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How Arab women can bring about change
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How Arab women can bring about change

How Arab women can bring about change
Emirati businesswomen on a construction site. Getty Images/AzmanL. Photo for illustrative purpose only.

What does the #MeToo movement mean for a region where women’s rights are still a hard-fought battle?

“I am happy that now my daughter can have sports in school, music in a public space, and will even be able to drive soon,” said Dr Hatoon Ajwad Al Fassi, a Saudi historian and outspoken advocate for women’s rights. “So when we talk about the most important developments for women, the context in Saudi is completely different.”

Dr Al Fassi was speaking at a panel on gender issues and how women are changing the narrative today. The event was part of the tenth anniversary of the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature, and it also included Cheryl Strayed, author of the acclaimed memoir Wild, which has been made into a movie; Kamila Shamsie, a Pakistani novelist whose book Home Fire was longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker Prize; and Dr Rafia Ghubash, President of the Arab Network for Women in Science and Technology and founder of the Women’s Museum in Dubai.

Photo courtesy of Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

And the #MeToo movement was the hot topic of conversation.

Shamsie dove right in and spoke about how the movement was only now catching on in Pakistan thanks to some high-profile women using the hashtag. Strayed, however, pointed out that the stories we are hearing are not new.

“However, it is only now that these stories are being believed,” she said. Strayed believes that as men and women alike become feminists, the system responsible for the mindset that men can get away with sexual violence is changing.

Shamsie, however, fears that the patriarchy is so deeply embedded in our society that at some point people will say that it has gone too far. “I fear that reactions will change into ‘It’s a witch hunt’.”

Sharing her own experience of her recent move to Riyadh, Dr Al Fassi said, “It is not that we are untouched by the #MeToo movement. But we are still not at the point where we can share this openly. In fact, some women in Egypt who tried to share their experiences were harassed instead of supported.

“So we are still struggling against a different kind of violence, disguised in a different way. We are working on the ‘I am my own guardian’ movement instead.”

PRESSING FOR CHANGE

Considering the diverse issues that women are facing in different countries and cultures, what are the things we should be focusing on?

In Pakistan, said Shamsie, the inclusion of women in government through a quota system ensured that new legislation and amendments to archaic laws have led to more legal support for women.

Strayed, on the other hand, feels that change needs to happen in the stories we tell ourselves about the roles of men and the roles of women in society. “Men are our allies, all the men in the room today certainly are, and the more men become our allies, [the more] real change will happen.”

Change is a loaded word, but for Dr Al Fassi, Saudi Arabia is already on the path towards it.

“We are telling the leadership what we want, and they are listening. As women come out in solidarity and support of each other, the laws are being changed. We are affecting the change through our writing, which has become our tool of activism. Even though we have challenges of censorship, we have found ways to make our voices heard,” she said. She also noted that more women in leadership positions will help bring other women up.

In the UAE, where women are already in powerful government and law-making positions, Dr Ghubash wants to see changes at the root, which is education. “The curriculum needs to change so that the entire generation will have a different attitude and mentality and learn what respect for women is,” she said.

Young Emirati women raised the question of changing mindsets at home rather than just the level of the government. Her Excellency Noura Al Kaabi, Minister of Culture and Knowledge Development and Chairwoman of Media Zone Authority – Abu Dhabi and of twofour54, was among those who spoke up from the audience. She credited her father for persuading her to work, demonstrating that the support and encouragement of family can indeed help women in the region rise above cultural restrictions and create a more supportive and safer world for everyone.

Change is happening, and no doubt there’s more to come.

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