Beware of the Middle East’s Fake Feminists
Middle Eastern dictators love to use their "enlightened" treatment of women to justify their rule. They shouldn't get away with it.
We’ve all heard the story before: those Arab dictators may be mad with power, but at least they end up treating women better than Islamists do. The Arab world is sorted into states that are good-to-women and bad-to-women, with countries from Morocco to Qatar getting a pass for their supposed progressivism when it comes to feminist issues. In fact, this simplification masks the inequality that persists in these so-called "progressive" states. These authoritarian governments are tricking the world by showing off the few women found within their higher ranks as proof of their liberal stance on women’s issues. But these women are the exception, not the rule.
Take, for example, Bahrain’s Sameera Rajab, minister of state information and official spokesperson. Even as the Bahraini monarchy suppresses an ongoing uprising, it points to Rajab to insist on its inclusiveness and progressivism. Rajab’s position within the Bahraini regime is a standard case of the way states typically embrace feminist causes in the Gulf region. Because of her role in Bahraini government, she defies the dominant perception of Gulf women, which centers on sociopolitical passivity, seclusion, and subjection to patriarchal dominance. At the same time, Rajab’s position as the government’s spokesperson grants her heavy national and international exposure, benefitting her, as well. And, to make this all worse, local and foreign media have done nothing to challenge this convenient narrative.
The Daily Beast recently offered a perfect example of this principle in action by printing an effusive profile of Rajab by columnist Souad Mekhennet. Mekhennet adopts a liberal discourse on state feminism that furthers problematic perceptions of what a "free" Arab woman embodies while disregarding the realities of privilege and power in a country where a monarch reigns absolutely. Seizing upon stereotypical and inadequate measures of liberty, Mekhennet casts Sameera Rajab as an "unveiled" and "Shiite" woman comfortably sitting in Bahrain’s highest echelon. She fixates on Rajab’s "strong voice," and points out that she wears her hair "uncovered" and chooses not "to wear makeup or high heels." She latches onto a superficial conception of a "liberated Arab woman" in the same way that similar characteristics are cited to glorify other former and current female state figures in the region, such as Asma al-Assad, Egypt’s former first lady Suzanne Mubarak, Tunisia’s Leila Trabelsi, Queen Rania of Jordan, and Morocco’s Lalla Salma, among others. This is exactly the type of rhetoric the Bahraini regime would love the Western world to hear.
But the true status of women in Bahrain contrasts dramatically with the image Mekhennet and the Bahraini government aim to convey. Thousands of Bahraini women continue to be victims of a state with paralyzing income inequality that has made no real moves to improve their daily reality. Despite the characterization of Bahrain as a wealthy country, privilege and power remain deeply skewed along class lines. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights released a report that exposes the levels of poverty that plague Bahraini society. The report highlights that the income of the 5,200 wealthiest people in Bahrain averages $4.2 million. Meanwhile 200,000 of Bahrainis live in poverty, nearly half of the Bahraini population. Income inequality comes into heavy play in the context of an authoritarian state, such as Bahrain, where access to capital is jealously guarded by those in power.
Women are far from immune to this. According to the Bahrain Center for Human Rights’ report to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), "Women [in Bahrain] have been the victims of power struggles, sectarian differences, mismanagement of the government, and unfair distribution of national wealth and resources." Moreover, women in Bahrain have been victims of state repression, resulting in injuries and even deaths, such as the death of Bahiya Abdulrasool al-Aradi, who was shot on March 15, 2011 by members of Bahrain’s military as she was driving her car — a crime for which no one was held accountable. This is in addition to the ongoing detainment of women who oppose the regime’s policies, such as Nafeesa al-Asfoor and Zainab al-Khawaja. Al-Khawaja, for example, is serving time for peacefully protesting against the regime on multiple occasions.
Such facts highlighting the Bahraini state’s mistreatment of women go unnoticed in Mekhennet’s portrait of the Bahraini Information Minister. And just as dangerous is other journalists’s willingness to believe the facts that the Bahraini government does share with the media. Sameera Rajab has gained notoriety as a figure who consistently delivers lies and fluff in defense of Bahrain’s ongoing violent and brutal crackdown on protests. Yet, Mekhennet fails to question any of Rajab’s official policy statements. She does not engage Rajab on her complicit role in the violations committed against Bahrainis. She misses the chance to do what journalists are meant to do.
Throughout the article, Mekhennet alludes to Rajab’s Shiite background in an attempt to tokenize Rajab’s position in what is often described as a "Sunni-led government." The regime strives to depict the opposition as uniformly Shiite while portraying itself as a beacon of multi-confessional tolerance. Repeatedly pointing out that Rajab is Shiite lets the Bahraini government win another point for inclusiveness — when, in truth, standard government rhetoric is not so accepting. This mischaracterization threatens to establish a false Sunni-Shiite divide at the center of the ongoing Bahraini revolution.
Mekhennet’s article on Rajab does not come as a surprise since her pieces on Bahrain have a precedence of uncritically embracing state narratives. This is certainly not lost on the Bahraini regime, which previously granted her an interview with the king, then several months later, an interview with Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa.
Flattering press coverage reported through the lens of a regime’s inclusion of women is not unique to Bahrain. Morocco, for example, is another monarchist country that mainstream media has characterized having "evaded" the widespread calls for change that swept the rest of the region. Like Bahrain, Morocco has adopted gender inclusionary policies, and women are among the government’s ranks everywhere from parliament to its ministries. State-allied women have also emerged as senior figures in major industries of the private sector, such as Selwa Akhennouch and Miriem Bensalah-Chaqroun.
Since her marriage with King Mohammed VI, Salma Bennani has become the face of Morocco’s state feminist policies that empower the country’s elite women at the expense of the marginalized and disenfranchised women from the lower classes. As the king’s wife and the chair of her own cancer foundation, Bennani is the first royal spouse to hold such a public presence. She has also been heavily present abroad, attending, for example, high profile royal weddings in Europe. The mediatized fixation on Bennani as a "fashionable" and "modern" woman lends itself to a broader narrative that presumes a country’s level of development can be measured by the position of its high-ranking women. Such a presumption creates a space for authoritarian states like Morocco and Bahrain, among others, to put forth a constructed image as a façade that misrepresents realities on the ground.
The importance of maintaining a critical approach toward state narratives grows greater when those narratives come at a high human cost, as it does in Bahrain and elsewhere in the region. More specifically, it becomes nearly impossible to address women’s rights when social justice, equity, and basic human rights are being violated. While dictators’s wives and high-ranking female officials are presented as exemplars of these regimes honoring "women’s rights," these flawed representations remain largely unchecked.