How I re-discovered Feminism

I

            It was a Wednesday afternoon, a day before the weekend started. But, it was also my third consecutive year walking the same campus grounds. It started to feel like a routine to me more than anything else; weekdays are not but mere anticipation for the weekends and the weekends are spent dreading the weekdays. The unanimous cawing from the trees surrounding the E-lawn has become white noise to me long ago, but I noticed it that day.

            There she was, Milena, waiting in the right spot at the exact time we were supposed to walk to Pascal Tepper together, because she did not know the way. She made a joke about me being late and then we were off.

            A lot of things went through my mind the day we were headed to our first agape session with the Women and Genders class — I wondered why the professor pronounces the word ‘agape’ weird. I also remembered how she explained what she thought the word meant but I did not listen because I knew that agape meant ‘wide open’. Although, I did pick up a few words from the definition she thought was right.

            “…. Food… togetherness… sharing,” she said, followed by a couple of other unrelated words.

            That day, I felt like I was being dragged shopping with my mother, and not to the stores where we would end up buying things for me too.

            I did not understand why they needed to devise a class for women and gender issues. Don’t they already have therapy for that? And those feminist girl pop icons? Also, I never understood why I would need a class like that, seeing as, of course, I knew everything about women; Middle Eastern women are oppressed because of the backwardness of conservative, religious folk and Western women are liberated because of their advanced society — and high school girls liked guys that treated them badly. Right? I’m probably not going to be proved wrong later in this course.

            “Let’s go around the table and share stories of our experience relating to the subject of the course.”

            That combination of words hit me like cold water hits the face. The professor was draped in a black scarf garnished with intertwined foliage and a black cardigan huddling the scarf. Her face was warm and the red in her cheeks was reminiscent of the dying embers of a fireplace.

The professor intended to inspire participation with her opening sentence. She has gotten my attention, but not for the reason she intended. Suffice it to say, I skipped my turn.

            While my classmates spoke about gender-related issues that they’ve faced in the past — some of which went beyond the realm of ‘issues’ and fell, smack dab, into the field of  ‘tragedies’ — I was just sitting there, eating the sweetest muffin I have ever tasted in my life. That was when I noticed that most of my classmates were girls — typical.

            There must have been about fourteen students, and most of them had contributed to the professor’s devilish whim. I had made a couple of these faces familiar thanks to my Study Abroad Mentoring program. I noticed, all of a sudden, that there was a pause while the professor looked around to see if anyone else was eager enough to be next to share a story. That moment of silence was deafening, like the sharpness of a sword, ever so subtly, ringing in the air after it’s been unsheathed, like a crescendo until it is a ringing in the ears; snippets of past memories overlapped each other in my head.

            “I want my son to be a man! not a little bitch!” shouted my father in my head at a memory of a crying, 12-year-old version of myself.

            My temples throbbed and it got slightly hotter under my fedora hat — I could almost hear whistling, like that of a kettle, coming out of my pores. I was getting ready to relieve my tension and reveal one of my stories. My mouth dropped and I held my breath, but I was too late; the silence was broken. The professor had moved on and started explaining the purpose of this activity. I had faded into the background, and I wondered how many other people felt like me. I’ve had heard of rape cases going unreported in the UAE, and I wondered how horrible they must feel to not be able to express themselves or trust anyone. Suddenly, this class has changed my life forever.

II

            Believe it or not, I have always prided myself on being a self-proclaimed feminist. I obviously had no idea what I was talking about. Even if I really were, by any definition, a feminist, I would never really understand the reality of being a woman. I never thought twice about the fact that my father would not let my sister study criminology, her dream subject, simply because she is a woman. I never stopped to wonder why, after eleven o’clock at night, I was surrounded by a group of guy friends and all my women friends had to be at home. Perhaps worst of all,  I never batted an eye at the amount of inspections a girl’s outfit has to pass before she can leave the house — and the judgement does not even stop at the front porch of the house.

            This class was my ticket to at least beginning to understand the trials and tribulations of women, understand why my father thought a man and a ‘bitch’ were perfectly dualistic. Ultimately, this class would prove to be an awe-inspiring experience that would have me thinking about the rights of, not only women, but men and children as well, of all races and all ages. This is a class that would allow one, if he/she gives it a chance, to open his/her eyes to issues concerning human rights.

III

            A couple of weeks into the course, we started learning about women in the context of religion, society, and politics. The professor came into class chock-full of various articles for us to read. They helped me understand different situations for women in different countries in the MENA region. I remember this one article in particular that spoke about the scholars in the genders field.

            “The difference between the modernist and post-modernist approach is that post-modernist scholars contextualize their findings, observations, approaches, and methods. They acknowledge that every single situation differs depending on the people involved or the environment.”

            I wondered why modernism was still relevant amongst the presence of post-modernism; post-modernism just seemed more logical to me. I remembered how I used to think that Middle Eastern women have it bad compared to Western women and, without thinking, slapped my face with my open palm hoping that the impact shook the last sliver of ignorance out of my face. When I removed my hand, I noticed that my friend, Ermida, was sporting an uneasy smile and a raised eyebrow.

            “You alright?” she asked, eyebrow raised even higher.

            “Yeah, I’ll be fine.” I’m rocking this social interaction business.

            The prefix “post” means “after,” which suggests looking into the future. So post-modernism, in essence is the approach of the future. I now understand, because of this newly-learned phrase, that it I am not justified to assume that all Middle Eastern women are oppressed; What about the women that helped in the revolutions at tahrir square? What about writers like Leila Ahmed, who attempt to promote feminism by interpreting actual text from holy books? What of all these women? The journey, in its essence, that Middle Eastern women, and women all over the world as well, have traveled in order to get to the position they are in now is a testament to women’s capabilities and determination.

III

            “It is not enough to study the past for the sake of the past; It is important to study the past with a critical mind and hopes to learn from our own mistakes and achieve a better future.” This was something my professor always stressed.

            After we were done with women in religion and societies, our class started to take a look at the women of prehistoric times — our foremothers. The findings, and everything else I learnt from these few classes, only contributed to how life-changing and eye-opening this course was.

            I was surprised to learn, that the most advanced society, in terms of equality between genders, was ancient Egypt. Ancient Egyptian women, like men, were allowed to work outside the house, own and rent property, become heads of state, choose their own husbands, and choose decline marriage proposals they do not want. It is not exactly clear why this system did not carry on, but women seem to be getting a glimpse of a new dawn in their lives, just within their reach.

IV

            I was raised to be tough and not care too much about anything. So I hope my father does not disown me for expressing my feelings towards this subject. I was always taught that the woman’s body was sacred and valuable. Every time I asked about why women get treated differently, I would get an answer somewhere along the lines of that excuse — and also, “it is a man’s job to protect a woman,” or “a woman would be lost without a man.” However, what I was seeing was not that. It was almost the opposite.

            A man only knows what he thinks is best for his beautiful daughter — as a husband knows about his wife, or a brother about his sister — but does he ever think that maybe his intentions have been distorted and that the lines of loving protectiveness and obsessive possessiveness have been blurred into each other? A father may be wanting to protect his daughter from rapists and criminals, as any father should, but does it take trapping her in her room and enforcing stringent rules and guidelines that may get in the way of her passions and life decisions?

            If a woman’s body is so valuable, why must some women be forced behind veils, learning to be ashamed of their bodies, never being able to meet a man officially on their own, or explore any career options that interest them? Furthermore, why is it taboo, in the Middle East, for a man to dress up as a woman (that is, assuming that there is a way to dress that is strictly ‘woman-like’)? Is it that representing oneself as a woman is a shameful act? So, it’s ‘cute’ to let a woman have her fun, pretending to be empowered in her boots and jeans, but why would a man put himself down by resembling a woman or putting on a dress?

            In the words of Shereen El Feki during a TED Talk called ‘a little-told tale of sex and sensuality,’ “The women, they are becoming more and more open. But the man, he is still at the prehistoric stage.” A man would link his honor and dignity to his clothing and his reputation, a father would link his honor to an anatomical piece in his daughter’s body. Men just like to be the first to play with their toys; that is why it is relatively alright for a men to have had affairs with women before marriage, but the women he has defiled are no longer fits to be married.

V

            I know that by the end of this course, I will be a changed man. I already felt the winds of change blowing my hair back since the first time the clock hit 4:00pm on the dot in that class. If I weren’t such a closed up, bottled mess, I would hug my professor, for being like a mother to me. She has enlightened me and has never given me reason to be intimidated by her.

            Her content was always fulfilling. Now, thanks to her, I am the odd one out in the family, whom everyone watches what they say around — I am chock-full of information about human rights. Hopefully, one day, I would contribute in the further liberation of women all over the world.

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  1. Hello Sameh, I salute your courage and your openness to a different perspective than the one you had. It is not simple to be a feminist man in the Middle East, but I know there are many. However, they don’t talk about it. Maybe because of society’s pressure.

    1. I mean, sure it’s hard, but I’m pretty sure it is much harder to step in the shoes of a woman who has been oppressed, harassed, or put down because of gender. So no matter how far the fight goes… there’s always room for improvement.
      And thank you for your encouragement. It means a lot to me!

  2. I agree with Shaima. A true transformation worth praising. This is not an easy struggle in a patriarchal society. Welcome to the large movement in the Middle East of individuals who believe in equality and justice for all, Sameh!

    1. Thank you! It feels good to be on a different side of the fight. The side that needs fighting for too!

  3. Feminism can be a loaded term that is often misrepresented. It’s a worldwide phenomenon – not only in the Middle East. Sometimes all it takes is some education. Happy to see that there are guys who figured it out pretty quickly – i.e. feminism just meaning “the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”

    1. Safe to say, the bruises on my face from all the face palms that I gave myself after I realized the real meaning of ‘feminism’ will take a while to fade!
      Thank you for your appreciation!

  4. As always, you blow me away with your writing. If only all men understood what you have written in your paper. Chapeau!

  5. Thank you Mirna, this means a lot to me! Even more so because you were in my class and, whether you know it or not, have watched my grow into this person! Gotta start looking out for each other, Eh? 🙂

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