Break Through Without Breaking Down. She says being able to publish her own work is empowering. “What a blessing it is to be a teacher and to tap into the lives of young women,” Quawas says. “To know that I count as a woman and that I am not a victim. “

Khader believes there is a generation of Arab and non-Arab women defying discrimination and choosing their own path. “I think there is feminism within any context, religious or ideological,” says Khader.

“The issue is to what extent do you believe in yourself as a full human being.”

Photography by Amy Collins and Vincent Dwyer