Indigenous writer Amy McQuire recently penned an op-ed entitled ‘If you think Aboriginal women are silent about domestic violence, you’re not listening’.
The column struck a chord with me. Being of Arab heritage, and therefore a part of one of Australia’s minority cultural groups, I appreciate how difficult it can be for an already-judged community to be vocal on internal struggles. Community judgement stops people from minority groups from talking about important social problems at a national level because, already subjected to outside scrutiny, they are aware that their culture is consistently maligned and simplified to one of violent tendencies.
Australia has its own troubling domestic violence record. But to hear feminists talk about the trials of women elsewhere in the world, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the violence against women here is somehow unusual or an anomaly. It’s not. In fact, we’ve got a problem so damning that Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced a national summit to tackle domestic violence, the numbers for which are difficult to truly capture through research.
It was no surprise then, that when on a recent trip to the Middle East to research a book on Arab women, I wasn’t the only one asking questions.
Given many of the women I spoke to were activists, social workers and lawyers, women’s issues –including the violation of women’s rights in the Arab world – were always truthfully and openly discussed. But their perspectives were far from simplistic takes on their society. Their perspectives weren’t marred by prejudice; their focus was based in reality.
These women had put thought into the western take on Arab society and the position of women within it because they have observed the scrutiny and judgment that comes from western societies. From a woman who has spent a large part of her adult professional life helping women to heal from their own experiences of violence in Lebanon came this: “Did you know that Australia has some of the worst domestic violence figures in the world?”
Then, from a woman who has led the way in shifting cultural acceptance of so-called honour killings in Jordan: “I don’t need somebody from the west to come and tell me that killing a woman is wrong, I’m sorry”.
Others seemed mildly intrigued or amused by the half-hearted western desire to “save Arab women”. There was never any denial that Arab society has issues, especially ones relating to the status of poor and uneducated women. In fact, I’ve never met people so determined to change the status quo. But their concern wasn’t appeasing the west.
That the Arab world is fiercely examined and judged for the status of women cannot be denied. The countries and their cultures are chided, the men diminished to power-hungry misogynists. In her book The Veiled Lands, Australian journalist Christine Hogan spoke of Jordan’s “shame” regarding so-called honour killings. A few sentences later, she acknowledged the appalling track record on violence against women by other nations. Crimes of passion in the west, disguised as ‘ordinary crimes’, don’t attract the same disgust, she acknowledged. Knowing this, however, did not prevent the condescending use of the word ‘shame’ against a country that, by no means, has the worst domestic violence numbers.
“I don’t need somebody from the west to come and tell me that killing a woman is wrong, I’m sorry”.
Talking about violence against women should not be simplified to stats. But there is a damaging layer of hypocrisy when we talk about Arab women and their so-called oppressed lives. It seeps into the work on the ground when non-government organisations (NGOs) select the latest cause to support, splintering activists who must pledge loyalty a single cause if they’re to stay afloat. I lost count of the number of times women in the Arab world told me that women’s rights activists are splintered due to such conditions around funding. Essentially, if an NGO decides that tackling the murder of women is the cause du jour, then that’s all the funded organisation is allowed to focus on or speak up about. It can damage a cause and greatly set back progress.
Moreover, in the west, we easily rattle off criticisms of patriarchal societies without blinking, despite problems on home soil. When we speak of violence and sexual assault against women in other countries, we look for explanations embedded in culture, ones that we use to explain it, even as we admonish the culture in its entirety for breeding acts of violence.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than the sorry affair of con artist, Norma Khouri: the hoax author who won the hearts and minds of westerners with her tale of the so-called honour killing of her best friend in Jordan. So strong was the hunger to simplify Arab men into unfeeling monsters when Khouri wrote the wobbly and simplistic memoir Forbidden Love, she was not even fact-checked by her editors, a point made in Anna Broinowski’s excellent documentary, Forbidden Lies. Khouri was believed without hesitation, even after Jordanian activists alerted her publishers to the anomalies in the book.
Khouri’s deception set back the movement against these kinds of murders substantially. Fans of the book wrote to genuine activists, abusing them for the crimes of others. Forbidden Love was a perfect example of how we not only capitalise on the Arab women tropes that pervade media, but also the collective thirst to believe it without question.
The women (and men) in the Arab world who actively work to improve the lives of women who have suffered or continue to suffer from domestic violence understand how to navigate certain cultures that believe women are not as strong or capable as men when managing their own lives.
They have the desire to create change because they are not watching from afar but living it. Most importantly, they appreciate that to enact long-term, lasting change it’s the cultural root that has to be cut away, not simply laws that facilitate its existence.
It’s time we started taking these women seriously.
Amal Awad is currently working on a new book, Beyond Veiled Cliches: The Lives of Arab Women.