Uncensored: Ten Muslim women speak about women’s rights

Hajer Sharief

A new book “Usensurert” (Uncensored) by Norwegian journalist Birgitte C. Huitfeldt gives a look behind the veil of what it means to be a woman in the Muslim world.

The Middle East is usually written about as a place of wars, conflicts, and revolutions. But the biggest one – the battle for women’s freedom and equality – is still to be fought, as shown in Birgitte C. Huitfeldt’s latest book “Usensurert” (Uncensored), which was just released in Norway.

Huitfeldt picked ten prominent feminist figures from ten Middle Eastern countries, including Egyptian women’s rights advocate Nawal El Saadawi, Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, Saudi Ambassador Mehla Ahmed Talebna, or investigative journalist Rana Husseini from Jordan, whose work has helped uncover honor killings, with which she conducted individual interviews on the state of human and women’s rights in their homelands.

DW: What surprised me about the book was that the women you chose to interview, except for Mehla Ahmed Talebna, talked very little about Islam and Islamic fundamentalism. Why is that since the topic is essential to women’s rights in the region?

Birgitte C. Huitfeldt: One of the aims of the book was to make the ten women talk about gender differences and oppression in the context of religion and Islam. But meeting them face-to-face, I was told that to protect themselves, their lives, and their family members, they would not make any statements related to Islam.

Those women are uncensored in much of their daily work, but they still can’t talk freely about social and gender topics in the context of religion and religious matters publicly. In other words, the ten women circumvent Islam to promote the women’s rights. So I kept the book focused on family structures, patriarchy, women’s rights, and the laws that need to change to ensure equality for all women in the Middle East.

I think a new generation of women must emerge in the Muslim world who will want to talk about Islam and challenge it.

Hajer Sharief, a 24-year-old activist from Libya, represents such young generation. Do you sense some generational shifts in attitudes or means in fighting for women’s rights in the region?

Sharief is a child of this war – she experienced the civil war in Libya in 2011 as an adolescent – which shaped her to become an activist and a spokeswoman for peace. Her organization “Together We Build” was founded in 2011 on a budget of 300 dollars, which were provided by her family. Sharief works for all the young people in her country by speaking up for them and encouraging them to rise together against wars and oppression and toward freedom, individual choice, and peace.

The way of working for better conditions for all young people is typical for Sharief’s generation; she is fearless, practical, and optimistic. She shows that it is possible to survive wars and build a life afterward, to keep hope for a better future by inspiring others and acting in a continuing professional dialogue on the international peace scene.

On the other hand, Egyptian feminist Nawal El Saadawi told you that she wouldn’t participate in the book if you also interviewed a woman from Israel. Do disputes between nations and religions paralyze women in the Middle East to come together and fight together?

She told me that during our first meeting in Cairo in 2014, so I asked her if she could send me a few lines outlining her views concerning this matter, but she never replied to me. Her answer might have been interesting, but her silence is just as well.

It made me reflect. The wounds from the Six-Day War between Egypt and Israel must be deep and still bleeding. The silence in the relationship between women in Egypt and Israel is keeping the war alive.

The women who want to silence their neighbors and sisters create fear. That is not the feminism we would like to develop in democratic societies; this is applied patriarchy between sovereign women.

How are women perceived in the contemporary Middle Eastern societies?

From the talks, it was interesting for me to learn how much old structures still rule the Middle Eastern societies today, and how difficult it is to distinguish between Islamic fundamentalism and everyday oppressing family codes or patriarchal suppression of women. I am talking here about honor-related violence in the name of Islam but also about the notion that women are men’s property. There is still a long way to change women’s position and status within the patriarchal Muslim family.

Generally, the more poverty, war, and weapons are present in the country, the more oppression and violence are applied against women. That is not exclusive to the Middle East, however. Women are the weakest targets when they do not have their independence, and in the Muslim family, girls learn that they are worthy only the half of their brother.

The interview with Canan Arin is shocking in many ways: How is it possible that Turkey, which has applied to accede the EU, sentences a woman for standing for women’s rights and against marriages with minor girls or honor killings, which are still present in the country?

The way Turkey treats their women is nothing but a shame! Turkey is now competing with the most backward countries in the Middle East. Canan Arin and her mission as a female lawyer in Istanbul is an excellent example of where Turkey is located today politically and socially in its attitude towards women.

President Erdogan is breaking every obliged social and democratic rule of human dignity and rights by censorship and social punishment. He silences everything and everybody opposing him and his regime. His control over Turkish media is massive, and journalists are imprisoned based solely on allegations of being traitors. The number of incarcerated journalists and writers without due process is a torch that illuminates the modern dictatorship in Turkey, allowing men to rule over women as individuals of half their worth.

Turkish women fighting for women’s rights must fight the hardest of all battles: To own the fundamental right to be a free human being equal to the man. Turkey today does not pay attention to the EU Declaration of Human and Women’s Rights. But at the same time, we see that a new generation of young women are making their ways out of this world through social media and are tearing down the patriarchal wall by not tolerating to be silenced and stigmatized as “the other gender.”

Rafah Nached, a Syrian psychoanalyst and author born in Aleppo, lives in exile in Paris. Why are Assad and his regime so frightened of her work?

Nached is the first female psychoanalyst in Syria ever, and her lifelong effort to help strengthen the individual in a country where it does not seem to exist is incredible. The disappearance of an individual voice and the “I” – two recurring themes in her work – show what threatens humans the most in the times of war and terror.

She was arrested and imprisoned at the airport in Damascus on her way home from a family visit in Paris in 2011. The reason she was told for being detained was that she had counteracted Assad’s totalitarian regime by conspiring against the Syrian state through her work as a psychoanalyst and the author of the book “Psychanalyse en Syrie.”

Assad and his regime are, naturally, afraid of people like Nached because if her influence expanded in Syria, everybody would speak their mind, make sure they are heard and listened to, that changes are carried out, and violence and wars are opposed. The solution to a future of Syria, citing Nached, is the development of the individual voice with the option to say no to war and oppression, building a dialogue between the old and the new Syrian state.

You write in the book that Western media hurt women by portraying them mostly only as victims. What do you think media should focus on?

Western media ought to take more responsibility in how they portrait women’s issues in the Arab world – victimization is not the way to make progress for future generations of modern Arab women. Instead, we have to focus on hope, solutions, and possibilities. Reading about work for the good of women all around the world will inspire us and make us move forward.

I do believe that by showing and writing about the stories of what women actually can do in their regions will do much more than emphasizing their miseries.

Does the Western society – and the contemporary Western feminism in particular – understand Middle Eastern women and their needs?

You need to be more than a feminist to be able to understand the Arab world and the real needs of the Middle Eastern women, and I don’t think Western feminism has the urge and the knowledge to do so. The imperialistic narrative on Middle Eastern women is still well alive in 2017, restricting communications between “us” and “them” instead of broadening it.

I think that we all have to step out of our cocoons of good intentions wanting to change other women and their way of living to become more like us. Instead, we have to get into a dialogue with them, and understand what our differences are, and how they have emerged. We, Western feminists, have to change our mindset toward Middle Eastern women, which is a challenging task for all of us.

Even today, three women are killed in the Middle East every day. Is the situation changing for better? And what has to change to ensure equality between men and women there?

It is not only happening in the Middle East. In my opinion, the oppression of and violence towards women is, from a human perspective, a crucial problem in the world today.

Numbers of honor killings, rapes, circumcisions, and child marriages are all increasing due to social, tribal, religious, and even ecological conflicts and wars that undermine economic and health endeavors in many parts of the world. The pain inflicted on women is always reinforced in times of war and terror, and I do not think that gender equality can be obtained under such conditions.

As long as oppressing religions rule societies and command young men to hurt or kill their sisters and wives, there will be no real solution to gender inequality, both within families and legal systems. Speaking strictly about the Arab world, I believe the male fundamentalist populations need an enlightenment period with Islam and Quran customized for the 21st century.

Women, too, need to obtain freedom and knowledge. They need education! They must learn about the lack of their rights to be able to change anything in the Middle East.

Read the edited version at DW.com. The original version of the gallery contained all ten women from Brigitte C. Huitfeldt’s book.