A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Multiple Stories on Arab Women's Roles Today, From All Along the Spectrum

As I'm still busy clearing my desk for the banquet tonight and the Annual Conference tomorrow, I thought I'd do a lengthy portmanteau list of links to a number of recent stories, from just about every angle imaginable, about the changing and uncertain roles of women in the age of Arab revolution. Barring something that can't be ignored, this may be my last post till Friday, so I've given you a lot to read.

Women have played a major role in the Arab Revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt at least, and with the emerging political strength of Islamist parties Arab feminists are trying to make their voices heard. So are female Islamists. When I say these stories range widely, I literally mean they range from a candidate who wears niqab (the full veil covering the whole face) to the first Arabic magazine to run an Arab woman in a bikini on the cover.
  • We'll start with Egyptian politics. The Jerusalem Post recently addressed the question. As they note, one Islamic scholar and self-proclaimed Presidential candidate, Hazem Salah Abu Isma‘il,has been saying he would impose Islamic dress on women and arrest any woman wearing a bikini. Though he has had ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, they have distanced themselves from his candidacy.
  • Indefatigable Egyptian blogger Zeinobia recently did her own roundup of women in the Egyptian Parliamentary elections which I'm going to quote for several items; she encouragingly calls her post "#1," so I hope there will be many. She begins with a poster from the Salafi Al-Nour Party shown at left. Now, Al-Nour attracts those Islamists who feel that the Muslim Brotherhood is way too liberal and permissive. As Zeinobia notes, Al-Nour held a conference on women at which all the speakers were men. It's that kind of party. (Not a partying kind of party, in other words.) Though they don't much approve of women in politics and such, the law says party lists have to have a certain minimum number of women candidates. Okay, so Al-Nour has women candidates. According to this political poster, one of them in this district is apparently a rose. (Bottom row, center.) Not only is she last on the list, they published a picture of a rose rather than show her face
  • Shifting towards the more liberal side of the spectrum, the old and historically secularist Wafd Party doesn't put a rose on its poster, it puts the actual candidate (right), but since she's an attractive candidate and also blonde, that has had its own impact. Nihal ‘Ahadi is apparently drawing insulting comment through social media and is being labeled a member of the former ruling party.
  • While, in Egypt, candidate Abu Isma‘il is promising to arrest any woman wearing a bikini,a lot of the Internet is abuzz with the story that, for the first time (I haven't checked this against archives from the pre-Islamist era, so earlier instances may be posted to the comments), an Arabic magazine has put an Arab woman model on their cover wearing a bikini. Admittedly, my link is to that paragon of British journalism, The Times Daily Mail, but it appears elsewhere as well. Now it seems that model Huda Naccache is in fact an Israeli Arab from Haifa, 22, and not only that, has been chosen as Miss Israel for the "Miss Earth" contest. Now I've heard of Miss World and even blogged about the Arab-American who was Miss USA for the Miss Universe contest, who was rather improbably labeled a Hizbullah mole despite her swimsuit pictures. I've never heard of the "Miss Earth" contest. (If there's a Miss Earth as well as a Miss World and a Miss Universe, is there a Miss Solar System?) Lilac is an Arabic magazine published in Israel and circulated in the Palestinian Authority (not Gaza I suspect, at least this issue), and Jordan. Israeli bloggers are treating this from a different angle, arguing that Israel is hardly an "apartheid" state if they chose a Miss Israel who is an Arab. She's an Israeli Arab from Haifa, of course, not from the occupied territories. Purely for educational/anthropological/historical/cultural purposes, as I also did with Miss Universe candidate Rima Fakih, I reproduce as a cultural artifact with no prurient intent whatsoever, the cover of Lilac at left. If you want more pictures, you'll have to click through to the Daily Mail.
What's the moral or lesson of all these anecdotal issues? None I can think of, except that, as the Chinese say, women hold up half the sky. Arab men sometimes underrate that, and old stereotypes die hard. Are ten belly-dancing channels a step forward, or backward? Is Huda Naccache in a bikini a revolutionary or a stereotype, and whichever, how does she relate to the candidate for Parliament in niqab? As the father of a daughter, though not one who will grow up in the Arab world now emerging, I'm not sure, but there are many very different and seemingly incongruous things going on at once here.

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