By Khaled Diab
Thursday 8 March 2012
The feminist cause in the Arab world has generally progressed less than in the West, particularly in the last few decades of rapid Western emancipation.Last year, the egalitarian mass protests that marked the eruption of the Arab Spring looked like they might finally change all that. In Tunisia and Egypt, women from a wide range of backgrounds and walks of life stood shoulder to shoulder with men as equals in the battle against tyranny and for dignity and freedom. “Attitudes toward women are better among the young generation, particularly the middle class, to which most of the politically active women belong,” notes Egyptian feminist and activist Gihan Abou Zeid.
Although women are treated as relative equals by the revolutionary youth movement that has orchestrated the two revolutions, the Muslim conservatives that have made the greatest gains in parliamentary elections in Tunisia and Egypt do not share such enlightened views, although Tunisia Islamists are more progressive than their Egyptian counterparts. And in Egypt, the most troubling development for women has been the unexpected success of the ultra-conservative Salafists who tend to believe that women should neither be seen nor heard.
The reasons that the Arab Spring has not yet blossomed into a summer of gender equality are many and complex. They include the conservative Islamic current that has swept society in recent decades, the discrediting of the Arab model of secularism and suspicion of “Western imports”, and the fact that revolutionising deeply ingrained social attitudes takes far longer to take hold than instigating changes to the political structure.
In addition, one oft-overlooked cultural factor is that, in the bid to invent the new Arab woman, her complement, the new Arab man, has often flown beneath the radar. While independence-seeking Arab women often have clear and positive role models to aspire to in their quest for emancipation, the men in their lives are often left swimming against the tide of popular perception.
Over the years, I have met legions of Arab men who resist female emancipation not out of any abstract objection to gender equality but out of peer pressure and fear of what their families, workmates or neighbours will think of them. Where progressives have failed to capture the imagination of the masses, conservative myth-makers have worked tirelessly to idealise and idolise the vision of invincible, insurmountable manhood. With some brilliant exceptions, television soap operas tend to be the Arab world’s strongest bastion of traditionalism and overt, unsubtle moralising, particularly during the fasting and feasting month of Ramadan.
One hit series which took the Arab world by storm was the Syrian soap opera Bab el-Hara (Alleyway Gate). Set in French-mandate Syria between the two world wars, it paints a sentimental and nostalgic picture of a society peopled by brave and gallant men and their dutiful and obedient women. Director Bassam al-Malla said he intended to create nostalgia for “a world with values, honour, gallantry … and the revolutionary spirit”.
But the world Bab el-Hara attempts to recreate never existed in the first place. “The series conceals all those women who had a political and cultural presence in the Syrian street at that time,” writes Juhayina Khalidiya, in a feminist critique of the TV programme, published in as-Safir newspaper (in Arabic). She notes that expunging such revolutionary women from the narrative is, first and foremost, unfair to their legacy.
This same airbrushing of the heroic and pivotal role women have played in the transformation of society is occurring as we speak among the conservative forces, particularly Islamists, working to hijack the Arab Spring. “The attitude towards women has not been impacted by the historic victory,” says Marwa Rakha, and Egyptian author, broadcaster and blogger. “Men chanted slogans against them like: ‘Men want to topple feminists’ and ‘Since when did women have a voice?’ They were asked to go home and obey God. They were let down by the average Egyptian man and woman alike.”
In addition to the undoubted insult to women this denial of their role represents, the gap between the Arab man, the “average Mo”, and the Arab myth of manhood is bound to breed feelings of inadequacy, because the chasm between fantasy and reality is a yawning one. In the more secular Arab countries, women make up their fair share of the labour force, hold top professional and political positions, often perform better academically than their male peers and refuse the deferential role their grandmothers and great-grandmothers took for granted.
This gap between ideal and reality carries echoes of England from the 19th and up to the first half of the 20th century. In his book The English, Jeremy Paxman writes that British men were “uneasily aware of the injustice of denying women a full role in society”. As if commenting on Bab el-Hara, he notes that: “The stronger the challenge [to the male order], the more vociferous the evangelism about how the family was the cornerstone of the safe and ordered society.”
In contrast to the idealised “real men” of the past in Bab el-Hara, another hit Ramadan series distorts the contemporary reality by depicting the modern man as weak, indecisive and dominated by the women in his life. Yehia el-Fakharani, one of Egypt’s most accomplished actors, abandoned his normal roles of the sophisticated lawyer, MP or professor, to play that of a 60-year-old mummy’s boy in “Yetraba fi Ezzo”.
In the series, his character, Hamada Ezzo, is completely dependent on his mother for direction in every aspect of his life. “This kind of negative character is one of the causes of our falling behind the technologically advanced nations … We see his type frequently in our midsts as Egyptians and Arabs,” the London-based Arabic daily, al-Hayat, quoted el-Fakharani as saying.
He went on to express his belief that the coming generation had to be more hardworking and conscientious to keep up with the times and not depend on past glories. While it is hard to fault this sentiment, the choice of a man living under his mother’s thumb as a parable for the times is telling.
This soap is an odd way to inspire the young generation. If that was truly the writer’s aim, why not, instead of fixating on a nearly-retired man’s subservient relationship with his mother, challenge the rigid and stifling pecking order that keeps the young from reinventing society or the prejudices that keep the female half of the population from fulfilling their full potential?
In real life, Yehia el-Fakhrani is quite an admirable picture of the modern man, a middle-aged “metrosexual”, which makes his pandering to this warped view all the more confounding. He is gentle, caring, considerate and tolerant, while the women in his life are intelligent and successful. His wife, for instance, wrote a critically acclaimed TV drama chronicling the reign of King Farouq.
As long as conservative circles continue successfully to equate female emancipation with male emaciation, the quest for gender equality will stall. Although Arab cinema and literature have carried plenty of examples of modern, progressive men, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, the problem is that these tend to be quite westernised, and hence alien to your average Arab man on the street.
What we need are mainstream, “average Mo” role models who demonstrate that believing in gender equality squares with being a man, and that empowering women also empowers men and society as a whole.
This is an updated version of a column which appeared in The Guardian’s Comment is Free on 26 October 2007. Read the related discussion.