home Feminism, Middle East International Women’s Day is no place for Orientalism

International Women’s Day is no place for Orientalism

On this International Women’s Day, let’s stress the importance of complicated conversations, of stories of women that exist beyond pre-set narratives of what liberation means.

According to white feminism, women like my aunts and cousins are oppressed.

They live in the Middle East, and most of them wear abaya and hijabs—things that Western feminism perceives as misogynistic traps. And according to this same perspective, I am much more free. I live in the West, I don’t cover my hair, I wear t-shirts and dresses. This is the polarized narrative we are often fed, one that oversimplifies the concept of oppression and fools us into believing that we can define the narratives of women far away from us. I’ve commented more extensively on this subject before.

Here’s the thing: most of my cousins and my aunts live quite well. Many of them are wealthy, have many luxuries, and are, overall, financially stable. They’re not worrying about where their next paycheck is coming from. When I come to visit them, they share their luxuries with me and we have fun going out, getting our nails done, going shopping, etc. Money is, in many ways, freeing.

A closeup of a woman in traditional abaya.
Nikita Eufe Usal/Creative Commons

I am an unemployed millennial—currently freelancing, and struggling at it—in a precarious field not known for having abundant job opportunities, a field that often exploits young journalists by making them work for free with the promise of exposure. Figuring out how I am going to navigate this tricky time causes me a lot of stress. And the West is not without misogyny; I still experience it, among other forms of discrimination. And yet, I am seen as the one who is more free—a misguided notion that is ultimately fueled by Orientalism.

Reconceptialising definitions of freedom

But the truth is, the constant financial worries and fretting over career options feels much more oppressive to me than the clothing that they choose to wear. Would they envy me simply because I show my hair? No, probably not. I cannot articulate their stories, but I can deconstruct the white feminist looking glass that people often view their story and my story from. My family abroad and I may envy each other over different things, but it doesn’t boil down to something so simple as garments. Such notions are pre-packaged ideas that make easy headlines and motivational slogans, but don’t reflect reality.

Because the white feminist lens is inherently flawed in this way, it fails to see the intersections of identity—gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, and so on—that complicates what oppressions we face in life. It decides, based on arbitrary things like more or less clothing, who is more oppressed and who is free, and it takes a very specific narrow gaze from one side of the world and casts it like a wide net over the women of the rest of the world.

Self-expression through clothing—whether it’s more or less—makeup, and body modifications can be liberating, or oppressive when forced upon someone, but they are not the sole oppressing or liberating factors in a person’s life. Things like unemployment, mental illness, trauma, daily violence, microaggressions, and other experiences, deeply affect how free we are.

My cousins and aunts face their own unique struggles where they are, just as I face my own unique struggles where I am. But we have to stop assuming the stories of others and speaking over them. One of the core values of women’s liberation needs to be that every woman can speak for herself and tell her own story.

A new feminist mandate

We need to continue to engage in discourse that talks about the complexities, nuances, and exceptions in the concept of oppression, because real life oppression is filled with complexities, nuances, and exceptions. It’s important on all days, but especially today, to think about the ways in which we perceive our own privileges and oppressions. We have to question our own gazes, our own assumptions about who is free and who is not free while also remembering that those are not absolute concepts.

We need to speak with other women, not for them. We need our discourse to revitalize and motivate other women, not emotionally exhaust them by demanding their attention and effort to relieve us of our own ignorance. We need to fiercely protect our own narratives and practice genuine solidarity with the stories and struggles of marginalized people everywhere.

If there’s one thing we can all take from this International Women’s Day it’s that our stories shouldn’t be simplified for mass consumption. They should remain complicated, because our realities are complicated. And our stories, as difficult as they are to tell, are worth telling.

Image: Nikita Eufe Usal/Creative Commons