January 29, 2010
“Sex is a right,” one woman in the audience asserted, immediately qualifying her statement, “It’s in the Qur’an.” The room was tense with impassioned Arab women, each politely struggling to be patient while anxious syllables escaped their throats. “We should be able to discuss sex without talking about religion,” another woman remarked.
The 3rd Annual New Arab Woman Forum (NAWF) invited women from across the Middle East and North Africa to discuss the role Arab women play in politics, society, media, and education. However, the conversation always found its way back to one subject—sex. At $300 per ticket, the conference attracted an exclusive crowd of over 600 women; more notable, perhaps, were those excluded from the conference. While poverty was discussed at the forum, I do not suppose there were many poor people in attendance. A colorful version of the truth landed me an invitation as a member of the American press reporting for the University of Texas Center for Women’s and Gender Studies.
I met women from Egypt, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, Sudan, Bahrain, and even some European countries. However, most of the attendees were local Lebanese women. Many Americans might assume that all Arab women don a burka, wear hijab, or at least dress conservatively; to the contrary, women in Beirut are famous for their flashy fashion. Although the awkward mingling that takes place at such events later substantiated the fact that most of the attendees were Lebanese, initial clues lied in the perfect hair, doll-like make-up, stylish heels, tight skirts, and shades of red, pink, and orange nail polish that made the event look more like a fashion show than a conference. The subtleties of perfection reiterated that Lebanese beauty was not a one-day affair; instead, I got the impression of pre-prom preparation. Every detail was taken into consideration from head to toe. Of course, these observations do not address all Lebanese women, but they describe a trend that was undeniably apparent at the conference.
Lebanese women are often thought to be the most beautiful of Arab women, but this focus on beauty, which is common throughout the Arab world, leads to internal (personal) and external (societal) conflict that dominated much of the discussion at NAWF. “Why do we compete so viciously to be beautiful?” asked panelist Fawziya Salama, Egyptian journalist and TV persona. “To attract men? And then do what with them?” Salama described the way men in the streets make comments to women as they pass by or “birmoo kilma,” which literally translates into “ they throw a word.” It is an impersonal exchange supported by men’s control of public spaces, and something I have become very familiar with living in Jordan. To deter this behavior, many people often repeat a common adage, “If a man makes perverse comments to women on the streets, other men will make similar comments to his sister or mother.” Salama explained such a proverb takes a male-centric approach towards what could arguably be considered sexual harassment, “this saying ignores the way women are affected by objectionable comments and focuses instead on how men feel.”
The conversation continued on into the lunch break. The consensus at my table seemed to be that sexualized images of Arab women in the media are contributing to the sexual mis-education of Arab youth. “Our culture is a culture of silence when it comes to sex,” one woman told me. “The next generation is being bombarded with sexual images and there is no one to guide them, answer questions, or even address health concerns and STDs.” Globalization is forcing the Middle East to confront and address issues related to sex and sexuality that have been traditionally contained by cultural and religious conservatism.
As NAWF came to an end, I overheard two women express their disappointment stating that nothing was accomplished at the forum. However, the conference itself was an accomplishment. I was reminded of the role that consciousness raising plays in the struggle for equality and self-actualization. I appreciated the insight the speakers had to offer, but the biggest thrill came from members of the audience. Many of these women were more than passionate; they were angry. Some women spoke with tears in their eyes, others screamed, a few even fought, and one woman spoke for way, way too long. The women in the audience were so eager to speak and to be heard in a public space with an audience of influential people.
(A special thanks to Alamo Heights Rotary Club and Rotary District 5840 for making my experience abroad possible.)