Thousands of Arab women on Facebook are sharing, with heart-wrenching honesty, stories of female heroism that don’t always make headlines. Is a new Arab feminism emerging? And what about the new Arab man?
A week ago one of my Facebook friends added me to a group for Arab women. Oh no, I thought. Not another group. But, as usual, I couldn’t resist the feminist urge and went in to take a look.
I found stories of working Arab women of all ages from all over Israel: Muslim, Druze, and Christian, religious and less so, married and single; short, emotional stories along with simple reports, stories full of love and stories of disappointment, stories of crisis and stories of new starts.
In recent years tens of thousands of women have found a home for their stories on Facebook. On the pages of teachers, social workers, nurses, businesswomen, self-employed women, personal trainers, you can find posts about everything.
For instance, I stumbled upon the story of a young woman, Lamis, whose mother died in childbirth, and for her whole life has carried the name of the mother she never saw or embraced or looked in the eye. Lamis, who grew up with a physical disability, describes the difficulties she has faced since she was born prematurely, and the various stations of her life. Today she runs a program for youth with disabilities from the Arab community. The name of her program—“I can.”
A woman with a snake tattoo
Hanan, an amazing woman in her thirties, attached to her story a picture of her arm with a tattoo of a snake and a staff, the symbol of medicine, next to the words: “I promise to return there.” She started medical school, had a crisis, was in a serious accident that left her half paralyzed. She swore that if she got out of it she would go back to medical school and realize her dream. Over the years she worked as a first responder, got her bachelor’s degree, and now is finishing a masters in medical research. She gathered her strength and decided to make a U-turn in her career: to go back to medical school and the clinic she promised herself. She is in the midst of preparing for the big step.
I found women who left cushy jobs to fulfill childhood dreams. Fitness and healthy living trainers, a cycling trainer for women, a woman who left women’s organizations to go into styling and modern fashion design. But not all of the stories are heroic.
Marianna, a mother of four, wrote that she was engaged at 15 and did her matriculation exams while pregnant. “An underage marriage”: all of my red lights instantly started flashing. I almost fell into the judgment trap but I kept on reading and decided to contact her to better understand. She told me her husband was supportive, that he shared in her dreams and ambitions to study and work and did not simply “agree” to let her. He did everything contrary to the norms of his society to take care of the infant, who also got a new baby brother within a year and a half, and let his wife spread her wings.
“My husband ironed my clothes for college,” she wrote me in a late-night Facebook exchange. “I pumped milk during school, the house was a mess and sometimes all of the dishes were in the sink and there wasn’t a single clean teaspoon. I finished my degree magna cum laude and by the time I finished my masters I had two more children. Now it is time for me to go to work and my husband will continue his Islam and sharia studies. After all, he is an imam in a mosque.”
An imam? I asked. “Yes. He is a very religious man, true and honest. He treats me according to his belief and religious law. In Islam there is no limit to ambition and he very much supports my doing anything that makes me happy and satisfied. You know, he came to my three graduations: high school, bachelors and masters degrees. That’s not something you hear very often,” she laughed.
Maybe I would have rather read the story without the wedding during high school exams, but who am I to judge the heart of a girl who knows what she wants out of life.
More and more women are sharing their stories of female heroism online with stirring honesty. These are not stories that make the headlines, but they give the women who read them power, faith, and support. In the diverse ecosystem called Facebook you can find women working in all areas, pursuing their dreams and successes and self-realizations.
Who needs a Hollywood movie like “Wonder Woman” about a woman overcoming fate, breaking barriers, and shattering glass and concrete ceilings alike, when these women are right here on Facebook, very close to every young Arab woman or girl who is starting out in life?
Change your glasses
I have been working with Arab women for 20 years. I was and still am a witness to the quiet revolution that each woman is leading in her natural environment. A little change here, another challenge there, step by step, one woman at a time, bringing all of us and our society to a better and stronger place.
Some of us were lucky enough to have encouraging and motivating parents. Some of us have dealt with orphanhood, violence, various injustices and traumas. Some of us are surviving physical, sexual or psychological abuse. Some of the women are swimming all alone against the current, but most of us had at least someone who believed in us. Arab women, like all other people in the world, sometimes need nothing more than a single sympathetic figure to succeed, along with a strong desire to move forward.
I tried to understand why I was so moved and excited by this phenomenon. Are these tens of thousands of strong, working, independent and powerful women the exception? Who made the rules anyway?
I reached the conclusion that my excitement was partly about the incredible number of success stories of women – a really empowering experience as a feminist. At the same time, it only goes to show that even I, the supposedly “enlightened Palestinian woman,” still look at the lives of women in my community through a foreign lens. It’s time to change lenses.
The “normal” course of women’s development in Arab society has been stuffed into a Western framework in which there is an order of stages in life: school, boyfriend, work, relationship, career, self-realization. Therefore I read any story that disrupts the normal sequence as an exception and think of it as “impressive.” Especially if it has a happy ending. After all, she succeeded against all odds, even though she is an Arab woman, from a village in the north or a tribe in the south, with a hijab, who grew up in a traditional, religious family, married young, had a lot of children, and overcame many other “barriers” that exist mostly in our heads.
Many of the women who shared their stories did not embark on the classical Western track of personal development in the world. They simply began at a different point, sometimes by choice and sometimes because they had no choice. It turns out that instead of finishing high school, going to university, working, and then starting a family – Arab women, at least most of them, have a slightly different trajectory where relationship and sexuality are associated with family and the institution of marriage. They are not busy changing the equation but moving forward despite it. Violating the rules and disrupting the order of things will come from the inside and at a later stage of life.
I myself married at 20 and became a mother at 21 without ever thinking about the consequences it would have on my studies and career. Many years went by before I discovered it might have been possible to have chosen a different path. What is certain is that social norms in the Arab community are constantly changing, mainly thanks to the tens of thousands of Arab women who do not give up on themselves.
The new Arab man
These women, who write in these various Facebook groups, also have partners — the new Arab men. Most of the working women are in formal marriage relationships, and along with them their partners are also undergoing a slow, significant, and sometimes painful revolution. The exclusive status of the male who controls the whole family and manages it by virtue of his maleness (known in feminist language as the patriarchy) is being repositioned in light of new social and economic circumstances.
The woman works, studies, is involved in and shares economic as well as familial responsibility with her partner. The man is no longer in the same place he was 50 years ago.
Most of the women I spoke to were grateful for a wonderful, supportive and encouraging partner, thanks to whom they accomplished what they did. We do not yet dare speak in terms such as “his responsibility,” or that he “must respect my choices,” or to openly say the words “I did it by myself,” or even speak frankly about equality. But I do not want to ruin the rosy picture these women chose to present, and besides, there is nothing wrong with appreciating and valuing partnership in a relationship. We are still very far from gender equality, and the road to the ideal feminist revolution is still long.
The Arab man is presently at a point along the journey where he is watching the slow and laborious emergence of the women in his environment, in a process of rebirth or reorganization. I am sure that the time will come when there is no choice but for our partners, fathers, brothers and sons to be part of the change and the revolution which creates a modern Arab masculinity — a new kind of manliness. To reach that point, men need to start cooperating and adjusting right now. And of course there will always be the men who cannot cope with the change and try to regain control over women, and find another excuse for violence, repression and the exercise of various mechanisms of control.
Thus, ladies and gentlemen, I hereby remove from myself another thick layer of Western feminist consciousness that has accumulated on my body, and replace it with a soft and delicate and imperfect but authentic layer of Arab feminism. From now on, I will not think of the process of liberation of the Arab woman as a process that is necessarily unique, as if the only legitimate path were prescribed by Israeli society or Western feminism. It is an Arab liberation process and is valid in its own right, without a comparison of the speed of change relative to other societies. It is simply the “sociological Waze” that needs to be familiar with the map in Arabic and to update itself.
This article was first published in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here.