I am almost always in the middle.
I am the daughter of immigrants. My parents emigrated from Cairo, Egypt. I was born in Washington D.C. I speak English and Arabic. I know all the slang. I put hummus on my hamburgers, and cream in my mint tea. I celebrate Christmas, twice, even though I am non-religious. I know all the customary greetings. I can give a good handshake, and fling kisses on both sides of the cheek four times over with perfect accuracy. I wear a head-covering at church, and no bra in public. I am a lover of tradition, but quick to lose my temper when my mother insists I marry soon. I know how to burn sage to bless a house, and how to tame my curly hair for interviews. I walk the tightrope of conservatism and liberalism, of modesty and skinny-dipping in broad daylight, of kissing the priest’s hand after sermons, and throwing my middle finger to sexist advertising everytime it shows up on my television screen.
I have made a living of being, at once, both Eastern and Western, of being on both sides of the fence--because everything about my identity is hyphenated--including my feminism:
Intersectional feminism is the understanding of how overlapping identities--including race, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation etc.--impact the way women experience oppression and discrimination. Intersectionality has birthed a new generation of feminists, emboldened and empowered, who are committed to an inclusive approach to social justice.
As an intersectional feminist, my feminism is rooted in what it means to exist in one’s entirety, and what must be done to uproot ourselves from the matrix of multiple oppressions that women around the world are forced to wage war with everyday.
My feminism, like my identity, has been informed by the two worlds to which I belong-- the West and the East-- both of which are battling oppressive regimes, both of which are struggling to invite each other into their respective worlds. And it is a need that has yet to be met by modern feminism. There is still a glaring division despite the calls for intersectionality: it is the division of Western and Eastern feminism.
I wonder: Why are so many Western feminists not arm-in-arm with their just-as-feminist Eastern sisters? Why are so many Eastern feminists displeased with Western feminism? Why is the stereotype of Eastern women as doe-eyed, submissive and silent still prevailing in public discourse? Why are some Western feminists unwilling or uncertain of how to take up the causes of Eastern feminism? Why are the majority of ‘feminist’ campaigns, slogans and rhetoric surrounding the Eastern world that of “saving” brown women instead of standing with them?
It does not take much to see that the visibility of Eastern women, in general, or Muslim women, in particular, in international feminist platforms is glaringly low. But this is not because we do not exist. This is not because we are not feminists. This is not because we do not want equality, and this is definitely not because we are ‘too oppressed’ or ‘too silent’ or ‘too weak.’ Perhaps, this is because, too often, our voices are silenced.
Eastern feminism, in general, is sometimes disqualified as a thing that is ‘not quite feminist enough,’ or worse, ‘not feminist at all;’ and Muslim feminism is muted by those who advocate for a universal brand of secular feminism. Unfortunately, it would seem that there are many who still view the Eastern World, Islam and feminism as entities at constant odds with each other.
From support of or indifference to FEMEN’s Islamophobic “activism,” or championing Malala Yousafzai for standing up to the Taliban while ignoring the Western influence on poverty and violence in Pakistan--there are those who are adept at missing the point when it comes to women in the Eastern world. The point being that women in this part of the world face challenges different from those in the West, and criticizing their religions, their dress, their customs, or their culture is an inadequate way to fight patriarchy and, moreover, disrupts solidarity with women.
The kind of feminism that does not celebrate the nuances of brown womanhood is not feminism at all. To attempt to “save” is to feed into the “white savior” complex. It is an attempt that ignores the impact of Western colonialism on these regions; forgets that these regions are targets of ongoing Western imperialism (and that oppressive regimes are a direct result of colonialist regimes); dismisses the long and vibrant history of Eastern, and Muslim, feminism; and, ultimately, ignores the needs and wants of Eastern women. This kind of feminism is not intersectional.
Eastern women do not need to be “liberated” or “helped” or “saved” by Western feminism. They need enfranchisement within feminism.
I think it is time for us to consider that our feminism, no matter how well-intentioned, ought not to mirror American militarism and its evangelical “spreading [of] democracy”--a thinly veiled term used to justify “protection” and “salvation” in the East for years. It is a term which has, with its empty promise to emancipate--only perpetuated more oppression.
I think it is time for us to consider that if Western feminism does not stop trying to “save” Eastern women, it will only, even if accidentally, disempower and dismiss them--which is, perhaps, why so many Eastern women are absent from Western feminist platforms, or feel a lack of agency in it. If this relationship is not mended, if both worlds cannot find a mutual language, cannot make cultural compromises on a shared objective--then we run the risk of weakening the global feminist movement, in both credibility and cause.
It is essential we acknowledge that feminism cannot end sexism until we understand the various systems of oppression that affect different women in different ways. Fighting patriarchy requires that we refuse a culture of domination in favor of a definition of love that enables everyone to be free, even if and especially if, that domination exists within our definition of feminism.
So it is time we meet at the middle.
It is the hope that all feminists, of every kind, will be welcomed, and invited to sit at the table, so that we can all have and be a part of the conversation. Because we cannot be friends or allies, until all of us are seen, heard, and understood.
My vision for equality is, simply, that brown girl feminism be celebrated, too.