Veteran TV political correspondent Rina Matzliah interviewed United Arab List lawmaker Iman Khatib-Yasin on Saturday. Khatib-Yasin recently filled the Knesset seat of Saeed Alkharumi, who died suddenly. The interview clearly demonstrated the orientalist passion to present Arab women who wear the hijab as primitive, as ignorant of how to speak about feminism, and as women’s rights activists whose credibility is in doubt.
“Tell me, do you describe yourself as a feminist?” Matzliah asked.
Khatib-Yasin, who was a member of the previous Knesset too and the first to wear a hijab in the plenum, answered: “I describe myself as a believing woman, proud of herself that she is a woman.” The next thing Mazliah said – “because you studied women and gender?” – makes it clear that in the eyes of the journalist from Channel 12 News, Arab women will be accepted into the club of Israeli feminism only after they receive Western training on feminism and gender.
Permit me to surprise Mazliah: Feminism is not the property of just Western women, and certainly not only Jewish women. For example, Doria Shafik was a feminist activist, one of the pioneers to liberate the women in Egypt in the early and middle 20th century, and also a partner in the struggle against British colonialism in the country.
Matzliah was not really interested in feminism in the interview; her goal in these questions was to educate Khatib-Yasin about how feminist women need to look in the public arena, especially under Jewish eyes. This is what comes out of Matzliah’s lack of interest in Khatib-Yasin’s description of her work to advance the status of women in Arab society, or her speaking about the thesis she wrote on the views of motherhood among young Arab women before they get married.
Matzliah focused on her outward appearance, which highlighted her ignorance about the feminist discourse in the Arab world concerning the hijab and female physicality in the public arena. “Religion is a restricting factor for women. Here is a fact: You can’t go out dressed the way you want,” Matzliah added with arrogance and condescension, while hinting that Khatib-Yasin wasn’t really a feminist: “You feel the need to hide yourself and a man doesn’t.” In doing so, Matzliah treats Islam as an ideology that is separate from the social relations that surround Arab women. Khatib-Yasin was compelled to justify the hijab and explain why it did not restrict her, but actually gave her power.
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It is hard to ignore Matzliah’s intention to categorize Arab women as primitive, as people who are subject only to the codes of religion. In her view, it is impossible to imagine that a feminist woman can wear the hijab. Would Matzliah have questioned a Haredi woman about the head covering or wig she wears? What is so terrifying for Matzliah about the hijab?
Matzliah continued to focus on the issue and reached orientalist peak with the question: “So what does the hijab give you?” At that moment she revealed her fear that there are Arab feminist women who have not given up their roots, and certainly not their religion, but nonetheless lead the discussion on advancing the rights and status of women in Arab society – from within Islam.
For Matzliah’s information, this stream is called Islamic feminism, which is led by educated Muslim women and which provokes discussion on the rights of women in the Koran and opposes the patriarchal interpretations of the Sharia and Hadith, the collection of laws and stories about the prophet Mohammed.
But what does Matzliah have to do with Islamic or Arab feminism? Her interview with Khatib-Yasin was infected with an attitude of superiority, which rules out alternative feminist viewpoints that do not necessarily toe the line of Western feminism. Khatib-Yasin showed viewers a different feminist experience, but Matzliah ignored its existence.
This is not only Khatib-Yasin’s experience, but that of many Arab women in Israel, certainly those who wear a head covering. Time after time they are forced to deal with Western eyes, judgmental and suspicious, that reflect the hegemonic approach, according to which Arab women belong to an oppressed and homogenous group, and which does not bother to look at them seriously and get to know their lives from up close.