Plastic surgery is the post-modern veil
Published in Minerva, February 2019. Translated from Norwegian.
Since the 70's, Western feminism has claimed to own a definition power in regards to what it means to be a free, and equal woman. This assumption is based on a thinking which claims that that Western feminists hold the key to what it means to know that which is a healthy and right lifestyle for women around the world.
At The time of writing, I live in the Middle east. The times are fast moving for women here. War and conflict are dominant in many Arab countries, which makes it difficult to spot important changes in society. But still, important social changes are constantly happening and these important social changes often go under the radar, at least when judging from the outside.
The social changes happening are not possible to observe with the naked eye only, or for example in the changes in clothing choices of women, but can be seen in something far more important – in the very mindset of the women living here.
In 2017, the UN women's organization published the report "Understanding Masculinities". This report does not analyze directly the woman's role in the Middle East but instead looks at Arab men's views on the woman's role and position. The Report is based on qualitative and quantitative interviews with over 10.000 men in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Palestine and asks questions about their attitudes towards women's right to work, and to the women's role inside and outside the home.
Not Surprisingly, this survey shows that most Arab men prefer and agree on a paternalistic model for family life and also society in general. But at the same time, the report also shows that there is a large minority that is on the propulsion for liberal society changes. They want more equality and more social and political freedom for women. Particularly interesting is that this minority is broadly composed of men from both higher and lower social layers, whom are present both in urban areas and in the countryside.
Moreover, it is interesting to see that the small changes that occur for women in the Middle East cannot directly be correlated and taken from the West, but rather are tendencies that arise within families. A proof of this is that many subjects who were interviewed and who had lived and studied abroad – it is very common to study in England or the United states for people from the MENA - did not import Western thinking upon return – something which applies to both women and men.
One of my good friends comes from the countryside of Southern Egypt. Her Mother was only 11 years old when she gave birth to her. Her father was 16. Today, this will obviously be seen as child abuse, and is illegal in Egypt.
Both parents came from the same big family, and getting married and having children once the woman had the opportunity to do so was expected. The interesting thing about my friend is that although she grew up in a traditional family, outside of urban areas and Western influences, she has not been held back by her own family as to her own choices in life.
Today she is a PhD student and is committed to becoming a district attorney. She's 28 years old and unmarried. The family hasn't pushed her to it. She is free to make her own choices, although these choices are contrary to her parents' life choices.
Meanwhile, I have several friends here who have studied abroad and come from wealthy Egyptian families, but where the pressures of marrying ' right ' are absolutely enormous. That is, the marriages are arranged to the extent that the other family is chosen, where there is no love marriage, but marriage that creates prosperity and power. It is paradoxical that oppressive attitudes towards women live on in families of high education and high income.
The patriarchal forces in the Middle East cannot easily be analyzed or generalizable around. And neither can they in the West. Ironically, it is not socially accepted for a woman and certainly not for a man to be a housewife in for example France or Spain, although our societies is characterized by a very high degree of individualism. We therefore have some work to do at home, and also need to more clearly define what a feminism and equality definition really include or excludes. To clearly define what it would mean to be free or not free. Of course there are clear boundaries to what is life restriction, and dangerous control for the individual, but there is still no uniform solution for everyone.
Through my own experiences and observations in several Arab countries I would say that if women here really felt uncomfortable and desired change, they would have led a clearer fight for things such as equal opportunity. They would fight for equal and complete equality equal to the Western model. but it appears that most Arab women — and, for example, in Egypt — thrive on a traditional family and life model. This does not mean that they are women who accept injustice or repression, but that family life is organized around a traditional model. Moreover, Egyptian women were highly represented by the revolution in 2011 and 2013 in the fight against religious conservative forces.
Western suppression of women
The Egyptian writer and feminist Nawal El Saadawi wrote in one of her famous books that "plastic surgery is the postmodern veil". El Saadawi has for a long time worked for equality in Egypt, and often portrays the oppressive patriarchal society of Egypt in her writing.
The author often claims that repression is a universal phenomenon, and can take many forms, and not just through classical paternalistic attitudes. For Example, feminist theory will mean that it is unfree and old-fashioned if women desire to be home with children and not work. The woman is then "brainwashed" or is ignorant of her own possibilities and choices in life. Traditional gender roles are therefore judged uncritically as outdated and flawed in modern societies without regard to the fact that a woman is something more complicated than the gender she is born in, argues El Saadawi.
The Bottom line is that more traditional forms of repression have been replaced with requirements to chase a "perfect life".
El Saadawi writes about Western individualism and social pressure on women. The Great community's expectations and other women exert a form of repression through unrealistic demands for body and life. Botox, plastic surgery, exercise and diet are some of the ingredients in this. But these things do not stand out as main problems for Norwegian women. Instead, one points to the fact that women in the Middle East are forced to wear the hijab.
It is often claimed that Norway and other Nordic countries are the world's most equated, but such measurements show only how successful we in the West ourselves think we are in the face of standards we ourselves have defined.
For also in the West we have various forms of oppression and unhealthy conformity, which at times also appear physically on the female bodies. Bulimia and anorexia are not uncommon to see in the West, or in Norway. Such unhealthy body pressures are anything but freedom for women, and the unfreedom we in the West believe Muslim women suffer under are also found here at home, in a different form.