A friend of mine, an American woman very active in advocating for the Palestinian cause, met the late President Yasser Arafat not long before he was taken to Paris on his last journey.
Arafat was always very sympathetic toward women’s causes. It is well known that no one representing women’s rights organizations would ever leave a meeting with Abu Ammar empty handed. It was perhaps therefore especially poignant that before my friend left him, he confided in her his two greatest fears for the future should he die. One was what would happen to religious pluralism. The other was the issue of women’s rights.
In the Arab world today, the issue of women’s rights has become something of a political football. It is not just a matter of modernity versus traditionalism, or secular versus Islamist; the issue, as so many others, has become one of the Arab world versus the West.
This is extremely unfortunate. The issue of women’s rights is one of equality, not emulation, whether emulation of the West or emulation of men. But perhaps it would be useful to look at the experience of our sisters in the West to see what could be used and what should be avoided.
Back in the 1960s, female politicians in the West were focused very much on women’s rights. This is no longer the case. Instead, women politicians behave more and more like pseudo men. Two examples spring readily to mind. In Britain, Margaret Thatcher very ably beat men at their own game to become prime minister and earn the reputation as an Iron Lady. In the United States today, Hilary Clinton is the most prominent female politician, and one often spoken of as a potential future president. She has become so by playing a male game better than her male competitors.
But if women are to enter politics merely to do what men do, the question is, why bother? After all, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the course of history was charted by men playing men’s games by men’s rules. Men’s tendency to resolve conflict with violence is what has led to the frequency of war, the building of many walls and the state of the world today.
There are many women in politics today. There are a fair number of women in Arab parliaments, the Palestinian Legislative Council a notable example. But the presence of women in the halls of power is not sufficient. That is mere tokenism. What matters is the effect of that presence.
I don’t want to pay flippant lip service to feminism. When we talk about equality we must talk about equality of opportunity rather than equivalence. The real reason women should be engaged in politics at all levels is not to emulate men but to bring a unique feminine weltanschauung to bear on the decision-making process.
This has never been tried. The only example I can think of where exclusively female action led to political change comes from literature. In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, the women, exasperated by their men’s unwillingness to resolve an age-old conflict, decided to withhold matrimonial privileges until the menfolk agreed to end their conflict. Not surprisingly, it worked.
Arab women are several steps behind their sisters in the West with regards to claiming their rights. Insofar as it forces Arab women to focus on the issue of what their rights are, this is not a bad thing. That loss of focus in the West has led to confusion. Equal rights mean being able to bring your own perspective to bear. It does not mean doing what men do, and how they do it.
And if ever there was a time when a new perspective and a new weltanshauung was needed in politics, whether in the Middle East or globally, it surely is now.