Unchaining Feminism By Ala Oueslati, Tunisia

Being a feminist nowadays requires more than just believing and advocating for gender equality. It requires determination and patience in order to be able to confront the anti-feminist ideologies and stay true to one’s values. My name is Ala Oueslati, and I am a feminist and gender equality advocate from Tunisia.

As we all know, the tension between feminists and anti-feminists has risen significantly in the last decade and the reasons are political, ideological, and economic, causing more societal and generational divides. And evidently, the circumstances we are witnessing across the world nowadays aren’t reducing any tension.

While this tension inspires and motivates gender equality advocates and feminist activists, it also gives space to those of other views to manipulate and mislead the mass of the people, all driven by the difference in our values and ethics. This is the reason why this fight has not come to an end yet, and is in fact getting more intense every day. When we speak about our values and ethics we gain more legitimate power, a greater purpose, and higher credibility, something we unfortunately get to witness in our societies across the Middle East and North Africa.

But how can we reach a consensus and move on to live in peace if we still continuously argue whether men and women should be equal? How can we insure our societies are against division and injustice without having to betray our most beloved values and principles?

The answer to these two questions lies in the fact that we have submitted to the worst phenomenon of all: forced repetitive social norms! Difference is too dangerous to live with; it threatens the maintenance of society by bringing concepts and ideas alien to it. Our world is a mesmerizing mosaic of colors, languages, faiths, and customs. A one-hour bus journey might take you to a totally different world. However, no travel is needed to understand that men and women cannot but live together. Such division and isolation is just impossible. This means we must coexist by eliminating the gender barrier. The saddening truth, however, is that men and women have almost never been equal, because men have always been the privileged authoritarian gender while women have struggled, fought, and lived judged and oppressed.

Because repetition creates norm, the historical discrimination against women created a societal dictatorship that rules with pre-processed inherited laws that have been accumulated throughout history. But these sacred and unquestionable norms are no different from ancient norms dictating that scarifying one’s child would bring more rain for the crops to grow. This tells us that culture has never ended. It is a never-ending process of learning and coping. We change it with time, because we make culture, not the other way around. Therefore, the kind of societies we live in today are determined by the systems we implement. Equal wage for instance, and the abolishment of laws prohibiting women from owning land and running business are signs that we are positively changing thanks to more developed systems.

For men, this scenario has been different, because they have been the enjoyer of this cultural and social superiority. Many men around the world would oppose the participation of women in politics, access to contraception, and the ban of female genital mutilation. We should obviously not put the blame on culture or consider these men to be receptive agents merely in charge of maintaining the same old order. Sexism is sexism. There is no other way around it. What would make these men different is freedom of choice, a true will to think and reflect, and a chance to make changes. We must allow men to think freely, to be emotional and to not be afraid to say no to discrimination and inequality. The narrative just has to change.

In the MENA region, the Arab Spring might have brought a brighter day for women. In Tunisia for example, there are more women in politics, in businesses, decision-making roles, and most importantly, there are more equal personal status laws. In Lebanon, a country that has not directly been a part of the Arab Spring, women continue to face a discriminatory and patriarchal social system and are often subjected to alien values and norms that are beyond the country’s laws. Despite the presumption that Lebanese women are liberated and enjoy equal rights, the situation in Lebanon is still challenging. At the end of the year 2016, Lebanese feminist activists called for protests amid the appointment of a man as the minister of women’s affairs, considering this act to be an insult to all Lebanese women.

Feminist groups in Lebanon struggle to speak up and reach out to high-ranking government officials. In fact, the word “feminist” itself has a negative connotation because according to the majority of Lebanese men, the situation of women in Lebanon is not as difficult as it is for women in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or even the UAE. This very assumption makes it even more challenging for Lebanese women to continue to demand more equality and better rights. This is why men should be fully included in ensuring gender equality happens and fighting sexism. Because unless old conventional beliefs restricting women’s rights are changed, there will be no full emancipation of women in society, and that would slow down and even block the country’s social and economic progress.

Throughout history, sexism has always forced both men and women to play restricted roles, roles they didn’t actually choose to play. Women have always been subject to a patriarchal society, whether in remote Afghanistan or in the very center of New York. Thus, women often find themselves obliged to fight back and resist. Men on the other hand, have always been forced, or at least expected, to adopt a masculine attitude that limits their emotional freedom as full human beings. They usually do not have to resist the wrath of patriarchal society or organize international conferences and summits on their rights and freedoms. Unlike women, men do not grieve with other men over the harm and oppression they have experienced because of their gender, something that women always do, and that is the very definition of inequality.

Feminism is global, because what could be more global than equality and justice? But blaming history, promoting atheism or anti-men movements, is not of any help in regard to gender equality. Equality is a universal human value that benefits all and should be constructed by all, regardless of the differences. Feminism is about gender equality, and because history has most of the time discriminated against women and not men, to realize feminism we should liberate women and empower them by giving them more space to speak up, participate, and decide. And this process should be of the interest of men as it is of women. Men need to willingly engage in feminism, embrace the full idea of equal genders, challenge other men to end patriarchy and learn to liberate all genders because liberty brings opportunity, prosperity, and progress.

We all know that change does not happen overnight. Just like culture, it is a process. But a process in which men and women alike play a role in making it positive and fruitful. Feminism has neither been a fight against men, nor has it been an attempt to reverse history. It is the law of equality that we all need to respect. The differences found in our ideas, actions, and values are what determine who we are, not the differences in our genital organs. A feminist person is one who believes that gender equality is the norm of today, one who stands up against sexism and misogyny, one who ensures that gender inequality does not and cannot define our humanity.

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