Middle Eastern Women Gain Recognition in Surprising Places

Arab and Muslim women are the subjects of many erroneous stereotypes and delegitimizing generalizations. You may be familiar with some of the common tropes: women are subservient, forced to marry young, take care of the home and many children, and cover themselves in oppressive garments. Women who contradict these assumptions and defy dictators and religious extremists, like Malala Yousefzai and Tawakkol Karman, are lauded as paragons of freedom and human rights, and rightly so – they have put their lives on the line advocating for tangible in their communities, rather than  simple recognition.

And it is the case that women across the Muslim world and Middle East are defying those stereotypes in surprisingly cool ways, which has also gained attention in the West. Media coverage of such “pioneers” might extol accomplishments while demeaning their impact by focusing on irrelevant factors such as acrylic nails and hijabs. Here we highlight a few prominent cases of women excelling in non-traditional fields but we ask you to look at how the stories are framed: how are gender roles and religion discussed? what points are raised that would be inappropriate if the subject were male, or “Western”? what would you ask that the author of each piece did not, and why?

First of all, Fast Company magazine had a feature article in print and online about “Arab Women’s Tech Advantage”, in November 2013. The article looks at the international surprise over the high number of women working in the Middle East technology field after two all-female teams participated in that year’s Microsoft’s Imagine Cup. The author deftly tackles the perception that technology and Arab women are diametrically opposed to one another. She writes, “During the event, many attendees were surprised that these female-centric teams came from the Arab world. The young women, however, saw nothing unusual. ‘We really didn’t think about it until we came and everyone was surprised,’ says Latif Al-Naimi, 20.”

In fact, the Arab Gulf states have been forced to diversify the economy as it’s become clear that oil supplies are not inexhaustible. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) subject are an educational priority and women dominate enrollment across many fields in higher education. In general, technology is still seen as a male domain; one could argue that is the gender rather than the ethnicity and origin of these competitors that is the real surprise here! What do you think?

How about the all-female Palestinian drag-racing team? Women in car sports, anywhere, cause a stir. The Speed Sisters team, about which a feature-length documentary has been made, contains members with conflicting personalities and varying access to the vehicles and facilities needed to participate in the sport. An article written for The Guardian, in April 2015, takes an in-depth look at the women’s experiences and challenges that are heavily affected by the Arab-Israeli conflict.  Nonetheless, the author starts the piece with the following:

The acrylic nails aren’t the first thing you notice, but they’re definitely in the mix, alongside hot dust, hot air, thick engine oil, makeshift tracks, customized street cars, puffy one-piece racing suits. Oh yes, and women: Palestinian women, some of whom wear amazing nail art.

Meet the world’s first all-female racing-car driving team from occupied Palestine. There’s Maysoon Jayyusi, the team’s 38-year-old manager, from Jerusalem, who says her love for racing-car driving came from the frustration of being stuck in the West Bank’s constant traffic jams and checkpoints; Noor Dauod, 25, from Jerusalem, who is determinedly persistent, if not always successful on the race track; and Betty Saadeh, 35, the only member who comes from a wealthy family of racers in Bethlehem.

What do you think of this? What message does the author send about the women on the team? Are the subjects treated like legitimate competitors? Look for other examples of unlikely sportsmanship in the Middle East, male or female, and compare the authors’ tones.

In September, 2014, Mariam al-Mansouri shot to fame as the UAE’s first female Arab F-16 pilot after who assisting in a U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State. The Christian Science Monitor writes:

Smiling out from under her helmet and hijab after launching air strikes in Syria., For some Americans, she was a sort of Katharine Hepburn meets Amelia Earhart who had shattered prevalent stereotypes of Arab women. A popular Internet meme reads: “hey ISIS. you were bombed by a woman. have a nice day.”

The article goes on to look at debates about al-Mansouri in the Middle East itself, where this is not merely a discussion of women’s achievements but part of a much more complex and multi-faceted conversation that concerns one Arab’s complicity with the United States in a mission that led to the deaths of fellow Arabs and Muslim; looks at the tug-of-war between traditionalists and progressives in Arab society; and even stirs up questions over different interpretations of Islam. The pilot has a heavy burden to carry, not merely as a woman in another male-dominated field, but as a symbol of tricky geo-political relationships and the perils of modernization.

Finally, let’s head back to the racecourse. In August 2015, the BBC released a video profile of the “Iranian woman who wants to be world motocross champion.” The video introduction tells us, “for years female sport has been frowned upon in Iran, with women still banned from even taking part as spectators. But despite the challenges, women are competing.” The 2:40 minute clip features Behnaz Shafiei speaking directly to the camera; there is no commentary, we just hear about her particular experience with motocross. Compare this portrayal to a written profile entitled, “Roaring to go: the female motorbike rider who wants to race for Iran”. What context do you gain from the article?

This is a departure from the online articles outlined previously which are as much analysis as they are news reports. Is one style of journalism better or worse? Which story did you learn the most from and why? How are the women represented in each case and what message do you think is trying to be sent to the reader or viewer?

Students can compare the growth of these professions in the Middle East and the United States. Are there other fields in which women are discouraged from pursuing in either place? Why do you think this is? How can circumstances change?

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