NEW YORK – When caricature takes the place of dialogue, everyone suffers – especially when it comes to understanding issues affecting women, who struggle worldwide against being silenced. Some right-wing American bloggers recently twisted an article that I wrote in a way that did just that.
I wrote that many women activists in Muslim countries tend to emphasize issues such as honor killings, legal inequality, and lack of access to education, and that they express frustration that the obsession among Westerners with Muslim women’s clothing can come at the expense of these concerns. I also pointed out that many Muslim feminists defend their dress in terms of nationalism, anti-imperialism, or as a matter of faith.
This provoked a small firestorm of distortion in the West: “Wolf Wants to Institutionalize the Burka,” etc. It was depressing to see a simple appeal for Westerners to listen to Muslim women deliberately distorted into a representation of all Muslim women as meek, will-less beings in need of rescue.
I was so sure that Muslim women should be allowed to speak for themselves because of the faces of Muslim feminism I encountered in recent travels – notably in Jordan, a country fascinatingly poised between tradition and innovation, developing under a forward-looking monarchy that is seeking to modernize and, to an extent, democratize. For those Westerners who worry about Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world, surely Jordan is a worthy model to understand, support, and engage.
The women leaders I met in Amman were not saying, “Please tell the West to save us.” They were too busy making egalitarian, modernist new worlds of their own, with an Arab, and often Islamic, imprimatur.
Princess Rym Ali, sister-in-law of Queen Rania – the Chanel-wearing media star who is rebranding a more contemporary Jordan – is one vivid example; Princess Rym is making immense progress in a more behind-the-scenes way. She met me in a leafy Amman suburb, in the palace that she shares with Prince Ali and their small children. A former CNN journalist, her quiet bearing and diplomatic manner belie her courage: she captured her husband’s heart as she was reporting from Baghdad on the eve of “shock and awe,” standing firm before the cameras even as the bombs were falling.
Princess Rym and Prince Ali have supported a new film institute, the Red Sea Institute of Cinematic Arts, a joint production with the University of Southern California that is bringing together bright young people from all over the Middle East to learn contemporary filmmaking, apprentice with international film productions, and get the region’s stories out. Though she can no longer practice journalism directly, Princess Rym is also co-founding new Jordanian journalism school. Her aim is to replace journalists’ acceptance of the “party line” – even if the party is her own extended family – with a more critical perspective.
She directed my attention to Jordanian-made films about the subordination of women inside the home, and to Rana Husseini’s powerful book on honor killings, Murder in the Name of Honor . But her implicit message was that these critical examinations of women’s inequality in the Arab world are most enlightening when they are created by women’s advocates from within that culture, rather than sensationalized or superficial versions of the problem created in the West.
Mary Nazzal, owner, with her family, of a chic and bustling boutique hotel, is another dynamo who looks as if she stepped out of a fashion shoot. But it would be a mistake to underestimate her seriousness. I call her “Martha Stewart meets Che Guevara,” because, when not renovating the elegant public spaces of her hotel, she is suing Israeli generals for war crimes that she claims were committed against civilians in Gaza.
Nazzal was trained as a British barrister, and chairs the board of the Human Rights Legal Aid Fund. Her organization is intent on using international law to hold accountable members of the Israeli military who put civilians in harm’s way during the invasion of Gaza – events that the recent Goldstone Report confirms. She is passionate about the Palestinian cause, mixing her cutting-edge legal advocacy with a willingness to listen to decent people from all sides of the conflict, and a fierce attachment to peace in the region based on due process and justice.
Finally there is Rana Husseini herself – a role model for investigative reporters everywhere who began documenting and investigating honor killings in her newspaper, The Jordan Times . Honor killings claim an estimated 5,000 women every year, and are increasingly common in immigrant communities abroad. According to her account, a woman can be killed for “laughing at a joke in the street, wearing makeup or a short skirt…or being raped by a brother.”
After she began her series of reports, Husseini received death threats at her office almost daily – as well as hundreds of letters of support from readers. As a result of her brave investigations, which included interviews in prisons, many Muslim countries are revising their criminal codes, and the issue has taken center stage internationally.
These women are exactly the kind of leaders that everyone should be cultivating and supporting, rather than overlooking because of a belief that they cannot exist in the Middle East. We would do better to find out more about them than to waste our time on superficial debates about how they – and many others who are just as accomplished – should dress.