“Arabs treat their women terribly…women’s rights in Arab countries are just non-existent…I would hate to be a woman there.” I overheard the gentleman while on a layover at the Chicago O’Hare airport in November 2004. Immediately, my stomach tensed and my blood pressure began to rise. Had I been sitting next to the man a year before, I doubt I would have reacted so adversely. But this year, I was heading home for a vacation from my first year as a Volunteer in Morocco. I had lived and breathed Morocco for more than 12 months. To hear my second home being lumped into a trite stereotype by my own countryman, caused real angst.
The reality is that women’s rights in Morocco and in the remainder of the Arab world need improvement. The tragedies of injustice that the Western media highlights are truthful, but not all-encompassing of the Arab population. Sometimes it is forgotten that one appalling story of discrimination or atrocity is not representative of the lives of millions of women, just as one story of American domestic violence cannot represent all American families. Stereotypes are an ever-present obstacle to intercultural understanding. Furthermore, Americans contemplating global women’s rights must be introspective. Can anyone honestly say we have eradicated discrimination and injustice against women in America?
Reflecting on my Moroccan host family, who are ethnically Amazigh (Berber) but also identify as Arab Muslim, I did not witness injustice towards the female members. I did observe traditional gender roles that did not allow much deviation by men or women. The men in the family were the chief breadwinners, and the women were the primary caretakers. Yet, some days my host brother Mohammed prepared dinner, and some days my host sister Khadija harvested wheat for extra income. This family, both men and women, sincerely loved, respected, and cared for each other. It is simply incorrect to assert that these women were treated “terribly” or have “no rights.”
More than likely, the man at O’Hare airport pictured veils when he imagined oppressed women in Arab countries. Often people present the Muslim veil as evidence of the blatant subjugation of women. I cannot help but see the irony when Americans stereotype veiled Moroccan women as oppressed. In Morocco there is no law requiring women to wear the veil. Many women choose to veil out of religious devotion or because Moroccan society favors modesty. Similarly, in America there is no law requiring women to be the perfect size two or to be “sexy,” yet most concede that our society demands a slender and appealing figure. Both the veil and the size two dress are standards that culture and society set. Which standard implies more freedom for women? In both cases, a woman freely chooses whether she conforms to society’s standards or not. Yet, in both cases, society constricts women by appealing to the human need to conform.
Even though I had personal knowledge of the reality of women’s lives in a Muslim country, I did not speak up in O’Hare airport that day. I let my insides boil but did not correct my fellow statesman and his misgivings about Arabs. I did not tell him that the King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, had recently signed a new and vastly improved family law. I did not tell him that the new law was highlighted as a tremendous development for women in the Arab world, giving them more rights in marriage, divorce, and child custody. I did not ask the man to evaluate his own treatment of women. I did not ask him if he would vote for a female American president. I did not ask him if he would applaud an overweight Miss America. I did not ask him if he would confess to a female priest. But more shamefully, I did not speak up for my Moroccan friends and family to help alleviate the abundance of ignorance that exists towards Arab societies.
I am speaking up now. Injustice and discrimination—be it against women, Arabs, Americans, or any other groups—are global diseases. One medicine for what ails is sincere determination to comprehend, cooperate, and speak up.