Women have the power to shape the world in their image
In 1936, in an effort to westernize Iran, Reza Shah banned the women of his country from wearing the veil. Police were ordered to physically remove the veil from any woman who wore it in public. Across Iran, women were beaten and had their headscarves and chadors torn off. While many of the country’s westernized upper class hailed this as a bold move to yank Iranian society into modernity, what Reza Shah ultimately did was turn dress into an integral problem of Iranian politics. Decades later, after Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 revolution against Reza Shah’s son, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, the issue of the veil was again a central theme. This time, the new Islamic authorities imposed a mandatory dress code that required all women to wear the hijab.
Even today, pictures of women from either time period are used to demonstrate how pious or modern a state is or used to be. Though the vast majority of such “before versus after” images come from the east (Iran, Afghanistan and the Gulf states, for example), it is by no means an oriental issue. Women are instruments of public propaganda wherever you go.
In the West, numerous political parties use women and their bodies as propaganda tools in different ways. Debates about birth control and abortion resurface in every election in many Western states. In others, certain dress codes are still being imposed in the name of “liberalism.” In 2016, a number of French cities famously banned burkinis, citing disrespect to “good customs and secularism.”
There is a long history of male politicians using women to benefit their political agenda, submit to the demands of religious groups, or simply gain public support. And the reason they keep using women this way is because it is a strategy that works.
Projecting the impact of any policy or legislation on women and framing it in such a way that emphasizes patriarchal notions of family honor, social purity, male chivalry and guardianship is a sure and quick way to rally people around your cause. On the other hand, promoting policies that allegedly “liberate” or empower women or position the state, party or society as ones that are progressive is a sure strategy to win over women and liberals.
It remains as true as ever that men everywhere always have an opinion when it comes to women. All it takes — for someone aiming for stronger social or political standing — is to gauge public opinion and do some quick math and see which women-related policies will yield the biggest gains in terms of votes or economic benefit. Funnily enough, what is deemed acceptable or not for a woman to do, wear or be can conveniently change based on these same factors.
Prior to the Second World War, most American women were homemakers. Nothing seemed odd about it, and no one thought to start a campaign to let housewives know that they could be anything else. Until the war, that is. Once America entered the war, men went off to fight in their millions. The government then initiated a massive publicity campaign to persuade women to replace men on the assembly lines in factories and defense plants. They produced posters and film reels of glamorous women in the workplace to entice the homemakers to serve their country as part of the home front labor force. We are all familiar with Rosie the Riveter, the confident-looking woman wearing coveralls and a red bandana and flexing her muscles under the headline, “We Can Do It!” Rosie became the inspiration for female liberation. But why did it take war to break out to give women the chance to make life choices?
During the 2012 presidential election in Egypt, a joke that demonstrated the use of women in serving political agendas went viral. The joke went something like this: “If you vote for the Islamists, your mother will be forced to wear a burka. If you vote for the liberals, your mother will be forced to take off her hijab. Is there anyone we can vote for that would leave our mother alone?”
Egyptian humor always gets me, but that particular joke hit something closer to home because it sums up the reality of women as instruments of propaganda around the world. In a previous article, I wrote that women’s bodies are a center for proxy wars between various adversaries trying to get back at one another. Women will always be viewed as objects and tools for self-gain so long as they are seen as extensions of a male and not as independent entities with free will and choice.
For the longest time, our narrative has been written by men. This included what we were allowed to wear, what we were allowed to do and who we were allowed to be. We are now in a position to tell our own stories, create our own icons and pave our own paths to make the world look more like the “us” we choose to be.
In the Middle East, women now have multiple outlets at the tips of their fingers to tell the world who they are. With the rise of social media and the regression of traditional media, women have more control over the content they want to put out to the world. Social media has also given us the platform to create virtual groups to support one another, discuss our ideas, hone our talents and push the boundaries set for us by others.
New age media outlets have given individual women their voices back, and we should use them to empower one another and claim the position we want to take in the world.
Access to formal and informal education is another factor that has worked in the favor of women over the past few decades. This incredible access to knowledge through various platforms has enabled women to learn more about their rights, abilities and opportunities in every field. Gone are the days when knowledge was monopolized by a certain gender or social class. Women today are more aware of religious debates and various views, are able to fight social barriers with their emotional intelligence and mastery of skills that are valued and sought after by modern economies, and are equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge for today’s job markets. This simple yet profound fact continues to empower women all over the globe.
As of 2015, the ratio of female to male tertiary enrolment in the region is 108 percent. However, 13 of the 15 countries with the lowest rate of female participation in the workforce are in the Arab world. Although Arab women’s progress in formal education has not yet earned them the economic progress they deserve, there is every reason to believe they will soon succeed in achieving greater economic prosperity. It is estimated that, by 2025, the market power of women’s participation in the workforce could add $2.7 trillion to the region’s economy.
New age media outlets have given individual women their voices back, and we should use them to empower one another.
Maria Hanif Al-Qassim
Arab women have also proven to be resourceful, courageous and risk-tolerant when it comes to entrepreneurship. In 2018, a study showed that a third of startups in the Arab world are founded or led by women — a higher figure than that of Silicon Valley. Their ability to leverage the internet and engage through online platforms has enabled them to overcome societal barriers to entering the workforce and starting their own businesses.
At the Golden Globe Awards last week, actress Michelle Williams gave an impassioned speech about women and their right to choose. She urged women to act in their self-interest. “It’s what men have been doing for years, which is why the world looks so much like them,” she said. “Let’s make it look more like us.”
- Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif