‘Bad’ Arab Women: The Power of a Label

Bad Girls of the Arab World is an interesting, nuanced, wide-ranging new anthology that is an excellent introduction to feminist activism and scholarship in the region.

The collection of scholarly articles and personal essays looks at many different ways Arab women act “badly”—deliberately challenging the status quo—or are accused of doing so, simply because their experiences or voices expose uncomfortable truths.

The book is inspired by a 2005 book of essays, Bad Girls of Japan, which looked at notions of proper and improper behavior and gender roles in that country. The new anthology’s editors are Nadia Yaqub, an associate professor of Arabic language and culture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Rula Quawas, who was a professor of American literature and feminist theory at the University of Jordan. (Quawas died unexpectedly in 2017 at the age of 57.)

In her introduction, Yaqub notes that “women may choose to transgress social norms, or transgression may be thrust upon them; that the intentions of women who appear to transgress cannot always be known; that transgression occurs within global as well as local discourses that shape decisions, actions and consequences; and that the line separating acceptable from transgressive acts is fluid.”

The collection does not sensationalize or romanticize these acts of transgression. Instead it places them in their historical, political, and social context—including the burden Arab women often bear as representatives of collective honor, and the postcolonial legacy that makes them vulnerable to accusations of betraying their nation or religion.

The books covers recent instances in which Arab female activists have exposed their bodies to make a point. They include Aliaa Elmahdy, who, after publishing a naked self-portrait, left Egypt in March 2012 after receiving many threats; and the Tunisian activist Amina Sboui, who has written political statements upon her naked torso and distributed the images online.

The book also discusses the cases of women whose bodies have been exposed against their will: Sitt al-Banat (or “the girl in the blue bra”) is an Egyptian protester who was publicly assaulted and partly stripped in Cairo’s Tahrir Square by soldiers in 2011; Iman al-Obeidi is a Libyan woman who accused men connected to the Ghaddafi regime of kidnapping and raping her. In both cases the women were held up by some as heroines and victims deserving of sympathy, but also condemned by others for improper behavior, attire and speech.

Bad Girls also discusses the way Israeli and international media painted Palestinian mothers as “bad” for allowing their children to join the second intifada and be killed by Israeli soldiers. It also examines the work of Syrian activist and writer Samar Yazbek, who was forced into exile for speaking out against Bashar El-Assad and her own Alawite community. A chapter is dedicated to the Tunisian official Fayda Hamdi, whose slapping of the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi has been credited with setting off the Arab Spring. In fact, the story is more complicated than that; Hamdi even went to trial in Tunisia to clear her name, arguing of her encounter with Bouazizi: “He is a victim and I am a victim.”

Rula Quawas (who tragically died last year) contributed a chapter on her experience teaching feminist theory and Arab women writers in Jordan. “It is not unusual for Arab women to find their nonconformist thinking or behavior labeled ‘bad,’” wrote Quawas. “Accusations of badness are deployed to assert power over women.”

Quawas’s chapter describes an incident in which four female students in her class created a video on sexual harassment on campus, in which they silently held posters with the words and phrases directed at them. In June 2012, someone posted the video to YouTube and it received half a million hits. While some applauded the video, others “bombarded” the students and Quawas “with a litany of criticism that bordered on emotional and psychological abuse.” The young women were labeled “emotionally unstable, evildoers, harlots, male bashers, un-Islamic and bitchy,” writes Quawas. A professor in the faculty of Sharia organized a protest and called for greater female modesty. Leaflets called for male students to sue Quawas and accused her of being an agent of the West. Yet, argues the professor, the uproar changed things for the better: “Sexual harassment on campus is no longer protected by silence. It is, rather, the subject of intense and continuing debate.”

I found the personal essays of several contributors particularly illuminating. Diya Abdo, an associate professor of English at Guilford College, in North Carolina, who focuses on Arab women writers, Islamic feminism and postcolonial translation, writes beautifully about her difficulties fitting in, both abroad and back home in Jordan.

In the West, she writes, “I didn’t know how to reconcile my feminism with my nationalism. … I felt at every turn I was betraying some aspect of my identity: if I privileged my feminist concerns, I was a national traitor, and if I privileged my postcolonial identity as an Arab and a Muslim, I was being an apologist.”

But after taking a position at the Arab Open University in Jordan, where she loved teaching, she was told her publications and ideas were “unacceptable” at the university and “not in accordance with Arab-Islamic values.” At issue was a paper on the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness and the Lebanese author Hanan al-Shaykh, whose depiction of political conflict Abdo described as “largely dependent on sexual inequality and oppression.”

“To be labeled anti-Islamic is the kiss of death for the Arab woman intellectual,” writes Abdo.

In a meeting, the president of the university lectured her, not on the content of her article, but on “how to dress, how to smile, how to relate to my students, and how I have been doing these things in ways inappropriate.”

Abdo made a very difficult choice and left for a teaching position in the United States. Of the peace she finds in her new position and new life, she writes: “How great the relief. How great the loss.”


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