You Can't Beat Sexism with Racism

He who wants change in the Arab world, has to give feminists their space. The other day I came by a picture on my Facebook timeline of the capital of Morroco, Rabat. The picture dated from the mid-seventies showed a man and a woman holding hands while strolling down the street that is now known as Avenue Mohammed V. He wore a nice suit and she wore a colorful dress. The image was so familiar that I had to take a second look, to make sure that I wasn't looking at a photo of my parents.

Last summer I went through all of their photo albums. What I came by surprised me. It was like I landed in a fantasy world, a world where my parents played a special part as über-moroccan-hipsters, in contrast to strict religious people that they have become now.

My father was a handsome man. He wore big nerdy glasses, with a dark frame. Just as black as his big mustache, or so I suspect they were. The pictures are after all in black and white As a young man he used to work in several pubs, or as he likes to call them with a chic tone-in-voice: 'cabarets'. His stories are so very rich. He can tell beautifully about growing up in Morocco under French occupation, but also about the liberation and the relief that was felt when Morocco finally gained full autonomy and control over its own territory. Though he says to have been 'clueless' when I point out their prevailing permissiveness back in the days, under the French occupation, his dastardly smile reveals he did though enjoy himself.

My old man has always loved his three-piece suits. One day, when he is gone, I will tell my daughter about how granddad used to iron his shirts every Sunday afternoon. Like he had to go to his fancy job at a big bank or insurance company, instead of going to his job at the factory like many foreign workers. 'People take you seriously when you look good and kept' is one of his sayings -- one I would use against him in my twenties to persuade him into letting me study Fashion Design at the Art Academy --. In her younger years my mother never wore a headscarf, or long, over-the-knee skirts, but flared pants and blouses with those huge pointy collars -- okay, I won't use this against her --. As my mom approached the marital age of 16, one man after the other came by to ask for her hand in marriage, but she declined. My grandpa mercilessly sent each and every one of them back on his track. My mom would later in life, in all freedom, decide whom and when to marry.

What happened in the years between the permissiveness and today's conservatism? I won't claim to have all the answers, though I do have my own theories. Under French occupation the French tried to portray the West as ideal -- with its' corresponding 'free' way of life, including for instance the semi-liberal sexual morality and the use of alcohol. Even before shedding the French occupation the country had to find a new common denominator to fight the French and to ensure the country would still be united after the battle. In comes the common denominator 'Arab nationalism', with its strict Islamic teachings. Please note: the Arab nationalism didn't always arise from the people, but it was mainly dictated from above. King Mohammed V and his son, the future King Hassan II ruled and dictated with the Quran in one hand and the stick in the other.

The country now struggles with a mix of conservatism and western temptation, with the subordination of women -- in every field, be it public or private -- as a result. Men are in charge. Streets are dominated by men; the woman who dares to partake in public life always has to be on her guard.

When we vacay in Morocco, I always need a couple of days to acclimatize. I need some space to get used to the hissing on the street. Even while running errands at the local grocery shop -- merely 50 meters from my parents' house -- I'm greeted by the unpleasant sound. I know of Moroccan-Dutch women who wear fake wedding rings just to avoid men ruining their shopping spree at the souk, turning what should have been a fun afternoon into a crash course on how-to-dodge-an-assault.

Unfortunately women in Morocco aren't autonomous, they are a possession. Only she who is already under the authority of another man, is -- more or less - free. It's disgusting and nauseating. There have been many times I had to flee into a store, to escape the hands of perpetrators, wishing and hoping for the store owner not to be a pervert. I break up in cold sweat just thinking about that time a blonde girlfriend and I got lost in the alleys of Marrakesh, trying to get rid of the umpteenth assaulter. However it's a small part of men that is guilty of harassing women. These men can act freely because nobody stops them or tells them their behavior is unacceptable.

Mona Eltahawy, feminist and author of 'Headscarves and Hymns', writes about why the Middle East needs a sexual revolution. She had been traumatized into feminism, by her experience of how men interact with women in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Feminism has become a necessity for women in the Arab world to survive. Something must change, and only feminists can make it happen.

In her article 'Why do they hate us?' Eltahawy writes:

"There is no sugarcoating it. They don't hate us because of our freedoms [...] We have no freedoms because they hate us [...] Name me an Arab country, and I'll recite a litany of abuses fueled by a toxic mix of culture and religion that few seem willing or able to disentangle lest they blaspheme or offend [...]Yet it's the men who can't control themselves on the streets, where from Morocco to Yemen, sexual harassment is endemic and it's for the men's sake that so many women are encouraged to cover up."

It's not the first time I describe the scenes on the street of Morocco, nor is it the first time I write about the dire situation of women in Morocco and other Arab or Arabized countries. And I'm far from the first to do so. Mona Eltahawy, Nawal El Saadawi, or Fatima Mernissi -- who passed away last November -- paved the way. For years they have fought for equality for women in the Islamic world.

The emancipation of women -- and men -- in the Islamic world is a delicate subject we shouldn't handle toilless. The debate on the emancipation of women in the Islamic world has been hijacked by the right wing. Whoever claims that there's something fundamentally wrong with how women are portrayed in the Arab world, is easily annexed by the far right, and used as an example to underline their racist arguments. Whether you like it or not, that is why many women choose to keep their lips sealed. Even after the events in Cologne on New Years Eve. Conservatives may say they disapprove of the way Islam treats women, by making it all about ethnicity or religion, they are making room for the conservatives on the other side. Hate can't be beaten by hate. You can't beat conservatism with conservatism. Sexism can't be beaten with racism. If we want the Arab world to change, we must give feminists their space.

This article appeared in Dutch on and was translated by Jamila El Maroudi