Not too long ago a great thinker by the name of Edward Said brought to the world an idea that would challenge some of the most fundamental assumptions regarding history: namely, that it is linear. Those who are familiar with Mr. Said should know that he is less known for his thoughts about linearity per se, but rather, focused his ideas around “orientalism”; a term he redefined to describe the historical tendency of the West to view the East or “the Orient”, as a one-dimensional entity with certain stereotypical characteristics which render its inhabitants backwards and barbaric.
Said noted that it was from this skewed perception that the idea of colonization was justified, particularly among European elites and thought leaders who viewed the Orient both as a mystical, exotic land of harems and sorcery; and as a place stuck in the past, in backwardness and barbarism, and which thus needed to be “civilized”.
In pointing this out, Said illustrated the prevalence in Western (particularly 19th century) thought of the assumption that history moves in a linear fashion, from backwardness exemplified by the East towards civilization exemplified by the West.
Though Said’s central idea remains highly influential both in the East and the West today, it seems that its most powerful premise regarding the linearity of history has been pushed aside by a more popular understanding of “orientalism” which has come to signify a stereotype held by the West about the East – harems, camels and veils included -and which has come to serve as the image many contemporary Arab intellectuals want to fight, most prominent among them being Arab feminists.
Though there is nothing wrong with fighting this clearly shallow stereotype of Arabs, particularly one which portrays women as oppressed passive creatures hidden behind layers of black veil; and while it is certainly true that this image is a grossly inaccurate representation of a much more diverse and complex reality; it remains that by focusing the bulk of the Arab feminist discourse chiefly around going against this one simplistic – albeit powerful idea, we inadvertently reduce the whole experience of the Arab woman into a simplistic binary: either she is an oppressed semi-human, or she is not, in which case she has “progressed”, mini-skirts and all.
Besides the obvious damage this does to the perception of the Arab woman, this approach effectively legitimizes the very idea that “orientalism” sought to challenge; namely that the only way towards progress and civilization is, in a nutshell, through westernization.
How this is all portrayed in effect becomes obvious when we look at how some well-intentioned yet misguided contemporary Arab feminists have come to adopt and accept the western model of the women’s rights movement as the only possibility towards progress. It is from this reactionary perception that we see the rise of women who indiscriminately disparage other women who veil, do not work, are not sexually active or who choose anything that seems antithetical to what they deem to be the only path towards the progress of women: one which is identical in every way to what women from a different time, place, culture, history and circumstances, namely Western women, deemed to be ideal.
Yet, to be conscious of the deeply subjective nature of human experience, to recognize that cultures other than the dominant one at this time in history may view progress and liberation in a perspective we may not understand yet are behooved to respect does not necessarily mean our complete and unquestioned acceptance of everything we see, things like genital mutilation, rape, violence nor can it justify our acceptance of it
Alternatively, this does not come to mean, as some other schools of thought have concluded, that the subjectivity of women’s experience, given their vastly different circumstances and environments, logically means that we are to tolerate things like genital mutilation, or rape, or domestic violence, or any other clear violations of the dignity of any human, be it man or woman, simply because “they are from a different culture”.
Somewhere between a worldview that rigidly defines progress, liberation, rights and other ideas to its own particular circumstances, accepting objectivity yet denying the subjectivity of experience; and a diametrically opposed worldview that gives in to total subjectivity, accepting even the most absurd consequences simply because “we all view things differently”; lies a more nuanced worldview that simultaneously recognizes both that no one culture can define progress and women’s rights and deem it the only ideal, given the inherent subjectivity of cultural experience and that at the same time, there exist fundamental values such as the freedom of each and every individual to live in recognition of his and others’ inherent dignity, that transcend historical and cultural boundaries, that unify the experience of being human, whether man or woman, and that serve as core foundations upon which each and every one of us, within his own community and culture, is free to express in his own way.
It is only by reconciling these seemingly opposing worldviews that we can begin to discern the subtle yet profoundly important difference between the “what” and the “how”. The “what”, freedom, dignity and peace, are what we all want; they are the bedrock of what unifies us as humans and what distinguishes us from animals. The “how”, whether through art, activism, culture or whatever other way distinguishes and expresses our subjective experience in the world; this remains a privilege that none other than ourselves have the right to define.
By Bruna Kesserwani, Regional Director of Operations, WYA, Middle East.