Middle Eastern women need recognition, not rescuing

Holding such clickbait debates does actual harm

The Phil’s topic-for-debate this week demonstrates that mainstream feminism has barely developed in the last two decades when it comes to its treatment of ethnic minority women. In their weekly email, they advertised that on September 20th they plan to debate the motion: “This House Believes that Middle Eastern Women Need Western Feminism”. It reads like it comes from when Barbara Bush was a feminist icon for calling for the unveiling of Muslim women during the war in Afghanistan.

The choice of such a topic reflects the general nature of student debating societies, who after centuries of existence appear to struggle to come up with ideas and resort to clickbait to maintain their presence. By writing this article and drawing attention to it, I am a part of that problem, but sitting in silence is a privilege that the student body ought to get rid of. Nor is this just a collection of words that will ultimately go nowhere. With enough resistance these platforms can be revoked, as is what happened in 2011 when the Phil invited the then-leader of the British National Party, Nick Griffin, to speak in favour of the motion “This House Believes Immigration Has Gone Too Far”. Unsurprisingly, the announcement of this debate was met with unrest and condemnation from both College activists and the Union of Jewish Students’ in Britain and Ireland, and the debate was cancelled.

The wording of the motion itself is also telling. Although it mentions “Middle Eastern women”, they are most likely referring to “Muslim women” – perhaps the most debated group of people in recent decades. These debates don’t often concern themselves with Christian women or Zoroastrian women, but it appears less antagonistic to not isolate who their main focus will be.

The defence argument from debaters at the time is one that continues to be used when such “out there” topics are chosen: you can debate in favour of the motion without agreeing with it. Not only is that level of detachment from the hate speech they would be espousing worrying, but it’s also incredibly naive. New students might not necessarily be aware that debaters claim not to mean what they say, and in the age of social media, opinions are very easily removed from their context.

The issue, however, is not that the debate is being held, but the mindset behind coming up with such a topic for discussion. Middle Eastern women need “Western feminism” as if what women in the Middle East have been doing for centuries isn’t enough. It implies a degree of superiority that the only true feminism is “Western feminism” and it is the only way to true equality. It’s the god complex that won’t quit.

This mindset trickles from the top levels of bureaucracy to grassroots activism with the popularisation of Western feminist exceptionalism through self-congratulation in comparison to “how much better off” women have it here.

But what even is “Western feminism”, what definition of “West” does it follow? The collection of Europe, North America, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand tends to be the most common when illustrating that point. Now, what do these countries have in common? The morals and values that they ascribe to their respective, unwritten, national codes stem from the age of imperialism. Even postcolonial nations, like North America and the Republic of Ireland, carry this baggage in their treatment of ethnic minorities – both favouring the detention of asylum seekers for extended periods of time. So it can be argued that “Western feminism” is a kinder way of saying “imperial feminism’” Add on trans-exclusivity with pink pussy hats and rife classism, and “Western feminism” doesn’t sound too great.

Very little has changed in the mindset of mainstream feminists in the past thirty years to justify the revisit of this topic in student debating circles. Such a sweeping motion suggests that those who are organising it, perhaps due to lack of knowledge or care, are continuing the assumption that there has never been a movement of women in the Middle East against patriarchal oppression. There has been – across many centuries – and not only have they been fighting local oppressors, but they have also had to deal with imperial ones too.

Many of the discriminatory laws in the Middle East and Muslim-majority countries trace their origins to European imperialist rule. Although homosexuality is not technically illegal in Egypt, gay men are routinely charged with being sex workers as prosecutors use a “debauchery” law that was introduced under British influence in the mid-twentieth century. Before this, Egypt had a long history of relative freedom to practice homosexuality. Infamous clauses requiring female rape victims to marry their rapist come from the French Napoleonic Code of 1810, which allowed for men to escape prosecution for kidnapping a girl if they married her. Yes, these outdated laws have been held onto longer than they have in the West – however France only removed that provision in 1994, so we shouldn’t be too quick to brag — but they are held on by a patriarchal mindset found across the globe rather than a culturally unique one.

The subjugation of Middle Eastern women is clearly found in their counterparts’ refusal to acknowledge centuries of social and political movement, in the desire for those who wear a hijab, niqab, burqa, etc. to undress in public for reasons of “public safety and order”, in the removal of the rights of citizenship in 2004, in making them spend years in isolated prisons for merely wanting to live.  

Middle Eastern women don’t need “Western feminism” – they need recognition. The world doesn’t need a continuation of different feminist movements divided by superiority, but one united by a common goal of equality for all, regardless of class, gender, ethnicity, religion, or ability. The difference between working with someone for justice and working for the justice of someone else is respect.