In a previous post I talked about sexism in the British workplace and in keeping with the theme of sexism, I’d like to talk about my experiences as a British Muslimah in relation to North African culture. I’m married to a North African man and I’ve travelled to, worked and lived in a variety of North African countries both pre- and post-conversion and before and after getting married. In this post, I’d like to look at the issues I’ve really noticed since converting to Islam and travelling to the region including first, second and third hand experiences of blatant discrimination, sexism, hypocrisy and misogyny that women in the area face. Now, I’m not saying these things happen across the board and I’ve certainly not included examples from very traditional circles but I’d like to talk about some experiences which I’ve found difficult, confusing, frustrating, upsetting and in some cases have made me feel utterly trapped and powerless – all of which are against (moderate) Islamic teachings. For more on the issue of sexism and Islam, see my previous post on gender jihad which has already touched on what is and isn’t Islamic when it comes to women and the unfortunate way some are treated.
Primarily, the overriding problem and any example of misogyny I can think of (mostly) seems to be related to the following overarching concept:
“A woman’s place is in the home”
First of all, not all women in the region are at home every second of the day. However this concept really underpins the problems I’ve encountered. It affects every aspect of women’s lives. There are many many women with jobs – most of the doctors I’ve met are in fact women and many women do hold roles outside the home. What’s more, women and girls can also enjoy being at home relaxing in their free time but the reality is that I’ve faced gossiping, backbiting and criticism for “leaving the house too much” (women sadly do this too folks!). Whilst on holiday, being busy organising and getting married and taking my father out so we could enjoy a holiday, I’ve been subjected to wagging tongues trying to control my life. The manipulation of Islam to the extent that women are told they need to stay at home in safe places to extreme lengths (for obscene periods of time) is wrong and unhealthy yet it is used to perpetuate a deeply ingrained misogyny.
Inside the home: no need for a man’s input
On a practical level, this means that the home is the woman’s domain and most men don’t lift even a finger at home. The kitchen is out of bounds to male guests who may want to cook as the kitchen is for females – of all ages – and females only. No men allowed! Men generally will not learn to cook but will boil an egg, fry chips or make an omelette if hungry and their wife/sister/mum is not around. In restaurants however, all the waiters and chefs are male. It is generally seen as shameful for women to serve men in public but to serve men in the home is viewed as normal. If a man does cook, this will be kept quiet to save face.
If a husband works full time and his wife is at home with the kids, you’d expect that she would take care of domestic matters but that shouldn’t exclude men from helping out and taking responsibility. For women who work full-time – let’s not forget that we all need a decent standard of living and many many many girls go to university and want a job – she can generally not expect the housework to be divided. I’ve been told that women are apparently “happy” to have a full-time job and do all of the housework (and essentially have two jobs). Of course, if you live with in-laws/parents, there is help but domestic duties – cooking, cleaning etc. – are carried out by women/females only. ONE thing however: men will often do the shopping. Some markets are also off limits to women due to apparently “dodgy behaviour” in such areas fully saturated with men, which are deemed inappropriate for women. To be fair, by the sounds of it I’d not want to go but there’s something ironic there about only men being able to buy food that they’re never going to cook themselves…
In the home, cooking is seen as a woman’s job – even if she works full time (Photo: Elizabeth Arif-Fear – CC)
Outside the home: ignoring women’s needs
What does all of this mean outside of the home? As I’ve already explained, it means being judged based on your movements and being subject to gossip for being “outside the house too much”, even if you’re simply shopping, meeting friends, eating out etc. This concept of a women’s place being the home really does have much wider ramifications. It essentially dictates to society that the public sphere is male – in other words: “leave it to the males” as “things are best run by men”. This translates to needing men’s permission to do anything and women’s issues requiring male validation. Here comes the unfortunate dichotomy of public (male) and private (female) spheres. We’ve heard it all before but it’s true!
On a social level, I found this meant I was often excluded within my own personal circles – even when I was with men. Imagine you’re in a busy tourist agency and as the only female you’re ignored in a three person conversation. Out of respect due to culture/religion? Well…the man in question booking your trip is told you speak French in an attempt to include you in the conversation. You have to butt in and take charge in order to be included in your own activities, obviously feeling very very frustrated. Or, in another scenario: a male stops talking to his wife without a word of warning to hold a conversation with an incoming male. She’s the second class invisible third party…
This also means that facilities prioritise men and that there is a severe lack of public facilities for women. For example, the local coffee shop is the men’s “palace”. Yes, everyone needs a place to chill out with their friends or to get some time on your own but why are there no coffee places for girls? The Gulf for example has plenty of women-only facilities. The response is “girls belong at home” and “girls want to stay at home”. One question comes to mind though: all the time…? In terms of dividing public money, I’ve seen male sports facilities but nothing for girls. If money is an issue, why not scale down the buildings? It would appear that women don’t need and/or deserve a gym and that men come first. This is no trivial matter folks. If the public sphere is dominated with men, then half the population are both under- and misrepresented. If there’s a problem, the women tend to suffer and I have indeed found that it seems to put the women at a disadvantage. Imagine this: “illegal sexual activity” is going on in public toilets. What action is taken? The women’s toilets are closed. So, we have functioning male toilets but nothing for the ladies. Whilst the men have toilet facilities, ladies are left with nothing. Not exactly ideal during that time of the month…
This leads to another point. The lack of female representation also means that the women are not only under-represented in terms of opinions and facilities but that women’s specific needs are not met. Who understands women better than women themselves? For example, going back to the topic of toilets – do not expect there to be a sanitary bin in a public toilet. If you need to dispose of used personal sanitary items you need to take a mini plastic bag and your own pads (no vending machines). This may sound like a small issue to some guys out there but it really shows a complete lack of thought and understanding of women and women’s needs. As a foreigner, when you’re faced with all the frustrating other “norms” and you’re missing simple basic sanitation facilities, it just gets too much!
Whilst there is plenty of room for women in the public sphere to shop and buy shoes, scarves, handbags etc. (no problem with that – I love shopping!), what about recognising their needs and giving them real outlets to have a voice? Even when buying underwear, you should also never expect to a female sales assistant. Lingerie is often sold amongst other generic items of clothing in clothing and accessory shops. I don’t know about you but I’d not want to buy intimate items from male sales personnel with no women around for sizing advice. Women need the care and assistance of other ladies when buying their undergarments. In short, women need to be more visible and taken into greater consideration.
Public and private spheres: Male attitudes dominate
On a more serious note, the above really points to a deeply ingrained patriarchy that goes beyond an inability to go out for a coffee or find a female shop assistant when you want one (they do exist though btw!). No, what it means is that women have to accept the social standards set by men – which are hypocritical and clearly point to a double standard in favour of men. For example, divorced women are “a thing”. The stigma is decreasing from what I’ve heard and whilst divorce should never be taken lightly, neither should a woman be defined/pointed out as “divorced” in a conversation… A woman is actually “left on the shelf” when she’s “past her younger years” but for men this is not a problem. When a slightly older lady does marry, she is seen as a very lucky exception!
Such sexist double standards also translate to the way in which men feel they have the right to regulate women’s clothing, as well as overall general behaviour. Extreme interpretations of Islam have led me to be told I should not even talk on a mini-bus. Yes, women should remain modest but they do not need to (and must not) be silenced. Women in earlier Islamic years were scholars, teachers and architects – and still are! The men often shout and bellow down the phone but a woman cannot sit and talk on a bus. It also makes me so sad and angry to have to say this but some women and girls are forced to cover their hair and bodies. This is totally un-Islamic but happens. Parents and spouses have been known to force their daughters/wives to wear a headscarf (khimar/hijab) and other longer outer garments (jilbab). This is an insult to God, our right to free will and the women who freely choose to cover themselves in both Muslim and non-Muslim countries, risking Islamophobic hate crime and discrimination in the workplace, street and even within their families. Yes, sadly it works both ways. Some girls in the Muslim community also face difficulty in wearing a scarf or face veil. Why can’t women just be left to make their own choices? What is in the heart is personal.
If we look at men’s behaviour though, there are clear double standards and hypocrisies. Smoking is haram (forbidden in Islam) but many many men smoke. I’m not here to judge though. My point is this: fathers, husbands and brothers would have a fit if their daughters, sisters and wives started smoking yet they carry on and puff away…
Social brainwashing: male and female perpetrators
So, I’ve given you a few of my experiences and insights. When I’ve expressed some of my frustration and disbelief at these issues, my concerns have been acknowledged. Women themselves have agreed that this is down to culture, not religion. However, women – as well as men – also perpetuate these habits and enjoin in gossiping about women who “go against the grain” in perfectly moral, decent ways. The fact that some women acknowledge that restrictive norms are cultural (not Islamic) but also enjoin in or do not stand up to this this is what makes the reality of such misogyny really truly tragic. Many women have been brainwashed to follow these sexist norms which deem women and girls who are outside of the home more than deemed acceptable etc. as “behaving inappropriately” and the top end could seem them branded as “wh****”. By gossiping and backbiting away about the social activities of other women and girls, such females are “accepting” and keeping alive such outdated misogynistic values which can mean that any girl who does fight back or ignore these rules, risks her reputation and that of their family and ultimately her (and even her family’s) ability to marry and live a happy socially integrated life.
If you don’t believe in the poisonous power of social brainwashing in leading women to accept sexism and misogyny watch this video, showing one Algerian woman’s attitude to domestic violence. As you can see, women – as well as men – in believing in and accepting, rather than standing up and speaking out against these issues, are perpetuating sexist outdated and dangerous gender norms, stereotypes and even violence. From gossiping about women, to the very top end of the scale where some are even “happily accepting” domestic violence, it’s the same problem. On the one hand the report was made by an Algerian TV channel shows that awareness has been raised from the inside but if you watch the video, you’ll see that there is some severe social brainwashing and normalising of immoral sexist practices. Looking at the statistics in the video, domestic violence is a huge issue in itself, accepted by a large section of women.
These women are victims but will live on to victimise future generations of women and girls if things don’t change. Such men and women will be teaching their sons and daughters to carry and accept these practices. Misogyny in North Africa exists on micro and macro levels but remember this: no matter how small the incidents or examples are, do not underestimate the negative impact they can have on the lives of women and girls – it all comes from the same source…
Babak Fakhamzadeh (feature image) (CC)