“Empowering women as a Development Tool”…What Would Hifni Malak Say?
Washington, DC, USA and Palestine
“Unfortunately, despite our repeated efforts to speak on our own behalf, to remind the world of our history of self-empowerment outside of the context of “development tools” imported by the West, it is my perception that our voice still has not been heard or internalized by those in the West to whom it is addressed.”
In July 2010 the UN General Assembly created the United Nations Entity for gender equality and empowerment of women. The creation of such an entity has come as an attempt to eliminate the exclusion of women from international development processes. This message of women’s empowerment and gender equality has recently become very dominant within the general Western, post-colonial rhetoric of international development.
As stated by UN Women’s executive director, Ms. Bachelet, “The world can no longer afford to leave women out. Sustainable development cannot happen without half of the world’s population.” Women’s leadership and participation is an urgent necessity to achieve the transformational change needed for sustainable development.
As a Palestinian woman who grew up in an Arab society, supposedly I should be proud and encouraged by these changes and the rise of such awareness. There is this very powerful entity that advocates for my rights and for my empowerment, one that seeks to provide me with a powerful voice at the global, regional, and local levels.
But instead of encouraged and proud, such rhetoric leaves me troubled and uneasy. It leaves me with the need to re-question and re-examine my voice. Is the voice I have mine or “borrowed” from these entities? I use the quotation marks to emphasize the question of choice involved in this process. Does this rhetoric “empower” me, or rather does it make me invisible both to my own self and to the so called empowering entities?
My motivation to write this piece and to ask these questions was triggered by my attendance at the annual Aid and International Development Forum. One of the panels hosted was under the title “Empowering Women as a Development Tool.” Somehow the title sounded very insulting to me—the connection between “the empowerment of women” and “development tool” didn’t sound right. I do understand that the intentions were good—that development is a tool to empower women and provide them with a voice, but once again the question that comes to mind is: How do you make the empowerment of women a tool for development without objectifying these women you are trying to “empower”?
I might be wrong in my analysis and my critique, especially since I decided not to attend the mentioned panel due to my strong reaction to the title. However, I did attend another panel under the title “The Arab Spring,” which entitles me to fully critique the discourse that was presented. The discussion was dominated by the recent events in Egypt, the presidential elections and their implications for Egyptian society, specifically for human rights and women’s rights. One of the main concerns raised was women’s rights under Mursi, and how devastating his leadership could be for the Egyptian society as a whole. Needless to say, not one of the panelists was Egyptian or of Egyptian descent. Egyptians are perfectly capable and have enough agency to discuss and sort out these issues and create the debate that surrounds them.
However, the main issue I was bothered with while listening to this rhetoric was the presentation of Egyptian women as a monolithic entity, one which is deprived of agency and voice. Therefore it is presumably in need of foreign intervention for its protection and to advocate for its rights.
I recently completed research about Hifni Malak Nasif, one of Egypt’s early Muslim womanists. Hifni was a public speaker and columnist for a public newspaper. Her articles were gathered and published in a book under the title Nesa`eyat (Women’s Issues). She was part of a group of Egyptian women who advocated for women’s education, their inclusion in the public sphere, and the elimination of polygamy, and structured their discourse within the framework of Islamic laws and the teachings of the Qur`an and Hadith (traditions of the Prophet Mohammed, PBUH). Hifni brought a very critical voice in regards to the ramifications of Western colonialism and its negative influence on Egyptian society.
While listening to the discourse presented by a panel of non-Egyptians, I wondered: What would Hifni have said to the panelists had she been present among the audience? I think I can take a guess. Hifni would probably say, “We Egyptian women have been advocating for our rights for more than 100 years, we have been active both in the public and private sphere, we have had women’s unions since the 1920s. Not only that, but we have also managed to create movements that operate within multiple frameworks, including secular and Islamic frameworks, to advocate for women’s rights. We already have a highly nuanced and ongoing discourse regarding the status of women in Arab countries. We have created our own agency that will lead us to progress and liberation. It is time for you Western women to focus on your own rights within your own societies, because they are in need of a lot of work.”
The questions I’m asking, and the voice I am bringing forth, has certainly not been missing from the post-colonial critical discourse led by feminists in the developing world. In fact, this voice has become mundane among all those who are aware of the power relations and positional dominance of the West and their discourse on women, foreign aid, and intervention to “empower” the “other.” Unfortunately, despite our repeated efforts to speak on our own behalf and remind the world of our history of self-empowerment outside of the context of “development tools” imported by the West, it is my perception that our voice still has not been heard or internalized by those in the West to whom it is addressed. So I am bringing it forth here, once again…
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The views and opinions expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Peace X Peace.