The Narrative of Equality

This is how Eleanor Beardsley’s report for NPR about women participating equally in Tunisia revolution begins:

Female voices rang out loud and clear during massive protests that brought down the authoritarian rule of Tunisian President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Women in Tunisia are unique in the Arab world for enjoying near equality with men. And they are anxious to maintain their status.

In Tunis, old ladies, young girls and women in black judges robes marched down the streets demanding that the dictator leave.

Hardly anyone wears the Muslim headscarf in the capital, and women seem to be everywhere, taking part in everything, alongside men.

Here is what we learn from this bit:

  • When westerners hear about Tunisia, which is in northern Africa, almost directly south of Italy, they assume that women are oppressed, hence the need for this story (because – surprise! – they aren’t oppressed at all, silly Americans).
  • The Arab world doesn’t like women’s equality.
  • The wearing “Muslim headscarf” = being oppressed.

Beardsley goes on:

Naargi Najet, 36, argues with a group of men on the sidewalk, defending the country’s provisional leaders. She does more than hold her own. The men are so impressed with her knowledge, they tell her she should run for president. No one seems to think being a woman is a hindrance.

Najet does go on to echo what Beardsley has already said: Tunisian women are more free, neighboring women in other Muslim countries have to wear the headscarf but Tunisian women don’t.

But what strikes me about this whole article is that there are some many assumed narratives that we have to understand in order for this story to make sense.  We have to believe that Muslim women are oppressed.  We have to believe that head scarfs are a sign of oppression.  We have to prop up our ideas of women’s liberation up against theirs to make a direct comparison and, from there, an assessment as to whether Tunisian women are, indeed, “equal” (which, based on the criteria that we put forth in this country to determine the equality of women, the Tunisian women seem to be doing really, really well).

But the thing is, the reason this story can exist at all is because women aren’t equal and we don’t expect them to be.  So, then, when we hear this story, we can feel good because unlike most women or, at least, my expectation for most women, these Tunisian ladies are “equal.”  I mean, I felt good when I first read the title.  Yay for those Tunisian women, able to revolt with the men!  But what am I really saying when I buy into this narrative?

I am happy that Tunisian women have the freedoms listed in this article.  I am happy they were an equal part of the revolution.  I do sincerely hope that they maintain their rights and continue to gain equality in their country.  I like this story.

I am just bothered by the many assumptions implicit in the way that we Americans talk about women in other countries, cultures, locations, classes, races, etc.  We demean as much as we uplift even when all we want to do is uplift.  Of course, the cynic in me believes that the people we are trying to uplift with the story are ourselves.

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One thought on “The Narrative of Equality

  1. Pingback: Ambivalence about focusing on Egyptian women « Speaker's Corner

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