MENA: Women and the Arab Spring, Human Rights from the Ground Up

Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Nadine Naber: University of Michigan
Western Asia

Dominant human rights frameworks tend to define women's human rights in terms of individual political rights, a framework that prioritizes legal and rights-based claims and the cause of women's equality under the law. As a result, rights related to economic and social justice are deemed secondary concerns at best. For women of the global south or women of color in the U.S. context, an additional problem exists. Human rights frameworks developed in the global north often rely on “culture-blaming,” defining culture or religion as though they exist in the abstract, outside historical circumstances, and explaining culture or religion (i.e., Islam) as the cause of women's oppression.

When it comes to addressing gender and human rights issues in Muslim majority societies, dominant U.S. feminist analyses often engage in “culture-blaming.” Consider for instance, the period following the attacks of September 11, 2001, when feminist organizations such as the Feminist Majority supported the Bush administration's invocation of “Muslim women's oppression” as a pretext for military intervention in Afghanistan, despite the devastating impact of military invasion on Afghan women.

Such feminist frameworks in relation to Arabs, Iranians, Muslims, and/or the Middle East developed out of long-standing European Orientalist images of hyperoppressed shrouded Arab and Muslim women who need to be saved by American heroes; and of Muslim societies that need to be modernized—even if it meant through U.S. military violence. Instances of such representations can be found in the media, on the internet, in classrooms, and on the streets.

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Women in the Arab Spring_From the ground Up