I will call her Hadaf. At 34, her resumé impresses: a BA in graphic design from Yarmouk University; a stint with a high-flying advertising agency; top job in a global company; and, recently, an MBA from the London Business School. In Jordan, among the well-heeled, a decent education and a career with the tight skirts to match are not unusual.
Dig a little deeper though and you learn that her life charts the hard-going struggles of Arab women to transform their unforgiving circumstances into a better set of odds.
“Inch by inch,” she says. "This is how I escaped marriage at 16 to a car mechanic, how I shortened my skirts and rolled up my sleeves a little; how I managed to get to Yarmouk, how I waitressed there, and in the Hard Rock Café in Amman. I lobbied my mother, talked my father to death, had him visit my dorms, had him meet the owners of the restaurants where I worked. I was making a living, so it was difficult for them to argue with that."
In fact, Hadaf engineered her escape from the car mechanic by parading in a T-shirt in front of his garage. “He was the one who broke off the engagement,” she says, with pride.
Suad is 22, with a budding career in community development. Two months ago she set aside the veil she’d worn since youth, inspired by the rousing theme of nonconformity threading through her English Lit courses at the University of Amman. “As a woman, you worry about consequences,” she says, “but then you take a step, then another after that, and another after that. You make use of every opening.” Her father was delighted to see her let her hair down, but the backlash at work, especially among the men, has been upsetting. Suad shrugs: “better this than hypocrisy,” she says.
On their own such triumphs as Suad’s and Hadaf’s stand as heartening anecdotes on the margins of what is a crushingly discouraging situation for Arab women.
One is tempted to ask: only this, after so many years of struggle? But pulled together and read differently, these small victories create a different norm of empowerment that draws strength from the very subtlety of the ‘dissident’ acts themselves.
US-based sociologist Asef Bayat calls this persistent haggling for better terms and more space on the everyday terrain of education, sport, art and work, the “art of presence”. Its methods contrast sharply with the vocal public activism championed in the West with good reason: Arab women are much more effective in extricating concessions from systems that are lethally unresponsive to organized action.
This is not to suggest that the Arab region has been free of concerted public advocacy for gender rights. But that advocacy, too, has had to be a rather genteel prodding of the state, balancing its masculine sensibilities with emphatic demands for better legal protections.
If the prospects for Arab women in these potentially revolutionary times seem grim, it is because we’ve been here before. When men mobilized against colonial powers in the 20th century, women moved along with them, hoping that some of the resulting freedoms would include them. They didn’t. And as dictatorships quickly took root across the region, liberation ended up offering little to the men themselves.
As Islamists reap the rewards of last year’s Arab uprisings, the fear now is that history will repeat itself. Worse still, that Islamism will connive to overturn what little rights women have already won, whilst bolstering the patriarchal prerogative stubbornly entrenched in custom, religion and the law.
In this context, it is telling that the hijab has become every other female’s constant companion. Just as, in the first years after independence, it was the relatively better educated, more affluent women who were first to unveil, so the daughters of the rising middle classes were first to put it back on, sending it up the same flagpole of identity politics.
If you listen to the arguments of the hijab’s early champions, however, you find yourself weaving a paradox of defiance in retreat, of empowerment through conformity. For the more women went about their business freely in public, the more the indignities piled up in the hustle and bustle of life in, say, 1970s Cairo.
On buses, at work, in the neighbourhood, at university, there boomed the loud discomforts of a society that had never accepted women as full partners in the public sphere. Hence the merciless harassment that has turned a supposed act of emancipation into a sellout to Western corruption.
Talk to women veiling-up today and the stories you hear possess the same complex weave. Yet even the most sensitive reading of the veil and its many meanings cannot avoid the rueful question posed by Jordanian activist Samar Dudin: “What kind of free choice is it, when you’re making it out of fear, or need for sutra (protection), or intolerable peer pressure, or just, for the love of God, to be left alone? How do you practice free choice in the absence of even a semblance of freedom?”
If Dudin is correct, how optimistic dare we be in our predications?
Barely a few pages into this new era in Arab history, you could sketch it every which way you like. For every female friend of mine who sees a magnificent opportunity, I have another doubting the odds. Meanwhile, the news keeps churning out headlines about us that lift the spirits, only to sink them again almost immediately.
This is an extract from an article in Aeon magazine.