Octavia Nasr | BIO
CNN Senior Editor, Mideast Affairs
The Arab Middle East teaches minorities some tough life lessons and shapes them in ways that might surprise you. While the effect of a conservative patriarchal society is expected to keep people under the thumb of tradition, culture and tribal and religious beliefs - sometimes too much oppression and control yields opposite results.
Having lived in several parts of the Middle East as a child, I learned that a woman doesn’t exist except as someone’s daughter, sister, wife or mother. Her opinion is not required, her emotions don’t count and she has no rights whatsoever – except those granted to her by a male.
With a few recent exceptions, an Arab woman’s testimony is not accepted in court. Most Arab women can’t travel outside their countries without permission from a male guardian, and most Arab women still can’t give nationality to their children. In Saudi Arabia women are not even allowed to drive cars. A popular Arabic saying describes it best: a good woman “has a mouth that eats but not one that speaks.”
The Arab Middle East taught me that sexual expression is exclusive to men. Men can have pre-marital sex, and when they’re married, their extra-marital affairs are ignored, justified or blamed on the wives. Their bodies are their own to do with them what they want. A woman’s body, however, represents her family’s honor. So, girls and women are expected to cover their bodies and repress their sexual feelings to protect the honor of the family.
This is such a deeply-rooted belief that, to this day, girls and women are killed by fathers, brothers or cousins at the suspicion of sexual activity. Even if a girl or woman is the victim of rape or assault, she can be killed under the pretext of “cleansing the family’s honor.” The practice known as “Honor Killing” is still common among all religions in the Middle East; it is even justified under the law and carries no penalty.
As someone who grew up and spent my early adulthood in the Middle East, I also learned that men run the show and they run it for life. Imagine that with the exception of a few, all Arab leaders haven’t changed since I was a child; and those who died were replaced by their sons. So far, the customary behavior has been such that if you wanted change, you had to ask men for their permission, their blessing, their support, their approval, their orders, and their actions to bring that change.
The women in my family were very active in the women’s rights movement of the 60s, 70s and 80s. Men listened to them, gave them a forum to express their desire to become equal through conferences, speeches and occasional articles in the media. They even gave them some rights – like the right to vote in some countries and the right to run for office in others. But, women’s rights were always controlled by men’s approval and that didn’t go far at all. As a matter of fact, a quick look at the Arab Middle East shows you that with very few exceptions it remains a region controlled by the ruling few who are unwilling to relinquish power. They resist change as if it were a contagious disease that will lead to their demise if they ever catch it.
Enter the age of the computer and the Internet, the age of blogging and connecting with the world. The only age that will allow a Saudi female cartoonist to draw pictures depicting how a woman feels when her husband takes on a second or third wife. It simply rips her heart out she draws.
Islam accepts polygamy and blesses it with a caveat which men enthusiastic about the practice tend to ignore. You can take multiple wives, but “if you want to be fair, marry only one,” the holy Muslim book guides. While not many in Saudi Arabia might care about how Hana Hajjar feels, a whole world outside the kingdom, is paying attention, supporting and perhaps even lending a hand.
The online traffic we witnessed in the aftermath of Iran’s contested elections and the outpour of support Iranian reformists received through social media are perfect examples of the effect of international support on local activism. In the case of Iran, it energized and helped spread the message to far reaching corners of the world.
Other stories that have captured the world’s attention are bloggers jailed in Egypt and Saudi Arabia for speaking up against the Status Quo in their countries and demanding social justice and political reform. We are learning about what’s going on inside the most conservative and most police-controlled countries in the region through bloggers who are not allowing the intimidation of prison, harassment or abuse to silence them.
It is obvious now there is a growing number of Arabs, men and women, who not only want change but they are willing to get to that change on their own. They grew tired of demanding it and not receiving anything in return, so they made the decision to truly become the change and live it in practice.
Now, you have bloggers like Wael Abbas in Egypt who openly criticizes President Hosni Mubarak’s policies and screams out slurs against his country’s secret police that detains him for hours and confiscates his laptop without any explanation or apology whatsoever.
You also have the gay and lesbian Middle Eastern community publishing their online magazine which deals with issues they find important. They discuss sexual orientation out in the open and provide a voice and an outlet they wouldn’t have even dreamed of a few years ago. Their headlines read, “Who we sleep with is nobody’s business” and “Homophobia and Paranoia: Words that Ryhme.”
The Lebanese Association of Women Researchers ‘Bahithat’ just organized what is dubbed a cornerstone of Arab Feminism through a conference at the American University of Beirut. Women from all over the Middle East - including Iraq and Iran - were there promoting the idea that “change will have to be imposed not demanded anymore” says Lebanese Feminist Zeina Zaatari, one of the most vocal voices at the conference.
The Feminist Collective promoted the event online through social networking sites such as Twitter. They drew the world’s attention to hear the voices of powerful women who gave themselves the right instead of waiting for officials to give them permission to speak or express themselves. Zaatari captured the limelight as she linked a woman’s equality with a woman’s sexual freedom and sexual expression. “A woman can’t be free if she doesn’t own her body and has full control of it and if she doesn’t express her sexuality,” she told me in a phone interview from Beirut.
Another example of women taking matters into their own hands is a quarterly magazine called ‘Jasad’ which means ‘Body’ in Arabic. It’s a racy magazine that was launched by a woman in Lebanon at the end of 2008 dealing with the female body and its deepest sexual desires. ‘Jasad’ is banned and its website is blocked from many Arab countries.
“This doesn’t stop subscriptions from being delivered by courier mail,” founder and editor-in-chief Joumana Haddad told me as she was busily preparing the fifth issue. She says the magazine is doing well despite the fact that “no one dares to advertize” in it. She talks about threats she and her editors receive on a regular basis and unending harassment since they all use their real names. She says it is the support she receives from within the Middle East and outside that keeps her going and that “nothing will stop ‘Jasad’ from being published.”
Several new lines are being drawn in the Middle East’s desert sand simultaneously.... If they continue to be drawn at this rate longer and thicker, it’s hard to foresee any governments, censors or jails being able to stop them.