5 Arab World Taboos Contributing to Women’s Oppression

By: Aliah

Within the recent years, the notion that women are ‘oppressed’ has come to light, the belief that the society we are in uses their authority to push women down is more widespread. Specifically, in the MENA region, but what does it mean to be oppressed? Honestly, when trying to think of what oppresses me as a female in the middle east, I was stumped. I realized that the reason I didn’t feel actively oppressed was due to the fact that I had internalized the nature of the society I was in and adapted around it. Hence, I am in a state of oppression but I don’t actively recognize it as it has been part of my entire life. In the MENA region there are many things that have just been put aside in the name of ‘that’s just how society works’ but the lack of conversation and highlighting of that problematic nature enables female oppression to take place. Listed below are the least talked about topics – that can be considered ‘taboo’ – that help contribute to women’s policing, violation, extortion, and oppression.

  1. Clothes

Clothes may not be considered a taboo topic yet within the Arab world, the clothes a female wears justifies almost any situation. There have been numerous amounts of times that wearing something that is somewhat revealing opens females up for sexual harassment, discrimination and prejudice- all due to cotton and maybe polyester. This is not to say that women who dress modestly do not face the same harassment; it just amplifies the fact that the woman becomes the target for her outfit rather than the offender. There is mass sexualization of clothes and this socially constructed notion that a woman wearing tight or ‘immodest clothing’ relates to her wanting attention and ‘asking for it’ is disgusting. Let’s take shorts, in this 50-degree weather, nothing is more annoying than seeing males freely wear shorts and relaxing yet I have to wear full length pants as a form of ‘protection’ from the men wearing shorts. I once wore a knee length dress when it was 47 degrees outside and 2 people honked at me on the street. My legs, that are used to prop me up, walk me places are demeaned to sex. My intention when wearing that dress was not to look sexy or attract attention, it was practical and suitable for the weather we are in. It was not out of the cultural norm at all, but god forbid, my shin and ankle showed hence I deserved to be cat called. We as society need to recognize that a female’s clothes do not ever justify judgement. Clothes are a mere form of self-expression and empowerment, the sooner we internalize that the better. The argument that, “this the society we are in, they must respect our culture” further oppresses women because rather than change the narrative we choose to condemn women for a choice. The point-blank fact is, women should have a right to wear clothing and not face harassment or judgement, if men can have the freedom of choice when it comes to clothing so should females. And if you take a page out of the religion and feel as if they are immoral, learn how to ‘lower your gaze’.

  1. Mixed friend groups

When you walk around the mall and see girls and boys interact, does it bother you? Or is it just a common occurrence? Unfortunately, there are many that do get irked by the thought of mixing genders in friend groups. Look around, the amount of segregated schools that surround us is shocking and even more so the pressure for co-ed schools to become segregated. There is this underlying subconscious message that males and females should be kept separate yet it is heavily enforced on women. Rather than allow for women and men to co-exist alongside each other and teach them that they can be friends, the separation purely enforces that women and men can’t be friends which is detrimental on both sides. It enables men to be desperate and more persistent with the females they can interact with and for females that break this ‘law’ they are shamed and degraded. In this case both males and females lose, yet the consequences for females are much worse. There is this invalid belief that women must be sheltered and looked over, that they are not deserving of their own independence- they don’t even have the right to choose their own friends. In the world where both males and females need to work together in the workplace and co-exist, separating them from early on solidifies the notion that men and females should not interact. How can we expect men to stop harassing and objectifying us if we continue to shelter females as if they are some ‘treasure’, through interaction and dialogue we can educate them on what it’s like to be females?  The lack of interaction of both genders already has dire consequences, unhappy marriages, females not being able to recognize emotional abuse and manipulation and many more. Luckily, with the newer generation this is changing, female and male interactions are becoming more common and even though it is still frowned upon. We have stopped caring. 

  1. Mental health 

In general, both male and female suffer from lack of awareness of mental health, yet due to female’s biological nature and mass media, women in the middle east aren’t taken as seriously as they should. At any time when we express an emotion or a thought that is out of the norm it can be perceived as due to our ‘hormones’. We literally get invalidated because of our own biological makeup…. Seriously? Now, I am not discrediting chemistry, yes, our hormones do fluctuate and can cause mood swings- but when I am sad, do not use hormones to invalidate or demean my sadness. Even when I experience any type of emotion that isn’t happy, I become seen as ‘emotional’ and it is assumed I am on my period, at this point if a woman expresses too much emotion she is ‘hysteric’ but when she doesn’t express any she is unfeminine and not motherly. So how can we win as females when there already is a belief system set up to already predetermine our personality?  A Cambridge journal written by Suhaila Ghuloum highlighting the gender differences in the middle east states that “men are allowed more

freedom than women, including freedom of expression.” Allowing for “a generation of young women who are referred for psychiatric treatment by their parents because they are rebelling against society’s cultural norms.” Instead of females that actually have mental health issues due to fear of shame from their family. As aforementioned, the lack of freedom of expression causes repression and frustration which in turn leads to females feeling trapped and lashing out. Yet instead of recognizing how the boundaries we impose can hurt one’s mental health we impose even more boundaries, limiting phone time, limiting the clothes they are able to wear, the people they can see. Our voices are heard yet not listened to. 

  1. Opinionated Women

Women in the middle east are more likely to continue their studies to higher education than men despite this being true, women’s voices and opinions are less heard. As a female in this society I have to work 2X harder than my male counterpoint to get my point across. Living in a patriarchal society where the men rule everything and females are supposed to be domestic and feminine, it is easy to forget females have political opinions too. Every time I have debated and argued, I get called passive aggressive and angry, rather than passionate and articulate. People would much rather listen to the tone of a female’s voice rather than the words she is saying. I have heard men scream out their thoughts and no one bats an eye yet the minute there is a twinge of passion in a female’s voice- she’s coming off too strong, she should ‘chill’. It is almost as if once a female empowers herself and uses her voice and thoughts, it becomes a threat and it must be shut down, our confidence gets taken for superiority. We don’t hear sexist ‘get back to the kitchen’ jokes when a man expresses their opinion. Society is not ready to understand that females have voices too, and although they aren’t as prominent, they will continue to get louder regardless of what society thinks of us. I take pride in the ‘passive aggression’ I have, because I get remembered. My voice was heard and many other females alike will be heard. 

  1. Sex education/ periods

I remember vividly being in a biology class when a classmate of mine mentioned that if being on my period was such an inconvenience then I should “quarantine until its over”. The shock that came over me in that moment, a 17-year-old male, just described being on a period as if it was an infectious disease. Unfortunately, a purely biological thing is seen just like that, a weakness. Why is it so taboo to tell people that you are on your period? It is a completely normal thing yet it is gatekeeped as if it is so impure that to even talk about it taints people’s image of you. The lack of proper information on period is shocking, men minimizing our cramps because it can’t be as bad as getting hit in the balls. They both hurt okay? Pain is pain? Why are you trying to one up that? Periods aren’t a weakness, a girl doesn’t have to be pampered to the fullest during this time, we function just as well on our periods. And another closely related topic is female sexual health; this one is also a big one. Amongst men talks about masturbation, and sex in general is more common and accepted. On the other hand, with females it is as if masturbation and sex does not exist, this double standard further traps women into this impossible ‘angelic’ expectation and the immense shame they go under for breaking this norm is unacceptable. Females should freely be able to talk about their sexual endeavors and buy contraceptives without getting dirty looks or face discrimination. All of these things start with educating the youth on sex education, menstruation but in a better way. Rather than just stick a diagram of the ovaries and mention multiple hormones like LH and FSH and expect everyone to understand (As a female when I was taught about the ‘logistics’ of a period in high school, I did not understand a word.).- talk about the social implications, how it affects life in general. People who don’t have periods need to be able to understand what it is we go through and that starts through better education and straight up talking about it even though it might be gross, or uncomfortable. Being knowledgeable and listening to someone’s voice helps them get heard. It moves society forward one person at a time. 

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