In a lecture that she prepared in 1921, the pioneering feminist writer May Ziadeh put forward her case for women’s liberation in the Arab world, preemptively tackling objections rooted in women’s perceived weakness by detailing the hidden—yet critical and skilled—work of women in the home and family. Ultimately, she declared that women’s influence is found behind every act caused by events that have no other explanation, citing the cliché popularized by French mystery novels: “Cherchez la femme,” or “Look for the woman!”
What Are Women’s Issues Anyway?
In many ways, the spirit encapsulated in this expression—or more specifically, in Ziadeh’s ironic reference to it—animates Tamakon, a new Arabic-language podcast produced by Sada. In this space, we aim to provide a platform for distinguished women from the Arab world to present their analyses and insights on critical social, political, economic, and cultural issues impacting the Middle East and North Africa today. However, while this list of issues is expansive, there is a category of topics clearly absent from Tamakon’s official remit: so-called “women’s issues,” or issues traditionally assumed to impact primarily—or exclusively—women.
Many conversations that prioritize women’s voices are still limited to discussing these issues, and while often encompassing topics such as sexual and gender-based violence, reproductive health, and women’s participation in political and economic life, a precise definition of this catch-all term is elusive, and the practice of labeling issues in this way remains contested. Skeptics of the term note that such classification has the potential to marginalize these issues and excuse men from confronting them. Furthermore, following some modes of feminist thinking, any issue could be considered a women’s issue, leading the term to lose its analytical utility.
Goals of Tamakon
Against this backdrop, when we began to conceptualize “Tamakon,” we explicitly sought to move away from the term “women’s issues,” instead shifting the focus to women’s perspectives on a wider range of topics. The reality justifying this goal is clear: debates on the Middle East and North Africa, and likewise on international affairs more broadly, continue to be dominated by men. This is, of course, not a problem that only impacts MENA, but global trends are replicated—and even heightened—in debates about the region. A global study conducted by the Global Media Monitoring Project found that only 24 percent of the people heard, read about, or seen in newspaper, television, and radio news are women. Additionally, several academic studies have found gender-related disparities in citations in top social science journals, with female academics less likely to be cited than their male peers. Finally, this dynamic is also evidenced in recent campaigns against “manels,” or expert panels that do not include women.
Regarding the region specifically, the political anthropologist Negar Razavi found that of the 183 policy experts working on the Middle East in Washington during the time of her research, only 22 percent were women, and only 8 percent were women of color. Importantly, women are not a monolithic group, and women from the Middle East remain particularly underrepresented in debates about the region.
Furthermore, at the level of popular consciousness, women’s expertise is still widely assumed to encompass traditionally feminine pursuits such as beauty and cooking. As just one example, a google search for the Arabic word “khabirat” (which translates to female experts) turns up a plethora of resources on Arab women makeup artists and wedding planners, but the top results do not point to women’s expertise in more diverse (read: traditionally male-dominated) fields. The influence of this predominant stereotype was noted by our very first guest on the show, Yemeni journalist Wedad Al Badawi. Wedad mentioned that an excuse often offered by the conflict parties as to why they have not included women in their delegations is that “there are not qualified women" in the relevant fields—a false pretext that she and her colleagues challenge directly in their television program “Women and Peace” which airs in Yemen.
Regarding an alleged dearth of women experts, data indicates that women actually outnumber men in tertiary education in parts of the region, so it is clear that the persistent expertise gap does not result from a lack of qualified women in a variety of fields. However, along with the overwhelming influence of systemic exclusion and undervaluation of women’s contributions, another possible reason for this gap could be the differences in levels of confidence and self-promotion exhibited by men and women.
From this perspective, it could be said that our goal was to further rectify the glaring gender-based expertise gap. Beyond this, however, the show is also oriented towards a bolder claim: women from the region are not only qualified to speak on the region, but they also have something important to say about it. This accords with what the feminist theorist Cynthia Enloe has termed a “feminist curiosity” that is rooted in taking the lives of all women seriously. Such a curiosity, Enloe claims, has the potential to reveal critical—yet neglected—aspects of international politics.
Furthermore, Negar Razavi’s earlier cited research raises another critical point often ignored in superficial conversations about representation: discourses on women’s inclusion and empowerment have often been co-opted in elite policy spaces to reinforce the status quo, and tokenism is a barrier to be overcome. Tamakon has no policy agenda to promote or reinforce; we seek to push our guests’ voices into male-dominated policy spaces rather than coopt their perspectives in service of these spaces.
Our Guests and Their Expertise
In our first season, host Rafiah Al Talei interviewed 14 women who have distinguished themselves in a variety of fields, including journalism, activism, politics, education, human rights, art, music, academia, humanitarian aid, science, law, and photography. These women hail from 13 different countries and bring a wealth of professional and academic expertise to critical topics such as the ongoing conflict in Yemen, social changes in the Gulf, the regional refugee crisis, and the impact of climate change on the region.
However, importantly, and perhaps unexpectedly given our original motivation for producing the show, these issue-based interviews also provoked lively discussions on topics likely considered to be “women’s issues” at both the personal and political level. With various guests, Rafiah discussed the factors that continue to drive women towards early marriage, the societal pressures that impact the ability of mothers to pursue education abroad, stereotypes in the workplace that compromise women’s professional development, child marriage among refugee girls, and personal status laws that discriminate against women.
Thus, in the end, we were forced to reevaluate our plan to abandon women’s issues, as they surfaced in each guest’s analyses, and through their candor in sharing personal experiences. Once a revolutionary rallying cry for second wave feminists, the slogan “the personal is political” has long since become trite. However, it reemerged as relevant as ever to our podcast project, and to broader debates about the Middle East and North Africa. Just this summer, in fact, the region witnessed a series of highly publicized femicides which sparked fresh debate on the political dimensions of violence against women.
Defining Tamakon: Lessons Learned
Returning to the earlier point on the imprecision in terminology that dominates much feminist discourse, we are cognizant of the fact that the very title of our show “Tamakon”—or “Empowerment” in English—is far from a straightforward term. We address this tension directly, asking our guests how they would define empowerment and what it means to them. Jenan Mubarak, for instance, explained that some of the women she works with through the Iraqi Center for Women’s Rehabilitation and Employment want to join the labor force while others want to work in the home. She emphasized that it is not her role to appraise their different choices, but she does remind them, “The most important thing: are you the decision maker or not?”
Emirati sociologist Mira Al Hussein explained her point of view that there is a hidden hand lurking around conversations about women’s empowerment. Remarking that women are often considered weak and in need of an external source of assistance to empower themselves, she asked us to take a critical stance on this invisible hand and consider who is responsible for women’s empowerment. Contemplating the question herself, she posited: “What women really need is not empowerment but rather. . .” “Liberation?” Rafiah asked. “No, the removal of obstacles in front of them,” she concluded.
In the lecture quoted in the first paragraph, May Ziadeh seems to have responded to Mira directly a century ago, proclaiming that “woman’s liberation is more so in her hands that in the hands of men.” Tamakon is fundamentally an analytical space that offers women from the region the chance to share their perspectives on issues. However, it is not a neutral space: we maintain that these perspectives are important and significant, and that defining such terms as empowerment and liberation is indeed in the hands of women. For as long as systematic gender inequality persists, there will be no abandoning “women’s issues.” However, season 1 of Tamakon demonstrates that determining the nature and scope of these issues, along with their relationship to the personal realm, should also be in women’s hands.
Taking a cue from May Ziadeh and Cynthia Enloe, we truly looked for the women in relation to the key issues impacting the region. We do not claim to have discovered these guests. Rather, we have sought to elevate their expertise and empower them to set the terms of the conversation—an endeavor that, we believe, will ultimately enrich the debate on the Middle East and North Africa.
Kaitlyn Hashem is the Assistant English Editor of Sada. You can follow her on Twitter: @KaitHashem.