On 28 October 2021, the Asfari Institute for Civil Society and Citizenship held the fifth webinar entitled “Dress Code and Bodily Agency” of its Gender and Feminism Roundtable Series.
In an attempt to answer questions related to feminist activism in the MENA region, the circle provided a safe space for the discussion of multi-layered subjects, taboos, and dilemmas that the female is dogmatically constrained by.
The speakers presented an in-depth analysis of a series of questions that investigate the brutal societal expectations and limitations on women in general and examined ways through which females can take back their agency over their own bodies, choices, and actions.
The issues discussed ranged from women’s alienation from their own bodies due to forced dress code as well as related body-image and self-identification hardships, to the woman’s agency over her own body in relation to harassment, violence, patriarchy, toxic masculinity, colonialism, religion, and the infantilization of women by enforcing the way they should live and the specific way they are expected to dress.
“Everything that happens to us, as women, doesn’t exist in vacuum, it happens due to the patriarchal bubble of which it stems from.”Lina Abou-Habib, Director of the Asfari Institute
In addition, the speakers emphasized the social factors that affect the intensity of such matters such as the variation in financial opportunities, educational levels, and religious backgrounds within the community. The discussion would not have been complete without accentuation on the lack of systems and laws that enhance, aid, or even protect women’s rights.
As Roula Baghdadi said during our discussion:
“We are lacking academic research on the subject of dress code and bodily agency in terms of protective laws in the Arab world, mostly because of religious and patriarchal/political tyranny.”
Consequently, it was a clear collective goal of all participants and speakers to highlight the need for a system that rightly gives women back what is theirs: their basic human rights. Nonetheless, this shift cannot happen without activism and constant discussions, and reminders of the severe abnormalities of our day-to-day lives as women.
This is not an “irrelevant” discussion, as it is deemed, except to those who benefit from the system at hand, and those completely unaware and oblivious to the abnormalities this discussion highlights in women’s lives. There is no human-rights issue more relevant than the other, especially not when it affects half of the entire population. As one of our speakers, Maya El Helou said at the end of the discussion,
“Body agency is not inherently for women; trans and non-binary individuals belong in that conversation. Agency is about people who do not fit the norm. Thus the feminist cause is not just for women, it is for all inferiority groups – groups that are not inferior by nature but are rather forcefully inferior through violence and patriarchy. There is no right time to choose the feminist battle, it is one continuous battle, and we shall fight.”
This summary was written by Sarah Hassoun.
Meet the speakers and moderators
- Sara Abou Zaki is a Public Health practitioner and researcher and is currently the Acting Director and Program Manager at Marsa Sexual Health Center. Sara is an avid advocate for the decentralization of healthcare and equitable access to sexual and reproductive health particularly for girls, women, and members of the LGBTIQ community.
- Roula Baghdadi is a lawyer and the executive director of Dawlaty.
- Rafah Anabtawi is the General Director of Kayan Feminist Organization in Haifa, which works to advance Palestinian women’s status and end gender-based discrimination. Rafah has been a social and feminist activist for over 20 years. She holds a BA and MA in Social Work and community organizing. Rafah began her career at Kayan as the Community Organizing Coordinator in 2006 and has now been its director for over seven years. As the director, Rafah spearheads a grassroots approach to social change by consolidating a national Arab Palestinian feminist movement that promotes and defends women’s rights and ensures women’s integration into all aspects of the public sphere.
- Ilaf Nasr is the Co-Founder and Chief Operating Officer of AMNA, an organization that advocates against violence against women (VAW) in Sudan. She’s an activist for human rights, peacebuilding, social justice and development with a special focus on gender-related issues. She also works at the Sudanese Organization For Research and Development (SORD), as a Projects Coordinator for the project (Supporting Feminist transformative Peace and Democracy in Sudan).
- Maya El Helou is a Ph.D. candidate at the anthropology department at the University of Toronto. Her work investigates the everyday life of feminist resistance movements in Beirut, Lebanon. Her research interests focus on gender, sexuality, affect, spatiotemporality, revolutions, embodiment, life and death, and everything in-between. Maya El Helou is also a comic artist who uses illustrated ethnographic methods to portray that which is beyond words.
- Fatima Amro is a research assistant at Asfari Institute. She is a physics and political science graduate from the American University of Beirut. She is particularly interested in research related to geopolitics and political economy. As a research assistant, she is currently conducting research on gender and politics and women empowerment.
- Joudy Eter is an undergraduate student at the American University of Beirut.
Watch the full recording here: