What the Oppression of Women Actually Looks Like

Egyptian actor Rania Youssef attends the closing ceremony of the 40th edition of the Cairo International Film Festival at the Opera House in Cairo, Egypt, November 29, 2018. (Mohamed Soliman/REUTERS)
American women have nothing to complain about by Middle Eastern standards.

Something that has always made me absolutely incensed — especially throughout college, where I would hear it regularly — is the notion that American women are “oppressed.” When women took to the streets of Washington, D.C., during the Women’s March to protest the Handmaid’s Tale era that they accused Trump of heralding, it struck me how out-of-touch and delusional the current wave of feminism is (is it the fourth or fifth?). Yes, there are a variety of things that need to be improved upon that relate to women, such as how the justice system processes sexual assault (which disproportionately affects women), but I can say with no hesitation that American women have it pretty good in this country — especially when compared with cases such as that of Rania Youssef.

Youssef is an Egyptian actress who sparked outrage last week among conservative Egyptians when she wore a long, semi-transparent black dress that revealed her legs under the diaphanous fabric. The dress, by American standards, would perhaps be taboo if we saw it at a Mennonite wedding, but Youssef wore it to a film festival’s red carpet. Lady Gaga, who goes shopping scantily clad, would consider Youssef’s dress to be child’s play.

The difference, and the reason that she faced backlash, is that it was the Cairo International Film Festival that Youssef was attending — and she was accused of “inciting debauchery,” for which she faced a lawsuit that could have resulted in jail time because she violated Egypt’s values. The lawsuit was later dropped because Youssef apologized for her “miscalculation”: “The artist Rania Youssef presented an apology to the Egyptian family and society for this incident and its affirmation that it was not intentional, that it was placed in circumstances beyond its control and that the behavior was wrong and unintentional,” said the statement that her attorney wrote.

She appeared on a talk show called “El Hekaya,” where the host announced the dropped charges. I encourage everyone to watch this clip of her appearance, during which the host, Amr Adeeb, patronizes her (I would even use the term mansplains) and tells her what her fault was in deciding to wear such attire. You don’t even need to understand Arabic to witness the misogyny and infantilization happening in front of thousands of people; the defeat, humiliation, and trauma that Youssef is experiencing is plastered on her face.

“I wanted to state that I did not mean to appear in a manner that would anger a lot of those who found the dress to be inappropriate,” she wrote in her apology. “I might have miscalculated because I wore that dress for the first time and I never expected that it would cause so much anger.”

This is normal in Egyptian society, where women are objectified and where sexual harassment is rife. Women taking public transportation to work often have the expectation that they will get harassed, whether verbally or physically. There is much Arab literature coming out of Egypt that involves this topic and how pervasive it is in society — my Arabic professor from college, who is Egyptian, once told me that even young boys sometimes harass older women. Women are forced to alter their lives to avoid these violations, whether that means not wearing skirts in public or not leaving their home after a certain hour of the day alone, because there is more of a likelihood of being harassed than not. Sexual assault isn’t considered a serious crime, as it is in America — in fact, many women don’t report sexual assault because it may reflect poorly on the family’s honor, or because the police won’t take the allegations seriously.

Such abusive patriarchal systems aren’t exclusive to Egypt, either. Recently in Iraq, several women either have been killed or have mysteriously died, all of them social-media figures or beauty queens who went against the grain of traditional Iraqi society. In September, Tara al-Fares, a high-profile beauty queen, was shot and killed in her car in Baghdad. Suad al-Ali was killed a week later, gunned down while walking to her car. Rasha al-Hassan and Fafifi al-Yasiri were killed in August only one week apart. “Women are being hit left and right and center. Everywhere. We are living in the modern witch-hunt,” said Zainab Salbi, an Iraqi woman who leads Women for Women International in Washington, D.C.

These are women being killed for being women.

And this is hardly the extent of the abuse. In Saudi Arabia, there is a guardianship system under which women can’t make decisions without the approval of a male relative, or “guardian.” While Saudi Arabia is guilty of egregious human-rights violations against women, this same sentiment, that women are not autonomous beings capable of complex thinking and are instead mere vessels for pleasure and servitude of men, still pervades much of the dynamic between men and women in countries such as Egypt, Iraq, and the Arabian Peninsula states.

I have a reasonable expectation that when I leave my home in New York City, I will not be gunned down by a man because I’m a “westernized” woman (if anything, by New York City standards, I am too conservative relative to my surroundings). I have a reasonable expectation of respect from male co-workers, and I have a reasonable expectation that if I’m groped on the subway and I make a scene, others will come to my defense (in New York, they even display ads reminding riders that any unwelcome touch is sexual assault and the police should be notified). There are certainly improvements to be made, such as treating rape as the crime it is rather than sending rape cases to campus kangaroo courts, but from the outside looking in, as someone who has experienced the Middle East, women here have it very good, and it’s solipsistic to not acknowledge this reality.

When college-educated American women claim that we are systematically oppressed and persecuted for being women in modern-day America, I wonder to what extent the university is teaching its students about universality.

Marlo Safi is a Pittsburgh-based writer and a former Collegiate Network fellow with National Review.


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