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New Left Review I/161, January-February 1987


Mai Ghoussoub

Feminism—or the Eternal Masculine—in the Arab World

It is difficult to utter your frustrations if a veil seals your lips. Today the yashmak covers the face of Arab women only in rare cases. Yet paradoxically, the more the West comes to terms with the gains of modern feminism, and waxes indignant at the ‘humiliations’ to which Arab women are subjected, the less do women in the Arab world itself open their mouths. It was not always thus. Arab history has known women who revolted against their fate and scandalized their time. It has witnessed movements which provoked passions and polemics for years on end, pitting modernists against traditionalists on the front pages of a flourishing women’s press. But today, as the streets of Cairo and Beirut fill once again with women shrouded in black, seeking the respectability of a cloak for their corporeal existence, and fundamentalism wages a triumphant campaign to fix their identity in the mould of religious austerity, many Arab feminists and socialists defend themselves only very timidly against the tide. The principal reactions to it have been accommodation, or consolation in a past that has had its glories, but has never belonged to them.

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