September 12, 2016

HABR | Who Is the Successful Arab Woman?

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Scrolling through my various social media accounts, I see countless posts illuminating and celebrating the work of successful Arab women. These women are praised not only for achieving success, but also for refuting lazy stereotypes that paint Arab women as helpless and oppressed. Breaking through institutional barriers that women around the world face is certainly something to admire and aspire to. However, the few women whose stories are shared do not represent the majority of Arab women, and it’s important to think about why certain women are highlighted while others are not.

“Success” for Arab women seems increasingly to be defined as gaining status as a businesswoman, an entrepreneur, occasionally a designer. However, many of the women who achieve these successes are already well off to begin with. Much like many entrepreneurs around the world, the ones that rise to success are often those that have the resources to do so and come from places of wealth and privilege. These women come from upper class families, often from rich countries in the Gulf and a blanket statement celebrating their successes ignores the very important intersection of class and gender and the ways in which they limit each other. Uncritical praise shows a lack of class blindness that excludes many women from the typical definition of success.

Many of the women who become entrepreneurs rely on the labor of other women who are rarely recognized. Racism and classism are rampant in the Middle East, as in other places, and play a huge role in defining who becomes successful and who does not. Many migrant women work tirelessly for richer, more successful women, and are never recognized for the labor they provide. Many women opening and operating small businesses in the Gulf use their underpaid domestic workers as a source of cheap labor, while they reap the entrepreneurial benefit of creating the idea.  It is not hard to become successful with a cushion of wealth and cheap labor at hand, and the success of women should not be praised when it comes at the expense of others. If it does, how can it be called success? Similarities arise with the U.S.-centric phenomena of white feminism, a feminism that prides successful women without taking race into consideration. Here, upper class women are celebrated without acknowledging the working women on who helped them up, for better or for worse.

There are many reasons that the stories widely shared are so unrepresentative. The first is the obvious. The women who have access to online publishing and who have the resources to spread their stories to English publications are often more educated and well-off. These are barriers facing many lower class women that prevent their voices from being heard. The stories of success are also glamorous. Becoming an entrepreneur is surely more exciting and luxurious than working in a local community organization. These stories have the popular appeal to sell. Another reason is that these women move up in ways that adhere to the status quo. They may be hardworking, passionate and talented, sure, but they are neither radical nor threatening. They embrace capitalism, divisive as it is, and work to get themselves ahead. On the other hand, women on the grassroots level are rarely recognized to the same degree. While it is important to showcase the success of Arab women to shatter baseless stereotypes, more diverse representations of success have to be appreciated.

Success should include working class women and activists and the work that they do. It should recognize the barriers different women face and the obstacles they have had to move past to come where they have. It should include women working tirelessly to feed their families and maintain community strength. These women are also successful under a broader definition of success. Many women are prominent leaders, from the women that helped lead Arab Spring movements, to the women leading unions that empower workers and help inform them of their rights. These women may not be as glamorous as businesswomen or entrepreneurs, but work hard to make the world a better place in their own small ways. These are the Arab women we should aspire to be. They are what success looks like.

Katy Habr is a junior in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected] On the Margin appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.