The power of feminism as a political subject becomes evident when it impacts on territories that we believe to be distant and alien. In Kuwait, some of its referents take Ni Una Menos (Not one [woman] less) as a movement that has come to provoke transformations throughout the world.
Naming, enunciating, writing, finding ourselves in the embrace of the word is a personal and collective process that is transforming our societies in Latin America and the Middle East. The construction of a narrative that erodes the legitimacy of those imposed on our bodies is a task that requires not only the construction of a feminist consciousness but also courage and tools of self-protection. One of the biggest challenges we find in both regions is that feminists struggle to put gender and sexuality at the centre of the debate, and conservative right-wing sectors also put these issues at the centre of their discussions in order to attack us. And this, despite cultural and linguistic differences, manifests itself in similar discourses and policies. If the advance against activism and the professional practice of a feminist consciousness is organised and structured on a transnational level, it becomes urgent to get to know, dialogue and build bridges with our sisters in other regions.
The first obstacle to this, in addition to the language barrier, is the colonial imperative and its racist stereotypes. Many sectors of Latin American feminism tend to think that Arab women’s lives are overdetermined by religion and culture, and that their unequal situation is therefore the product of a kind of millenarian passivity. Perhaps that is why they are reluctant to believe that there are feminists in that region who are fighting the same battles as we are. And one of them is that of gaining the floor to tell what they do not want to hear, what has been silenced and what they have wanted to embellish: our deaths.
What is not enunciated does not exist?
One of the points in common that we find in both regions is the increase in femicides and the articulation of demands around witness cases. In Argentina, the seriousness of structural gender violence was crystallised in the Ni Una Menos movement after the femicides of Daiana García and Chiara Páez. Surely many of us who came forward on 3 June 2015 were still unable to grasp the extent of the violence in our lives. We sensed that there was an invisible thread that linked our experience as women, transvestites, transsexuals, lesbians, with femicides: that day many of us saw it for the first time. We were able to make sense of it, to put into words everything we had experienced up to that point, to recognise ourselves in feminism and to understand that it was the only way to liberation.
For a long time, feminism was a bad word, and it still is in some parts of the Middle East, although not for the reasons we imagined. With the excuse of liberating women, countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded, with the consequent destruction and a sidereal increase in gender violence, so that in the region the word feminism is mistrusted as a Trojan Horse of imperialism and because of the paternalistic and racist attitude that western feminism has historically had towards Muslim women. Moreover, the racist Western right is always eager to spread criticism of the region and of Islam that feeds its prejudices and discriminatory policies, so the struggle of feminists – whether they call themselves that or not – is fought on multiple fronts at the same time.
Although Argentina is emerging as the country in the region with the most progress, not only in terms of legislation such as the Media Equity Law, which provides for the incorporation of a gender perspective and training for all workers, neither the legislation is sufficient nor the situation in the rest of the region is homogeneous. In a series of interviews conducted by the Public Defender’s Office in the framework of the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (UN) last September, journalists and feminist leaders from different Latin American countries express concern about the permanence of gender stereotypes, the symbolic violence exercised by the media and the need for the advancement of public policies with a gender perspective.
In the Middle East, the anti-democratic tradition hinders access to public media, not only for feminists but also for any narrative that opposes the official one, so the only possibility is to do so through independent media. In Lebanon, for example, one can find feminist publications such as Kohl, on gender and sexuality, which brings together texts by activists, academics and researchers from the region and seeks to challenge orientalist prejudices and promote independent, freely accessible knowledge. In Egypt, the very popular Mada Masr, has not only a gender perspective in its editorial line but also numerous contributors and articles of interest on the subject, as does Daraj. These are some of the media that are building a counter-narrative in conjunction with feminist activisms in the region and are the ones that began to question the use of certain supposed customs, such as the safeguarding of honour, so that crimes against women not only go unpunished, but are also justified.
Damn your honour
Just as, thanks to the impetus of Ni Una Menos, today it would be very difficult to find in the local media the term “crime of passion” to refer to a femicide, in the Middle East the struggle is being waged to eradicate another formula for embellishing gender violence: honour crimes.
The Arab Women’s Intifada of 2013, which emerged with the democratising impulse of the Arab Spring to create links between women in the region and expose the daily violence they experienced in their countries, can be seen as a first catalyst for the changes that are currently taking place within the countries and the dispute of the narrative around honour as a form of control of female sexuality.
But what are honour crimes? Sarah Qadurah, a Palestinian refugee in Lebanon, tells the story in one of her videos:
The femicide of Israa Gharaieb had a unifying and mobilising impact in Palestine in 2019, creating the Tala’at movement, similar to what happened with the femicide of Chiara Paez in Argentina. The fact that this movement took to the streets of all the cities and camps where Palestinian women live, added to the fact that many of its leaders have been gaining space in the media, forced a change in the narrative and shed light on the networks of impunity that are woven between the judicial, legislative and institutional systems to protect femicides, focusing on the patriarchal culture and linking it to other types of violence suffered by women.
When we met, Sheikha al-Hashem, a feminist writer and researcher with whom I share a discussion space on gender and nationalism in the Gulf, told me how inspiring Ni Una Menos had been for her and her colleagues. In her country, Kuwait, the femicide of Farah Akbar last April provoked a massive demonstration in the capital and on the internet. Unlike other Gulf countries, in Kuwait “at least we can talk, organise and demonstrate on the issue, but in terms of patriarchy, the system is the same as in the rest of the countries in the region. Despite the fact that the country has had advances that are present in the 1962 National Constitution, the big obstacle we face is that when it comes to women, all sectors, nationalisms, tribalisms, religious groups agree not to improve our real situation. We have more femicides in recent years, but we don’t have public records. Social networks helped us to amplify and dimension the issue. In 2016 we campaigned to abolish article 153 of the Penal Code, which calls femicides crimes of passion”.
As Sarah Qadurah pointed out in the video, much of the legislation regarding the status of women in the region was taken from the old French codes. Article 153 mentioned by Sheikha is part of that corpus and is also present in other codes in the region: art.70 in Bahrain, art. 334 in UAE, art. 252 in Oman, art. 340 in Jordan, art. 526 in Lebanon, art. 548 in Syria, art. 279 in Algeria, art. 237 in Egypt, arts. 418-424 in Morocco and art. 309 in Iraq. This is indicative not only of how the colonial project made its mark in shaping an unequal gender hierarchy in the region, but also of how the Arab neo-patriarchal system maintained it in order to sustain its gender privileges.
According to Sheikha when it comes to gender-based violence “the fundamental problem is not laws or institutions but a culture that does not value the lives of women and girls, that thinks of women as subordinate and silences them, teaches them not to use their voice”. This guardianship, regulated or not, seems to be everywhere where a woman’s survival depends on the desire of the men around her.
We speak in tongues
Patriarchy and misogyny are not the heritage of one culture or another, they are part of a system of oppression that operates and is resisted transnationally. The power of feminism as a political subject, whose struggle for meaning is also a struggle for power, becomes evident when certain strategies have an impact on territories that we believe to be distant and alien.
Ni Una Menos aroused Sheikha’s interest “because of its inclusion of many sectors: trans women, transvestites, lesbians, the intersectional approach. I think we can learn more from Ni Una Menos than from the #MeToo movement because #MeToo is very elitist. And I think most of all we can learn from the progress that Ni Una Menos has made over the years. I know that the situation is still difficult because of the high number of femicides in Argentina, but it would be fascinating to learn more from them and look for ways to collaborate. This is undoubtedly the path we have to build. To write about our lives is also to write about our dead: to win the word is to defy death. As the Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa said in her letter to women writers in the Third World in 1980: “Writing is dangerous because we are afraid of what writing reveals: the fears, the courage, the strength of a woman under triple or quadruple oppression. But in that very act lies our survival because a woman who writes has power. And a woman of power is feared”.
By Carolina Bracco for LatFem, Peridismo Feminista.