Why should I be accused of being Westernized?

on 25 Comments
img 20121216 022837
                                     (photo: Sameeha Elwan)

“Westernized” is very often the first accusation pointed in your face when attempting to discuss or even try to raise gender matters in our society.” Especially if it stems from someone who has just come back from abroad, let alone it being a woman.

I cannot deny that being abroad for the first time in my whole life has put me in a very serious confrontation with my own identity not only as a Palestinian, or as a Muslim but also as a woman. It has confronted me with different “choices” which for me have always been taken for granted and have been part of my cultural identity. Being exposed to different cultural diversity has made me question the reasons behind those choices, and whether they were made by me or by the social and cultural context I was raised up in, especially after the Israeli blockade which meant being raised in a society, a concentration camp, which has been closed for the past six years with devastating consequences on both the social and the cultural life. I should not say that I am over this identity crisis because I am not. And I am not ashamed of those changes because I am confirmed that they would eventually lead me to the person who I want to be.

Writing my thesis on women bloggers have made me realize that I have almost never written as a woman, thematically-speaking. Being here again has made me realize that it is important that I do. Blogging is a way of releasing one’s emotions, of pouring down ideas, of coming to terms with one’s experiences.

After today’s humiliating experience in which I was rejected from working in an academic institution, one of the reasons given being my dress code outside the campus, I decided that I would no longer postpone it. I should be just to say that I was also given the excuse that studying a Masters in Culture and Difference, which is an interdisciplinary course, means that I cannot teach in the Literature department. However, even if I had the intention of teaching at the institution, I had to abide by a certain dressing code not only inside the campus, but also outside the campus as well. To teach at the university means that you have to abide by its own ideology.

Wearing pants in a public meeting should not be the concern of an academic institution even if that academic institution holds within it a supposedly “Islamic Ideology”. When education is “religious-based”, when teachers are also considered not because of their intellectual capacity and their contribution to knowledge but by how much they conform to the Islamist ideology in an institution, when decisions are made based on a patriarchal discourse that does not see women who choose not to cover their heads or to wear pants in public meetings, when the social pattern is being unified into a certain ideological vision, then how would that academic institution develop an intellectual understanding of diversity?

Being a blogger, writing has always portrayed the ways I, as a Palestinian, face different forms of oppression committed by the occupation. For long, I have been accusative and suspicious of women who raised gender-based issues for fear of diverting the discussion from our national struggle. Simply, writing back was merely an act of speaking against the occupation which is undoubtedly the first and most threatening initiator of violence and oppression in our society. The national struggle has necessitated a very nationalistic discourse that marginalized the importance of discussing gender and social matters.

However, this is not only the case, but even when we would be writing on gender matters, our narrative is usually that of resisting a Western narrative that objectifies Arab women and portrays them from an Orientalist perspective. An article on one of the Western mainstream media outlets suggesting the rise of conservatism in Gaza and the rise of the percentage of violence against women is usually confronted with comments which denies an already existing phenomena.

I agree western media might not be interested in providing a just portrayal of the situation, but unless we were courageous enough to raise those issues, we’d always be the object of representation not only by western Media but by our own dominating nationalist discourse that gives very little voice to the oppression we face within.

Speak out against oppression. All sorts of oppression.

P.S. I wish I could write this post in Arabic! I promise I should give it a try.

About Sameeha Elwan

Sameeha Elwan is a Gazan studying in the UK.

Other posts by .


Posted In:

25 Responses

  1. aiman
    December 24, 2012, 6:29 pm

    They accused the remarkable Muhammad Abduh of the same. The trick, in my view, is not to be swayed by Conservative nationalism or Parochial westernisation. Conservative nationalism is a destructive reactionary product, devoid of all intellectual and moral inquiry. It is noteworthy that since at least the last century Western countries have successfully created rather fair conditions for many people and made advances in science, literature and ethics. No one can ignore this. Even as liberalism is often expressed internally. Just like the West borrowed the thoughts and contributions of Ibn Rushd and Avicenna, Muslims thinkers, too, can appreciate Western contributions while advocating against colonialism, like Abduh did, through legitimate means, which in the age of heinous devices like bombs should be tactically and morally non-violent. Apologetics and conservative nationalism have suffered intellectual and theological failure, often to the cost of Muslims themselves. We need the vision of Abduh, he had gotten it right and like you said we should be against all oppressions. We should define ourselves with the theological universal inhabited by different understandings. And travel even unto China for the sake of knowledge as that most wonderful man enjoined.

  2. Basilio
    December 24, 2012, 8:24 pm

    What you wrote is very articulate. With Palestinians, it’s not just gender issues, it’s being also open to other ideas in general, whether you’re male or female. There’s not much room for intellectual thinking in many cases when there’s a war and the interpretation of religion will take on a very forceful hue. Both men and women must conform, but it’s more outward, obviously, for the women. Israel makes Gaza a big prison and then those who control it make a prison, too, and are like the jailers claiming to be the heroes of all.

  3. bilal a
    December 25, 2012, 1:43 am

    The monotheism of the Middle East expressed in all its Abraahamaic manifestations is an ancient perservering solution for all mankind. Embrace of the contemporary, multinational corporate, fleeting fashion for what it claims to be universal human rights and gender progress, will only lead to the same sickness that characterizes western societies: carnality, violence,addictions, suicide, infanticide, degenerate culture, finally exhaustion , birth dearth and extinction. I advise u to shun western culture and return to your true roots and innate sense of right and wrong fitra.

    • aiman
      December 25, 2012, 7:30 am

      What you’ve said is claimed by conservatives of not just monotheism but polytheism like Hinduism who talk about a singular solution. Just as western universalism envisages for the rest of the world. The fact is, contrary to the understanding of Westerners who believe that the world is moving toward the West or that of conservative nationalists of former colonies who must resist that by exaggerating their own singular vision, there are in fact multiple traditions and understandings. It is the right of an individual to take and study different traditions. It does not go against monotheism to go even unto China for the study of knowledge. Another point: the Abrahamic tradition is by no means “an ancient persevering solution for all mankind”. Unless you believe we are bound by tradition, here you have unwittingly accepted the linear Enlightenment schematisation of time while arguing against the West! As a monotheist believer I don’t believe in “ancient” and “modern” in the sense of tradition. You have presented a collage of hasty tropes and rhetoric defining the West, that is not fashioned by Abrahamic theology but your own sense of cultural realisation.

  4. Citizen
    December 25, 2012, 4:08 am

    Did that Israeli white phosphorus distinguish between genders? First things first? And be polite.

  5. OlegR
    December 25, 2012, 4:13 am

    /P.S. I wish I could write this post in Arabic! I promise I should give it a try./

    And why can’t you write it in Arabic , perhaps in doing so
    you would put yourself in danger from the so much supported on this site Hamas
    rulers of Gaza ?

    • Vicky
      December 27, 2012, 8:43 pm

      First of all, Hamas officials can read English. Often rather well. Writing in Arabic is no more or less ‘dangerous’ for Sameeha than using English.

      She complains to me that her literary Arabic isn’t good enough for her to write articles. I think she is just being too perfectionistic, but she insists, and she always does use English when she writes. So, a very mundane reason.

  6. Avi_G.
    December 25, 2012, 5:34 am

    Ms. Elwan, you might want to consider whether current Palestinian culture and society is more conservative as a result of the occupation.

    As an example, compare and contrast this Egypt from the 1970s link to youtube.com
    with today’s Egypt where mini skirts aren’t only taboo, but the hijab and Burqu’ are commonplace.

    I agree western media might not be interested in providing a just portrayal of the situation, but unless we were courageous enough to raise those issues, we’d always be the object of representation not only by western Media but by our own dominating nationalist discourse that gives very little voice to the oppression we face within.

    I have to disagree with your point above. In fact, I strongly and vehemently disagree with your point.

    The reason is very simple; Palestinian, Arab and Moslem culture will ALWAYS be a target and an excuse for the so-called West to attack.

    You could do backflips and cartwheels in the cultural sense, and the West will always manage to somehow vilify you. Why? Because at the very heart of colonialism, be it British, French, German, Japanese, Italian, American or Zionist, is the essential prerequisite of dehumanizing the colonized and vilifying its culture and traditions.

    And these colonial characteristics have been an inseparable part of western domination since — at least — the Crusades.

    Since Palestinians are in a weak position as they face a powerful thief who is stealing their land and killing them, it’s important for you and others to adopt wise ways in presenting Palestinian or Moslem society and culture to the outside world.

    This type of behavior is drilled into Israelis from a very young age. It’s called, Do Not Air Your Dirty Laundry in Public.

    Now, I don’t believe that Israel is justified in practicing this tactic because Israel is the abuser and the violator in this case. It’s crimes and brutality need to be broadcast loud and wide for the world to see.

    But what you describe in your article is more fitting for an inter-Palestinian discussion. What Palestinians now need is unity, not division over religious/secular issues.

    Simply put, you gotta prioritize.

    • OlegR
      December 25, 2012, 5:59 am

      You are kind of missing the point Avi
      i think the writer would love to air her dirty laundry inside of the Palestinian discourse but it’s just not safe for her to do so.

      //But what you describe in your article is more fitting for an inter-Palestinian discussion. What Palestinians now need is unity, not division over religious/secular issues.
      Simply put, you gotta prioritize./

      This gentlemen/women readers is the epitome of hypocrisy.
      What Avi says is basically this.
      As long as there is this conflict with Israel
      Palestinians should not deal with problems in own their society.
      No equality for you Sameeha Elwan not as long as we are dealing with Israel.

      A classic totalitarian trick, a permanent state of national emergency that forever takes priority over any kind of internal problems.

      • aiman
        December 25, 2012, 7:40 am

        “A classic totalitarian trick, a permanent state of national emergency that forever takes priority over any kind of internal problems.”

        This is not “dirty laundry”, it’s a discussion. Avi G pointed out the connection between occupation and conservatism. What do you have to say to that?

        • OlegR
          December 25, 2012, 8:06 am

          I’ll better let Avi explain himself if he wishes to do so.

        • aiman
          December 25, 2012, 8:41 am

          OlegR, the question is directed at you. As you are the occupier, does the direct relation between occupation and conservatism not interest you? Why would you choose to denounce conservatism while actually profiting from it?

        • OlegR
          December 25, 2012, 10:19 am

          /As you are the occupier, does the direct relation between occupation and conservatism not interest you/
          I don’t profit from conservatism in any form.
          And i am not sure that a relation between occupation and conservatism
          of the Palestinians is inherent.
          The middle east is full of conservative oppressive countries
          Israel has nothing to do with it.

      • Vicky
        December 27, 2012, 8:55 pm

        “i think the writer would love to air her dirty laundry inside of the Palestinian discourse but it’s just not safe for her to do so.”

        She works with a women’s rights organisation in Gaza and she isn’t afraid to open her mouth and say what’s on her mind. She’s among the most outspoken activists I know. You are making guesses about her and her motivations based on what you want to believe about her society. No one who knows her would recognise your description of her.

        Suggestions that she shouldn’t ‘air her dirty laundry’ and she needs to ‘prioritise’ also make no sense, and are pretty insulting really (the insinuation being that a Gaza woman isn’t capable of working out what’s a priority or not). It’s really not a question of either-or, and the empowerment of women can be seen as a vital part of ending occupation.

        • Annie Robbins
          December 27, 2012, 10:13 pm

          thank you vicky, exactly. as far as i am concerned this author has no ‘dirty laundry’. she’s a fantastic, bright writer and thinker… and she’s young. i am so excited about where she’s at and where she’s going. the young palestinian women activists (standing on the shoulders of their elders) are an amazingly powerful strong people, they are also honored within society in a way we cannot imagine, because of their sumud palestine survives..

    • Annie Robbins
      December 25, 2012, 9:02 am

      avi what you describe in your article is more fitting for an inter-Palestinian discussion. What Palestinians now need is unity, not division over religious/secular issues.

      the point of this essay is not to bring division. i think it is a very important article. life moves on in palestine, it is not all defined by the occupation.

      Writing my thesis on women bloggers have made me realize that I have almost never written as a woman, thematically-speaking.

      this is really important. i want to hear more of what sameeha has to say. there are a lot of strong female palestinian voices. i think the title speaks for itself, why should a palestinian woman, or a muslim woman, be accused of being westernized by discussing the oppression of women? this is an arena women in a society should decide for themselves when is the right time to talk about it, and how to talk about it. when people are afraid to talk about to something, or silenced, sometimes only the most extreme elements are heard.

      (speaking of extreme, has anyone read mona eltahawy’s new poem? omg, talk about over the edge)

  7. tokyobk
    December 25, 2012, 9:54 am

    There is far, far too much made of supposed division between “East” and “West.” This cultural separation wall is by the way, very very new. (and not likely to last). What comes next, hopefully, are the best practices from everywhere.

    It is true that for the last few hundred years (that is hundred meaning a drop in the bucket of human history) the West ascended on a global scale that touches almost everything. But that West was sitting on a vast collective that was originated and developed elsewhere.

    There is no need for an anxiety of influence since human ideas genuinely belong to all humans.

    • Mooser
      December 26, 2012, 10:47 am

      “There is far, far too much made of supposed division between “East” and “West.”

      I agree, Tokyobk! It’s one of the central doctrines of Zionism. Zionism can’t get along without it, and uses it to justify its depredations. So you would like us to forget it exists, right?

      • tokyobk
        December 26, 2012, 1:49 pm

        Yes, I think wherever this distinction is stressed it is in the service of some larger fabrication usually political, Zionism and otherwise.

        So for 2013′ sake, Mooser, what gives with you? Why do you insist that everything I say is in the service of something I have completely rejected, repeatedly? How about a straight answer from you if you can do it. What is your agenda, besides amusing yourself?

  8. MHughes976
    December 25, 2012, 2:57 pm

    Nothing wrong with being westernised in respects where the Western tradition is right, nothing wrong with being Islamised in respects where Islam is right.

  9. Matthew Graber
    December 26, 2012, 12:42 am

    Have to say that, upon reading the comments on this thread, I’m incredibly worried about the patronizing positions taken by some of the commenters. So many people decrying the gender norms of Gaza, without explaining (understanding?) the context in which those norms are enforced.

    Which is part of the reason I’ve been around Mondoweiss less lately, to be honest.

    There has been a discussion taking place on Jadaliyya on “honor crimes,” or the practice of killing women in response to their perceived sexual activity. I recommend the entire article by Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian and Suhad Daher-Nashif, but here’s an excerpt:

    ‘Our work in colonized Palestinian society has taught us that within the Israeli context, femicide is structured by a complex interrelationship between informal Palestinian systems of control and the formal Israeli legal and welfare system. Informal social structures in the context of colonialism in the Jewish state, including systems of kinship, patriarchy, and religious and traditional tribal systems, play a role in defining the physical and social boundaries within which female and male individuals are able to move and act. These structures regulate social behavior, roles, responsibilities, and relations within Palestinian society, enforcing social norms and codes that define and delimit mobility, choice of spouse, type and level of education, dress, profession, and sexual behavior. In a context of constant political attacks, fragmentation of communities and families, violence against the individual and the land, and constant uncertainty, these informal systems fluctuate between being systems that preserve the society’s safety, internal security, and cohesion, and systems that reach for power under conditions of complete powerlessness, making use of women’s living and dead bodies.’

    Full article: link to jadaliyya.com

    • OlegR
      December 26, 2012, 6:56 am

      /‘Our work in colonized Palestinian society has taught us that within the Israeli context, femicide is structured by a complex interrelationship between informal Palestinian systems of control and the formal Israeli legal and welfare system./

      A. The author talks about her freedoms in Gaza,
      that has nothing to do with Israeli legal and welfare system.(Or any where else in the PA authority.)
      Inside Israel a man that kills a women (for whatever reason) will go to jail for premeditated murder, full stop.

      B.
      What about “Honor Killings” (I hate this term or the word honor used in this context) and the oppression of women in Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia.,Yemen etc… ?

  10. Eva Smagacz
    December 26, 2012, 4:06 am

    Sameeha,

    What an important and interesting point.
    Please do not be discouraged at conservative social attitudes. Progress is being made, even if it is not as fast as some of us would like to think.

    For all the western sense of superiority with women equality, we need to remember just how new they are. 6 generations ago, women’s presence at western universities was rare, if not unheard of. 5 generations ago, secondary education for girls was a middle-class privilege and consisted of languages and household accounts. 4 generations ago women worked only till they got married. My mother’s generation seen universal voting rights for women. My generation still needed husbands permission to take the bank loan! My daughters just don’t see what the fuss is all about – they take equality for granted.

    All this progress was against backdrop of societal and religious establishment disapproval. You are very much on a right trajectory, just impatient. Changes are coming from generation to generation.

    There are only two levers that can stop women’s progress: removal of education, and removal of contraception. If you can get free access to both, women can fight for their place in society on equal terms.

  11. dot.t
    January 2, 2013, 3:16 pm

    “Wearing pants in a public meeting should not be the concern of an academic institution even if that academic institution holds within it a supposedly “Islamic Ideology”. When education is “religious-based”, when teachers are also considered not because of their intellectual capacity and their contribution to knowledge but by how much they conform to the Islamist ideology in an institution, when decisions are made based on a patriarchal discourse that does not see women who choose not to cover their heads or to wear pants in public meetings, when the social pattern is being unified into a certain ideological vision, then how would that academic institution develop an intellectual understanding of diversity?”

    Very relevant and accurate observation Sameeha. I fully support your right to freedom, and congratulate you for expressing it clearly and with courage. Your struggle for women’s free expression reflects your open mindedness and deserves admiration.

  12. Maire Noonan
    January 2, 2013, 4:15 pm

    This is a great article, Sameeha. What a shame that the university missed the opportunity in hiring someone strong like you! You are on a courageous and admirable journey, and I support you in this.

    I do believe that the occupation and the siege has created an atmosphere that is favourable to the cultural conservatism that you and others in the Palestinian society, especially in Gaza, are facing. As such, ending the colonial Western occupation is foremost. Much of the critique in Western media of Islamic conservatism and women’s rights issues is of a patronising and hypocritical nature: they point the finger at the “other” society, but refuse to look in the mirror to see their own role, their own countries’ role in sustaining and supporting the conditions in which secular democratic movements are stifled. (And as a note to OlegR: This also extends to places outside of Palestine. See e.g. the responses to Arab spring uprisings by U.S. allies in the Middle East, with little condemnation from Western powers. It is disingenuous to not see Israel’s role and profit from all this.)

    But it is important to hear YOUR voice, as a Palestinian woman writing within Gazan society. Your voice is not divisive. It is a sign that, in spite of being surrounded by colonial occupiers, the society breathes and develops. Diverse voices heard is a sign of a healthy society. By making your voice heard, you are enriching your society. Bravo!

Leave a Reply