Fishing in Troubled Waters .. Or How Traps Are Set for Feminists in Arab Countries?

The term “fishing in troubled waters” means every act intended to ensnare a person or entity, using fallacies or false information or taking advantage of an opportunity to achieve this purpose.

Let us imagine that water is our Arab world, and the “fish” are feminists, whether they are activists or work for non-profit organizations. As for the ones who are doing the “fishing”, they are the people who seize every opportunity to demonize feminists, and every time the water becomes muddied, they jump to the scene trying in every way to distort them and accuse them of westernization, foreign labor, or seeking to destroy the family.


But the water – and by that I mean the political and social climate – is always muddy, and the fishermen are ready, which makes feminist activity in our Arab region in itself a difficult exercise on the political and social levels.


This activity was never popular, even if it was skillfully mobilized around. Our societies and governments are afflicted by patriarchy and overflowing with masculinity. Despite this, it is treated as having an effect similar to that of official authorities or governments. Sometimes feminists are required to talk about one thing, or they are stigmatized for not talking about another. Sometimes their rhetoric and activism are accused of superficiality or westernization, in addition to the constant attacks of people who are not concerned with women’s issues as much as they care to set traps for feminists using these issues.


Fishermen, electronic flies, conservative forces, religious forces, and all those who have ever stood up to feminists from governments, groups, and individuals hurl accusations, pick priorities, block bills, detain women’s advocates, or ban them from traveling. They presume to be preserving the family, religion, identity, and the priorities of the struggle. They use rhetoric that insults feminists and calls for them to change the universe: Why do you talk about the hijab and not about women who are breadwinners? Why do you talk about domestic violence and forget the crimes of the occupation army? Why do you talk about the female victims/survivors of sexual violence and not about the male victims/survivors of sexual violence?


Believe it or not, they don’t care about women breadwinners, nor about the crimes of the occupation army, nor about the male survivors of sexual violence. They don’t even have the audacity to be openly anti-feminists.


They cover their hatred of feminism with their fear for poor, breadwinner women, as if feminists’ discourse ignores them. They clothe their hatred of us with their fear for teenage girls of our speech; Because they want them unaware of their physical and sexual rights.

They impose struggle priorities on feminists because they do not imagine women being able to formulate feminist political discourses without them being the reference as men. They are very disturbed by the loud voices of feminists. Wherever they are and whatever their activities and discourse, they will find persecution, accusations, insults and humiliation, because firstly they are women, and secondly they have loud voices and are not subject to the patriarchal separation between the public and private spaces.


Feminists are fighting political feminist battles with governments on the one hand, and other battles for existence with the haters of the feminist movement and the beneficiaries of the patriarchal system on the other.

Between Governments, Groups, And Individuals: The Targeting of Feminists Continues

On the 14th of last October, clashes took place in Lebanon, dubbed “the events of Tayouneh,” as a result of which the Lebanese Maryam Farhat became the victim of a fight in which she did not participate. Maryam’s murder is the light shed on the civilians who paid the price of corruption and violence in the country. That in and of itself is a feminist issue.


Talking about the corruption of power and its impact on female citizens is a feminist issue, and when fingers were pointed at feminists and feminist organizations in Lebanon that “they were blind to her killing because of her sectarian affiliation and her veil,” this was revealing of several things. The most important of these was the targeting of activists and feminist organizations, accusing them of bias, claiming that Maryam was a “veiled Shiite”.

They did not answer an important question before making accusations: Was Maryam targeted because she was a veiled Shiite? Is Maryam a victim of gender-based violence? Was she targeted because she is a woman? Despite the clarity of the answer, they chose to target feminists online with insults and accusations of westernization and sectarian bias.


This incident is not new. Many feminist organizations and activists are constantly being targeted. As happened in Lebanon recently, it happened in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia.

We have a reality full of examples, and if we talk about governments and authorities targeting feminists, we will not find a clearer example than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where feminists were arrested and their rhetoric to reject guardianship and the right to drive were exploited, to build a modern image of the Kingdom, while the feminists who started talking about the poor conditions of Saudi women were violated in prisons.


There is a constant lurk on the Internet for young Saudi women seeking help from domestic violence or forced confinement in care homes. The stalkers inform the authorities or the abusive family, after which the young woman disappears if she does not succeed in escaping outside the country.


In Egypt, the authorities froze the balances and bank accounts of women’s rights defenders and feminist organizations and included their names in a case known in the media as the foreign funding case, in addition to a 5-year travel ban.


As for examples of the Egyptian authority’s cooperation with those who stalk women on the Internet, it is mentioned that the arrest of young women who used the TikTok application in 2020 came against the backdrop of the conservative majority’s condemnation on social media that these young women “do not abide by the moral code and class boundaries imposed on women.”


As for the most pointless targets, they are groups that are created specifically to target feminists on the Internet, and what we know in Egypt as “The armies of hahaha.” They are men targeting Egyptian feminist Facebook accounts using the “made me laugh” feature on posts that contain violence against women or repost their posts and videos with the aim of ridicule.


While in Palestine, targeting takes an organizational form. There is a group with more than 20,000 members dedicated to defaming individuals, feminist organizations, and queer groups in the country. The group is known as the “Mass Movement to Overthrow CEDAW” and those responsible for it reject the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women – CEDAW. They also consider it a threat to the Palestinian family and the values upon which Palestinian society is based. The funny thing is that the group not only considers the struggle of Palestinian feminists against domestic violence as foreign labor, but also rejects raising the age of marriage and supports the marriage of minors as well.


And at the beginning of this year in Jordan, Layan – a young Jordanian woman – published a video clip in which she tells how she is subjected to domestic violence and sexual harassment from her brothers, which sparked a widespread uproar about the file of domestic violence in Jordan and the lack of laws protecting Jordanian women. Intersections, a Jordanian feminist group, supported Layan, but the group was targeted online because of this solidarity, and was accused of seeking to destroy the Jordanian family. The targeting included demands for the group’s leaders to stop talking about Layan and domestic violence in Jordan altogether.


In Morocco, an amendment to the law criminalizing abortion was proposed in 2015, but conservative and Islamic forces protested and refused to pass the bill. Moroccan authorities have targeted women who are believed to have deviated from social norms. Moroccan journalist Hajar Raissouni was arrested after she had an abortion in 2019.


Moroccan feminists launched a campaign entitled: “Outlaws” in solidarity with Hajar and demanding the legalization of abortion. However, several months after the campaign was launched, one of its founders, Karima Nader, was personally targeted by bullying and defamation from groups of “trolls” – or digital bullies.


Despite the feminist movement in Tunisia, which has achieved gains not achieved by any Arab country until today, there are criticisms of feminists and accusations of “classism and subjugation” in state agencies that use feminist issues to achieve political gains, such as elections and obtaining international support.


On this matter, the Tunisian feminist activist Ferial Charafeddine said in an interview with the “Sharika Walaken” website, “The state is indeed exploiting women’s issues to achieve political gains, but that does not mean rejecting those gains completely, but rather benefiting from them and working to expand its focus to include larger segments of Tunisian women, with their different social classes, religious backgrounds, level of education and employment status.


In her opinion, “the exploitation of women’s issues extends to Islamic parties and individuals as well.” Ferial herself was subjected to a smear campaign because of her feminist activism, and she was targeted by trolls for 3 years with bullying, defamation, and accusations of westernization and foreign labor.


We Are not Official Government Agencies

Whether the feminists are involved in organizations or independent, they practice public civil activity. The name is not accidental, because every civil person has the right to engage in public activity to criticize the authority or urge it to adopt certain policies. The only entity that is called upon is the official body that issues the policies and implements them. We are witnessing a grassroots feminist movement in several Arab countries in recent years, it included calls for changing laws or highlighting violence against women. Feminist demands have long been directed at governments and people in decision-making positions.


Feminists and women’s organizations know how public activism works. The fishermen who make claims to feminists are the opposite of themselves, as if they are in official positions that allow them to change policies, enact laws, or prevent violence.


If feminists were in a position to allow this, this would not be the case for women in Arab countries. The question now is, why shouldn’t feminists be asked to talk about this or not to talk about this? Our answer is that every feminist, organization or activist has her own priorities and is entitled to choose her own discourse. She is not a head of state to whom you can address your demands or criticize her because she is talking about “X” and not talking about “Y” and vice versa. In addition, her choice to be an activist does not oblige her to adopt a specific discourse or to speak about an issue other than the one she chooses for herself. Many feminist organizations and movements have websites and accounts on social media, announcing their goals and vision.


So, what you can do if you see that there is something important that feminists are not talking about, is to talk about it yourself. Practicing public activity in the Arab world is not easy, especially in countries that exercise security restrictions on male and female actors in the public political sphere. It is unfair to demand that others perform a dangerous practice because they are feminists.

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