Tyrants and feminists: Not so strange bedfellows

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The tyrannical rulers in the Arab world who, be they monarchist or "Republican", stifle any and every activity in their countries that dare raise its head without their explicit bidding, even from their allies among the secular elites, have in recent years been giving free scope to one and only one activity: feminist propaganda and activism. From Morocco to Muscat the banner of Western-style feminism has been flying with impudence for years, at the same time as Islamic movements and the other political trends have been smothered over that vast expanse of dictatorship.

This seeming anomaly, glaring in countries such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria and Jordan and also conspicuous in the so-called "conservative" Gulf states, turns out upon closer scrutiny to be not so strange after all. Feminism has come to represent a treasure-trove of benefits for the regimes trying to perpetuate their power, and that is why it is not only tolerated but actively encouraged, even when ordinary social and cultural activities are banned. Above all, the rulers realize that it is good for their survival to be seen in the West as championing the "cause of women" as the spearhead of "modernisation" (westernisation, in other words). The West (governments, financial institutions, international organisations, political circles, economic thinktanks and all) has turned this issue into a criterion by which the worth of any regime is measured. Good marks in the"women’s slot" in human-rights reports of every description, and in the viability reports issued by various economic and political bodies, are now a crucial factor in the "survivability" marks of any regime that is dependent on the West. Ever watchful for any minute element that might affect their cherished grip on power, the Arab dictators could not miss such an opportunity: hence the frantic resort to the "first ladies", "queens" and "princesses" to become feminist leaders of half the society. Hence also the national councils for women all over the place; the establishment of state-aided women’s associations; the spate of changes in laws of personal status to align them with Western models in countries from Morocco to Jordan, all aspiring to ape the Tunisian model, which was set up in the late fifties. Hence also the position of the so-called "women’s question" on the top of the social, political and cultural agenda, displacing almost every other concern or issue.

In a country like Egypt, for example, the only things that happen in a political system otherwise described by friends and foes alike as moribund, relate to matters allegedly contributing to the "women’s issue", so much so that some officially-controlled newspapers are timidly publishing letters from readers who suggest that a counter-discrimination against men is now so advanced that a "men’s liberation movement" is urgently in order. A regime that is too paralysed to initiate policies to cope with the country’s pressing social and economic problems must have found some very compelling reasons for embarking on that hectic pro-feminist spree of measures and legislation.

The desire to curry favour with the Americans and the Europeans explains part, indeed a substantial part but not the whole, of this love affair between dictatorships and feminism across the Arab world. The rulers, thanks to their advisers, have discovered the secret of feminism and found in it a magic cure for most of their troubles. The enemy of feminism is not those in power (the secret police, the capitalists, the oligarchies, the military juntas, the bureaucracies, etc.); rather it is "man" as a species and Muslim society that is seen as an incarnation of all the evils of patriarchy or male-centredness. Feminist propaganda and wars are not launched against the powers-that-be but against an array of values, traditions and conditions perceived as manifestations of male domination: these do not include the existing regimes, which, although composed entirely of men, somehow escape the feminists’ ire. Feminism wants to overthrow the existing social order, not the political one. It makes war on men in general, rather than on the despotic and tyrannical men who hold the keys of brute material and political power. It wants to destroy the family, not the monarchies or the presidencies. In short, feminism declares an all-out assault on religion, the family, social conventions, "Man" and history, but leaves the vital sphere of political power intact.

In this unholy war against Islam, its culture, system and history, the feminists behave in a manner that proved to be crucial for their emerging strong ties with the rulers in the Middle East. First, they link their projects to the encroachments of secularisation and westernisation in the region; second, they are more than willing to be co-opted by the regimes in an attempt to ensure success for their venture.

In this way feminism has offered itself as the "ideal ally" and helper to the regimes. The dictators could not care less if the entire social edifice of their countries collapses, leaving them still in power over a people that is to be reshaped in the image of feminists, secularists and westernisers. They care not at all for what they themselves see, with Western eyes, as an outmoded, backward, reactionary society (i.e. Muslim culture). Indeed, feminism is viewed by the rulers not just as a non-threat but primarily as an active, positive tool for the achievement of the goal of secularising and westernising their countries. To this, of course, is added the ideal fact, most welcome to the tyrants that cling to power, that feminism does not contest their authority but rather seeks alliance with them to use that very tyrannical authority as the instrument for the propagation and implementation of its own project.

Offering patronage and aid to the feminists also has other advantages for the rulers. They are already exploiting their support for the feminists’ cause to claim that they are enlightened, broad-minded, progressive and democratic. They are buying a false reputation at the expense of their new allies. More importantly, the consecration of feminism as the one and only issue on the national agenda, and enforcing this by the power of the state-controlled media, conveniently directs attention away from other burning issues and explosive problems. A vivid example has been recently offered in the deliberations of the ruling National Party in Egypt. A party conference held in late September congratulated itself on scoring yet another signal feminist victory by agreeing to change the nationality law to grant Egyptian nationality to the children of Egyptian women married to foreigners. But this coincided with a wave of price-increases for staple foods that led some opposition newspapers to warn of an imminent "revolt of the hungry". Yet the party had nothing to say about this situation, apart from making a few vague noises that were soon lost in the hullabaloo of the media celebrating the latest feminist victory.

The alliance with feminists (or, indeed, their exploitation) pays very profitable dividends, political and otherwise, to the regimes of the Arab world, so they are quick to foster that alliance and adopt feminism as a kind of "state ideology" to cash in on these dividends and achieve the only goal that really interests them: perermanent political power.

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